272: Jack Vance

This past month, I’ve been working my way through a collection of short stories and novellas by Jack Vance. Vance is a figure from the Golden Age of Science Fiction, a contemporary of Heinlein and Asimov, though perhaps not nearly as well known as the other big names. And that’s sad because I have been consistently amused by Vance’s stories.

What sets Vance apart is his prose. Vance plays with language, well suited to his fantastic worlds, but he makes it sound so natural and believable. There’s a certain fairy tale-like quality to his telling, more akin to Lord Dunsany than to bowdlerized children’s stories.  At times he approaches poetry in the way he goes about.

One thing I can say: Vance’s stories are meant to be read, all the better if aloud. They’re a marked contrast to more modern science fiction and fantasy, which often seen like TV scripts in way they rush through plot and characterization.  Vance, on the other hand, takes his time developing the story, so the words are meant to be savored.

271: Chibi Godzilla vs Chibo Motu

Emily made these toppers for the birthday cake of the son of a friend. (The same boy whose dinosaur we currently have as a guest in our house.) I’d say the likenesses are pretty spot-on. Kaiju fight ON!

270: Dinosaur vs Robot: Fight!

Emily brought home a toy dinosaur she was supposed to use for a cake. Said dinosaur was from the celebrant’s collection, G–, age 9. At the last moment there was a change in plans and poor dino didn’t get to go on the cake. Before we restore the saurian behemoth to its rightful owner, we decided to stage a battle with my space robot. Who wins? Stay tuned!

269: Catechist

Today I began in earnest my new career as catechist. My nephew J– and some of his classmates were due for first communion this December but owing to a scheduling conflict they were not able to join a catechism group. I volunteered to handle their preparation if the parish priest would allow it, and it turns out there was no objection. (I wasn’t even interviewed; I would have thought they would have screened catechists more vigorously.)

We actually started last week but only two students showed up, J– being one of them. We simply reviewed the traditional prayers which they already knew quite well. Today I finally had my full complement of six, and they were quite a handful. The oldest was eleven and the youngest was seven (I may have to have a chat with the lead catechist about that, if the age is appropriate.)

I didn’t want any namby pamby stuff and so I decided to go right to the heart of it, Jesus Christ. These first few weeks will be all about the life of Christ. As a guide, I used the Mysteries of the Holy Rosary. Today we went through the Joyful Mysteries, with me reading from excerpts from the Gospel of St. Luke to highlight each of the events. The kids were very smart and very receptive, picking up on the names of people and places very quickly. I gave each of them a rosary, with their first assignment to get it blessed by a priest.

Since time is short, I make it a point to ask at the start of each session: what are we here for? The answer being: to prepare for First Holy Communion. I then emphasize that Holy Communion is important because they are receiving Jesus Christ, and to receive Christ properly, they have to know him.s

I admit I’m a little tense about this endeavor. The time is pretty short and what’s more I’m going to have a gap of about a month next month (thankfully someone will take over.) I aim to cover the important bits after the life of Christ: the Creed, the Sacraments, Confession, and Holy Communion. By then, I hope they’ll be well equipped.

Adelante sin miedo!

268: A Bad Dream

thoughtexIt says something when the events of the day carry over into the sanctuary of your sleep. Last night, I dreamt I was in a taxi. We were stopped in the middle of the road at a checkpoint. Before I could object, a policeman had opened the door and entered the car. What followed after was a jumble, but it turned out to be something to the effect that they were not policemen after all but some private entity pretending to be the authorities. What do you make of that dream?

Truth be told, this relentless assault on our psyche is getting wearisome. Day in and day out, since May, we’ve been subjected to images of violence, threats of violence, gratuitous cursing, and the shameless braggadocio. This is no way to live. Deliver us from evil, Lord! Or if not that, let not the time of our trial be overlong, lest we break.

We’ve come to the point where it’s nigh impossible to be neutral. You either like this situation or you don’t. If you, like me, find this state of affairs intolerable, it’s because you cannot stomach the killings, the unstatesmanlike behavior, the breakdown of relations with international allies, the raw abuse of power against political enemies. If, on the other hand, you fall on the side of the die-hard supporters…well, I confess, I don’t understand you at all. To be honest, I don’t think I’ll like you much, either.

It makes me wonder how we have come to this. I can think of three reasons. First, the system of justice was already itself broken, selective and ineffectual. Second, gleeful mass media, so keen to show the system’s flaws in exchange for ratings, rendered citizens insensate to violence. And third, constant exposure to social media — that damned Facebook! — have divorced people from reality. In this make-believe world, morals don’t matter, only the loudest and most outrageous personality.

Yet for the life of me, I can’t help but think that all this violence, all this posturing, is simply smokescreen for something far more insiduous, a mere distraction. The mayor of the Philippines may project that he is in charge but — but! — look for the silences because they speak volumes. Who does he dare not offend? Who really runs things while he plays the sheriff? For all this talk of change, doesn’t all this look eerily and uncomfortably familiar?

267: So Many Monsters

It almost slipped my mind that there was just a hundred days to go before the end of this 366 project. Looking back on my tracks, I have managed to meet my self-imposed daily posting requirement, the occasional lousy network connection notwithstanding. The form, though, is falls short of what I had originally envisioned. I thought I’d be able to check in so many words — reviews, technical tutorials, and out-loud musings. It turns out there were more days when I’d just slap a photo on the page so I’d have something for the day. The simple fact is: I’m getting old and I don’t have the same fire and stamina to write. Still, I’m mighty glad of what I’ve put together.

266: Never Again

Martial Law, declared 44 years ago, plunged the country into a decade-long dictatorship. Hundreds dead, thousands tortured, the country living in fear. Poverty, rebellion, debt, cronies, military abuses. Twice I almost had my father taken from me. Never again to dictators. Never again.

265: Choice of Robots Review

These days I’ve been reading / playing Choice of Robots quite a lot. I picked it up on a free app deal from Amazon some time ago but I’d forgotten about it. After I resurrected my Kindle Fire, I rediscovered my stash of unused and unplayed apps, Robots among them.

For what is essentially a choose-your-own-adventure game, Robots is surprisingly complex and compelling. It gives some interesting insight on how to make an interactive fiction game and games in general. It’s still a story on rails — given the limitations of the medium, that can’t be avoided — but it’s amazing how it almost transcends those limits.

The story is divided into pre-set arcs. You start out as a graduate student building a robot. You then build a company or become a bum. War breaks out between the United States and China. From there, there are main paths that can result: conquer Alaska, join the robot revolution, marry a robot, or transcend humanity into the robot consciousness. These rails besides, what makes it interesting is the journey from one arc to the other. That journey consists of interactions with different characters and the consequences of choices that you make. Some playthroughs, the characters become friends, sometimes they become enemies, and sometimes they become lovers.

The game mechanic is driven to a large extent by stats. Your robot grows along four different characteristics: Autonomy, Military, Empathy, and Grace. The stats dictate the path the story takes. Likewise, you can develop or sour your relationship with the other characters, also leading to consequences and story paths. Finally, you can play the game as a sensitive humanist, a war freak, or a complete loon. This affects your Humanity quality.

What drives the replayability is the concept of unlockable achievements. Achievements happen when you reach key points in the game, like getting your robot to sing, or replacing your arm with a gun, or conquering the world. For an obsessive compulsive like me, it’s reason enough to keep trying. Gotta catch ’em all!

Robots is said to have a word count of 300,000. That’s quite impressive. Even more so is how seamless it all fits as a complete story. There are plenty of nods to popular culture, all of which adds to the flavor of the experience. Robots was written by Kevin Gold, a computer scientist. Excellent, excellent work.

Speaking of Humanity, it’s a quality that I feel is starting to dwindle among Filipinos. The other day, I heard an official of the Philippine Chamber of Commerce said that the murders committed in the name of the “drug war” was acceptable “collateral damage.” Or words to that effect. Today I read about a journalist for the Washington Post who was sent a profanity-ridden Facebook (that damned Facebook!) comment by someone was supposed to be medical doctor from Manila. And, of course, the farce in congress, drawing testimony from alleged ‘drug lords’ in exchange for immunity, all to pin down and discredit an opponent.

All this is really distressing news. Every day I feel closer to despair. There seems to be no way out of this, save for an Act of God. But really, my problem is the people around me. People have become so hateful.

For instance, I used to follow the Twitter posts of my fellow teachers in Ateneo. I have since broken off. When they talk about national events, there is a tone of smugness and of arrogance. There is now the lack of civility. These are people I do not want to associate with.

Likewise, I am saddened by the stance that Ateneo has taken of late. Partner for Change indeed. All the talk of advocacies for the environment, for indigenous peoples, for development — suddenly they seem so hollow. Moreover, there seems to be a lack of dissenting opinions coming from the university. It has been absorbed into the hive mind. No, I am sorry, I am not going back.

It seems the coward’s way out, but as I wrote a month ago, when this madness was just starting, I said my strategy would be to hunker down and immerse myself in reading philosophy and literature. Taking stock now, I think it’s still the right strategy. The Philippines has gone mad and tragically Davao is at the forefront. There’s no arguing with fanatics, so my strategy is to insulate and innoculate, to hold fast to what is good, and to save my Humanity. Certainly I hope there will be enough to pass on for when we wake from this nightmare.

264: Confession of Murder Review

Last night we went to watch Confession of Murder, a part of this year’s Korean Film Festival. Quick summary: two years after the fifteen-year statute of limitations on his last murder has lapsed, the alleged serial killer surfaces to confess to his crimes. The confession is by way of a tell-all book, received to much media acclaim, with the serial killer even gaining the adulation of fans. The relatives of his victims, though, are planning their revenge and the police detective who was chasing after him isn’t about to let go.

Confession prompted me to look up if indeed there was such a statute of limitations on murder in South Korea. It turns out this is indeed the case. Moreover, I learned that there was also a series of murders in Hwaseong from 1986 to 1991. This movie takes inspiration from that incident, though in real life the murderer was never caught.

As to the movie itself: while the opening, a chase between the detective and the serial killer, was certainly thrilling, after a while all the relentless action interspersed with melodrama became silly. The police procedural part reminded me of an episode of Phoenix Wright. The action scenes took inspiration from The Matrix and Bourne Identity. The capers were reminiscent of Mission Impossible and Ocean’s Eleven. When the camera focused on the serial killer, it seemed like they were channeling Silence of the Lambs. The chase scenes reminded me of Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner.

Still, the movie was quite entertaining so it makes up for its own excesses in that regard.

263: Flood

The torrent came heavy and unexpected, accompanied by lightning and thunder. All the while we were oblivious because we were in the mall. Another rumble came and I thought: perhaps they were moving heavy equipment? But then came the unmistakable rattle of rain on the roof. From one of the ceiling lamps on the top floor, a steady stream of water began to flow. Unfazed, we went on with dinner.

When we left the restaurant, we saw the extent of the damage. The floor of the third floor was spattered with water. The lady at the Potato Corner stall looked glumly over the railing. I followed her gaze and saw that at several places the ceiling had sprung leaks. Down below, on the atrium, a maintenance man positioned buckets to catch the water. Too late, the stream had soaked two of the Chan Lim paintings on display. What a disaster!

We took the elevator down to the basement, intending to check on the car. But there, the damage seemed much worse. Water had risen a few inches in the basement office of an insurance company. Likewise, near the department store entrance, water had also pooled. The guards had their pant legs rolled up.

“No sense getting wet,” I told my wife. If the water had reached the car, there would be nothing we could do about it. We decided to go back up to wait out the rain. Surprisingly, the basement parking was relatively dry as I found out later when I went by the exit on the opposite side. The water, it seemed, was limited to the shopping areas.

These past two days I have been severely bummed out. The spark was the senate hearing last Friday. I had studiously avoided listening to the broadcasts or even reading about the testimony, but still I got snippets. But already the coverup was at work. From Facebook — that damned Facebook! — I heard sniggers: “Ah, yes, we know that guy, he’s from Samal. He’s a liar, don’t believe him!” and “Yes, he’s a hired gun, all right, but strictly small time.”

All this pushed me close to the edge of despair. Have we become so callous that we’re no longer disturbed by these types of revelations? Perhaps the testimony may have a tinge of exaggeration, perhaps the witness is a plant for one side or the other, perhaps this is just another power play at the senate…. And yet, by the very fact that we can immediately think of these scenarios as a way to avoid the real issues — the existence of government-sponsored hit squads and the very real possibilities of heinous acts — this just shows that we have lost our sense of shock. This is normality for us. We can be resigned to the fact that we may never know the truth behind all this, maybe that even we don’t want to know. Worse yet, we can laugh all it off.

Last night, though, I received an unexpected email from a former student. He wrote me because, like me, he was disturbed at how easily such testimony could be written off. He was disgusted. The email was long because I think he wanted to vent. The email added to the oppressive weight, though I found some comfort that I was not alone in my views. I wrote back a short note of encouragement. It was all that I could do.

How will history judge Davaoenos? You look around, there’s hardly any visible dissent, no sign of shock or discomfort. There’s no vocal criticism because any such is silenced by the trolls on social media, said trolls perhaps being your own friends. The Church is silent, the universities are silent, the media is silent, Davao civil society is silent. We have accepted wholesale murder as the new normal because, of course, the victims were criminals to begin with and its for the good of society. But the truth will out, sooner or later.

“What have you done? Listen! The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground!”

When that time comes, history will ask: “why have you remained silent?”