Monday, September 30, 2013

Episode 76: Late Night Podcast Break

This weeks Ace of Geeks Podcast: Jarys comes over after a production of Spamalot, bringing Lauren Harrington with him! We break down Mike's new LoL obsession, gush over the current season of Legend of Korra, and Jarys tells tales of his geeky students at work!

30 years of Roll Out - by Jon Cain

          I was reading a article over retro things last week. All the normals were there Nintendo, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Dino Riders etc. However, Transformers were not listed among the many toys and electronics, and that kind of put my nose out of joint. I mean quite possibly the greatest longest lasting toy line ever, snubbed. I was only slightly vindicated when he mentioned the comic line, but when he broke into the shows he snubbed it again. He mentioned shit like Silver Hawks,  Bucky O' Hare and Samurai Pizza Cat, but no Transformers. At this point, I was livid. None of theses shows lasted as long as Transformers. Granted, the original series lasted only 4 seasons, but the follow up series propelled it until the mid 90's. Yet this guy acts like this he has never even come across it.

            I might sound a bit bitter, but coming from me, would you expect anything less? Transformers is the very first show I  remember. In many way the lessons I learned from it shaped my young life. To not give this animated series its proper respect is a hot button topic of mine. Yeah it is campy and the catch phrases are a bit hokey but that's it's charm. I  would argue to say that never has such a powerful show existed until Transformers. There was not a person in the 80's or 90's who didn't know what the Transformation sound was. I mean for a television show to start 29 years ago and a comic 30 years ago and still be relevant says something.

            I often try to remember what it was that drew me into it in the first place. I truly come up blank. I mean really as along as I have been in this world so has transformers. I mean nothing I watch feels so comforting to me then good old G1. From the moment I hear Peter Cullen “Optimus Prime” say Roll Out I feel home. Just in voice casting alone there is a wealth of talent. With the likes of  Scatman Crothers,  Casey Kasem, and  John Moschitta Jr., you would be hard pressed to find a better pool of talent. So if I can't discover my own origins, it brings me to a question. At bass level, what is Transformers exactly?

            It is about a bunch of giant shape changing robots who crash on Earth. Once awake from their multi million year nap they continue the war that broke out on their planet. What a great concept for a kids TV show. Giant war thirsty robots wanting to kill us all. Stopped by friendly giant robots bent on our protection. How does it get any better?

            This show could pull things like a space bridge, which looked like a rainbow road in space, and we bought it. They could give the Italian sports car an Italian accent and we saw Side Swipe, not a overly racial filled caricature of a Italian person. They could say leaking lubricant and we never thought ewwww.  The 1986 animated movie actually used the song Dare to Be Stupid by Weird Al and ended  with a circle dance. Yet we loved and I still do love it. This movie killed Optimus Prime and yet we still watched it. Tear filled eyes in our head but damn it we watched it. How much more can TV series do before it is classified as an amazing series?  Transformers G1 had 98 original episodes - that’s a lot by kid shows standards. Hell, the only one I know that had more was He-man and The Masters of the Universe.

            Love it or hate it, Transformers G1 left a mark on the 80's and 90's no other cartoon series could have. It showed some the wonders right out their door. Others, it caused them to look towards the heavens in hopes of not being alone. In my case it made to brothers closer and closer with every single episode. We may not have always got along with each others, I may have been the annoying younger brother and he the bully older. However Transformers was neutral ground. During that brief 30 minutes  day all was right with the world. So be it nostalgia or whatever you want to call it, I love Transformers, and will always do so.

This article was written in memory of
William E. Cain
Till All Are One

Saturday, September 28, 2013

I'm Weird and I Rather Like It - Jarys Maragopoulos

     "Don't be weird" kids tell one another, when someone says something that just doesn't fit. perhaps we have all heard this flailing defense against non-sense, the basic denial of taking a conversation in a new direction, or as a means of pointing out that a boundary had been crossed. This can leave a burn, especially for the awkward kid, but it is just a passing reaction, not a damnation. Unless, of course you are told "don't be weird" without provocation, a strange reaction to a comment not made. That happened to me a number of times as a kid. It never caused any sort of trauma that I felt compelled to bring up to my therapist (unlike watching the Ring and then sleeping in the TV room. What was I thinking?) But I figured out pretty quickly what these warnings out of the blue meant: I was weird.
This is the first picture that google returns for "Jarys". I could not be more pleased. 

     I AM weird. I have known this for a long time. I feel compelled to greet people's pets before I greet them, I find empirical evidence suspect, I am a pescatarian but I don't evangelize my diet, I like to wash dishes, I like every Matrix movie, and I get really enthusiastic about long dead civilizations. When I was a kid I had to be constantly reminded which public bathroom I was supposed to go into, I didn't have the politeness to withhold correcting tour guides at historical sites, I brought a book with me to school in case I ran out of things to read. My dad used to say "Jarys, you don't have any common sense." But sometimes I wonder if my senses are just plain uncommon. But I'm not special.
     I'm unique. We all are.
     So much of our social instincts, so many of our social institutions, are built on the assumption that we must fit in. Fitting in is survival. Outliers get culled, left out, left behind. But these come from an unreasonable, unaware source, the Id, a part of our mind dark only when we let it rest in darkness. Recent culture has been far more accepting of uniqueness, reminding us that it's ok to be who we are. I like to think of Mister Rogers here, or as he will one day be known; Saint Rogers. He said:

"Love isn't a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.” 

Too holy for just one halo

     Pretty nifty, right? I think so.
     I am not here to stand on Saint Roger's soapbox, my message is not new. I'm sure you hear this all the time. This is just a reminder, because we all need a reminder. I need a reminder: be yourself. You are wonderful as yourself, your unique "you"-ness. If there is anything within you that causes you suffering, you have the ability to know it, understand it, and change it. But you need not change yourself to fit other people. If others do not care for you, so be it. You do not have to please them, as the only person with whom you will spend your entire life is yourself. Please yourself.
... To be YOU. and to be independent! And to do whatever we say! 

     Be weird. Be funny. Be odd. But try to be kind, compassionate, and understanding. Other people are themselves too, even when they lash out. If there is one thing I learned it's that what other people do and say has everything to do with them, not you. Understanding people is the first step to making the world the kind of place that better understands you. And I'm right there behind you.
Do you like little plastic space men? Enjoy.
Do you like to dress up as fictional characters? Have fun!
Do you like to paint your nails with your favorite 8-bit characters? Nifty.
Do you pretend to be a jedi in the bedroom? geeky-kinky or just plain knky? You aren't alone.
Do you take courage from your favorite superhero when you think of coming out?  Awesome.
Do you have a list of historical figures you would punch if you ever had a time machine? Me too! (Andrew Jackson, you're gonna get it!)
Just, please, don't hurt yourself, don't hurt other people, always bring a towel, and when someone asks you if your a god, you say yes.. 

Don't be ashamed of your inner divinity. Or Dan Akroydity.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Space Sims are Not Dead - by Kyle Johannessen

Space Sims Aren't Dead.

I gaze upon my new energy cell factory, orbiting a very remote system that holds only a meat processing plant. The factory is the only one of its kind within five systems, so my cells are going at a premium price to all the other traders and factories in the quadrant. My freighter captains are well paid and well protected, I’m far away from any bounty hunters looking to cash in on the price on my head, and I’ve just traded in my trusty medium freighter for my first capital ship, armed to the teeth. Life is good. Suddenly, one of my freighter captains sends an SOS. Turns out he went off his shipping lane after hearing some news of a better deal for my energy cells at an unscouted trade port. The guy was trying to get his boss a better deal, he ended up getting attacked by a band of pirates. It will take too long for me to get to him using the jump gates so I punch in the coordinates in my hyperdrive and jump to him. When I get there, his fighter escorts have already abandoned him (guess I should have paid them better) and the only thing keeping his cargo safe is a lowly turret on the back of his ship. This is one of the largest pirate squadrons I’ve seen in a very long time, and I would have been no match for them in my medium freighter. My capital ship, however, makes very short work of the brigands, and I escort my freighter to the trade port. As soon as I do THAT, I get another SOS from my factory. They are being attacked by an “unknown force.” I already know what that means, so I jump back to my factory, hoping that the enemy will not be in large numbers. What I see in front of me is far greater than my worst fears. It’s a Kaa’ak mother ship. I swear to myself and go down fighting. My new capital ship, and my factory, is completely destroyed within minutes of the fight starting.
This is what happened the last time I played X3. Which was a while ago, because damn it, it had been forever since I had saved when all that went down and I was just too depressed to pick it back up. I bring it up because a few weeks ago, Ender wrote a love letter to Tie Fighter where he called it the “grand daddy of space sims.” He also said space sims were dead, and I, very respectfully, disagree. First, the grand daddy of space sims was Elite (Vector graphics for the win!), and second, Space Sims aren’t dead. Not only are there still great space sims still out there (if you know where to look) but there are some coming upon the horizon that I think will blow some minds. Let’s start with X3.


The X series has been an amazing little bit of Space Sim that has been going strong for the better part of a decade now. It’s still graphically beautiful, the game play is top notch, and the universe is massive. There is a story mode (the weakest part of the game if you ask me and I still have not completed it), but the real joy of the game comes from exploring uncharted systems, building a vast trading empire, and blowing the hell out of pirates and aliens. X3 has released three expansion packs in the last few years, adding to the depth of the game play and making its HUGE universe even bigger. It can take a really long time to earn enough money for a big ship, big weapons, and a factory of your own, and you can feel really outmatched by just about everything in the beginning of the game, but if you stick with it you can have yourself an amazing space adventure. X4 is coming out late next year, but you can get the whole X3 set for about $30 bucks including the expansion packs on Steam. Go check it out!


Being on this website, I would hope you would know about the wonderful Battlestar Galactica series that Sci-Fi ran for a few years. Diaspora is a free mod for Freespace 2 (a classic space combat game that came LONG after Tie Fighter) with updated HD visuals, a new story mode, and lots of Cylon killing fun. The voice acting is pretty piss poor, and the story doesn’t make a whole lot of sense but the graphics are amazing for a fan made mod, and the combat is tight and responsive. And let me tell you that getting shot out of that tube in your very own Viper is really a great experience. You don’t even need Freespace 2 to play, just grab a joystick and join the fight against the toasters and save humanity!

Star Citizen

Here is the big elephant in the room. Star Citizen looks to bring the space combat sim back to the hardcore PC gamer. Which means we’ll all need to update our graphics cards.  It looks like the investment will be worth it, because Star Citizen, even in its test footage, looks AMAZING. Chris Roberts, the guy behind Wing Commander and Privateer, wants to make the most intense and ambitious space sim ever created.  Not only can you play an expansive single player story mode, but you can seamlessly abandon that single player campaign and join the huge online universe. You’ll be able to customize your ships, land on planets (which is amazing) and walk around in cities on these planets or roam the barren wastes of moons and space rocks  (again, seamlessly) in first person mode, and just wander the space between stars and see what kind of trouble you can get into. It’s like a AAA X game, but with a little more focus on combat. And I believe it’s currently broken just about every Kickstarter record there is.

So there you have it. We don’t need a new X-wing or Tie Fighter game (though I complain if one got made) to get our space combat sim fix. There are plenty out there right now or coming soon to satisfy those zero g combat urges. Star Citizen has me very excited, as well as a new entry into the X system. I picked a hell of a time in my life to cut back on the video games! So pick one of these titles up and you’ll see me amongst the stars! Unless I see you first, because then I’m probably going to blow you away and steal all your stuff. Because that’s how I roll.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Valve Announcement Part 2: The Steam Machines! - Valve's first Gaming PC!

The Steam Box. It's been hinted at, wondered about, and rumored for what seems like years and years now - not quite as long as we've been waiting for Half Life 3, mind you. The idea of Valve entering into the living room console space with their own, dedicated gaming PC seems like a dream come true, and now it IS true.

In the second part of their three-part announcements today, Valve unveiled the Steam Machines, a group of machines they're building with partners in the PC gaming space to bring Steam OS to your living room. While no partners are announced yet, we're guessing it'll be more of your boutique PC makers like iBuyPower than your Gateways and Dells.

Now, here's the cool part: Valve is letting YOU beta test their prototype Steam Machine. Head over to this page for all the details. You have until October 25th. Go go go!

And remember, this is only one of THREE announcements.



The Grey Ghost Masquerade - by Alexis George

The Grey Ghost Masquerade: An Experience in Immersion
By Alexis George    

            At 4PM on Thursday, my taxi pulls into the parking lot of the Long Beach dock. After nine hours of travel, I finally gaze up at The Queen Mary. The driver points out the window and sighs. “You’re staying on the boat?”
            I nod. “Three nights. There’s an event.” I pull my suitcase out of the trunk, stuffed to the brim with costumes, some DVD’s, comics, and character sheets.
            “You be careful girl. She’s actually haunted. It might be a tourist trap, but you know. Too many accidents, if you ask me.”
            I check in at the front desk. Behind me, several dozen Goths, geeks, and gamers congregate throughout the lobby. Several guys are gathered in the corner hastily building characters. A pale married couple frantically pieces together lanyards with roses stamped on one side. A guy in a Zelda shirt with long hair throws a pile of paperwork at the concierge. “I need these copied within five minutes, and I’ll tip you, I swear.”
            As I wait for the elevator to my floor, the guy next to me taps me on the shoulder. He points to my badge. “You here for OWBN or MES?”
            I stare back blankly. I know words have come out of his mouth, but my brain refuses to register their meaning. “I, uh. OH. Yeah, I play MES[1] I think. Up in San Francisco.”
            He cringes. “Oh, your one of those. I have so many problems with New World of Darkness that I refuse. I simply can’t handle it. It’s all about Accord.”
            I realize I’m completely out of my element. Having been playing one Vampire: The Masquerade game on and off for a year, I hadn’t the faintest idea about editions, other Vampire games, the difference between Sabbat and Anarch, or had even bothered to look into what any of it meant. And I had made my way to the Mecca. There were numerous Live Action and tabletop games happening throughout the con, and I had only thought to look into the two familiar looking games I knew. I decided that this convention would be my crash course in World of Darkness.

            Looking back at my email, the event invitation reads, “We’d like to cordially invite all World of Darkness fans to join us as CCP/White Wolf presents this year’s premiere World Of Darkness event, Los Angeles By Night. This CCP/White Wolf sponsored event will be running September 19-22 at the historic Queen Mary Hotel. Prepare to celebrate the World of Darkness over three days with hundreds of your fellow fans for the best and biggest games the communities have to offer.” I look at the program to see what game is on that night. I devise a plan to jump in without any prior knowledge of what I was getting myself into. I head down to the lobby, where the group of guys is still frantically building characters. “Excuse me,” I say. “Are you guys playing, uh, Sabbat tonight?”
            The guy behind the computer nods. “I’m helping generate characters.”
            “I have no idea what I’m doing, but I want to play, can you help?”
             He nods. “There’s a line, but sure. What’s your concept?”
            “Uh, I’m going to sound like an idiot. But what does Sabbat mean? I mean, I know the clans for Camarilla[2], but I haven’t the faintest….”
            He sighs, and the guy next to him in gold embroider leather pants cracks up laughing. “Okay girl,” he says, “First things first. Sabbat is a lot less courtly than what you’re used to. Camarilla is a lot of Interview With A Vampire and Lost Boys, but we’re like…. The shadowy evil chalice-full-of-blood-drinking-this-is-what-your-parents-were-afraid-you’d-be-doing Vampires. Get that?”
            “Okay,” I say.
            “Okay, let’s get to it.”

            An hour later, I’m in the boiler room of The Queen Mary, dressed the part of a bad-blooded Sabbat. Event coordinators run around with glow-sticks, playing the part of disturbed spirits and evil shadows. A man walks about the room, holding a spiked brown box. His contacts make his eyes completely black. He smiles. “Do you accept my challenge?” he says to me.
            “If I win, I get the grand prize, right? I wouldn’t mind something rare to add to my collection.”
            “A collector?” He says. He’s been introduced to me in character as the Cardinal hosting the Sabbat event that evening. “Very well. Speak to me after the Vaulderie.”
            Gold-pants guy was right. Most of the game consists of a lot of gothed-up guys passing around a prop chalice and praising Caine, the canonical creator of WoD vampires. My favorite player ends up being a drunk guy dressed as a Fraternity brother with a college sweatshirt and a lot of frat chants at the ready. Every time another player gives the slightest notion of appraisal to Caine, he cheers and beats his chest.
            Despite my minimal understanding of what’s happening, the whole thing is a blast. My character, a bookworm and investigator, befriends a malevolent spirit in the boiler room and makes a Faustian pact for knowledge. The storyteller tells me to expect an email with plot, in case I ever want to play the character again.
            “Not bad for your first Sabbat,” one guy says to me.

            Friday, I tour the ship. I buy tickets for the WWII tour and the haunted Encounters tour. The first one ends up being a review of locations renovated during the conversion of the cruise vessel to a wartime ship in the 1940’s. “The ship was only really built to house two to five thousand passengers, but during the late 1940’s they had upwards of 16,000 soldiers and passengers on board. With so many years and so many passengers, there were more than a few incidents,” the guide says.
            During the Haunted Encounters tour, the guide takes us down to the boiler room where last night’s Sabbat game took place. She clicks a remote, and a television hidden in the corner turns on. A cheesy movie about ghost sightings plays. Actors scare hotel guests in horrible costumes while creepy music plays.

  Door 13, the location where a man was crushed to death, and the allegedly haunted hallway where his ghost has been seen running down the corridor.  
            Afterwards, I head back up to the room and get dressed in a secondhand prom dress and fake vampire teeth.
            Friday night is Blood and Betrayal, the first official preview game for the new Mind’s Eye Theater – Vampire the Masquerade edition. They rent out the Queen’ ballroom. When the doors open, a couple hundred gorgeously dressed people pour into the dimly lit room. The Prince[3] of Los Angeles wears a red suit and sits in a throne in the front of the room. To his left, the Justicar[4] wears a lovely blue dress and smiles widely.

The thrones of the Prince and the Justicar in the grand ballroom, pictured here with my father who visited the ship the next day and decided he wanted to be Prince of Long Beach.

            Months of pre-planning and character generation suddenly goes full throttle. Characters immediately begin hunting each other down and forming plots and rumors. The storytellers pass out rumors and plot like Halloween candy. I get called upon to find where Vampire Hunters are hiding near the party and stomp them out. Halfway through the event, the Prince and the Justicar get into a fight and decide to form two teams of ten to take out the hunters. They put forth a challenge for both teams to do it, and the quickest and most efficient one wins. In the back of the room, a voice screams, “It’s red vs. blue!” For the briefest of moments, people break characters to laugh. Then the teams are formed and the game is on. Most stay back in the ballroom to party and finish their own private plots, but I follow the fight out to the hallway.
            I get thrown onto the Prince’s team. While we essentially one-shot every hunter, we work slowly and efficiently. The other team goes in, guns blazing. Game mechanics are relatively simple: In order to attack, we have to throw rock, paper, scissors with storytellers. Based on what our character sheets say, we can retest if we fail or bid based on our stats if we tie.
            When both teams return, the storytellers convene. It’s decided that the Justicar’s team worked faster, and they win the bet. Ultimately, however, anyone who fought gets hailed as a hero. On top of that, a dozen side plots and personal quests resolve around the room. A scepter gets returned to its rightful owner, a Ventrue[5] Queen, via an auction held in secret during the event. The Blood Pit, a fighting ring for the more physically built characters, goes on throughout the night in a back room. Werewolves are fought in a different room, and ghost sightings are investigated. “I’ve never seen a game go so smoothly,” one girl says as we exit.

            Saturday is the big show, the Camarilla MES game. I dress up as Soleil Savant, the character I play once a month up in San Francisco. A number of familiar faces are in the game, locals from San Francisco who also came to con as well as a number of Sonoma players. Over the course of the night, I meet a few dozen players from around the country who have come to game on a haunted ship. I finally interact with people I’ve only met through email.
            The game is involved. Plots that have been going on for months convalesce into a long evening of intrigue and investigation. A murder is solved. A demon may or may not have gotten loose. The host of the event is an androgynous Nosferatu Prince with a David Bowie haircut and sleek gold leggings. His ship, The Grey Ghost itself, is given to a clan of independent necromancers known as the Giovanni upon its reveal as a ferry for lost souls. Following the conclusion of game, a large party breaks out in the hotel known as the Succubus Club. But I make for my room and begin to back for a 6am bus.
            Writing from the bus, I can say the whole thing was beyond any con experience I’ve ever done. I’ve done Comic-Con ten years. I’ve gone to half a dozen different gaming cons and even more events. I’ve done LARP[6] in libraries and hotels. But this was something else entirely. Between walking around the Promenade of a massive ship in a sleek black dress while pale figures stroll by, and watching shadowy fake cultists dart around the boiler room, there was a beautiful immersion involved in this weekend. I’ve heard about LARP in Norway building entire villages for weeklong cons and then having a dragon the size of an RV rolled in. I’ve heard about Naval ships rented out for Battlestar Galactica games. Now I’ve gotten to see something like this up close, and it’s certainly not anything I’ll ever stop loving.
            What makes it so awesome, however, isn’t the location or the costumes, and it’s not about a need to escape. It’s the collaborative effort of hundreds of people coming together to make a story. Every single person who attends fits into a tapestry. I’ve never come across anything so distinctly inclusive or innovative in gaming, and World of Darkness is a perfect example of a game that builds a community and a story from the ground up.
            Also, it doesn’t hurt that it’s fun as hell.

[1] Minds Eye Society. An authorized club of Camarilla Vampire gamers.
[2] The Camarilla is a court of vampires in the Vampire the Masquerade setting. Bound in tradition, they adhere to a strict series of regulations to keep vampire society secret in the fictional world.  It is composed of seven clans, ranging from vampire tropes like Nosferatu, who look exactly how they sound, to Brujah, your Lost Boys lookalikes. The Camarilla is constantly at war with the Sabbat and the Anarchs.
[3] Camarilla dominions are overlooked by a Prince. The Prince oversees the politics of the area and makes sure everything runs smoothly. There are other officials, like the Sheriff, self explanatory, and the Harpy, who acts as a sort of secretary for a lot of the paperwork involved.
[4] Justicars are the highest tier of the Camarilla setting. There is one for every clan of the Camarilla, and they act as the eyes and ears of the Inner Circle, basically the heart of Vampire Society. You don’t mess with Justicars.
[5] A clan of the Camarilla. Once kings and crusaders, they now run Corporations and control the world’s commerce. Players often don suits and fancy dresses when playing Ventrue. For this game in particular, I played the Ventrue CEO of a security company.
[6] Live Action Roleplay. Think costumed people running around with swords in the woods. Or people dressed like Vampires walking around a ship. Murder mystery parties count too.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Chillin' With the Villains - A Review of Brandon Sanderson's Steelheart - by Sam Hock

Brandon Sanderson is one of my favorite authors. He seems to have a new book every couple of days or so, and they’re all well worth your time. He hooked me with the superb Mistborn trilogy, which got me to read the 1255-page monster (in paperback, at least) that is The Way of Kings, and now I’m picking my way through his debut novel, Elantris, at a leisurely pace. These big fantasy epics of his are amazing. I can’t wait for the next one, Words of Radiance. He also has a few Young Adult titles under his belt, but I’d never picked one up before until Steelheart.
This first book in the Reckoners trilogy releases today, September 24th, 2013. It’s the story of David, a young man in the not-too-distant future following a world-changing event: the arrival of the Epics. The Epics are superhumans, much like you would see in the pages of Marvel and DC. (Actually, Steelheart’s Epics all smack much more of DC than Marvel, but you get the point.) The only problem is that while these men and women have extraordinary super powers, they’re all quite evil.
There are supervillains everywhere, and no superheroes to stop them.
This sort of literary thesis is common in Sanderson’s work. He looks into established sci-fi/fantasy norms and asks what if. Mistborn, for instance, opens with the premise, “What if the dark lord has already won?” He picks them apart to see their moving pieces, and builds his worlds out of what he finds. I love that. Turn the expected on its head. Don’t make it a twist, make it a selling point. And here’s the best part: that leaves room for other twists later on. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned reading Sanderson, it’s that there’s always another secret.
Getting back to David’s story, he lives in Newcago, a police state that used to be Chicago until Steelheart, possibly the most powerful Epic in the world, took over. Ten years ago, when the Epics first arrived, Steelheart killed David’s father as David watched. David has made revenge his life’s purpose.
Okay, so it’s a plot we’ve seen before. Sort of like Batman meets Inigo Montoya. But the fun is in the execution, the worldbuilding, the characters. David himself is a fun protagonist. The first-person narration gives us direct insight into his thought process, which is witty and self-deprecating. (He has trouble with metaphors—a running joke throughout the novel.) The cast of side characters is varied and well-drawn as well, from the powerful, soft-spoken Abraham to Cody, a sarcastic good ol’ boy who thinks himself a Scotsman. (I actually saw a lot of similarities between Cody and Wayne, the sidekick in another Sanderson novel, Alloy of Law - but that’s not a bad thing.)
Steelheart is an immensely fun read. It goes fast, especially the motorcycle chase. (Did I mention the motorcycle chase? There’s a motorcycle chase!) It’s out at your local bookstore today, and Sanderson is hitting the road on his book tour. Check out his schedule at to see where he’ll be near you!

Monday, September 23, 2013

Steam OS announced!

Valve has been having us all on the edge of our seats for the last week with a teased announcement. And today, they broke the big news - they're developing Steam into its own operating system. What does this mean? According to the official announcement page, Steam OS is going to be a gaming focused system for living room PCs.

Let's read between the lines a little bit on that. People have been saying, over and over, that Valve is going to be making a console in the upcoming years. What they've done with this announcement is put the ball into everyone else's court. Now gaming PCs can be your living room console, and it's easier than ever.

There are other advantages here that Valve is publicizing today - Steam OS will allow you to stream games from your Windows or Mac based computers, and will have cloud saves and gaming built in, so that you can switch from one computer to the other and seamlessly pick up your game where you left off. Apparently, developers have already been working with the OS for some time, and "hundreds" of games are already working on it. Which could lead to the biggest launch title selection in history.

What do you think? Is this the wave of the future? Or has Valve bitten off more than they can chew?

Virtual Choir! - and then some

Helllooooooooo internet!  My name is Stephanie, and I’m a first-time guest blogger on the Ace of Geeks blog.  I’ve made a few guest appearances in the podcast itself (I think I introduced myself as the resident Pokemon trainer...?), but I’m here today to talk to you about one of my other passions: music.  And not any music, but choral music.  And not just any choral music!: I’m here to talk to you about Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir, and a new project that you can participate in!

But first, here’s a poem and some background on the Virtual Choir:

There was once a man by the name of Eric Whitacre.
Who is now quite the calligrapher
of beauteous melodies, and
cluster chords - his specialty
and I’m terrible at rhyming so you should watch this thing instead:

For those of you who didn’t watch the video (shame on you, its less than 2 minutes long), the tl:dw version is that hundreds of thousands people around the world practice and record themselves singing a particular vocal part for one of Eric’s songs and then Eric’s team of engineers and musicians compile these videos together to create one enormous virtual choir.  

You thought your choir was big?  Pfffffttttt.  This isn’t even it’s final form.

But why? What’s all of this for?   “Singing together and making music together is a fundamental human experience,” says Whitacre, “and I love the idea that technology can bring people together from all over the world and get people to participate in this transcending experience.”

What’s more transcending than riding on a bacon carpet through space with a giant tabby?  MUSIC.  Weren’t you reading?  Sheesh.

And indeed, the virtual choir is viral and touching every corner of the world.  The first Virtual Choir clocked in at 185 singers from a dozen different countries.  This past year, the fourth Virtual Choir, or VC4, had nearly 6,000 singers from over 100 countries!  And here’s the fun bit - some of these singers submitted additional videos of themselves singing other parts.  This resulted in 8,400 videos being cut and mixed together to form this beauty:

Don’t worry, the song itself isn’t 13 minutes long - it just takes 8 minutes to credit all of the staff and singers.  
You might be a little taken aback by the music itself - what’s up with the synth and the wubwubwubs?

The song Fly to Paradise “originated” from Eric Whitacre’s musical - Paradise Lost: Shadows and Wings - which “combines styles of opera, musical theater, cinematic music, as well as electronic music techniques of trance music, ambient music, and techno to portray the story of an abandoned tribe of angels in search of their wings. Although it has various non-classical influences, it is meant to be performed by singers with operatic or musical theater backgrounds.”  (Thanks wikipedia for the description - couldn’t have put it better myself.)
I also say “originated” loosely because the original song from the musical was entitled “Bliss (This is Paradise)” but was reinvented for VC4 and was renamed “Fly to Paradise”.  It's like the difference between "based on a true story" and "inspired by a true story".
But Stephanie, how do you know so much about the song?  

Spoilers: I own the music

I was fortunate enough to perform in a concert version of Paradise Lost: Shadows and Wings at Carnegie Hall under Eric Whitacre’s direction back in the summer of 2010. I seriously think that the performance that night was the highlight of my musical career (if you want to call it that). That’s why this is all so near-and-dear to my heart. It was at these rehearsals that I got to meet a lot of amazing people, most of whom had already become familiar with one another through the virtual choir.

So, here’s the new and exciting development: 

With a couple of grammy’s and a few million video views, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Disney now wants in on some of this delicious choir-y goodness.  HERE is where you can jump on the bandwagon (choirwagon?) and get involved!  

We don’t know when the next Virtual Choir will be happening, but recording and submitting for World of Color is very VERY similar to submitting and recording for Virtual Choir and it could prove to be helpful prep for when the next VC comes along if you’re interested in joining.  

Stay tuned for another post later this week about how to practice and submit a video for Glow! I'll be taking you through all of the steps I go through when I prep for a VC video. In the mean time, if you are interested, go ahead and create an account on World of Color Honor Choir and read through some of the materials, introduce yourselves in the forums, and check out the song Glow! If you have the drive, go ahead and begin practicing. The submission date is October 6th! Right around the corner!

If you liked this post and want more, please comment and let us know! If you want to connect to Stephanie, follow her on twitter @GirlWithABowtie Also be sure to follow @AceofGeeks for all updates Ace of Geeks related!

Friday, September 20, 2013

A (Brief) Hundred Year History of Martial Arts Films. By Thomas Tan

Before we get started, there are two recent films you should have watched before we proceed. I’m not saying they’re required, but it would help to have them out of the way in order to appreciate the rest of this article. And really, they’re both so good that you should just watch them anyways. These two films are The Raid: Redemption and The Grandmaster, two of the greatest martial arts films we’ve made to date as a species. The reason I bring up these two films is that they represent the summation of more than a century of cinematic history and physical performance. To truly understand what an achievement these films are, we have to go back to the origins of the very medium itself.

Back when motion cameras were a new invention, people struggled to figure out what exactly what to use them for. Much like the budding shutterbugs in the camera-phone revolution, early filmographers shot anything and everything, from people on the street to animals in the fields. It wasn’t long before those lenses turned to the vaudeville performers on stage, bringing their dancing and acrobatic abilities to the popular culture for the first time. This legacy continued through the early film age, as we can see from the number of physical comedies that dominated the era. Across the Pacific Ocean, it was only a matter of time before Chinese Opera and martial arts performances began showing up on the silver screen as well. Unfortunately, a little matter of the Second World War put a bit of a damper on the budding Chinese film industry, leaving us to forever wonder what could have been.

Let’s skip ahead a few decades to what most of know as the true kung fu movie age. It wasn’t until the 1960s that martial arts filmmaking began in earnest, but it sparked an explosion of work. Dozens, if not hundreds, of films were made in the next 20 years, utilizing the talents of Chinese opera performers, newly graduated wushu practitioners, and seasoned veterans of martial arts legacies, survivors of a time when martial arts were systematically banned by the government. So what were these films like? Chances are you’re already quite familiar with their classical style: stiff exchanges of poses in sequence, rapidfire exchanges of techniques, and extended shots of acrobatics. As far as films go, they were rough and unpolished, lacking many of the production advantages we take for granted today. As a fight choreographer, I recognize that these early fights were flawed. The takes drag on, they lack any sort of interesting rhythm, and they were more interested in demonstrating their physical prowess than portraying a character or exhibiting an emotional arc. But they had a genuine quality to them that had never been seen before in the world, and it kept people coming back for more. These exotic movements demonstrated athleticism and talents we rarely see today. It was this amazing performance of the human body’s potential that inspired countless others to take up the craft themselves, to continue making films and improving on the foundations of the past.

While it would be silly to try and replicate the style of the past when we’ve learned so much since then, there are certainly lessons we can still take from those early works. As of this writing, the raw ability of the human machine has yet to find its equal in the digital world. Nothing can replace the same feeling of seeing a real live human being performing what appear to be death-defying stunts and mind-boggling aerial maneuvers. In the future, perhaps we’ll have progressed CGI technology far enough to perfectly replicate a man in motion, but until that day, the quality of seeing real people in real situations will always have a place for those willing to use it. Along those same lines, nothing will replace real physical skills and a lifetime of training. You can give an actor as many coaching sessions as you can before principal photography starts, but seeing someone with real ability and practiced hands is an unmatched experience.

So what does it take to create masterpieces like The Raid: Redemption and The Grandmaster? From what we’ve learned over these past hundred years, it’s really a matter of lining up the perfect storm of components. Beginning with actor/fighters with real talent and experience, then having an innovative fight choreographer to bring out their best and hide their worst, then composing a story that can get the audience emotionally invested in those fights, then finding a cinematographer than can make it all look perfect and building a crew that can deliver on that vision, then getting a director who can tie all the pieces together under one unified front.

And, of course, you have to find the money to pay everyone involved.