Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A Brief History of Secrets

Rhonda Byrne's "The Secret" is anything but. The Law of Attraction principles on which her book is based have been widely published for over a century. Right now, Amazon has over 3,000 books on the "Law of Attraction." More than 2,000 of them have been around before Byrne's Secret.

Law of Attraction proponents are not unlike faith healers, only without the added bother of having to worship God. Be happy, and you attract happiness into your life. If it doesn't work for you, then you must subconsiously be sending out negative energy, the same way that some Christians will spend the rest of their lives in that wheelchair, because they don't truly believe.

Here are a few books from the genre:

Ask and it is Given, A New Beginning (I & II), The Law of Attraction: The Basics of the Teachings of Abraham, etc.
Written by:
Jerry & Esther Hicks, a pair of Hicks with an imaginary friend.
Admittedly influenced by:Think And Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill (1937)1.
Noteworthy because: Abraham, the spirit guide for Jerry and Esther Hicks is not one person, but a collection of entities that speak through Esther. Originally, he/they started talking through Esther by making her write with her nose, which was done out of love, not some malicious impulse to make her look silly. Honest. Now you can attend workshops to hear Abraham actually speak through Esther, for a modest fee.

Excuse Me, Your Life is Waiting
Written by: Lynne Grabhorn, a quitter.
Admittedly influenced by: While she viewed the Abraham-Hicks books as "new but provincial teachings from [an] unlettered, unscientific family of teachers"(p.ix), she still admits that she's "reissued... the profoundly simple teachings from the Hicks family in Texas"(p.x).
Noteworthy because: After contracting a terminal illness, allegedly gaining a grotesque amount of weight, and living in constant pain, she committed suicide2. Detractors say that if she was so great at "manifesting," she should have used her power to heal herself. However, the truly faithful know that this is undeniable proof that she had become so powerful at turning her thoughts into reality that a moment's inattention manifested something incurable.

The Cosmic Ordering Service
Written by: Barbel Mohr, a boy-crazy German.
Admittedly influenced by: A "friend," who "had read a book about positive thinking and suggested that [Mohr] imagine the perfect man [...] and just ask the universe to send him"(p.1).
Noteworthy because: After losing his wife and his job, British "celebrity" Noel Edmonds read Barbel's book and wished for a new hit show3. He was later picked to host the UK's "Deal or no Deal," which means that Mohr's book resurrected 2 careers, Edmonds' and Howie Mandel's. However, Mandel has refused to recognize the book as being influential for his career, and without celebrity endorsements to cement it firmly in the minds of the American public, the book has not sold nearly as well in the US.

The Secret
Written by: Rhonda Byrne, the Australian who secretly hates us all.
Admittedly influenced by: The Science of Getting Rich by Wallace D. Wattles. (1910)4
Noteworthy because: It's the perfect storm of marketing techniques. It's packaged to look suitably old and obscure, like it really is a secret. It's well titled. "Think Your Way Rich" or "Visualize Your Dreams" can turn people off as too new-age, but everyone wants to know a secret. Plus, there's a handy DVD available, so sub-literate mouth-breathers never have to bother with the printed word. Once Oprah gave it her stamp of approval, the amount of money it made increased exponentially from obscene like a back issue of Hustler to obscene like retarded siblings fucking in costumes on stage at a NAMBLA convention.
A cynic might suggest that these were all calculated moves designed to make the book a bestseller, but the counter-argument is that Rhonda just used the law to attract savvy marketers who helped promote her book.

1 Discussed here, in an article that also describes the nose writing.

2 She even left a note.

3 Seriously.

4 Mentioned in both the linked article, and here.

I read all 10 books of the Mission: Earth series

That’s not meant to be boastful. I wouldn’t tell anyone else to try it, and in fact I am making this post as a cautionary statement intended to help others.*

I found nothing objectionable with the premise. A superadvanced alien civilization has established a timetable for the conquest of the universe. A routine scouting mission has realized that Earth civilization is so insane and backwards that by the time the aliens arrive to conquer it, humans will have consumed, misused, and/or destroyed anything worth claiming (I think that this was a problem for the aliens because they needed the planet in good shape to use it as a refueling base, or something). Without alerting Earth to their presence, the aliens have to keep us alive long enough to enslave us. Oh, it also won’t be too tough for them to walk among us since we’re visually identical, thanks to some throwaway sideplot about how life on earth was actually started by rebels fleeing the alien empire.

At first, the narrative device seemed innovative. The books start off as the transcription of a confession, and the primary narrator** is revealed to be a selfish, greedy, depraved wretch who worked for the “Coordinated Information Apparatus,” a government organization that covertly employs bribery, torture, and assassination nominally to protect the government, but actually to consolidate its own power (and its initials are CIA. Get it?). The CIA wants to maintain the status quo for their own nefarious ends, so the books are a first-person account their efforts to stop the hero who has been appointed to fix things.

From the point of view of the narrator, the graft, extortion, imprisonment, fraud, psychosis, and widespread corruption encountered in the alien society are unremarkable; it is then supposed to be funny when he is shocked to encounter extreme versions of the same on earth, as if we have let things get so bad that even an amoral psychopath thinks we’ve gone too far. Larded throughout are also grade-school crudities and efforts at toilet humor, like the two nymphomaniac circus performers named “Cun” and “Twa,” or the cross-dressing homosexual Russian “Colonel Gaylov.”

Observing the hero through the eyes of someone on the villain’s side is an interesting idea, and has been done before with positive results (see also: Black Company). The problem with the Mission Earth books is that both its narrators are completely devoid of any sympathetic characteristics, and both of them believe in relating the action by way of the “tell, don’t show” school of writing***. Conflicts and plot points are rushed and one-sided. The work’s flaws turn out to be an inadvertent blessing as readers are forced to endure:

-A rogue alien geneticist, who is sadistic and depraved (and we know this because we are point-blank told it by the narrator) is regarded as a leading light in earth psychiatry because he preaches that sex is evil, electroshock and lobotomies should be routine medical procedures, and pregnant women are so morally corrupt that they can only be redeemed by death.

-The narrator rapes two lesbians straight (only after being driven to it because they withheld his salary, and they bound him and tortured him extensively). These ex-lesbians love straight sex so much that they keep the narrator hostage in their home, insisting that he rape all their friends.

-One of the ex-lesbians “recruits” an underage girl who propels herself headlong into full depravity, eventually traveling from earth to the alien homeworld to turn all the children of the alien nobles and government officials into bisexual catamite thralls.

-The narrator is dazzled by a mysterious concubine who remains sexually distant and insists on making love with the lights off, and who is later revealed to be a man.

Every one of these sequences was a chore to read****. There are aliens, necrophilia, spaceships, bestiality, faster-than-light travel, sodomy, and erotic mutilation, all relayed in the most tedious fashion possible by a contrived narrator whose unconscious attempts to be funny are all too clearly conscious efforts on the author’s behalf.

While I am unable to discern the fine nuances differentiating satire and parody, I know that neither term apply to these books. I would instead describe them as a gross burlesque that thinks itself a madcap send-up of everything it perceives to be wrong with contemporary society. Big oil has a stranglehold on the planet. The wealthy have more power than governments. The public is gullible and willing to follow anyone with a slick message. When you include the book’s depiction of psychiatry as subverting the natural order of things to pursue a secret agenda, it begins to look less like a work of fiction and more like an extended soapbox rant.

Avoid this series, especially if you’re someone who can’t quit reading something until it’s finished.

*Specifically, others who need written warnings to keep them from doing things like giving the finger to a gang of bikers, selling drugs to grade schoolers, or licking electrical sockets.

**He changes to a secondary narrator for the last few books, for reasons that aren’t worth bothering to explain.

***My argument would be strengthened by actual quotes from the books, but I just can’t do it. I wouldn’t turn back through those pages for all the tea in China, black-market snack cakes in fat camp, booze at an Elks club meeting, etc.

****While it is fair to note that I have only chosen to highlight the most deviant sexual practices contained within the series, my counterpoint would be that there is little else in them that is memorable. All of the physical problems on Earth are solved by superadvanced alien techno-magic, leaving the hero and the narrator to grapple with Earth’s backwards cultural attitudes for the majority of the books.

Worst Book Misconception Ever: MAMista

PROTIP FOR PEOPLE WHO DO NOT SPEAK SPANISH: "Mamacita" and "Mamista" are two completely different terms, even though moderately filtered Google Image Search will deliver cheesecake photo results on the first page of the search results for both of them. The first is Spanish for "little mama," and the second is a shitty thriller by Len Deighton set in South America.

After misreading the title, I dug myself into a deeper hole by barely skimming the jacket copy, which mentioned Graham Greene. I always get Graham Green confused with Evelyn Waugh (don't ask), so I expected something like Scoop crossed with Our Man in Havana. The garish cover didn't help. It made me think of South American hijinks on par with a novelization of Club Paradise, where a plucky band of misfits topple a corrupt government and free a country from the yoke of big business, with wacky adventures and possible comedic subplots involving fake pregnancies, subverted gender roles, and mistaken identity.

I was very, very wrong. By the time I figured it out, it was easier just to finish the book. SPOILER ALERT Here's what happened:

The male lead? Dead.

The love interest? Dead.

The guerillas? Ultimately losing a war of attrition on two fronts against the government and the untreated afflictions of the pestilential rainforest, presumed dead.

The two Americans abducted in a guerilla raid? The civilian grinds up his eyeglasses and swallows the shards, dying a slow, agonizing death from internal bleeding. The other one, an undercover CIA agent, also ends up dead.

The idealistic college student who traveled to the country with dreams of helping the marxist revolution? Dead.

The enterprising South American who uses the student's ID to return to the states? Tracked down and killed in the hospital by mobsters because the student skipped town while owing huge debts to a loan shark.

I think the only people who don't die are the President of the United States and his aide, who are spliced into the end of the story to make some point about politics ignoring human suffering and developed nations exploiting the life-and-death struggles of the third world for their own gain.

This was, hands down, the worst comedy about sassy latinas turning society upside down in a tinpot South American dictatorship that I have ever read.

LJ: A Crystal Healer Hit Me in the Groin

Energy healers are not all tie-dye and hemp stink; some of them have elegant, professional operations rivaling high-end psychiatrists' offices. I visited one in Germany. It figures that the analytical, mechanically-adept minds behind Krupp, Braun, and the Luftwaffe would come up with a way to engineer new age mysticism for wire-rimmed glasses and expensive leather.

A friend took me to see the healer because I had a substance1 abuse problem. Everyone should visit an energy healer at least once, especially if the consultation is in a language you don't speak. It's a lot easier to keep from giggling in the face of the more... exotic claims when you can tell yourself it's just a bad translation. This healer owned a spa shop (think "Teutonic Bath and Body Works3") and ran her practice from a private office decorated in earth tones and stainless steel.

I didn't pay attention during the boring parts and just focused on the pretty colors. Did you know that you can buy a bottle of oil and water4 that will attune itself to your energy field? Not only will it help you bring your elemental vibrations into balance, but once it synchs up with you it will display any health problems you're experiencing as impurities within its liquid. It's presumably cleaner and more accurate than filling a lava lamp with your own pee. As an added bonus, the crystal liquid can be drank, or rubbed into the skin, I think. (The translation wasn't too clear on those points, and I didn't press the issue.)

Another valuable diagnostic tool, I learned, is the Polaroid photograph. The visual image of you remains frozen in time, but your photographic aura keeps pace with your real-world aura, showing any changes in your condition. Why shouldn't it? It did steal a piece of your soul, after all. (Don't worry, It'll grow back.) This means that a skilled healer can diagnose your ailments (and take your money) without having you visit their office. The diagnostic accuracy of a disposable photo combined with the fees of a CAT scan means that everyone wins.

I knew that smiling during all of this would lead to uncontrollable giggling, so I just tightened up my jaw from time to time in an effort to keep a straight face. Occasionally I would add a thoughtful stroke of the chin, to take a moment to grapple with the profound universal truth that had just been revealed to me. Then we got to the diagnostic wand.

The wand is sensitive to the most minute disturbances, moving in response to aura disruptions/vital energy imbalances/gewurztraminertrinkeneffekts. Just like dowsing for gout5 or tapeworms instead of water or gold. Rather than a forked stick, we were going to be using a small knot of crystal girdled by a steel band the diameter of a Pepsi can, wobbling at the end of a long, narrow stalk.

Looking at the wand, I tried to appear calm, relaxed, and serious all at the same time. I sat in the diagnostic chair6 and braced myself for awesome.

None of us were surprised by the initial wobbling. I assumed that it was because my degenerate lifestyle had already done its damage to my energy field. As the scan progressed up my legs, the healer and I noticed a consistent pattern of disturbance, and probably both began to expect that the general level of disruption would remain constant across my entire person. That's when the business end of the wand, which packs a surprising amount of mass, whipped upwards and slammed down on my inner thigh, about half an inch shy of pulverizing my junk. I curled into the fetal position while a flurry of discussion broke out between the healer and my translator.

In a conversation between two Germans, I can't tell which one is apologizing and which one is issuing orders to invade Belgium, but I'm pretty sure that the strike was accidental. How can your clients balance their auras and tune their vibrations if you strap them into a chair and pound on their nutsack, right?

Things wrapped up pretty quickly after that. I left with a fistful of prescriptions and instructions to get the monkey off my back. I didn't really have the money to keep up with the full course of treatment over the long term, but I have gotten better at moderation7.

1. Sugar2

2. No, seriously, I was told I drank too much soda, so we were Doing Something about it.

3. BrodelnundQuƤlen GmbH.

4. With crystals mixed in.

5. Caused by urine crystals in the bloodstream, I might add.

6. Not unlike a dentist's chair, but I'm sure crystals were involved somewhere.

7. I'd love to shoehorn in some kind of punchline here about a single-payer healthcare system and how socialized medicine still lets the rich buy the treatments they deserve, but frankly, I'm just too lazy.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Tamquest Softcorp Games Reviews

You really should go and read this post at its original home at The Imaginary Review, but it has since stopped posting new material, and Bad Things can happen on the Internet. I'm re-posting it here in case anything happens to the original.

Tamquest Softcorp’s latest string of releases has hit the market, and I tore into their video games with a wild abandon not seen since Lindsay Lohan gave up drugs (wink, wink). Here are my first impressions of the new titles:

Grand Theft Ovary
In this sandbox-style game, players use their controller as a versatile suite of medical tools to perform surprise appendectomies, involuntary liposuction, and stealth bowel removal. Technically, it's well-executed. The sound effects have a certain squishy realism to them, while the graphics are well-rendered (I found myself liverjacking over and over just to see the animation one more time). Unfortunately, the gameplay is a little unbalanced--no matter how many malpractice alerts are outstanding against your character, abducting a single street urchin and selling his organs on the black market will earn more than enough money to bribe the medical board to return your doctor's license back to "untarnished" status. Some people might also see the game's freeform, sandbox style of play as lacking in plot.

Gordon Crampton's Chefwar 2KBwelve
For a fighting game that requires fast reflexes, the controls are disappointingly laggy. It took me several tries to get the timing down for the combo attack to julienne string beans, I can only mince chives about half the time, and I swear that you can only peel onions properly if you're double jointed. However, Chefwar 2KBwelve has a surprisingly detailed plot for a fighter, and the game has a certain flair that makes it unexpectedly enjoyable to clothesline the snooty maitre d' and bodyslam the overzealous health inspector. You should probably rent this game to see if your enjoyment of its varied arenas and fighting styles can overcome your frustration with its execution.

Barge Commander: Bonded Owner/Operator
In the tradition of Sid Meier’s Pirates and Port Royale, Tamquest has created a seaborne trading game that thrillingly combines bargain hunting at the dollar store on payday with a ten-hour drive across Nevada in a car with no air conditioning. As a Norwegian Sea Captain in 1932, Barge Commander has you choose the cargo, select the port of call, plan the crew roster, and stand watch in the most accurate, real-time depiction of steam-powered sea travel on the market. While it doesn’t have the same attention to detail as the EuropeanSimulators line of computer programs from Chipfat, it still shows a lot of attention to detail. Unfortunately, a graphics bug present in my copy made everything the color of creamed spinach until I could download a patch that restored the game’s full color palette--composed of nuanced shades of steel gray, overcast gray, slate gray, and slate grey that really made 20th century shipping lanes come alive.

In VirtualSweatshop, you run an American clothing factory in the legal grey zone of a U.S. protectorate. Players can choose whether to give their indentured "employees" a decent living wage and exert control over other factors in their lives including the frequency and duration of breaks during their 14-hour workday. It turns out that you actually can put a price on human misery, along with a "Made in the USA" label. This game has a pretty steep learning curve; although I quickly earned a production bonus by placing the machines for maximum efficiency, I kept killing my workers by subjecting them to heat stroke and not ventilating the building properly. The number of variables that have to be tracked in this game are staggering, including a separate exposure bar each one of over 30 different types of diseases and parasites, not counting workplace-induced health afflictions like "fluff lung" and "stitcher's finger." I found the game to be a little too complicated for my tastes, but this may appeal to more detail-oriented gamers, sim enthusiasts, and actuaries.

Grandma Dream Day
I’ll admit that at first I was skeptical about this response to the growing number of dating simulators out there. After all, it’s kind of a creepy premise, showering your grandchildren with gifts and taking them out to places like the zoo in a desperate attempt to gain their affection, but it won me over in spite of itself. The cute graphics did a lot to offset the weirdness factor of playing as an old person taking an almost unhealthy interest in children, and the end goal is to have them keep their parents (your children) from sending you to the "bad" nursing home, so it's for a good cause. There's a variety of trip destinations including movies, malls, and the circus (including an unlockable bonus trip to the World Extreme Competitive Still-Life Painting Finals), and all of the items you can buy have unique effects and influences. The game's special "randomizer" feature changes your grandchildrens' preferences so that it's never the same game twice (which proves to be just as well, since I had to play through to the ending 3 times before I ended up somewhere other than the home where orderlies duct tape you into bed and spray you with a garden hose).

Wall Street Wizard
Not much documentation came with Wall Street Wizard. After the installation completed and I opened the program, my boss called to tell me I was fired, the bank foreclosed on my house, and all my money burst into flames. I give this game points for realism, but question its play value.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Hungriest Games Journalist

You really should go and read this post at its original home at, but Bad Things can happen on the Internet, and I'm re-posting it here in case anything happens to the original.

Kevin VanOrd is an editor at Gamespot and syndicated videogame journalist, but he’s also a pretty hungry guy. That’s got to be the case, right? Because I can’t think of any other reason why someone would describe a game as "chewy." And yet he chews through three different games, telling readers about Opoona (a tale that "is a sweet, chewy morsel"), Eternal Sonata (describing the "soft, chewy center of the story"), and NiGHTS: Journey of Dreams (lauding the game's "warm, chewy center that's tough to resist").

VanOrd has been writing game reviews for several years now, and even Noah Webster is allowed a little repetition from time to time. As a journalist, VanOrd should also be given some artistic license to work a few metaphors into his columns when developing an overarching theme. That’s why he should be commended in his ability to turn a phrase and a stomach with this opening paragraph for his review of The Sims Carnival: SnapCity:

Sometimes, two unique flavors belong together, like peanut butter and bananas, or bacon and anything. Other flavors, like pickles and chocolate, are best left separated. And so we have The Sims Carnival: SnapCity, a little title that combines Tetris and SimCity into a weird casserole of boring, half-baked gameplay mechanics that will disappoint fans of either of those classics. Like a horseradish milkshake or herring cream pie, it's a curiosity you should leave others to experience.

What’s unique is the way that he can work food into even the most inedible concepts, like his discussion of Too Human, a cybernetic re-imagining of Norse myths. "The game does offer a few meaty moments," although it "drops a juicy plot development at the most inopportune time." It’s a shame that the designers didn’t realize that "a good narrative doesn't need to spoon-feed plot points to you," but fortunately "you'll still sometimes find morsels of that smooth groove so important to action RPGs."

He also finds NiGHTS: Journey of Dreams to be "deliciously vibrant" even if "some of the dialogue is simply cheesy." While he enjoys the game’s previously mentioned warm, chewy center, it appears to have been a little draining. All that chewing left him little energy to cope with some particularly bothersome level mechanics, although if they "were the exception rather than the rule, they would be easier to swallow."

VanOrd is no glutton. When it comes to Opoona, his appetite is quite limited. "The candy coating goes only so far, and tedious side missions and other frustrating elements sprinkle too much salt onto the sweetness. The first few bites of Opoona are scrumptious, but you'll be full in no time." And it’s snackably awful that "the in-game map (called a GPS here, which is as accurate as calling a fast-food burger patty a filet mignon) is no help at all." Fortunately for anyone interested in playing Opoona, "like that spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down, the game's adorable presentation makes it easier to stomach the bitter shortcomings."

His skill at merging the electronic and the edible may be most visible in his discussion of Eternal Sonata, where he discusses the "French Impressionist color palate and gorgeous lighting." His intentional misspelling of palette reminds us that the French are noted for both their painting and their cuisine, showing that Eternal Sonata is a feast for the eyes, even if the color saturation is "sometimes a little too Candy Land for its own good" and some of the voice actors "get too syrupy after a while."

VanOrd’s willful "palate swap" also occurs in his review of The Maw, where he notes that "like most sweet morsels, the pleasant feeling dissipates when the sugar leaves your system, and you’ll find your palette struggling to remembering [sic] the taste." Here we are taken in the other direction to see how a game that does not seize our imagination with arresting visuals can be as bland and flavorless as gum that has been chewed for a little too long. And with a game like The Maw, about a giant alien mouth with a voracious appetite, who could resist noting that "the gameplay doesn't have much bite"?

Unfortunately, I sometimes feel like VanOrd's writing is just a little too sophisticated for me, and his jokes go over my head. For example, when he discusses the function of a bon-bon in Opoona, he notes that "it's a floating ball that each sibling possesses (though in an ironic twist, sister Poleena has two of them)." Is the irony to be found in the stererotypical image of a fat housewife sitting on the couch eating bon-bons, suggesting that this game both employs and subverts that stereotype by showing a strong, confident woman using her bon-bons as tools of empowerment? Or is he talking about breasts?

Wait, I get it! It's a dick joke! The girl is the only character in the game with two balls! Well played, Mr. VanOrd, well played.

And with all this discussion of the many mouth-watering images that VanOrd brings to bear, I haven’t even touched on his repeated use of the phrase “half-baked,” a term that is practically industry shorthand. Which brings us back to chewy. VanOrd’s repeated use of the term from September 2007 to April 2008 suggests that it was part of a personal crusade to make it a new journalistic standard, but it never seemed to catch on. Perhaps describing games as chewy was kind of like The Sims Carnival: SnapCity. In VanOrd’s own words, "like an anchovy enchilada, it's an interesting idea that just didn't work out."

Luckily, VanOrd appears to be far from running out of other food-based metaphors to draw on. If they want this quality of work to continue into the foreseeable future, all Gamespot management needs to do is to keep him hungry.

For the record, Kevin responded quite graciously to this article, and I'm grateful for his ability to take a joke.