Monday, February 16, 2009

XM go bye-bye

Lately I've been contemplating a shift in my existential paradigm. I've been thinking about canceling my subscription to XM. It's not that I'm unhappy with the service. Quite the opposite, actually, as I mentioned in a recent blog comment at work, the merger of XM and Sirius satellite radio companies worked out well for me. I'm now able to get the best of both satellite radio worlds.

But these days, I find myself listening to my subscription less and less. In the car, where I do the bulk of my music listening, I've been listening to podcasts (more on those in an upcoming post) and my CDs. At home, I still listen to satellite radio, but since I get my TV programming from Dish Network, I also have access to satellite radio programming through that. And there's really no sense in me paying for the same content twice (theoretically, part of my Dish Network fees cover that music programming).

All of the above leaves me wondering why I'm spending $13 a month for a service I'm not using. Do I believe in what satellite radio has to offer, namely unparalleled music offerings? Hell yes. Do I enjoy access to 120-ish channels of music, news, sports and entertainment? Well, hell yes. Would I give $13 a month to some grimy dude on the street just because he asked for it? That depends on whether he could appeal to one of my geek interests (I'm already doing that at the comic book store), but likely, no. Yet that's what I'm doing, letting some grimy, corporate bum hit my Visa card for a baker's-dozen-bucks every month for something that I'm not using. It's time to drop a dime and cut off that needle in my arm.

Thanks for listening; I have a phone call to make.

Playing on XM: um, that's my point. I don't know. I guess it's time to change my sig line too.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

What I'm (not yet) reading

Lately I'm being haunted by one of my old enemies, a bully who was hounded me since high school, always lurking over my shoulder, gaining strength while I'm relaxing. Yes, my greatest nemesis, TBR. The To Be Read pile.

I thought I had vanquished the TBR over the summer by reading most of Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series. Yesterday I finished the most recent book in the series, Small Favor, and looked at my night stand to see what was next. That's when I got hit with the panic attack. My night stand runneth over.

TBR is back. Here are the options piled before me, in no particular order:

Stranger in a Strange Land - I started this one once before but didn't get quite half-way through it. This is one of the books that I really want to read but keep putting off. It's one of the greatest books ever written. One of my favorite and oft misunderstood comic book characters is based on the book's central character. It's the favorite book of one of my closest friends. But I can never fit it into my reading schedule. Bottom Line - It's an immortal work. It'll always be available should that rainy day ever come.

Watchmen - One of the greatest comic book stories ever told. The movie is finally (after DECADES of waiting) coming out next month. I've wanted my own copy of this book for a long time and my wife gave it to last month for my birthday. Bottom Line - I've read it twice before and will again. Just not yet.

Elric The Stealer of Souls (Chronicles of the Last Emperor of Melnibone: Vol 1) - One of my favorite fantasy sagas, and in my opinion, one of the earliest dark fantasies. The forlorn story of Elric of Melnibone, the Sailor on the Seas of Fate, is presented in this first volume of an apparently ongoing collection of the older stories. The best part is that the back cover of the book promises an upcoming motion picture. Rock! Hopefully they'll get Hawkwind to do the soundtrack (see one of my previous posts). Bottom Line - Here again, I've read most of these stories before and will again. I started the first story last night, so I might continue with this one.

2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl - I picked up this book at the Green Valley Book Fair. It's a New Age treatise on the upcoming end of the world. According to the ancient Mayan calendar, the world will end on December 21, 2012. I've read the intro and first chapter, and skimmed a lot of the rest (the professional term is "gutting" the book). The author suggests that, rather than an apocolypse, the date will instead bring a cosmic paradigm shift resulting in a higher level of consciousness for mankind. That is, if we prepare ourselves by cleaning out our emotional and karmic closets, renewing our environment and opening ourselves to the Universe. He promises us telepathy!

Now trust me when I say that I've read my share of New Age books. I'm all over that stuff. If you want a good book about self actualization, read Dan Millman, James Redfield, or Wade Davis (one of my favorite books). Those guys write good stories and deliver a positive, emotional message. THIS book is more academic, by which I mean that it's obtuse and belongs in a college classroom. The book is 400 pages long and has a 5-page bibliography listing over 170 sources. With that much depth and documentation, I have no choice but to deduce that the author's theory is true. Even if it's not, he deserves a PhD solely from the amount of research and synthesis exercised here. Bottom Line - While I like the message and am very interested in really grokking his theory, the book is just too dense. The author needs to write a new version of it that is more obtainable. I don't plan to read this one.

Great Tales of Madness & the Macabre - Next on the shelf is a short story collection from 1990. Those who know me know that short horror fiction is my meat and potatoes. I think that short fiction is the best form for good horror. I picked this one up from the library because it contains stories I've never heard of, including ones by Robert Bloch, Jack London, and an early tale from Nancy Kress. Okay, truthfully, I picked it up just for the Robert Bloch story. Next to Old Man Lovecraft, Bloch is easily one of my top tier writers of weird horror. Bottom Line - I'll read at least some of the stories in this one. But it's over 500 pages of sweet, sweet horror. I don't know if I can read the whole thing before the other denizens of TBR haunt my dreams.

Green Lantern: The Sinestro Corps War - This is a series of trade paperbacks on loan from a friend. (These are published in hardback more frequently these days...does the industry have a new term for them?) This saga is the story of how other emotions suddenly have their own armies of ring bearers. Afterall, why should Willpower and Do-Goodery be the only characteristics to merit power rings? Hopefully my friend Rich won't mind that it might take me longer than usual to get through these five volumes. Bottom Line - I'm definitely reading these. I'm just not sure when. I mean, they're sitting right next to Watchmen. What am I supposed to do, huh?

Weird Tales magazine - I'm somehow two or three issues behind in reading my subscription to Weird Tales and its companion magazine, H.P. Lovecraft's Magazine of Horror. I'm not sure how this happened, but that's how TBR works to corrupt your sanity. Bottom Line - Of course I'll read these, but I'll have to work them in between other things.

So what's my next move against the big bully? Looking back over this list, I'm going with the book of short stories. I'll read the ones I'm most interested in, and probably a few more. After that, I think I'll dive into Watchmen; I mean, there's the movie coming up after all. I'll keep you posted, assuming I actually get around to more blogging. Hey hey, my my.

What I'm listening to: Lucinda Williams "Little Honey" - easily her best album since "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road."

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Zombie Cinema

Last weekend, some friends came over to try out the newest addition to my gaming shelf: Zombie Cinema. Zombie Cinema is a cooperative storytelling game that is part board game and part roleplaying game. The board game aspect sets the pace of the story, but the action and fun are all in the roleplaying.

The premise is simple: each player plays the role of a character in a zombie movie. The objective is to survive and not get eaten by the advancing zombie hoard. I know, your first question is: Which kind of zombies are we fighting? Traditional Romero zombies that are slow and mindless, or modern, over-caffeinated zombies that are fast, intelligent predators? Well, that's part of the fun. It's up to the group playing the game.

The group decides on setting, type of zombies, and everything else about the game. Since this was our first time playing, our group decided to go very traditional. I was pushing for something different, like setting the game in the Star Wars or Star Trek universes. Maybe next time. As it turns out, we brought in a good amount of campiness without having to resort to scifi geekiness.

Characters are created by drawing a few cards to help derive vocation, motivation, and personality. Card drawing is optional, but none of us could resist the randomness factor, so we pulled cards until we each got an assortment we could work with. Once we had characters and setting in mind, the story fell right into place.

The game started in a hospital in the middle of downtown Chicago-type city in the 1920's. The characters are described below and now that the game is over, I realize that we were all playing very iconic roles that lend themselves to celebrity photos:
  • a mad scientist who had been experimenting on recently dead and nearly dead patients in the hospital basement. Naturally these experiments reanimated and thus kicked off our game.

  • an ethnic minority who's wife had recently died at the hospital. He was sure there was foul play involved and had just arrived to take names and kick ass.

  • a dock hand who was delivering mis-labeled supplies to the hospital. This player revealed that his foreman had been changing labels to smuggle mysterious chemicals to the hospital...the very chemicals being used by the mad scientist.

  • an angry teen who was currently locked up in the hospital's mental ward. He was waiting for any opportunity to get out of the locked ward. He didn't really want to cause trouble, he's just misunderstood.

  • and a macho, ne'er-do-well guy who had recently taken a job as a hospital orderly. Given all of the stereotypes present, it was clear to me that this character was going to be the hero of the movie (the fact that it happened to be MY character had absolutely nothing to do with it).
The game started like any good movie should, as a slow-boiling pot on the verge of bubbling over. On each player's turn, he or she is the narrator of the story and describes the current scene. The other players then decide if and how their characters fit into the scene and describe what they are doing. Then the narrator closes the scene and control passes to the next player.

This was also the first time we've played a free-form storytelling RPG, so we got off to a slow start, all of us doing our best to contribute. It didn't take us long to find our rhythm. As the story unfolded, we learned a lot about our zombies. The only thing we decided at the outset was that these were slow-moving, unintelligent zombies. Next we learned that the chemicals used in their initial creation were highly flammable, which contributed to the burning down of the hospital and zombies walking around on fire.

In their attempt to escape the burning building, the characters got tense and the ethnic minority saw his wife, now a zombie, shambling around in the alley below, got angry and pushed the scientist off of the third story fire escape. Luckily he didn't land amidst the flaming zombies on the ground, but was able to grab the second story fire escape. That was our first instance of one character trying to kill another. Sure, there had been lots of minor, impersonal acts of violence prior to this. In fact, the scientist had already been knocked unconscious twice.

When the story moved to the docks and onto a yacht, we learned that the zombies also combusted in the water, so now they were on fire while underwater.

Only one of our characters actually survived the zombie horde: The dock worker who just got involved in the story because he needed a signature on a delivery invoice. He ended up somewhere in the Canadian wilderness. In a last-ditch attempt to kill him, I tried to have him attacked by the polar bear from Lost, but I got voted down.

Zombie Cinema is a fun game and I'm eager to play it again. The mechanics and board elements serve to keep the story moving forward without getting in the way of the storytelling. The zombies could easily be replaced by aliens, vampires, or even furry little gremlins...whatever your group wants to have invade their home town.