The central conceit of The Hunger Games is this: In a post-apocalyptic future America, every year 24 teenagers are taken from each district and brought to the capitol to fight a battle to the death for the entertainment of the public. The winner receives lifelong riches. Our heroine, Katniss Everdeen, comes from the poor mining District 12, and we see the experience through her eyes. However, since the story is told in the first person, we know that she survives. (Because no rhetorical trick to arrange things otherwise would be convincing.)
Fundamentally, The Hunger Games is a suspense novel, colored by Katniss’ experiences on her journal. The novel sets up the status quo in her own district, and then upends her life when she’s selected for the Games. Katniss feels very deeply about some things, like her mother and sister, but beyond those things she’s very rational and thoughtful, to the point that she has trouble picking up on certain emotional cues from others, and then reacts violently when she’s surprised, as happens several times in the book. On the other hand, her ability to reason serves her well in the arena once the games begin, and her fundamentally good heart wins her some friends and allies.
What Collins does which lifts The Hunger Games above other YA fare that I’ve read is that some plot developments are telegraphed pages ahead of time, but you realize that it’s only going to make thing worse – worse for Katniss, worse for someone she cares about, or worse for everyone. Or that she’s been backed into a corner so although she technically has a choice, she doesn’t really have a choice. It’s a suspense novel, and there’s the constant worry that things are going to get worse, and might not ever get better.
So, the novel is about Katniss’ resilience in the face of despair, in the face of overwhelming odds. Not for nothing is the signature aphorism in the book, “May the odds be ever in your favor.” Almost designed to appeal to statistically-minded fans of modern sports, the saying ironically notes that any edge you gain is so small in the Hunger Games as to be almost meaningless, even if it might be vital to survival.
What the book forces Katniss to do is to recognize what’s really important to her. Certainly she’s been caring for her family since the death of her father in a mine cave-in when she was young, but she has to move beyond that: Fighting for her own survival isn’t enough, there are other things to care about as well. Friendships she makes in the arena, the unjustness of the Games themselves, and knowing how far she’s willing to go to survive.
It’s easy to see why The Hunger Games is popular: Katniss is a capable, clever and thoughtful young woman, but she’s also awkward and lacks self-confidence in many areas, so she both stands in as a model of wish fulfillment, and as a person the reader can relate to in her uncertainties. She’s hard when she needs to be, empathetic when she wants to be, and not perfect on either count. In a more nuanced way than Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen is someone the reader wants to be (without going through the ordeal of the Games, of course).
The world is very well realized, too; I expect it will be better fleshed out in the other two books in the trilogy, but there’s not much left wanting for the purposes of the story in this first book. And the setting and execution of the Games themselves is very well done. Perhaps the conflict falls apart a bit at the end – the climactic showdown is sidestepped in an awkward manner – and the denouement feels a little rushed (though it sets up the first act of the second book, which I’m already reading), but those are quibbles.
As adventure, as character drama, as gets-you-squirming-in-your-seat suspense, The Hunger Games is a resounding success. I’m not sure why it took me this long to read it.
For Christmas my aunt and uncle gave me an amaryllis plant. Pretty neat, but before I set it up I had to check whether it was poisonous to cats, since both Jackson and Sadie like munching on plants (yet another obstacle to my mastery of growing orchids!). It turns out it is moderately toxic, so I decided I couldn’t just set it up in the house. So it sat for the better part of a month while I thought about it (or, really, ignored it).
Around my birthday I realized that the plant was forcing the issue, as even though I hadn’t watered it it was sprouting anyway. So I unpacked it – it came in a very attractive little pot – and put it out on the front porch, where it will get a lot of indirect sunlight and hopefully not get too cold. And I started watering it.
Well, as of this morning it looked like this:
And it looks like it has more flowering yet to come.
I’m not certain what I’ll do once it goes dormant for the summer, maybe put it in the garage, where it will stay warm and get some light. But it’s working out pretty well so far.
Five Weapons #7, by Jimmie Robinson, Image Comics, February 2014
Five Weapons is the latest project by writer/artist Jimmie Robinson, who’s best known for the superhero satire Bomb Queen (which wasn’t my thing), and earlier for his science fiction adventure Amanda and Gunn (which I love and highly recommend). Five Weapons falls somewhere between those two series in tone, being a cleverly-plotted cliffhanger-driven drama, but with a quirky setting and regular doses of humor (some of which deliberately clashes with the more serious material). There’s not much quite like it on the market today.
Five Weapons began life as a 5-issue limited series (collected), which I’ll now summarize – though since it ends with a plot twist, I’ll talk around that as best I can: Tyler Shainline is admitted to a private academy for aspiring assassins, on the strength of being the son of a famous assassin. The school focuses on skills with five different weapons, and the students are grouped into clubs around the weapons; Tyler is pressured into choosing to join a club. You’d expect that the series would show Tyler gaining mastery of all five weapons, but in fact he is a pacifist and refuses to fight with any weapon. The series’ formula is one of showdowns with the five club leaders, each issue ending on a cliffhanger where one wonders how Tyler is going to win this fight without actually fighting. Tyler is in fact at the school on a mission, which he completes at the end of the series, earning the respect of some of the other students. But, since he doesn’t actually plan to become an assassin, he leaves the school.
The ongoing series starts with issue #6, where our hero returns to the school, this time as a medic training under the school’s doctor. However, one of the other students has a grudge against him and sets out to destroy his reputation and get him expelled. The two issues since still end on a “how’s he going to get out of this one cliffhanger”, but we no longer have confidence that he’s going to overcome his enemy, who’s about as clever as he is. This issue has him working out of one fix, learning some surprising things about a few of the adults, and then getting into another jam on the last page.
While written in a straightforward, grounded manner, the setting of Five Weapons is bizarre, sometimes even surreal. There are several characters whom one might characterize as stereotypes, for example the teacher who heads the archery club, who is an American Indian (“Ms. Featherwind”). But for me, the weird thing – as you can see from the cover I’ve reproduced here, is that she has an arrow through her head, and a big target covering the left side of her head. It’s like something from a Batman or Avengers episode from the 60s, an affectation that doesn’t make much sense but sure looks weird. Characters in the series are full of this kind of thing, some of which are explained (the doctor is missing her nose and wears a bandage around her head to cover where it would be), some not.
Additionally, for a school for assassins there isn’t a whole lot of assassinating going on, and there are a lot of students attending. The story alludes to missions that some of the adults have run, but there’s a general feel of “don’t look too closely at how this place fits into the world at large”. You’d think it would take a special kind of sociopath (or psychopath) to become an aspiring assassin as a teenager, but these kids don’t really show it.
Indeed, I find the book enjoyable because the main character and his closer friends are all pretty easy to relate to. And because the cliffhangers in the story are enjoyable brain-teasers. Robinson’s artwork is also quite strong, especially in his characters’ distinctive faces and expressions; it’s a long way from superhero comics. Yet the colors are bright and cheerful, also cutting against what would seem to be grim subject matter.
It’s hard to tell whether Robinson has a long-term plan for the series, as the initial arc – presumably intended to stand on its own – felt complete in itself. Some notional 50-issue storyline would also seem out of place for this series, but we’ll see. Its internal artistic conflicts are part of what appeals to me about it; it’s got such a strong identity, yet that identity seems almost self-consciously fragile. Probably I’m overanalyzing it, as the overall feel is one of narrow escapes from danger in the most fun, adventuresque ways.
Today marks 15 years since I started working at Apple.
Coincidentally, as part of the 30 Years of Mac celebration a month and a half ago, Apple put up posters with the name of every employee. I believe there are 12 posters, and I’m in the very top row of poster 3. (That’s actually too high off the ground for me to get a good picture with my iPhone; what I need is a camera with a good optical zoom.) I guess that means I’ve been at Apple longer than over 85% of all employees. That’s a long time, especially in Silicon Valley.
I remember back when I was going to interview, I told two of my friends at my old company. One of them immediately said, “Oh, you are so out of here.” It didn’t seem to clear to me at the time, but she was right!
15 years ago it was me and my two cats moving into temporary housing. The Dot Com boom was in full swing. Mac OS X was under development but wouldn’t be released for another two years.
10 years ago Debbi and I had been dating for almost three years, and she had a couple of kittens. The Red Sox were about to embark on their first championship season in 86 years. Macs still ran on PowerPC chips and Apple stock was riding up on the strength of the iPod.
5 years ago Debbi and I were still living in the townhouse. My cat Jefferson would pass away a year later. The iPhone was already a big thing and I think its App Store was available by then, but the iPad was still in the future.
1999 feels like a different era, yet it wasn’t so long ago. It feels like so much has happened, yet it all felt like a series of manageable transitions while it was happening. (c.f. John Gruber’s “This is How Apple Rolls” piece – for the most part, that’s how a person’s life rolls, too.)
Where will I be in another 15 years?
I ended Tuesday’s entry wondering how to keep my hand in playing Magic as I’ve wound down playing our weekly casual game.
Back in 2006 when I got back into Magic (having previously played from 1995-1998) I was also getting into poker, and my friends seemed to split into playing one game or the other. I decided to go the Magic route (though I still play poker from time to time – honestly I might have lost less money sticking with poker!). But while I enjoy casual constructed, I also really enjoy doing booster drafts.
The problem with booster drafts is that they’re hard to arrange:
- They require you set aside a chunk of time, usually 2-3 hours, to do the draft and then play up to 3 best-of-3-games matches.
- Gathering enough people in person (at least 4, usually 6-to-8) is difficult in casual games.
- Playing at a store involves playing on the store’s schedule, and driving to and from the store.
- Playing at either a store or on Magic Online usually means playing against a more serious, and often more skilled, class of player.
The most convenient way to draft is on Magic Online (MTGO), where there are usually drafts starting up every few minutes. Unfortunately, the MTGO client runs only under Windows, and I just find the Windows interface to be dreary (I’m a Mac guy). I do have a Windows partition on my Mac which I use using VMWare Fusion, so that helps a little. On top of that, though, MTGO’s own user interface is pretty terrible (I won’t go into details, but anything involving the stack tends to be presenting in a perplexing manner at best).
I think the real barrier for me, though, is that playing online is just such a solitary activity: It requires all of my attention for most of the time I’m playing, and while I haven’t had any bad experiences with other players online, it’s fair to say that I don’t really connect with anyone either. So telling myself that I’m going to spend 2-3 hours sitting in front of the computer playing a game by myself has been a difficult barrier to overcome. Throw in my feeling that I’m not really that good at drafting (after all, most of my competition has a lot more practice than I do) and it’s hard to convince myself to spend an hour or more doing a draft that might end up being crappy.
Since I always seem to have plenty of chores to do around the house, or things I feel I “ought to” be doing (like reading a book, or playing with the cats), I just never set aside the time.
One thing I do is listen to the excellent podcast on drafting and other “limited” Magic formats, Limited Resources. Listening to them talking about the theory and practice of drafting, and how much time they put into honing their draft skills, I sometimes think it would be cool to draft enough to become a genuinely skilled player. But then I think what else I could be spending that time doing.
I don’t know. I’d like to do more drafts, at least to the point where I’m good enough that I don’t feel intimidated by it. But it’s been a hard barrier to overcome.
Debbi and I took Tuesday off for a fun day in San Francisco. We spent the morning at California Academy of Sciences, where we renewed our memberships for the year. Sadly, their planetarium was closed for the day, and it’s one of the highlights of a visit there. But we had a good time otherwise. It was really quiet there, relatively speaking; I guess the end of February is not the busy season for SF museums! One nice benefit of this was we got some lengthy quality time with the penguins, who were happily swimming in their pond, and one of whom followed me back and forth through the window.
I took another panorama from the rooftop:
Debbi took a bunch of pictures and posted a few to Facebook having made collages out of them with Pic Stitch. I liked this one with the many small frogs we saw in the tropical rainforest:
After five trips in the last year, I think the Academy needs to refresh some of their exhibits. The earthquake exhibit feels very stale at this point, and they haven’t had a good exhibit on the second floor in a while – they really need something like their Extreme Mammals exhibit from a few years ago.
Afterward we went to the Conservatory of Flowers, which I always think is one of the best-kept secrets in Golden Gate Park. We were pleased to see they had their butterfly exhibit in their rotating exhibit room, but I always enjoy seeing all their rooms. I got a panorama of the room with the large pond:
And Debbi made a collage of some pictures from our visit:
Finally we went to Ghirardelli Square for sundaes, and then drove home.
We had a quiet rest of the day, but sadly we were both strangely wiped out by it all; Debbi took a nap in the afternoon, and I developed a headache later in the evening (though not the debilitating kind I occasionally get), so we went to bed early. A disappointing end to an otherwise fun day.
On the bright side, we’ve gotten some rain since then, which the state badly needs and which I always enjoy. And more coming in the next few days!
(Note: This post has nothing to do with the book of the same name. In fact, it will probably be of little interest except to players of the Magic trading card game.)
Since I got back into Magic: The Gathering back in 2006, I’ve been playing in a weekly casual game. But a little over a year ago our regular host decided to move out of state, and we moved to a rotating hosting system. Our metagame had also been getting (to my mind) a bit stale, with people often playing the same types of decks (not quite the same exact decks, but the same basic frameworks used to trigger slightly different win conditions). And I’d been struggling to come up with interesting new decks of my own, which could work within our metagame.
Late in the summer my heart had gone out of it, so I decided to take a month or two off (conveniently timed around our trip back east in September). When I got back, I learned that the weekly game had been moved from Mondays to Wednesdays, which reduced my likelihood of attending to near-zero, as Wednesday is of course comic book night. Consequently, I haven’t attended since last summer.
Since then I’ve been gradually filing my cards and generally tidying up my card collection. Perhaps I needed the time off from the game. For some years I’ve been buying boxes of the new expansions and opening them, but that was getting pretty old, too – a lot of bookkeeping. Not to mention that all the cards take up a lot of space. If I want to keep up with the new sets, maybe I’ll just buy some singles; heck, I could probably buy playlets (4 each) of the best new cards that come out and spend less than I have been on the boxes.
(In theory I guess the total value of cards on the aftermarket end up equalling the cost of buying the unopened product, with commons as a whole being worth close to nothing, while the valuable cards account for most of the cost. The market is probably not quite that efficient, but except for a few outliers it’s probably pretty close. And acquiring more commons gets less and less interesting over time, as the design philosophy of New World Order has generally made commons less interesting to collect for people who own many of the older cards.)
Anyway, I still enjoy Magic and would like to keep my hand in it, but I don’t know when (or if) I’ll want to spend the time on casual constructed games in the future. And I know I don’t have much interest in serious competitive Magic. So what’s left?
Last week one of my cow-orkers had his wife and daughter meet him at work for lunch. I ran into them in the cafeteria and said hi. His daughter is a little over a year old, and she promptly took her pacifier out of her mouth and handed it to me. He later told me he hadn’t seen her do that before. I joked that she thought I was talking to much and wanted to shut me up.
This is just the latest example of how little kids seem to love me. We have many friends with kids aged 5 or less. Two of them decided at one point that Debbi and I are their friends, but they allow their parents to socialize with us, too. Some other friends Debbi goes to visit every week, and I joined her a few weeks ago. The next week when Debbi was going over, apparently the younger child asked if “Uncle Michael” was coming too. And a few years ago whenever we’d fly back east to visit our families, we’d take a red-eye and I’d crash in late morning (since I can’t really sleep on planes), only to wake up covered in couch cushions courtesy of her nieces and nephew.
I’ve never really wanted kids, but I don’t dislike them (I think I feel compelled to say that because it seems many people perceive that people who don’t want kids also don’t like kids). I sometimes feel a little uneasy around them, like I’m going to say the wrong thing or accidentally hurt one of them. Debbi thinks kids like me because I’m willing to get down on the ground and play with them, or carry them around, or get chased by them. I bet the fact that I rarely fill the roll of the disciplinarian helps, too. (That is, I’m rarely the guy who has to say ‘no’, though I am sometimes the guy who tries to steer them away from things they shouldn’t be getting into.)
None of this really explains how a toddler can take one look at me and decide to share her pacifier with me, though!
By request, here’s a photo of the sycamore tree that overlooks our house that I wrote about yesterday:
(As you can see, our weather out here lately is just awful!)
Our house has a big ol’ sycamore tree hanging over the front yard. For the most part this is a good thing, as it keeps the yard (and the front porch) shady for most of the day in the summer.
The winter is another story: The tree starts dropping leaves in October, and sometimes it seems like it never stops. Last weekend I was out filling our yard waste bin again, and it’s mid-February! And the tree still has plenty of leaves left on it! It’s not even particularly attractive in the fall, as the leave turn brown rather than turning bright colors. Also, our neighborhood has a couple of dozen such trees around, but our tree seems to have more leaves left on it than the other do. Geez!
I think what’s happening is the warm weather and California’s drought that’s on right now: Normally we get plenty of rain in the fall and early winter, along with colder temperatures and occasional gusts of wind. I think the warm weather is tricking the tree a little, but more importantly the rain and wind are important to knock all those leaves off. Most of the leaves I raked last weekend fell during the rain showers the previous weekend.
Now we’re heading into spring, and I bet the leaves will start falling faster as the tree starts sprouting some buds. Most of the flowering trees in the area are in bloom right now, and the deciduous trees are probably not far behind. So I expect more raking in the month ahead.
Plus, there’s a forecast of more showers in the middle of next week, so maybe that will finally knock the last of those leaves off that darned tree.