Monday, December 8, 2008

Review of T.B.R. Newspaper Pieces by Thomas B. Roberton

The first winner of the Governor General's Award in the category of non-fiction (1936) is:

T.B.R. Newspaper Pieces by Thomas B. Roberton

This is a collection of newspaper articles written by Thomas B. Roberton, columnist for the Winnipeg Free Press from 1918-1936. The book was assembled posthumously by J.B. McGeachy. It includes a smattering of articles on a variety of subjects from the early twentieth century. Surprisingly, there are few articles relating to Winnipeg itself. Perhaps this was a conscious decision by McGeachy to reach and to appeal to a broader audience.

While the book demonstrates Roberton's significant literary talents, it's hard to gain any sort of larger sense of the work. Upon completing my reading, I was struck by Roberton's strong concern for his native Scotland and for Canada, but it is hard to see any stronger, underlying theme, other than perhaps Christianity. Obviously, since these are newspaper columns, they tend not to lend themselves to larger issues. However, I must take issue with McGeachy's selection and ordering of articles based on ''variety in reading'' (Roberton xv).

Overall, the book represents an interesting sample from a talented newspaper columnist, but as a whole, it falls short.

I would like to add that Roberton's column ''Women in Trousers'' will interest 21st century readers. Additionally, ''Poor Dying Scotland'' succeeds brilliantly as a biting, sarcastic criticism.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Governor General's Award Project and Review of "Think of the Earth by Bertram Brooker"

As part of my efforts to learn more about my new country and to read good books, I have decided to read every Governor General's Award for Literary Merit winner. It's obviously going to be a multi-year project, but I thought it would make for some interesting reading. I'm proceeding in chronological order, and I aspire to write a review of each one in this blog. First up, the 1936 fiction winner:

Think of the Earth by Bertram Brooker

Think of the Earth takes place in a small Manitoba town in the midst of the industrial revolution. Or, perhaps, to put it more aptly, past the peak of industrialization. The novel focuses primarily on two characters: Tavistock and Laura. Tavistock is an Englishman who spends most of the novel consumed with the idea that the world can only be saved through the actions of The Comforter, who will teach people the importance of the innocence of good and evil. Intrinsic to Tavistock's conception of the world is the idea that innocence of good and evil is better than being able to judge good from evil. Tavistock believes that he will play a central role in an innocent death, which will result in the redemption of humanity. If this all seems confusing, it confused me as well. One of the open questions in the book is whether Tavistock is insane. In some ways, he is incisively rational, but in others, he is deeply spiritual.

Laura is the minister's daughter. She is dating a stereotypical, angry young man, but falls in love with Tavistock. At one point, as she tried to break up with Harry (the young man), on the lake, he becomes aggressive, and she throws herself out of the boat, causing it to tip, and Harry drowns. This seemed to be the pivotal point of the book, but I still can't quite wrap my head around it. For one thing, Harry's exact motives are somewhat ambiguous. Does he want to rape Laura? Does he want to kill her? Or does he merely want to force her to stay and listen to him? The other main question for me: is the death of Harry the innocent act that will redeem humanity? At the point she tips over the boat, according to her later recollection, Laura did not remember that Harry could not swim. Moreover, she may have leapt out of the boat in self-defence. However, to counter this interpretation, Laura claims that she leapt out to avoid having to listen to him rather than self-defence. Additionally, there does not seem to be any larger redemption of humanity. Most importantly, in the end, Tavistock renounces his earlier philosophy and, in a sense, returns to sanity.

Overall, I found this book very ambiguous. In the end, is it an affirmation of the spirit of Christianity? Or should we look deeper and see Tavistock's "Comforter" philosophy more compelling? It seems clear that Brooker has meaningful things to say, but I'm not sure what they are. Perhaps, he is simply espousing two different Christian philosophies, offering them as food for the thought for the reader. I may look into some contemporary reviews for some further insight, but I prefer to get my own reactions down before I read others.

I should also note, that stylistically, this is an excellent book. Brooker's language is clear and descriptive. Additionlly, the book is divided into 3 parts (one for each day): Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Clearly, the climax occuring on Sunday only furthers the deeply religious nature of the novel. Also, interestingly, Brooker will often have section breaks in the middle of a conversation. It's an effective way to divide up different subjects.

On the whole, Think of the Earth is a well-written, thoughtful, book. It is complex, and I'm not sure of the overall message, but it is a very enjoyable work of fiction.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Let's end the hardcore vs. casual "conflict"

If you follow video game journalism at all, you're familiar with the term hardcore (or core) gamer. Generally, it's used in some sort of debate about hardcore vs. casual games or gamers. Now, don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with hardcore as a term by itself, but rather, the baggage it has accumulated. It symbolizes a fundamentally bifurcated and antagonistic relationship between so-called hardcore and casual video (or perhaps more accurately electronic) games. This division is wrong.

It is wrong because it is a gross oversimplification, and a bad model for viewing video gamer players. There aren't two separate groups of players. In developed countries today, everyone is a player. Everyone has played some electronic game in some form whether it be Pong, Windows Solitare, or Super Mario Bros. It's time we started really comparing playing electronic games with books, film, and other media. The model, for readers, for example, is that virtually everyone is a reader. Certain people read a lot, whom we refer to as bibliophiles or book lovers. Just like almost everyone watches movies to some extent, but a certain subset are film buffs. The model is that a certain elite group make up a subset of a much larger population. This is the direction that video games are going in.

The model commonly used of hard core vs. casual is one of conflict that need not and should not exist. It is out of touch with reality. The hard core gamer should in reality be defined as someone with a particular passion and elite view of the medium. Just as a serious film buff would set him or herself apart from the masses who only see shallow blockbusters. Or how a bibliophile who reads multiple books per week looks down on Harry Potter and Dan Brown. Self-described hardcore gamers, on the other hand, hold the general public (or casuals as they refer derisively) in contempt. This conflict is particularly common on video game blogs (see for one representative example).

My overall point, is that there's a false dichotomy here. As video games have become mainstream, it is the subset model that we need to use to describe different game players. Particularly since the term casual is even less helpful than hardcore. A casual gamer is someone who doesn't play video games seriously? formally? Who sees them as games rather than serious art?

Again, in developed countries, virtually everyone (with the possible exception of the elderly) plays video games. For most people, this happens to different degrees on a continuum, and then there is a small subset of particularly passionate elites for whom games are not a hobby or a form of entertainment, but rather their primary form of entertainment. Geometrically, therefore, it is more accurate to think of video game players as a pyramid. The more you play, the further toward the tip (elite) that you are.

So, what does this mean?
It means in our discussion of video game players we should stop using the false dichotomy of hardcore and casual gamers. But, more than that, hardcore gamers need to accept and embrace that they are an elite. And while this entails feelings of self-superiority, it also entails accepting that they will never have common cause with the masses. That said, it also means encouraging those that want to become elite (disciples if you will). And it means that, just like film buffs, you can decry the idiot public, but generally, you have to accept that they will never truly appreciate the medium that you love. You can be condescending, but not outraged. You can see party games as mindless entertainment, but you can't see them as a threat to elite games. Just as J.K. Rowling doesn't threaten Kurt Vonnegut. And in fact, if you want to be particularly mature, you can be happy about anything that gets more people enjoying your medium. My final point is that a mass medium means that most of it appeals to the masses, and that there will always be a small set of the passionate elite. So, if you consider yourself a hardcore gamer, embrace your elitism, but don't be threatened by the masses. Welcome to the world of mass market video games!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Wow, I love Vista!

I've upgraded to Vista... and I love it. No one is more surprised than me. After reading numerous Vista horror stories, I expected the worst. At the very least, I figured it would be like most Windows updates: increased functionality at the cost of speed and performance. In my experience, using a new version of Windows was always 2 steps forward and 1 step backward. In other words, it's always been a mixed bag and full of minor irritants. As a matter of fact, I would never bother upgrading Windows (that's what buying a new computer is for), but I happened to buy this laptop shortly before Vista came out. I specifically got it because it was Vista Premium Capable (or whatever it's called, it can run Aero), plus I got my copy of Vista at a significant academic discount.

I'm one of those people who reformats periodically to get rid of the crap that inevitably collects after a while. So, this time, I decided to try out Vista with Service Pack 1 out.

Well, for whatever reason, I haven't been able to download Service Pack 1 through Windows Update yet, but I love Vista all the same! It is a vast improvement over XP. So, why is it so great?

1. It's smooth. I don't know how else to describe it. I often found with XP that programs loaded slowly and it would often hang. Programs load quickly in Vista and I haven't experienced any system hanging. It is, of course, just after a reformat, but it's far smoother and snappier than I ever remember XP being.

2. It's pretty. It's stupid to say, but Vista looks great. Even before Aero was running, it looked nice. I don't really care about translucency or any of the whiz bang effects, but it just looks smooth (there's that word again) and polished.

3. It's well-designed. Anyone who has upgraded from 3.1 to 95 to 98 to XP knows that part of the upgrade process is learning how to get the new version of Windows to do the things you learned how to do for the previous version. There's very little of that with Vista. All of the settings are where you would expect them to be. The help is robust, seamless and no longer takes forever to index/load. It's also very intuitive and the automatic configuration works the first time. Networking, which could often be a pain with XP, is easy.

4. It's faster, really and truly. Since Windows 3.1, I have heard Microsoft promise better performance with each version of Windows. I have never found this to be the case. 95 was slower than 3.1. My Windows 98SE speed machine turned into a clunker under XP. Well, while I bought this computer to be Vista capable, I'm still pleasantly surprised by its performance. It is significantly faster than XP.

It's early yet, but my advice is to ignore the initial reviews of Vista. I've had no problems with hardware or software compatibility. All the drivers were installed seamlessley. No dreaded exclamation points. No downloading drivers directly from the manufacturer. I don't expect many people are going to be interested in purchasing Vista retail (with its hefty price tag), but if you're buying a new computer for personal use, you're crazy if you don't get Vista on it. And, if like me, you've had a Vista DVD ready to go for a while, but you've been holding off, now is the time. I bet you'll be pleased.

For the record, I'm running a Dell Inspiron E1405 with 1 gigabyte of RAM, a 2Ghz Core 2 Duo and an on-board Intel 945GM for video.

Oh, and one side note, changing your Windows environment to a different language (in my case French) is easier than ever before.

Just as I'm completing this post, Windows Update informed me that Service Pack 1 is available, so I'm going to install it. I'll put up another post if it changes my impressions.

Monday, January 28, 2008

The Myth of Reagan

I was listening to John McCain on Meet the Press from January 27, 2007, and something he said caught my ear:
"I'm proud to have been one in the Reagan revolution where we not only cut taxes, which I'm proud to have supported and I have a record of it, but we restrained spending. "

That rang false. Was spending indeed restrained under Reagan? No, not according to the U.S. Government Printing Office.

Here's the budget during the Reagan administration in millions of dollars:

Year Total
Receipts Outlays Surplus or Deficit(−)
1981 599,272 678,241 -78,968
1982 617,766 745,743 -127,977
1983 600,562 808,364 -207,802
1984 666,486 851,853 -185,367
1985 734,088 946,396 -212,308
1986 769,215 990,441 -221,227
1987 854,353 1,004,083 -149,730
1988 909,303 1,064,481 -155,178
1989 991,190 1,143,829 -152,639
1990 1,032,094 1,253,130 -221,036

And to account for inflation, in constant 2000 dollars in billions of dollars:

Fiscal Year In Current Dollars
Receipts Outlays Surplus or Deficit(−)
1981 599.3 678.2 -79.0
1982 617.8 745.7 -128.0
1983 600.6 808.4 -207.8
1984 666.5 851.9 -185.4
1985 734.1 946.4 -212.3
1986 769.2 990.4 -221.2
1987 854.4 1,004.1 -149.7
1988 909.3 1,064.5 -155.2
1989 991.2 1,143.8 -152.6
1990 1,032.1 1,253.1 -221.0

Both of these charts clearly show that rather than restraining spending, it nearly doubled during Reagan's two terms. Let's stop the mythmaking and face reality.