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Friday, August 24, 2018

Achivement Unlocked: Fiction Writer!

The biggest regret I've had as a writer, for all of this time, is that I've never been able to compose real narrative fiction.  Screenplays for film projects?  Those have been no problem to sit down and churn out.  But for something even so rudimentary as a short story?

That has eluded me.  It has been sealed away behind a concrete wall and I've been pounding away at it for decades, trying to grasp that arrow to place in my quiver.  And the wall wasn't yielding a centimeter.

Why wasn't it possible?  Nonfiction has never been an issue.  I've always been in my element in regard to exploring ideas and articulating musings upon them.  Fiction however...

I've some thoughts about why that has been.  And it correlates with the bipolar disorder I've had since at least 2000, and with some other matters that only in recent months have come to light.

So maybe that I was able to write my first ever short story two weeks ago is not just a threshold moment in my life, it is a benchmark for an even greater progress.  For how far I have come in the two years since I packed up the car and headed out into America with my dog.  But especially for the better part of this past year.  And there have been some remarkable people who have helped me along, to get to this place I hadn't thought possible.  And I'm hoping sooner than later that can be a tale to be shared.

A few friends have read the first short story.  Two of them said that the ending of it brought them to tears.  Some have suggested that I've been writing fiction all along and had never told anyone.  As if!

In the past few weeks I've begun writing a second short story.  And a one-act play.  And have had ideas for other works of fiction.  No, not a novel.  Not yet.  Let's take small steps toward the bigger stuff.  But they are coming.  And then I'll have to figure out what to do with them.  The play is something that would be neat to see produced on stage.  The notion of making a short film of it has crossed my mind but this... seems more suited for a live performance.  Or maybe I'll make the film after its stage debut.

So anyhoo, that is why I've been a bit slack in blogging lately.  The wall has been toppled and the arrow seized, and I've been spending time getting a feel for it.  Like a fledgling taking first flight.  And time will tell how far I can fly with this.  I'm praying that it might be very far, indeed.

Incidentally, for those wondering: neither the finished story nor the pieces in the works are in the genres of science-fiction or fantasy.  So far these are entirely within the scope of our real world.  And I don't know if I ever will try science-fiction.  Good sci-fi is a tough genre to write.  And the ones I would most be inspired by are the masters like Robert A. Heinlein and Philip Jose Farmer.  Writers who used their work to delve into ideas, and not project ideology.  Too much of the science-fiction in recent decades has been driven by agendas... and that's not my style.  But to use science-fiction as a vehicle for conveying ideas and concepts of the human condition?  That would be not just another arrow, but a silver one.

So if there are periods during which I seem absent or negligent about The Knight Shift: take heart!  I am merely exploring a new area of my abilities, and I'm looking forward to sharing those also in the fullness of time.

Until then, I will share one piece of new fiction with all two of my faithful readers!  And yes it is a work of fantasy and not only that but it's a Star Wars short story!  I doubt that Lucasfilm will be adding it to the official body of lore however.  But do consider this to be my small and humble attempt to bridge the gap between the Expanded Universe fans and the adherents of the new canon.  Because as the song says, "Why can't we be friends?"

Here it is.  A teaser of what's to come.  Or perhaps a grim harbinger.  Click to embiggen and enjoy(?)...

Thursday, August 09, 2018

Lesser-known executive orders of President Trump

As everyone knows, Donald Trump wasted no time in getting to work signing executive orders once he was seated in the Oval Office.  And we all saw the pics of him putting them into effect.  However most aren't aware of a few of the orders he issued after his inauguration.

Fortunately, you're in luck!  Because though I had completely forgotten about these until last night, I was in San Diego when Trump took office and was making sure to thoroughly document the early days of his administration.  So here, for what may be the first time for many Americans, are some of the other EOs that President Trump immediately moved upon...

The "No Celluloid Left Behind" Act:

Bringing whole new meaning to "pork barrel politics":

Just putting into law something we already knew:

Even President Trump's WORST opponents must surely be applauding his wisdom on this one:

He got this one through.  Unfortunately the Senate didn't confirm Dr. Demento as United Nations ambassador:

"We're making reboots, and they're gonna be yuuuuge, and they're gonna be beautiful."

"Hail to the king, baby."

It was a great job, until I was expelled from the country 48 hours later...


Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Do Not Pass Go: An evening with the world's oldest board game

One movie that has particularly stuck with me has been Pi.  Darren Aronofsky's first film hit theaters twenty years ago this summer and fast became a sensation.  Especially among mathematicians, who for the first time had a taut psychological thriller of their very own!

A quick and dirty synopsis of Pi: Max is a math prodigy since childhood and has become obsessed with finding an ordered pattern within the stock market.  What he comes across is far bigger and has him targeted by everyone from corrupt corporate agents to Hassidic Jews (just watch it, it does make sense).  Anyhoo, there are a few scenes where Max goes to visit his old mentor Sol.  And those are some of the best-written and finest played scenes of the entire film (YouTube clip with some spoilers).  But one thing had bugged me since the first time I saw Pi...

"What the heck is that game they keep playing?"

Okay, I knew it was called "go" because that's what Max and Sol referred to it as.  And it held great fascination with Sol, especially when he spoke of it as being "a microcosm of the universe".  Obviously something deeper going on here than simply putting what looked like Mentos and Peppermint Patty candy across an empty wooden Mercator projection.  And when I rewatched Pi again recently, once again I found myself wondering what go is.

So as with most things new to me, I yielded to curiosity and looked further.

Turns out, go is old.  Like, really old.  It was first played in China around 500 B.C.  And it is the oldest continuously played board game in known history, or at least played with the consistently same rules.  Backgammon can still claim to be the oldest board game.  The problem is, what we today know as "backgammon" comes down from earlier games that we still don't know very much about their rules.  The sets exist, including those "of ancient Mesopotamia" with dice made of bone that Locke told Walt about in the very first episode of Lost.  But in all likelihood the favorite pastime of the Oceanic 815 survivors bears little resemblance to whatever those archaeologists pulled out of the ground.

And besides, backgammon has just a few checkers to move around the board.  Making the game be go might have presented logistical problems and inhibited the story flow a tad.  I'm gonna assume that Locke, aficionado of games that he is, is familiar with go.

The game has had many names over the centuries, and it has regional monickers in China and South Korea (and hopefully North Korea also) but for most of the modern world it's called "go".  And interestingly the Japanese word for it is "atari", which is also a term used during a game (we'll get to that soon).  And when Nolan Bushnell was coming up with a name for his new video game company, he thought that "Atari" fit well with his guiding vision.

Bizarrely however, there was never a go game for the Atari 2600.  We got that horrid-sounding Pac-Man port and turkeys like Custer's Revenge and Porky's... but a cartridge for the company's namesake?  It never happened.

But let's not digress.

Anyway, after a few weeks of playing around with a go app on my iPad Pro and looking at resources on the Intertubes about the game, I decided it was time to plunge in headlong and experience go for myself.  To have a go at go.  So last night I went out to go.  And when I came back I had gone and went back from go.

Wait... what were those Korean names for this again?

The website for the American Go Association has a massive list of local go clubs.  I found one near my present location and showed up at their weekly gaming session.  Go, I was told, is still not a terribly big game in the United States and much of the western world, but it has been steadily growing in popularity over the past few decades.  Movies like Pi are probably a reason (just as Dungeons & Dragons has been resurging with a vengeance since Stranger Things debuted a couple years ago).  There were three regulars who arrived around 6 in the evening in the side room of a nearby restaurant, and since go is a two-player game all four of us could be playing.

So, about go.  Very simple game.  The board is a grid of lines.  A full-size standard game is a 19 by 19 grid but those who are beginnners or just want a short game can play with a 9 by 9 board.  There are two sets of playing pieces, called stones.  One set is white, the other is black.  Each player takes a color and beginning with black, proceeds to place stones at the intersections on the grid.  The stones don't move as the pieces in chess or checkers can.  They just stay on the board.  Unless they are removed.  Because the object of go is to possess the most territory at the end of the game.  "Territory" being measured by the exposed intersections around the stones.  Each stone on its own has four of these intersections, called "liberties".  And if a stone gets surrounded on all four of its liberties by the opposing player, that stone is taken off the board and figured into the final score.  It's not about seizing the other player's stones however.  That's just one part of the greater scheme to get territory.

It all boils down to one color of stones getting more coverage on the board than the other.  And it's a ridiculously simple conceit.  But as I am coming to discover through both talking about the game with others and my own meager experience thus far, go is much, much deeper than a mere board game.  The ancient Chinese considered it an essential element of philosophical training for all true gentlemen.  Confucius wrote much about go.  It is a game, a practice of logic, an exercise in intuition, an introspection of one's being... all of these and more, all at once.

Go is a game steeeped in ancient tradition.  It is something that many approach with the trappings of ritual.  Go is a game of legend and go games have become legend themselves.  A particularly infamous match in the 1800s ended with a player keeling over bleeding on the board before dying.  Other games have gone on for months, even years.  And then there is what has come to be hailed as "the Atomic Bomb Go Game": a championship match that was well underway in Hiroshima on the morning of August 6, 1945.  "Little Boy" detonated a few miles away, the blast blew out the windows of the house and knocked one of the players off his feet, and the board had to be reset to where the stones were at the moment of the explosion.  All present did these things after going outside the house to see what happened.   They beheld the first mushroom cloud in the history of warfare, then went back inside to continue the game.  They took a break for lunch and later that afternoon the game was finished.

I dont know how else to put it: that is total bad-ass.  I dare anybody tell me that go isn't absolutely hardcore.  Now THAT is a game I wanna be hunkered down with come the apocalypse!

Well, let's get to my first game of go, last night...

You know how when you're like seven or eight years old, and when Thanksgiving dinner comes all the adults sit at the real table while you and your sister Sally and cousin Oliver and the rest of the kids were around that card table in the corner?  Well, that's how it was sorta like for me yesterday evening.  Starting out on the 9 by 9 board.  But it's all well and good, because I had a great instructor in Brendan, who described the game and how to play it far better than I can for now.

One cool thing about go is that there is a handicapping gimmick that lets everybody play against everybody else regardless of individual skill level.  So even if you're a greenhorn like me, you don't have to get into a flopsweat as if you were playing chess against Kasparov.

Brendan has been playing for a few years now.  Mike, another player who came last night, has been into go for over thirty years.  Leo, the fourth to arrive, has been playing for a decade or so.  And if you want to see what go looks like with two seasoned veterans full-bore into a game...

Something that struck me about this game: it's sense of being an organic experience.  Look at that board, in the game between Mike and Leo.  It starts off empty, but the "feel" of moment, of the session, of the stones and of whatever fancy goes across their minds... what starts as an empty board becomes like a living, breathing organism.  And it merits considering that the total number of possible games of go are more than there are subatomic particles in the observable universe!  I already knew that was the same for chess.  Well, the number of possible go games is exponentially larger than that.

Think about it.  I dare ya.  Think about that until you go crazy.  No wonder there was never an Atari cartridge for this game.  Because even today computers find it exceptionally difficult to replicate the go experience.  They can only somewhat approximate it.  To really "get" go, you have to play it against another human, either in person or via the Internet.

Anyway, Brendan became the first person I ever played an actual game of go with, and he was just as I hoped he would be: merciless and unforgiving at least so far as the rule about "a stone laid is a stone played" goes.  Because the best way to learn to play the game, is to PLAY the game just as its meant to be played!  Okay, he encouraged me to take a mulligan in the first of the two games we played, but that was to illustrate something I hadn't seen yet.  Otherwise, a lot of my stones wound up "in atari": the condition of being surrounded on three sides by the opponent and just one stone away from capture.  I missed seeing a lot of stuff on the board that should have been screamingly obvious.  Brendan told me he was much the same when he began.  That a person gets better at this as he or she plays go more and more.

Speaking of "atari", sometimes there's a weird event that happens when the players could be locked into an eternal see-saw of capturing each other.  That's called "ko" and it can lead to a "ko battle" (or as Mike put it, "a gentlemanly hockey fight").  Fortunately there's a rule for that, and if the players get trapped into that situation one has to make a move that's beyond the ko, and that could prove advantageous.  Again, go is a game of both logic and intuition.  With a heavy emphasis on the latter.

Well, by the time I departed for the evening Brendan and I had played two games of go.  The score of my very first game ever had me losing 44 to 4.  The second game though went a bit better.  I still got clobbered 33 to 7... but at least I did capture one stone that night!

And this is how Leo and Mike's board looked like at the end of their game:

Go games don't have a "definite" ending.  They go on until one player resigns, or each player takes a passing turn, or I suppose until they just plain run out of stones.  Or maybe they could add a new rule like they do with Monopoly and how the bank doesn't actually run out of money, you just get to use slips of paper or whatever else is on hand.  And that is likely the only contribution I'll ever make to a grand game deep in millennia of lore and virtue.

And that was my first time playing go.  And I've no doubt that I am just beginning.  This is a game that has serious appeal to me.  I'm looking forward to playing again, and trying to improve.  Something that nobody ever fully masters, I was told.  It's like golf: you can never completely comprehend this game, you can only keep getting better.

Much like how life is supposed to be, aye?

So if you want to have a go at go (no more puns, I promise!) one particularly good resource I've visited often is the American Go Association website.  There is a rather whimsical little tutorial at TigersMouth.org that will teach you the game better than I ever could.  The American Go Association site has links to merchants that sell go equipment: boards, bowls, stones (which can be made of plastic, glass, clamshell, pretty much most materials but probably not Play-Doh or chicken soup).  You may be able to find inexpensive go sets at your friendly local game store or book seller.  I've seen then priced anywhere from about thirty bucks on up to thousands of dollars... and that's just for the board itself.

But yeah, I'm probably going to play more of this.  Go seems to have a really good community around it, and quite a diverse player base.  And I can't help but think that in time, though it may be decades from now, it's going to become as popular among Americans as is already chess, checkers, and Cards Against Humanity!

Monday, August 06, 2018

So ummmm... a letter from President Trump arrived...

Several months ago, following a mass shooting incident and some remarks he had made about mental illness, I composed a letter to The Honorable Donald J. Trump, President of the United States.  In the letter I shared some understanding that I, as a person with bipolar disorder, have come to discover.  Namely, that mental illness is a condition of the mind, and not the heart.  Over much of the past year especially I have worked alongside many who also have varying types of mental illness.  Not one of them is a person I would ever consider to be a danger to others.  But I also do realize that there is a stigma, and maybe it will be with us for a long time still.  And I suppose there is little that just one guy with a blog can do about that.

Even so: bipolar disorder has wrecked havoc with my neurobiology.  But it can't touch my soul.  That's something still left as a choice to each of us.  We decide whether we will take the path of good or bad with each new day.  And that is what defines us... and no matter what is beyond our control within our grey matter.

Well, it took awhile for me to receive it - because your Friend and Humble Narrator has been busy with stuff here and yonder - but late in June a letter from President Trump arrived, and in it he addressed many of the matters that I was attempting to bring to his attention.  He doesn't touch upon the thoughts I conveyed about mental illness not affecting moral choice, but neither do I get the sense that it was entirely a "form letter" either.  Somebody in the White House read it, and sent it to President Trump's desk for his signature.  More than likely he has written letters about several issues and the one most appropriate for the situation gets used.  Not that I would blame the guy.  Nor can I blame him for the late reply.  I mean, hey... he's the President of the United States!  Dude's got a lot on his plate.  But it's still quite nice to get a response with his signature on it.

Anyway, here it is.  With my current location smudged beyond any reasonable ability to deduce my whereabouts:

Part of me wondered if I should post this without asking for President Trump's permission first.  Then I rembered how busy he is and that it took eight months to get this letter!  I'm gonna assume that it's okay with him.

Anyhoo, Mr. President, if you're reading this: Thank you.  And your concerns and beliefs on the matter are greatly appreciated.