Blood, Sweat, and Pixels by Jason Schreier – A Must-Read for Passionate Gamers

As an avid video gamer, this book has been an incredible read from start to finish. It is a collection of stories behind how videos games are made. The author – also the news editor at Kotaku.com where I visit on a daily basis – has interviewed hundreds of people. Some officially. Others unofficially. Some games are triumphant. Others not.

While each video games are created under very different circumstances, there are common themes within. It is art meets science where the scope, timeline, and cost is just as fluid. How much detail should be put into a video game? How large and how many maps should that be? How many times the storyline has to be rewritten? Is the game fun? Can the game afford another delay knowing that the extra time would help with the bug fixing but the company would miss the fiscal year financial target? And etc. Above all, I can feel the passion of the game developers within each game title. The various challenges they face.

This book features 10 games. Some are big-budget titles. One is very much a one-man show. Each has its own distinct ending. It is true blood, sweat, and pixels.

  1. Pillars of Eternity – I have recently discovered that I have a copy in my Steam account!
  2. Unchartered 4 – Heard about it. But I don’t have a next-gen console.
  3. Stardew Valley – Never heard of before reading this game. I have added this to my Steam wishlist.
  4. Diablo III – One of my favorite games of all time. I am still playing it. I have read this chapter twice.
  5. Halo Wars – Heard about it. But I don’t have a XBox.
  6. Dragon Age: Inquisition – I have played Dragon Age: Origin. Love it. But I read that Dragon Age 2 is a disappointment. So I have avoided Inquisition. Or BioWare in general.
  7. Shovel Knight – I have seen it featured in Steam often. Still not really into its concept.
  8. Destiny – Very interesting read. Mainly because I have planned to pre-purchase Destiny 2 (PC).
  9. The Witcher 3 – Also a very interesting read. I have purchased the first two installments but still yet to find the time to play. Who knows? One day I may play The Witcher 3.
  10. Star Wars 1313 – Never heard of. Because it was meant for consoles.

Geisha, A Life By Mineko Iwasaki

Geisha, A Life

Geisha, A Life is an eye opener. My understanding on geisha is very limited. Mostly come from that movie Memoirs of a Geisha, which ironically is a story inspired by the author of this book. But according to Mineko Iwasaki, the author of that memoirs has twisted her story so much so that it is only right that she publishes an autobiography to set things straight. Geisha, A Life is indeed an inspiring read.

So, set the record straight we shall, on what this book is not about.

… I accumulated many more hanadai than time units worked. Every night. I don’t have the exact figures, but I believe I was earning about $500,000 a year. This was a good deal of money in 1960s Japan, more than that earned by the presidents of most companies. (It is also the reason the notion that geiko perform sexual favors for their clients is so ridiculous. With this much income, why would we?)

At the age of five, Mineko was spotted as the successor of a house (and to carry that house’s surname). By then, her father has already sent some of her elder sisters to be maiko (young dancer or “woman of dance”) and eventually to be a geiko (“woman of art” – a specific term versus geisha as “artist”). Hence, her father was reluctant to give up Mineko – the youngest child – to be a successor.

My father introduced us.

She kept looking at me but addressed my father. “You know, Mr. Tanaka, I have been looking for an atotori (“one who comes after” or successor) for a long time and I have the oddest sensation that I may have just found her.”

I had no idea what she was talking about. I didn’t know what an atotori was or why she needed one. But I felt the energy in her body change.

It is said that a person who has the eyes to see can penetrate to the core of a person’s character, no matter how old that person might be.

In the end, Mineko has made the decision to leave her home (at the age of five) and live in the house that groomed her to be a maiko and later on a geiko. She has gone through intensive training on dance, music, comportment, calligraphy, tea ceremony, and flower arrangement as a child prior to her debuting as a maiko.

As someone who is foreign and intrigued about Japanese culture, the amount of discipline and practice one has to endure is astonishing. The author did not seem to have taken a day off during her childhood. Everyday was a training day. And as soon as she has debuted at the age of fifteen, she did not seem to have a break at all (except when she was hospitalized).

I felt compelled to work as much as humanly possible. It was the only way I was going to become Number One. I was in and out of the house so often that the family nicknamed me “the homing pigeon”. Each night I entertained at as many ozashiki as time would allow. I didn’t get home until one or two in the morning. My schedule was in total violation of the Child Labor Laws, but I wanted to work and didn’t care.

One day I was attending a kimono fashion show at a department store. I wasn’t dressed as a maiko, so was able to let down my guard that extra little bit. I was so exhausted that I feel sound asleep on my feet. But I didn’t close my eyes. They were wide open.

In fact, this career of her has gone on till she was 29, at the height of her career before her sudden retirement. During her career, she was the very essence Japanese beauty and tradition. She has met foreign royalties and delegates. She has met many renown artists and professionals. There were many struggles and there were tears and pain. But it has always been her passion and integrity that pulled her through the challenges. Kimonos. I had no idea that kimonos can be that elaborate until I have read this book.

This book Geisha, A Life is going to inspire. More importantly, it gives a glimpse of what geisha does that may not be what you thought it was.

Drucker: A Life In Pictures By Rick Wartzman

Drucker

Whenever I show this book to my friends around me, looking at the book title, the first reaction would often be, “Who is Drucker?  Could it be Peter Drucker?”

Indeed.  This is a photo book on the life of Peter Drucker.  Drucker was an Austrian-born American whose writings contributed to the foundations of the modern business corporation.  To quote from the author:

Drucker discerned some of the major trends and events of the twentieth century before almost anyone else spotted them: the Hitler-Stalin pack, Japan’s impending rise to economic power, the shift from manufacturing to knowledge work, the increasing importance of the service factor, the fall of the Soviet Union. “Peter Drucker’s eyeballs,” Harvard University’s Rosabeth Moss Kanter once marveled, “must contain crystal balls.”

Drucker: A Life in Pictures has done a good job in painting a picture of who Drucker was.  He was a teacher and was used to give lectures in universities.  He was a management consultant, worked with Jack Welch of GE and Donald Keough of Coca-Cola as well as other other large corporations like P&G.  He was a counsel for the government and had corresponded with the White House.  He was an adviser to the social-sector.  His wife and he took a deep interest in Japan after their first visit.  His books have been published in more then 40 languages.  Druker has played a role in educating the world on the development of management.  In his mind, he was always a writer and his legacy is his writing.  Of the 39 books of his, two-thirds of these books were written after he had reached his mid-sixties.

Interviewer: If you describe your occupation, would it be “writer”?

Peter Drucker: I always say I write.

Interviewer: What, then, has inspired your books more than anything?

PD: The same thing that inspires tuberculosis.  This is a serious, degenerative, compulsive disorder and addiction.

Interviewer: An addiction to writing?

PD: To writing, yes.

Drucker: A Life in Pictures is perhaps one of the more unique books I have reviewed.  While written by Rick Wartzman – executive director of the Drucker Institute at Claremont Graduate University, the photographs are by Anne Fishbein, curated by Bridget Lawlor.  A majority of graphic content comes from letters and memos, certificates and handwritten notes – all of which reveal a personal insight on one aspect of Drucker that may be less familiar to the readers.  At the beginning of each chapter, there is a brief interview, which further illustrates a personal side of Drucker.  Reading through the book is like  journeying through a museum in my own pace.  A recommended read for those who wish to know more about Peter Drucker.

Hardcover: 192 pages
Publisher: McGraw-Hill; 1 edition (January 15, 2013)
ISBN-10: 0071700463
ISBN-13: 978-0071700467

Neon Angel, A Memoir Of A Runaway By Cherie Currie – A Reread

I read this book ... again.

Very recently, I have imported a new Kindle from Amazon.  I looked through the Kindle eBooks on sales (I always love a good discount be it as video games via Steam or books).  I saw Neon Angel selling at a very reasonable price.  Somehow, I have a feeling that this is going to be a good book.  So I bought it online in a heartbeat.

Of course it is a good book.  I have read it three years ago.  A library copy it was.  I should have checked my website first before buying any books.  Since I have already started rereading it, why not finish the book and see how I feel about it without reading what I wrote three years ago?  Our perception is often affected by our maturity and experiences.  Would I read this any differently?

You may have watched the movie The Runaways.  If you haven’t, here is a quick introduction.

The Runaways was an American all-girl rock band formed in the 70’s.  In 1975, Cherie Curries was recruited into the band at the age of 15 as the lead vocalist.  While Cherie’s involvement with The Runaways lasted only 2 years, it would appear that she has played an important role in the band’s breakthrough and success.  Upon Cherie’s departure, guitarist Joan Jett continued to be the driving force behind the band, together with Sandy West the drummer and Lita Ford the lead guitarist.  But by 1979, the band was officially dissolved.  All four core members continued their solo careers with Sandy died of cancer in 2005.

Neon Angel is a self-biography written by Cherie Currie.  Like most autobiographies, it is hard to tell facts from fictions.  However, the emotion as described in the book appears to be genuine.  There is no bar held on the high’s and low’s that Cherie has experienced in her two years with The Runaways and the decade thereafter, dealing with the aftermath of stardom.

Raped at the age of 15 by her twin sister’s ex-boyfriend, Cherie was acted as an outcast in school, brought up in a dysfunctional family with her beloved daddy moving to another state, and later, her mother remarried and migrated to Indonesia.  Just imagine taking all these in as a 15 years old.  It would not have been easy.  Back in the 70’s – in the era of sex, drug, and rock & roll – David Bowie was Cherie’s idol.  His music was her salvation.  There was so much angst inside so much so that she was the perfect fit for a all-girl rock band as the embodiment of rage and rebellion.  She was the Cherie Bomb, the sex symbol.

The drama escalated after Cherie has joined the band.  There was constantly in-fighting within the band.  The tension between Cherie and her twin sister Marie was getting higher and higher.  Their alcoholic father did not help the situation.  There were early signs of drug use and substance abused.  And then another rape, which was much brutal than the previous one.  It seems to me that throughout her 2 years career with The Runaways and the few years after, Cherie has suffered much as a teenager.  Here are some excerpts from the book.

Something turned off inside of me that day.  Something inside of me snapped, and I stopped caring.  I never wanted to feel like that again, and so I began to learn how to shove those feeling deep, deep down inside of myself to a place where they could not hurt me anymore.  ~ After Cherie’s mother left the country refused to turn around and say goodbye.  Cherie was pinned down by a guard in the airport trying to cross the gate and catch up with her mother for one last time.

Last night I’d discovered what it felt like to be a rock star.  This morning I knew what it felt like to be a whore.  ~ Cherie’s band manager pimped her to a famous teenage idol for sex after her first big concert so as to generate publicity.  She was having a period that night.

Maybe [the doctor] was trying to be kind.  Maybe he didn’t want me to know [the sex of the unborn baby].  I knew for certain that a part of me was gone along with my unborn child.  I’d lost some vital part of myself in that hospital, and I felt instinctively that I would never get it back.  ~ This was after her abortion.  She was three months into her pregnancy while recording her album without even knowing it.

Funny, isn’t it?  After all the things that went on in the band, one of my strongest memories was such a small, quiet moment.  ~ The band was full of internal drama.  In one rare moment, lead guitarist Lita Ford complemented Cherie’s vocal performance during a recording session.

This nightmare went on for six hours.  I can’t even begin to explain what I went through.  It’s hard to tell another person some of the things that man did to me.  What I will say is that the terror, the horror, and the humiliation that he inflicted upon me were even worse than what I imagine hell to be like.  He hurt me with his fists, and with his body.  he did it again, and again, and again.  He thought nothing of hurting me.  Every time I screamed, and I cried, and I begged for mercy, and I bled or I passed out, he seemed to grow stronger, more hateful, more crazed by the lust and the sadism that fueled him.  As the night dragged on and my hellish ordeal continued into the breaking dawn, I came to the realization that this man was going to murder me as soon as he was finished torturing me.  ~ Cherie was kidnapped and brutally assaulted and raped by a man for six hours.  Eventually, the rapist was caught, trialed, and sentenced for one year in jail.

While most of the external events were out of Cherie’s control, the biggest demon turns out to be the one living within her – drug and alcohol abuse.  It has slowly destroyed her, destroyed everything that she has.  Majority of the book is a tragic recollection of a once upon a time rock & roll star and the price she has paid to get there.

Neon Angel is not without a moment of triumph.  Eventually, through persistence, Cherie Currie has emerged clean from drug.  She has constantly reinvent herself from a rock star to an actress, drug counselor for addicted teens and as a personal fitness trainer, and now a chainsaw craving artist who has her art gallery.  Looking back, would she want to change a thing?  This is answered in her afterword written years after the book was published.

Looking back on my life since that fateful day with my niece Cristina, I really see how truly blessed I am.  Many years have passed, we have orbited the sun more than 7,500 times and I have seen such extraordinary things, and had so many profound experiences that I could easily fill the pages of another book.  In the years since the Runaways I have lost some of my dearest friends, and I have reinvented myself time and time again.  But through it all, the wonderment and personal triumph that emerges from the emotional depths I have experienced leave me knowing I wouldn’t have changed a thing.

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Now that you have read the book summary written in 2013, you may wish to click here to read the one that was written in 2010.

Jerusalem: The Biography By Simon Sebag Montefiore

A biography on Jerusalem from 160 BC till modern day.

I did not think that I could finish reading Jerusalem: The Biography – a history book thick as a dictionary.  But I did.  All thanks to the author’s entertaining writing style in presenting the history of Jerusalem from 160 BC to present time.  For majority part of the book, it reads like George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones.  History is so full of blood and gore, scandalous sex and money, politics and betrayal, and bribery of all sorts.  It is hard to imagine that within a tiny city called Jerusalem, so many times she has fallen to different rulers, her people have been massacred for so many centuries.  At times I wonder: What would God think of all these?  Religions can be such a torment to our human race.

I have always been intrigued by the history of the three monotheistic religions namely Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, as well as the history of Israel and her people.  I have read books written by Karen Armstrong.  My immense interest to this topic perhaps leads to my UK blogger friend Jo’s personal recommendation of this book to me.  Her review of Jerusalem: The Biography can be found in here.  As always, her write-up is not to be missed.

Reading Montefiore’s Jerusalem, in parts, very much like reading Armstrong’s Holy War.  In Karen Armstrong’s Holy War, she wrote about the crusades and their impact on today’s world.  It is a book with a history encompassing the three religions stretches from 1095 AD to present time.  From the historical viewpoint, these two books overlap.  Armstrong tackles the topic in a much greater depth and analysis while Montefiore’s ‘page-turner’ easy-to-read approach makes it more accessible to mortal readers like me.  Maybe that is the reason why I manage to finish reading Montefiore’s Jerusalem and not Armstrong’s Holy War.  Now that I have a better grasp of the history of Jerusalem, I may give Holy War another go.

Montefiore divides his book into nine parts, with a prologue and an epilogue.  On average, each chapter is no more than 10 pages in length.  There are page-turner worthy hooks built onto each chapter that lead the readers onto the following chapters.  The book starts with Judaism and Paganism that leads to Christianity and Islam – two-fifth of the book’s volume covering a time period of 160 BC to 1099.  Then the Crusade, Mamluk, Ottoman, and Empire – another two-fifth of the book until the year 1905.  The rest of the book is devoted to Zionism.

The challenge of reading a history book – to me – is that it is hard to relate to a character born and died so many years ago.  I may have a mental recollection of what Yasser Arafat or Ariel Sharon’s behavior like.  But not for most of the pivoted figures in the history of Jerusalem.  To that extend, Montefiore has done a meticulous job in supplying the readers a physical description of a character if possible – from paintings or literature – as well as juicy gossips from the past.  On top of that, the author often adds his share of opinions especially when he speculates that the written history or documentations may have been distorted or exaggerated.

Here lies the challenge.  Shall we – the readers – take in all that the author writes and accept this book as the biography of Jerusalem?  Should a biography be challenged, especially when it touches onto the materials from the Holy Books such as The Bible?

My background is only limited to Christianity.  The following excerpt intrigues me.

Pilate toyed with releasing one of these prisoners.  Some of the crowd called for Barabbas.  According to the Gospels, Barabbas was released.  The story sounds unlikely: the Romans usually executed murderous rebels.  Jesus was sentenced to crucifixion while, according to Matthew, Pilate ‘took water and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person’.

‘His blood be upon us and our children,’ replied the crowd.

Far from being a mealy-mouthed vacillator, the violent and obstinate Pilate had never previously felt the need to wash his hands before his blood-letting.

I am unsure if my friends of the Islam faith would too find similar debates within the book.  Fortunately, I am pretty open-minded about my religion.  I read some of these debates as alternative views with only slight discomfort at times.  All in all, Montefiore has stayed out of many sensitive topics such as the resurrection of Jesus with a simple sentence: For those who do not share this faith, the facts are impossible to verify.

The last part of the book – Zionism – that takes up one-fifth of the book’s volume is pretty dry to read.  A similar dryness that prompted me to stop reading Karen Armstrong’s Holy War.  It appears to me that as we have more means to record history, history becomes less colorful.  Or perhaps, the way of life in the past is always intriguing to look at while modern day history is more like the current affair that we read everyday.

Entertainment value aside, Jerusalem has depicted a complex background that opens up my eyes.  I enjoy reading the epilogue’s This Morning the most.  It is a vivid recount of how each of the three monotheistic religions start the day in Jerusalem.  The rabbi and the Wall, Nusseibeh and the opening of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Ansari and the gates of the Haram, and Qazaz and al-Aqsa.  It is this complex heritage that shapes Jerusalem – and by and large the world – today.  If there is one thing that I have learned from the history of this Holy City, there will be no peace till the end of time and our religious beliefs will continue to fragment drawing out more conflicts as our civilization progresses. The fact that Jerusalem is a physical location with historical sites shared by the three monotheistic religions (as well as the sects fragmented within) forces us to come face-to-face with this seemingly impossible task of reconciliation.

It is now one hour before dawn on a day in Jerusalem.  The Dome of the Rock is open: Muslims are praying.  The Wall is always open: the Jews are praying.  The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is open: the Christians are praying in several languages.  The sun is rising over Jerusalem, its rays marking the light Herodian stones of the Wall almost snowy – just as Josephus described it two thousand years ago – and then catching the glorious gold of the Dome of the Rock that glints back at the sun.  The divine esplanade where Heaven and Earth meet, where God meets man, is still in a realm beyond human cartography.  Only the rays of the sun can do it and finally the light falls on the most exquisite and mysterious edifice in Jerusalem.  Bathing in glowing in the sunlight, it earns it auric name.  But The Gold Gate remains locked, until the coming of the Last Days.

Publisher: Vintage
ISBN-10: 0307280500
ISBN-13: 978-0307280503

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The following excerpts have left a strong impression to me and I wish to share them with you here.  Maybe too much Shakespeare I have read in the past.  Also, these excerpts I hope can illustrate the writing style of the author.

The first excerpt is a colorful prelude of Antony and Cleopatra and the war for the world.

The Egyptian queen progressed home to Alexandria.  There Antony, in a spectacular ceremony, raised Cleopatra to ‘Queen of Kings’.  Caesarion, her son by Caesar, now thirteen years old, became her co-pharaoh, while her three children by Antony became kings of Armenia, Phoenicia and Cyrene.  In Rome, this Oriental posing appeared unRoman, unmanly and unwise.  Antony tried to justify his Eastern wassails by writing his only known work of literature titled ‘On His Drinking’ – and he wrote to Octavian, ‘Why have you changed?  Is it because I’m screwing the queen?  Does it really matter where or in whom you dip your wike?’  But it did matter.  Cleopatra was seen as fatale monstrum.  Octavian was becoming ever stronger as their partnership fell apart.  In 32 BC, the Senate revoked Antony’s imperium.  Next Octavian declared war on Cleopatra.  The two sides met in Greece: Antony and Cleopatra mustered his army and her Egyptian-Phoenician fleet.  It was a war for the world.

The second excerpt recounts the clever politics played by Herod and it has an artistic touch to Antony and Cleopatra’s demises.

Herod again prepared for death, leaving his brother Pheroras in charge and, just to be safe, having old Hyrcanus strangled.  He placed his mother and sister in Masada while Mariamme [his wife] and Alexandra [his wife’s mother] were kept in Alexandrium, another mountain fortress.  If anything happened to him, he again ordered that Mariamme was to die.  Then he sailed for the most important meeting of his life.

Octavian received him in Rhodes.  Herod handled the meeting shrewdly and frankly.  He humbly laid his diadem crown at Octavian’s feet.  Then instead of disowning Antony, he asked Octavian not to consider whose friend he had been but ‘what sort of friend I am’.  Octavian restored his crown.  Herod returned to Jerusalem in triumph, then followed Octavian down to Egypt, arriving in Alexandria just after Antony and Cleopatra had committed suicide, he by blade, she by asp.

The third excerpt Justinian and the Showgirl Empress introduces Theodora, queen to the last Latin-speaking emperor of the east.

[Justinian] did not come to power alone: his mistress Theodora was the daughter of the Blue chariot-racing team’s bear-trainer, raised among the sweaty charioteers, louche bathhouses and bloody bearpits of the Constantinople hippodrome.  Starting as a pre-pubescent burlesque showgirl, she was said to be a gymnastically gifted orgiast whose specialty was to offer all three orifices to her clients simultaneously.  Her nympho-maniacal party piece was to spread-eagle herself on stage while geese pecked grains of barley from ‘the calyx of this passion flower’.  The sexual details were no doubt exaggerated by their court historian, who must secretly have resented the sycophancy of his day job.  Whatever the truth, Justinian found her life-force irresistible and changed the law so that he could marry her.

The last excerpt illustrates one of the many bloody conflicts we have seen in the history of time.  Key words are ‘lamb stew’ and ‘hot dry air’.

Abu al-Abbas declared himself caliph and invited the Umayyads to a banquet to declare his peaceful intentions.  In the midst of the feast, the waiters drew out clubs and swords and butchered the entire family, tossing the bodies into the lamb stew.  The Slaughterer himself died soon afterwards but his brother Mansur, the Victorious, systematically murdered the Alid family and then liquidated the overmighty Abu Muslim too.  His perfumier, Jamra, later told how Mansur kept the keys of a secret storeroom which was to be open only on his death.  There his son later found a vaulted chamber filled with the bodies, each meticulously labelled, of the family of Ali from old men to infants, whom Mansur had killed, all preserved in the hot dry air.