Friday, December 26, 2008

I know it's in the back of your head*

I take pleasure in answering at once and thus prominently the communication below, expressing at the same time my great gratification that it's faithful author is numbered among the friends of UpdatedEveryFriday:

"DEAR SAM: I am 8 years old
"Sometimes my parents say that there's no such thing as zombies.
"But my little friends say that they're real.
"Please tell me the truth; is there a threat of a zombie apocalypse?

"VIRGINIA BROOKS
"720 WEST VALVE STREET


VIRGINIA, your parents are wrong. They have been infected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds . . .either that, or their little minds are now swarming with a zombie virus, one which has perhaps evolved to invoke skepticism in its hosts.

Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a threat of a zombie apocalypse. It exists as certainly as machetes and chainsaws and preparedness exist, and you know that those abound and give to your life it's highest peace of mind. Alas! how slovenly would be the world if there were no threat of a zombie apocalypse! There would be no motivation to train ourselves physically and mentally, no constant reminder to appreciate each moment of our lives.

Not believe in the zombie virus! You might as well not believe in ninjas! You might get your papa to hire men to watch the streets for roaming undead, but if they did not see any roaming undead, what would that prove? And now that I think about it, that's a really good idea. If your papa has the resources, get him on this zombie squad thing, now.

You may tear apart the baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men, could tear apart. And if we don't learn to see through that veil, Virginia, before the zombie apocalypse comes, we actually will be facing THE UNITED STRENGTH OF THE WORLDS STRONGEST MEN, each of them a brain-eating monster! And believe me, they will tear apart more than baby rattles.

No zombies! Oh they live, and they live forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay ten times ten thousand years from now, the will continue to stumble and groan across the ruins of our cities, unless you and I march forward to stop them. Good luck, and God help us all.

*This is a line from "Left for Dead" by Citizen Cope. "Left4Dead" is the name of a popular computer game about surviving in a zombie apocalypse. The reference is so obscure, I figured it was better just to explain it.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Before you can walk

War drums echo through the heavens as a rollup slowly crawls into infinity.

November 5, 2055

It is a dark time for humanity. No more do the cities light up as night falls across them. No more do they sparkle with the electric glow of life, still buzzing about in defiance of sunset. Now there is only the terrible tide of the zombie horde, gradually wearing away at the last testaments of mankind's existence.

But there is one hope, one last chance to make the world over. On a hilltop in Japan, the ancient order of the Ninja has emerged in this terrible hour. Here they have made a stand, beating back the undead monsters with skill, cunning, and a small army of terrifying robots they built. They are the Folded Steel clan, defenders of the flame.

Atop the clan's fortress of New Guardia, a brilliant young computer scientist has spent months in communion with the last remaining artificially intelligent supercomputer, searching for a cure to the hideous plague. And now, at last, a solution has been found-though it comes with a terrible price.

Through it's investigations into the physical world, the AI computer has invented a time travel device. With it, a single warrior could escape into the past, find the cause of the outbreak, and destroy it. The future as it is will be unmade. The noble men and women who hold back the tide of evil will have never been. The lone fighter will be abandoned forever in history.

Armed with only his spirit, his sword, a sniper rifle, and an array of cyborg enhancements, the ninja steps into the chronopult and vanishes . . .

CITIZEN KANE 2*

*Now return my calls, Warner Brothers!


Friday, December 12, 2008

A Brief History of "Your Mom" Jokes

Emporer Augustus was touring his Empire and noticed a man in the crowd who bore a striking resemblance to himself. Intrigued he asked: "Was your mother at one time in service at the Palace?" "No your Highness," he replied, "but my father was." 
Emporer Augustus, Two-thousand years ago

Painter: "Y'are a dog."
Apemantus: "Thy mother's of my generation. What's she, if I be a dog?"

William Shakespeare, Act 1 Scene 1 of Timon of Athens, late 1500's/early 1600's

"I like yo' momma — sister, too" 
Blues artist Kokomo Arnold, "Twelves (Dirty Dozens)" Early 1930's

"Your mama don't dance and your daddy don't rock and roll"
Kenny Loggins and Jim Messina, from the song of the same title, 1972

-Ok, you're qualified for this job, how about a starting salary, $5000? "
-Yo mama! 
-Um, $7500 a year...?
-Yo GRAND-mama! 
Richard Pryor, "Saturday Night Live" sketch, 1975

"You are so stupid. It would take your mother 1, no. 2 hours to watch 60 MINUTES"*
Ron Shelton, "White Men Can't Jump," 1992

"Your mom's retarded."
"No your mom's retarded."
Some middle school kids at the Smoothie King while I was in line, 2008

*The TV show "How I Met Your Mother" made this considerably harder to research on the internet . . . "How I Met Your Mother" is hurting America.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Fort Awesome


Even the most genuinely remarkable things can become commonplace, and only when you get a moment to reflect on them do you realize how incredible they really are.

Example: Every single time I'm in an airplane, sitting as it taxi's onto the runway, I think to myself: "In a few seconds, this machine is going to suddenly fire itself along the ground at 180mph or so, and then it's going to lift off of the ground and fly!"

And I know that I'm not the only one having this sort of experience:



So it's a little weird to me that I've never seen anyone else mention what, to me, seems like a very obvious revelation:

"Mount DOOM . . . really? That's what Tolkien called the big evil guy's home? Mount DOOM! That's the name he came up with. J.R.R. Tolkien, who worked out all this elaborate backstory of wars, magical objects, and songs about this thing some elves built one time, this man who essentially wrote his OWN fanfiction, he got up to the plate to pen his masterpiece and went "Eh, I'll just call it Mount Doom. That's a pretty sweet name. Cause, you know, it's a real bad place. And this way people will be able to tell."

Am I the only one who's a little thrown that Sauron, the big evil demon-overlord-whatever-the-hell-he-is-anyway, lives in a place that sounds like it was named by a Bond villian?

Quick test: Which one of these things seems out of place:

The Shire
Dimrill Dale
Ford of Bruinen
Isengard
Mount Doom

Yeah, that's what he actually went with. And they had to say it in the opening lines of the movie, and no one even snickered.

*The Onion provides the most recent example.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Siren Sale

I used to work at . . . let's just say it's called "Big Summer Movie Release," but that was a long time ago . . . let's just say that in my interview the manager was very impressed that I'd heard of this new "DVD" thing.

You learn lessons from working retail, the most prominent of which is "don't ever work retail," with its corollaries "go to college so you don't have to work retail" and "be patient and understanding with people who work retail."

But some of the lessons are less obvious, like the one I learned when my store got a big shipment of "previously viewed" VHS tapes. I wondered for a long time why these tapes couldn't be sold at the stores they came from. After enough of them got returned, I realized that these were "Frankenstein" tapes. The company would take all the rental tapes that came back damaged, cut out the faulty section, and splice two or three tapes into one so they could sell it. And that's why those tapes, the ones with generic covers, were always really cheap.

And people like cheap, a lot. They like it so much, apparently, that they will open two sealed, unmarked cardboard boxes that are sitting out in the middle of a store, purely on the chance that the tapes inside will be discounted. Upon finding those tapes to be $3-5, they will then proceed to rummage through the boxes, buying stacks of ten tapes at a time.

I knew, on that day, that I was learning something important about the human race, but I wasn't sure what. Something about greed? Perhaps. The temptation of things that are easy and quick? Likely. But as I walked around in my local, gasping, coughing Circuit City, watching the vultures circle it, I realized that it has more to do with Tyler Durden and his resonant statement about "a generation working jobs we hate, so we can by sh*t we don't need."

*I decided to write this well before anyone died. :Sigh:

Friday, November 21, 2008

Tradjedy (yes, I know)

"History of the English Language" is a class most people would avoid at all costs. I am the sort of person who gets mentally sidetracked for a good ten minutes if he sees an advertisement for a sale on "our entire stock of socks." I mean the whole stock of them! The whole sock stock! I'm shocked at this stock of socks! I'm selling my stock in that shop because of this shocking sock stock sale!

So, yeah, for me it was a pretty fascinating class.

What I found most important in the subject matter was how the notion of "standard language," or what we think of as "correct" language (i.e. grammar, spelling) came to be. Spelling, for instance, was a child of the printing press. The people in that trade weren't going to fool with ten different spellings for the same word, so they picked a spelling and went with it. Having single spellings repeated through a large number of documents, no longer subject to the whims of individual longhand, gave them a kind of validation. And soon the "correct" spellings were being enforced in the classroom.

It's a strange thing, linguistically. Living languages are always changing. It's like a big ball of clay on which every speaker gets to place one finger. But they change through use.

So while our spoken language has evolved, gradually changing pronunciations over time, our written language has been largely frozen.

But it's fine. Though the idea of putting a lock on the language makes me somehow uneasy, I understand the practical need for a standardization.

Where it gets weird for me, though, is when we have competitions to see who can spell the best. It's like people don't understand that we made up the spellings. We might as well make up a correct way to eat pancakes, then put some kids on stage and see which one can eat pancakes closest to what we decided. That "skill" would be about as useful as knowing how to spell "gyromancy."*

*Sometimes the footnote gag writes itself. Firefox's spell checker doesn't recognize gyromancy.

Friday, November 14, 2008

LPSA

Linguistic Public Service Announcement

Through intense research, which is to say that I made something up and think it's funny, I have determined that our modern speech requires a slight tweak.

The people who want Apple's iPhone, the people who use it, and the people who mock the people who use it are hitting a verbal wall when referring to the device.

People who love the iPhone are so enamored with it that they have trouble saying things like this:

"Yes, I have an iPhone."

See? "An" iPhone. How dingy and common that sounds to the Mac user! If you listen closely, you'll hear their voice quivver a little as they stumble past that clumsy article. They have hidden this device in their hearts, and need a way to ennoble that!

Similarly, people who make fun of the people who use iPhones have trouble describing the kind of distressingly amourous affection that's common among their iPhone-using friends.

"Oh what, you gonna play with your iPhone now?"

It just doesn't work quite right. "Your iPhone?" Mac-users aren't enamored with "this particular" device. They love it conceptually. They love the IDEA of it all.

And that's why I think my solution is so elegant. iPhone requires no article. It should not be referred to as a bunch of individual things, but as a substance.

"Yes, I have iPhone. I got iPhone when they released 3G iPhone. Hang on, I need to look something up on iPhone."

Not "an" iPhone, but just "iPhone."

And now the possessive isn't needed, either!

"Oh what, you gonna play with iPhone now?Oooh, look at that! My dropped calls have never looked so CRISP! The resolution is almost as high as the cost of the DATA PACKAGE!"

I think it's clear that this change is better for everyone. iPhone users get a way to speak of their device like a person, a friend. iPhone haters get a way to point out how rediculous it is that people think of this device as a person, a friend.

Please begin spreading this usage.*

*And when you see one in use, say "beep, beep, beep, iPhone, beep beep." It's always funny.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Dycotomies

I'm very impressed if you're aware of EITHER "Elefunk" OR "World of Goo," and to expect you to know about both would be quite a stretch. So here's a quick primer:

Elefunk*



World of Goo


In Elefunk, you use bridge supports to strengthen the path of your elephant(s), so that they don't tumble into oblivion. If you took a middle school technology class, Elefunk will probably mark the first time in life you've been able to put that knowledge to work. I will be expecting my egg-drop simulator shortly, video game industry.

World of Goo also involves structures, except that you build them yourself from pulsing, sentient black globs. Somehow, this process is adorable. The principles of creating a sturdy structure still apply here, but all the pieces are being made as you go. It's construction without silly extras like rulers or right-angles.

At face value, these games have a lot in common:

-Both games are (to use one of those terrible "genre" things) puzzle games
-Both are games of "pure physics." They are physics emulations with objectives built in.
-As a result of this approach, the "solutions" in these games are free-form, there's no one "right" answer. If your "Elefunk"elephant makes it across the chasm, you win, even if the bridge looks like it's made of toothpicks. Similarly, so long as you get enough Goo into the pipe on each "World of Goo" level, you advance, no matter if your final structure is built on the fallen ruins of your first attempt.

Yet these games are very different. "Elefunk" is a game of math. It uses time-tested bridge supports that you connect in different ways. "World of Goo" is more fluid. It's messy and uncertain. Unless you've got a very steady hand and a lot of patience, you won't be making anything that's perfectly square. Instead you'll constantly be adjusting for tiny variations in your own work.

My high school art teacher would call these ideas "geometric" and "organic."

This dichotomy seems to exist everywhere in human thinking. I am a geek, so the first example that comes to mind is computer operating systems:

Windows has a very geometric feel with its constant Start Menu bar. The Mac OS is organic and flowing, changing the menu bar based on the current program. (Macs reinforce this idea with every stitch of their hardware, going out of their way to avoid right angles.)

But nowhere is this division more clear than in teaching. Those of us who got English degrees (or degrees in another humanity) have all heard the argument that we're being taught a theory, when we should be getting a skill (usually from people in business school, who now work in the next cubicle). This is the same logic at work, the organic (theory) and the geometric (skill).

It comes up again in martial arts, where there's often a debate about doing controlled (geometric) drills instead of more "real world" (organic) sparring drills. (Oddly, the "organic" approach is considered "practical" in this context.)

But the important part of the dichotomy is realizing that it's us making the distinction. The real world is one of organics, but understanding it often requires a geometric approach. Thinking is a process of systematizing, breaking the world down into pieces that can be understood. We learn the theory so that we can apply it to the practical. We practice controlled kicks and punches against a pad so we don't flail around against live target.

"Elefunk" and "World of Goo" are two halves of the same seed.

*Few things are more humbling than spending 5 solid minutes building a bridge only to have it collapse under its own weight. RIP, little elephant.**

**Not a political statement.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Say the bells of St. Clement's

Clearly, Yellow and Orange are the most hated of all the Starburst flavors.

Note: I'm refusing to refer to them as "Lemon and Orange," because they're pretty far removed from any genuine fruit heritage. I wish Orange didn't have it's little "my color is my name" thing, so I could properly denigrate its candy stand-in.

How did "Orange" even manage that deal? The color and fruit have the same name in almost every language. If there's a Discworldian god of oranges, I'll bet he's got a lot of political savvy.

I may be getting off topic.

The candy jar dynamics of Starburst seem to be pretty consistent in this country. Red-gone. Pink-gone*. Orange and Yellow, still around!

In France, though, it's the red and orange that go first, and they see our love for pink Starburst as a mark of unrefined taste (this is probably something I made up).

Why do they make orange and yellow at all? Since they're so frequently passed over, shouldn't the whole package be made up of red and pink? Is there some powerful citrus lobby I'm not aware of?

Perhaps, like the peanuts of the "mixed nut" industry, orange and yellow are simply cheaper to produce, and thus get used as filler. Or maybe those flavors are designed to be palate cleanser, enhancing the red and pink flavors as you make you way through a package.

Or maybe it's a weird sociological thing, where no one would buy a product with only two flavors, because that wouldn't be enough variety. People want choices, even if a good half of those choices are crappy.

*I love how pink is everyone's favorite, but no one can tell you what the hell flavor that's supposed to be. According to the people at Starburst, that's supposed to be strawberry . . . I find that somehow terrifying.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Yep, Cary Grant, you guessed it.

Halloween makes me nervous for two reasons:

1. If a zombie-virus ever breaks out during Halloween, we're doomed. Our culture's zombie-preparedness is critically low all year long, but at least people are capable of recognizing a shambling, animated corpse when it walks down the street. But during Halloween, there's no telling how long the infected would move through our streets, slowed only by dozens of "best costume" awards.

2. People expect me to dress up, and I don't want to.

And you can't just NOT wear a costume, not if you want to be out in the world with other human beings*. Go out in regular clothes and you'll be forced into this conversation over and over again:

"So . . . what are you dressed up as?" (said ever so condescendingly)

"*sigh* I'm-not-dressed-up."

"Psshhht . . . LAME!"

Yes! People will use the word "lame" in conversation! To make fun of another person's choices! This is a thing that happens!

It's as though the costumes drag people toward childhood without letting them quite reach it, and they wind up in high school again. (Ironically, a period when they probably didn't dress up for Halloween.) Suspended for the night in those teenage years, normal adults are compelled to interrogate their social world again.

Fortunately I've found the solution to the whole problem, and I'm glad to share it with the world: Just wear a hat. Get an unusual hat, a fedora will do, and wear it with some normal clothes. And just like that, no one will bother you. Even though they can't immediately tell what you're dressed as, the mere presence of this single unusual item will throw you off their "dork" radar.

The only conversation you'll have to deal with is:

"As you dressed as *person's guess here*?"

"Yes, yes I am."

*At least you'd better HOPE those are human beings, and not dangerous zombies!

Friday, October 17, 2008

Breakfast

I guess, in some respects, I've come back around on restaurant punch cards.

I think Subway started it years ago with their stamp cards, and now you can't run a coffee shop, ice cream store, or smoothie place without them. I'm sure Red Lobster would be all over it if they could just figure out how to make a hole punch that looked like a crustacean. I would love it if the trend continued it's way up the retail ladder, and somewhere a guy was getting a free car because he had a little card in his wallet with enough stamps: "Are you sure you want to use this now? Because if you started a new card and got it half full you could get a van!"

Or maybe there's a company that sells exotic animals: "Hey, that's number 10 for you! I'll go get your monkey!" I can just see him there, holding a little yellow card with monkey-face stamps.*

Only it would never happen. There's a cap to where the punch-model will work. Why? Because the only things given away for free are ones that are nearly valueless.

It's a pretty distressing thought. Not only do I regularly buy (or in the case of smoothies, put a down payment on) things that have no real value, but knowing that they have no value I will continue to buy them. I'm aware that fruit, yogurt, orange juice, and whatever roofing compound they sell as "enhancers" and "boosts" doesn't cost that much, and apparently I'm ok with it.

Their promotional endeavors have brought the nature of their business model into stark relief. They sell, for %75 of a full meal's cost, the service of hitting a blender's "On" button. But that doesn't change the fact that there's a solid hour between when I'm done running at the track and when Karate starts, and I need something in my stomach that won't turn to cement while I'm kicking a pad.

So do I want a Strawberry Extreme? Or a Banana-berry treat?

*Gary Larson, my stuff is copyright Sam Cook. So I had better not see this pop up in anybody's one-a-day calendar.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Nuking the fridge

Art is, at its root, a collaborative effort between artist and audience. Creators extend a work into the world, and other people reach out to grab onto some part of it. Some of the audience will grasp it with both hands. Others will catch a single rung and hang on for the ride. A few will look at the work quizzically and conclude that it's a large plate of spaghetti, and thus it isn't fit to be used as a handhold. Every viewer re-authors the work for his own mind, finding a place for it (if there's room) in his own point of view.

And this is why appreciating creative works is a skill unto itself, with its own hurdles and pitfalls that have to be dealt with.

1. There is a difference between something that's "bad" and something that you, personally, don't like. Realizing that is difficult enough, learning to tell the difference is even harder. And it's made more difficult by . . .

2. You don't have to defend your likes/dislikes. People will want you to defend your preferences because many of them don't understand #1. They assume that, if you don't like something that they enjoy, then you think it is "bad" and that they are therefor "stupid" for liking it. (Mind you, these people are often stupid, just not for that reason.) All this being said: No, I don't like Homestar Runner. I don't think it's funny. And I'm tired of getting crap about it.

3. If you don't like something, walk away from it. You'd think this would be easy, but it really isn't. Sometimes you've heard so much about a book being good that you keep reading it long after you've lost interest. Or you'll watch the rest of a movie that you find boring simply because it seems like the kind of thing you usually enjoy.

Or, as was the case with Metal Gear Solid 2, I'd spent so much time following the game's development that my mind simply wouldn't accept that it wasn't awesome. This delusion persisted even after I was tasked with defeating a very large man on rollerblades who threw sticks of dynamite at me. (That is NOT a joke, it is literally something from the game.)*

Grinding your way through a work that you don't like is terrible for you. It makes you disenchanted with the medium, and is generally a waste of your lesiure time.

*This also explains why I walked out of every Star Wars Episode 1-3 movie thinking that it was "alright," and didn't realize it was bad until I woke up the next morning in a cloudy, sickened haze. You know, they should have really put a fat guy on rollerblades IN Star Wars Episode 1. I mean if you're going to screw it up that bad, you might as well go crazy!

Friday, October 3, 2008

To say nothing of caramel

Consider for a moment the candied apple.

Delicious. Healthy as far as desserts go. Fun to eat.

So how come you haven't had one in like ten years?

Why is this concoction limited to fair grounds and Six Flags when it's a nutritious alternative for your snacking needs? What has brought about such a culinary typecast?

Is it the stick? The candied apple is easy to carry, so therefore you can only eat it at places where you do a lot of walking around? Has the dessert been hamstrung by its own portability? 

But that doesn't make sense, because corn dogs are a staple of school cafeterias, but I don't remember even one time that I walked into the lunch room and saw a row of candied apples.

I think the root of it is this strange thing people have about associations. Order a cup of hot chocolate in July and see how long it takes someone to ask, "Eww, how can you drink that? It's so hot outside!"*

What difference does that make? Are you outside? It's not like the local Starbucks is an open-air street vendor. You're making a decision based on what the temperature is somewhere else. If we're going that far, why not eat based on what the weather is like in other countries? 

"Well it's winter in Japan right now, let's make some soup."

*They say this, of course, while holding a boiling hot cup of coffee.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Sound and the Fury

My political leaning doesn't really have an official name, but I guess I'd describe it as the "Contrarian Party."*

What this essentially means is that I automatically take the opposite stance of the person I'm talking to, the strength of my beliefs scaling to match that person.

I wish I could say that I stir up such turmoil as some grand political statement, or perhaps as an exercise to bring about a genuine discourse on current issues. But the truth is that it's almost a compulsion, fueled by two things:

1. I'm deeply annoyed by anyone who believes fervently that they are right, and other people are wrong because they're too stupid, naive, or uninformed. This accounts for about 95% of politically-minded people, and only half of those would admit to it.

2. Making those kind of people angry is really, really funny to me.

The problem is that politics are so much like college football.

-Large numbers of people follow it, and can't believe that anyone in this country doesn't.

-Everyone who's into it has a side that they champion. The side they choose is conveniently in-tune with the people in their community and/or family.

-By taking a side, people automatically defend that side no matter what, while simultaneously demonizing all its opponents.

Just watch a political party convention, then watch a Saturday afternoon game. Flip the channel to CNN, then to ESPN, back and forth for a couple of hours. The stakes may be different, but you'll see the same sociological mechanisms at work. The only real difference is that most sports fans know their biases are mostly arbitrary.

So that being said, can't we just decide the election with a football game? Does it really make that much less sense than having the guy who you saw spit out of his truck today filling out a ballot?

I mean I'm just saying, we could have all this BS resolved by tomorrow.

*I've seriously considered starting a "Don't Vote: It's Bad for You" campaign, simply because it's the only position that would make both sides mad.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Have I written a post yet today?

I've been accused, usually while playing my Nintendo DS, of needing constant stimulation. As I sit here in front of my dual monitors, each completely taken up by GoogleTalk, YouTube's assortment of old "Kids In The Hall" sketches, the latest Penny Arcade post, and of course WinAmp, any counter argument is going to fall flat no matter what I say.

So I might as well go the full route and tell you that I listen to audio books in the shower. In fact, I bought extra speakers and connected them as a "B" set on my home theater receiver, then hung one in the bathroom and the other in my bedroom, just so I could listen to audio books.

Why?

Because when you add up all the time I spend showering, flossing, brushing my teeth, shaving, dressing, etc., that's like an hour out of every day spent either getting ready for bed or bringing myself to a state where I won't be tempted to crawl back INTO bed. And I feel that time is wasted.

In short, I'm weird. Moving along.

So, one day I was taking a shower, listening to my audiobook. Probably a Discworld novel or one of Christopher Moore's intriguing-but-ultimately-unsatisfying-because-dude-just-can't-stick-the-landing works. And all of a sudden I started hearing music.

At first I wasn't surprised. Some audio books will use a little music here and there, especially as a chapter break. But this music just kept going. Once I realized it wasn't part of the program, I thought maybe it was coming from outside the bathroom window. Certainly, after the night the drunk people started up a leaf blower at 3:30 AM, I wouldn't be surprised by a little music at 8:10.

But it wasn't that either. I was hearing music, and I had no good explanation where it was coming from.

Once I finished my shower, dried off, and walked through my apartment I discovered that I'd set my 2nd alarm to "radio" instead of "off," and that's all there was to it. But for those few minutes, I had to ask myself a serious question: "Am I going crazy?"

And I didn't meant that question in any sort of rhetorical, "oh ha ha" way. Not remembering where you put your keys is the right venue for that sort of humor, but hearing music that's not there? That's a little more serious. 

It's like the music they play in the dentist office. Sure it's peaceful, but you know they want you peaceful because something really bad is coming. Imaginary music is your brain's way of covering up the drill noise.

Questions, especially big questions like that one, are always more fascinating than answers. The idea that a mind in the midst of crumbling could pause to wonder if it is functioning correctly is pretty weird by itself, but there are others too. I especially like the questions that answer themselves. For instance, if you ever ask:

"Do I want another slice of pizza?" 

Then the answer is no. If you wanted it, there would be no question. The mere presence of the question disproves one of the answers.

And it's the same way with:

"Am I a terrible person?"

The answer is automatically "no," because a truly terrible person would never bother to ask.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Money? Baseballs! . . . Office? Submarine!

Greetings from MajorOnlineRetailer.com

Please be assured that this is not a form letter, but rather a personal and unique response to your EMAIL COMPLAINT SUBMISSION about one of our TELEVISION AND ACCESSORIES products.

I apologize for the delay in responding to your message. All of us are working very hard to get out the door by 5, and we strive to dismiss you in the most efficient, sterile way possible.

I am sorry for any inconvenience caused by the blatant lie we posted about the cost of one of our TELEVISION AND ACCESSORIES items. At any given time, despite our best efforts (please see attached legal document for definition of "best"), a small number of the millions of items on our site maybe be mis-priced, listed with features that are not technologically possible, or completely imaginary (as with our "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Real, living Hippogryph!" promotion).

These situations are the result of technical and human errors, which is to say complete incompetence, and I am truly sorry for the inconvenience. Not sorry enough, mind you, to make good on the offer we extended to you in the first place, but still, as sorry as I can be without financial burden.

We realize that this may have been disappointing, but we want to make sure that your decision to make a purchase with us is based on the most accurate information possible.* Which seems weird, since the whole issue is that our information was not accurate.

I am truly sorry for condescending you, then following it up with a bizarre contradiction.

If you want to return this item, please let us know so that we may begin the return process, because the best way out of a legal contract is for everyone to pretend that it never happened.

I understand that you are upset, and I regret that we have not been able to address your concerns to your satisfaction. As before, I don't regret it enough to do anything useful, so unfortunately, we will not be able to offer any additional compensation with this TELEVISION AND ACCESSORIES item and rebate.

We've appreciated your business and hope to have the opportunity to serve you again in the future (please see attached legal document for definition of "serve").

Please let us know if this e-mail resolved your question:

If yes, click here:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E-brQ-2XqTU
If not, click here:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eBGIQ7ZuuiU

Please note: this e-mail was sent from an address that cannot accept incoming e-mail, so there's no way I'll ever have to deal with you again.

Best Regards,

Smarmy
MajorOnlineRetailer.com Customer Service (see attached legal document for definition of "service")

*Actual wording.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Pax

Recently I sat and drank a Slurpee on the edge of the International Fountain in Seattle. It was a clear, warm, sunny day, which the city gets almost a dozen of over the course of every year or two.

If you've never had this experience, I have to recommend it. The fountain itself is pretty remarkable. It's essentially a giant stone bowl, a least a couple hundred feet across, that dips down into the ground. Were it not for all the water coming out of the silver dome in the center, you'd think it was an amphitheater. Sometimes the fountain sprays at random, other times its streams are choreographed to music, but understand that that water isn't really the important part. What makes the experience are the people around the fountain.

There aren't any signs that say, "Hey kids, go play in the water!" And there are no plaques that read, "I wonder if you could run up and touch the silver dome without getting sprayed!" Yet every time I've seen the fountain, there are the children, getting sprayed and laughing.

And that's what blows my mind.

This is just metal and concrete. It's a curious configuration of pumps and tubing. In all respects, we should look at it and see a void, cold, lifeless thing. It is an object.

Yet the fountain is beautiful, not because it has some artful aesthetic, but because it draws a certain response from people who see it. Children look at it as a big toy, a giant sprinkler with no signs or barriers to keep them away. Their parents find a conveniently placed concrete bench that circles the fountain, where they can sit and relax for a while. And so an atmosphere of relaxed, comfortable life surrounds the place, all because someone who knew a lot about people put in for a large order of concrete and water pumps.*

*This post is about the Penny Arcade Expo.

Friday, August 29, 2008

West Seattle as best I remember it




Individual sections of a city can be quite unique, and when they're separated by a great divide: economic, cultural, or a big offshoot of the Pacific; they can become like different cities entirely.

If you visit West Seattle, it's probably by accident, because you drove south out of downtown trying to get a picture "like in the Frasier logo," but suddenly you were on the West Seattle bridge and couldn't turn around. So here's how you can identify the area from the rest of Seattle.

-There are places to park
-These places to park do not cost $12
-Every couple of miles, you reach a hill that you can't go up with more than two people in the car*
-No one appears to be talking to themselves while leaning against the side of a building -7-Eleven's are, somehow, even more populous

The neighborhoods of West Seattle feel like the great American small town, as though you just stepped onto the set of "The Sandlot" or "The Goonies." (Upon further research, "Goonies" was shot partly in Oregon, which is pretty darn close.) If the weather weren't caught in a perpetual loop of rainy day-cold day-slightly less cold day-rainy day, it would be entirely livable.

*Let me be clear, it is very difficult to park in downtown Seattle

Friday, August 22, 2008

Any Given Monday

Ask me at the start of the week what I did over the weekend, and I probably won't be able to tell you.

I pause here to stress that this phenomenon is in no way chemically influenced.

I have some kind of natural weekend amnesia. Sometimes I'll have a vague recollection that I did something, but divining out the particulars is far beyond me.

Course lately my weekends have been dominated by Burnout Paradise, so that simplifies the whole thing.

The same problem crops up with my life in general. I can remember the major events of the past few years, but beyond that it's all hazy. Somehow, the way things are now is the way they've always been. When Vance moved to Athens and lived on my couch for three months, when I ate dinner every night in Bolton Hall with Amanda, David, and Jeremy, when I "worked" at STS doing tech support for the dorms . . . these are like movies I saw once or TV shows that came on after The Simpsons in syndication.

And speaking of movies, I'll never be able to tell you what "TRON" is about, even though I've seen it plenty of times. I followed the plot just fine, mind you, but my memory won't latch onto it in any sort of permanent way. There's a guy, some glowing stuff, someone threw this thing at someone, and the rest was light cycles.

I'm the same way with a handful of other movies, and it's especially weird since there are plenty of films (Flight of the Navigator, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, and Wayne's World come immediately to mind) that I have an uncanny memory for, despite not seeing them for years.

But all of that pales in comparison to a couple of weeks ago, when I had to search my own blog to see if I'd already written a post about something.*

*And I HAD.

Friday, August 15, 2008

RIP little chipmunk

Every time I watch a cat pace though someone's house, I wonder what's going on inside his tiny, kitty brain.

Some would say that thinking creatures come into this world as a blank slate, their consciousness a kind of clay that gets shaped by experience. But that can't be exactly true, because no matter how much "personality" cats have, they seem to agree on a lot.

-Scratching noises are extremely suspicious.
-Small movements must be studied carefully
-The magic red dot can be, and must be, destroyed at all costs.

So then maybe our minds are like mold on your leftovers. They grow freely, and are affected by the environment, but generally they come out in the shape of their container. (And here I'm comparing the genetic predispositions of a cat brain to tupperware.)

There must be something, then, that gets passed down. Some piece of that cat brain is running some very old code, indeed. Down in the most fundamental of processes, something stirs that wants to be on the plains again, tracking a zebra.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Non Sequitur

People often say "It's easier to criticize the work of others than to go out and create something yourself."

And to that I reply, "Yeah, I know, that's what I like about it. It's easy. Really, really easy. You don't even have to leave your house."

I mean, think about it for like five seconds. Creating something takes a lot of time and effort, even if the thing you make comes out all crummy. And even when comes out really good, you're still going to have some jerk who never bothers to make anything for himself telling you how crummy it is.

Criticizing someone's work, though, can be done with almost no effort, thought, or time. And when you're done, no one is there to tell you that you're wrong except the person who created it in the first place, and you can always say that he's just mad because you pointed out how crummy his stupid thing is.

And it's not like you have to create things in order to know if they're good or not. I don't know much about cooking, but I can tell when something tastes bad. And once I've determined that something tastes bad, I can expound on how terrible it is at length, even if it does make the free sample lady at Sam's Club cry.*

*No, not really.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Ex-crucio detail

You think the book was better than the movie? Really?

Are you some kind of idiot?

Do you not understand that print and film are completely different mediums? That you can't really compare them?

You know yesterday I saw some chalk drawings on the sidewalk, then later watched a Japanese kabuki* play, would you like to weigh in on the clear leader of that match-up?

That skywriting ad versus "The Simpsons," season four episode twelve! Go!

*end of mocking other people's opinions*

It seems like anytime a person complains about a book-movie treatment, it's always the same story. Actually it's usually Harry Potter, so I guess in that sense it's LITERALLY "the same story."

But what I'm talking about is the nature of the complaints. Book fans walk into the theater expecting a 1:1 visual companion to the thing they read, not a solid movie that's inspired by a novel. It's as though they want movies to require homework for most of the viewing audience.

My favorite complaint was that the "Sorcerer's Stone" film cut out the "potion test" challenge in the final act, yet it left in the "chessboard" sequence. This person couldn't understand why GIANT STONE CHESS PIECES battling one another would be more visually interesting than two people deciding on a beverage.

I think I'd respect this sort of opinion more if it just went full-bore and demanded an excruciating level of detail:

"Why was I not able to hear the main character's thoughts in this movie? Someone should have walked on-screen and read those thoughts aloud."

"The great part about the book was that I could stop and take a break whenever I wanted, so why didn't they put that in the movie? I don't understand why that projectionist was so mad when I climbed up into his little booth."

"How come the copyright information didn't make the cut? I enjoyed seeing what other editions had been published, and if they're going to make a movie they should have acted that out somehow."

*Spelled it correctly on the first try!

Friday, July 25, 2008

The World's most elaborate treadmill

There is a misconception is that people need to be liked.

Most people WANT to be liked, but they don't need it. What people need is to be acknowledged.

Being liked is, of course, a form of acknowledgment, so it can fill that need. But so can a lot of other emotional responses. People can stand being hated, so long as they're not being ignored.

It's as though people fear "not being."

So naturally, I've brought you to this strange existential idea as a way to talk about World of Warcraft.

First, an overview:

You fight enemies to get equipment, you get the equipment so that you can fight harder enemies, you fight harder enemies so you can get better equipment. And that's pretty much the game.

While the same general thing happens in many traditional, single-player games, it's not quite this circular affair. I fought enemies and found equipment in "Chrono Trigger" because I was invested in the story and characters. Experience points and armor ratings were a means to the end of fulfilling that investment. For most players of "massively multiplayer games" like WoW, though, the minutiae justifies itself.

(For those of you who just got up-in-arms, notice that I used the qualifier "most." There are some people that are genuinely interested in the titular "world" of the game, or play as an arbitrary activity to spend time with friends . . . the other 99% though, are in it for the gear.)

And why is this seemingly ridiculous grind so appealing? It's acknowledgment. A WoW character is stored on company servers, not on the player's hard drive, so you know that it hasn't been tampered with.

This gives the character and his inventory a kind of validation, this makes it real.

And that, in turn, gives the players validation. It makes them real.

On some very important level, people just want to have their actions noticed, even if that notice is an automated response by some lines of computer code.*

*Oooo, Uncharted Trophies were announced today!

Friday, July 18, 2008

And the Art of Posting

zen (n) - 1. A state of enlightenment and inner peace, achieved though meditation and self-contemplation.

2. A state in which, upon reading something on the internet, a person completely ignores the associated "comments" thread.

I can't say that I'm there yet. I mean I can pass over the comments on youtube, which are well known to be the swill of humanity's worst aspects, but on average, I just can't keep myself from reading at least the first few posts on any given page.

The worst part is that I'll even read reviews on products that I'm shopping for. Understand that this means that I am choosing to subject myself to opinions that I know aren't valuable.* And I'm someone who regards the idea of professional reviews as a dubious concept, but at least those are mostly written by knowledgeable individuals. So then why do I keep finding myself reading the flimsy run-on sentences of some guy who thought "Astro-smurf" was a clever handle for his Amazon account? What great meaning are his 3 out of 5 stars going to convey to me?

"I don't know, seems like a nice product, but if it's not good enough for 'Techie-hedron13" then it's not good enough for me."

The worst part of it all are the "Hemingways," the people who feel the need to write me a excruciatingly detailed short story about their experiences with electronics.

"My new mp3 player arrived on a Friday afternoon in a typical Amazon cardboard box. I pulled the tape off and removed the plastic retail shell. After a few minutes with a pair of scissors, I had the player, instruction manual, warranty, and headphones all laid out on my carpet. I read the included "Quick Start" guide, I plugged the player up to charge and went to the kitchen for a snack . . .

As I removed the loaf of bread from the cabinet I wondered whether I wanted chunky or smooth peanut butter . . ."

And they usually go on like that for at least another thousand words.

Then there are the people who assume that a problem they've had with a product is not the result of a simple defect, but rather a reflection of the company's corrupted moral state and, indeed, the failing of human society as a whole.

"I had this product for TWO WEEKS and now it doesn't work! What a waste of money! This company should be ashamed of themselves, how can they sell something that they know is going to break TWO WEEKS later! I'm so disgusted that I'm throwing this device, the box it came in, the usb cable, and the one-year warranty in the GARBAGE!"

*Today's post brought to you by my ever-increasing desire for an HDTV.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Everybody clapped, and they cut slice two

There is one book that has affected my life more than all others. No, it's not the Bible, though that's a pretty important one. And it's not either of the Brennan Manning works I've read, either. It's not even "Riker of the Seven Seas," which I'm pretty much the de facto expert on.

It's "The Giant Jam Sandwich."

No matter what you say about those other books, they weren't there from the beginning. There was never a time in my life when I demanded that "The Ragamuffin Gospel" be read to me every night while I drank my apple juice.

How can you compare it to Shakespeare? It's in a much more elite class, one that includes "Duck and His Friends"* and "The Berenstain Bears Meet Santa Bear."

If you haven't read it, I won't spoil anything for you, but suffice to say that it involves a small town, a great number of wasps, and a rather unique approach to wasp eradication. Also, the book contains a picture of a tractor with a helicopter rotor attached, along with several helium balloons. The implication, I believe, is that this design is aeronautically sound.

But then the book is full of that idea, the using of everyday things in remarkable ways. Even the characters themselves are ordinary, but they make for a good story when faced with a big problem.

It's a compelling theme, and one that you'll find in many good stories. You can start a line with 'Sandwich and continue it through "Alien," right on to "Die Hard," They're all stories about regular people who step up when they have to.

It rings true.

*Also about people . . . er, animals, building things. I was a techie from the start.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Enjoy the cookout!

Why do we get sleepy after eating a big meal?

The popular medical opinion is that your body rushes blood to your stomach because it's busy digesting such large quantities, but personally I don't buy that.

I think it's your brain saying, "Ok, clearly you have no idea what you're doing. You don't have any idea how much food is appropriate, or what kind of food you should be eating. Now go to sleep, try again tomorrow."*

This mental mechanism is the same one that gives you an aversion to something you got food poisoning from and makes you throw up when you've had too much to drink. Wired into your mind is a patient parent desperately trying to save you from your own dumb ass.

As you may imagine, I have used this concept to make some very passionate defenses for avoiding spinach, seaweed, turnips, and green beans. My longstanding hatred of each one, I reason, is not a childish dislike for vegetables, but rather my own mind insisting that these things are poison to this particular body.

Especially seaweed.

*So then the minds of most men are trying to save them from watching baseball?

Friday, June 27, 2008

Picking up where I left off last week

If you are a crazy person, this must be a very exciting time to be alive.

There are so many contextual avenues for the modern delusional to work his magic. Big business and government are their old standbys, but every new technological or scientific advance flares the psyche of these individuals!

It makes you wonder how people in the past managed to have paranoid delusions and conspiracy theories, living in era without cameras, satellites, or large-scale corporate structures.

I wonder how they did it?

"You know the king? He's got a secret intelligence division. Whole bunch of guys with tiny easels and canvases that paint pictures of what we're doing. They could be painting us while we sleep!"

"Oh sure the OFFICIAL story is that Charles X died of cholera, but that's just what they want you to believe . . . there was a second illness given to him by the bourgeois!"

"That apple cart?* The one you always see right after you think about apples? It's controlled by a powerful fruit conglomerate that plans to take over the world!"

Yet today's crazy people have it hard. Science has mostly dispelled the public belief in "magic" (And here I'm speaking of magic proper. Please don't trot out that tired idiom about how 'new technology is essentially magic.' You know there's a difference, don't pretend otherwise.) It's harder to convince the un-superstitious.

But it's for the best. Just like any kind of story telling, using a reasonable mechanism to explain yourself is always more compelling than not.

Take "Death of a Salesman" for instance. Would that story be as good if it cut away for "flashback" sequences? No. The hook of that play is how Willy's failing mind draws us in and out of the past. We appreciate the story because it creates a reasonable excuse for what is otherwise a clunky technique.

And that's why we have things like the "X-Files" and "Men in Black," the hard work of the paranoid has found resonance in popular culture.

*Thank you, MarioKart, for keeping me from spelling this word correctly on the first try.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Siren Song

I'm really impressed by the location of that QuickTrip on 316, as should be anyone who makes the drive from Atlanta to Athens on a regular basis.

I mean you can resist the Kangaroo, right? Because it's so close to home. You think about stopping, but then you realize "I'm practically there anyway, I can survive twenty more miles. It would be silly to stop now."

But that QT . . . JUST far enough away. You're close, but you're not TOO close.

I'm particularly aware of this "sweet spot," because anytime I drive for more than thirty minutes at a time, my body begins demanding Dr. Pepper. Not soda in general, mind you, Dr. Pepper specifically. Mr. Pibb will not substitute, because as Mitch Hedberg so aptly put it, "Dude didn't even get his degree."

Now I stopped drinking soda on a regular basis several years ago, when I discovered that doing so ended the near-chronic heartburn I had at the time. And in the past six months or so, I've cut back heavily on the amount of sugar I take in. So this weird Pavlovian Pepper thing is really an inconvenience.

My willpower is strong enough to resist these cravings, for the most part. But that QT . . . it gets me every time. Just when I'm really worn out from driving, anxious to be back and bored with listening to music, there's the QuickTrip.

They have to know. You don't get a spot so precisely tuned to people's carbonation fatigue patters by accident. Thought went into that establishment. Crafty questionnaire-writing individuals held meetings about it. Charts were employed.

It's really a strange thing too. In the past, people ascribed superstitious meanings to these little coincidences in their lives. If you really wanted an apple, then came across man selling apples, you'd think the gods were smiling on you. Or maybe you'd start wondering if you were having premonitions.

But today, things like that aren't superstition.* That apple cart is there because the statistical analysis said you'd be wanting an apple right about now.

*Except for Mint Oreos, which were invented by the Devil, specifically to destroy me personally.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Contrarian Medicine

Now, as I remember it, sugar is bad for you. Or, at least, it's not very good for you. I'm not sure anymore, though, because recently I watched someone choose a soda BECAUSE it was made with sugar.

So I guess sugar is still bad for you, but high fructose corn syrup is worse, which makes sugar ok by comparison. Continuing this logic, you can have a big bowl of Cool Whip for lunch because at least it's not searing-hot volcanic ash.

People tell me that HFCS is bad because it doesn't trigger the chemical signal that tells your brain that you're full. And since your brain doesn't know that you're full, you keep eating. This is, of course, why people who drink sodas with lunch continue to sit there eating meal after meal, charging hundreds of dollars to their credit cards until they pass out from exhaustion. Unfortunately the human mind has absolutely no sort of redundancy for protecting itself, and we're basically just robots to every chemical suggestion.

The best part of the HFCS controversy is how, when I was young, people told me that sugar was bad because it suppressed your appetite. Now HFCS is going the other way, pushing me to finish my broccoli, and people are making a fuss.

But perhaps there is something to it, I mean we weren't designed to consume HFCS, it isn't natural. Natural things are much better for you, except all the ones that will make you sick or kill you if you eat them or maybe just touch them, because you could get a bad rash.

I think the real motivator behind the whole thing is our need to have someone to blame. It's a lot easier to think that bad health is the fault of a single source than to believe that it's a complex issue with a number of factors at work*. That, and hippies who sell healing crystals know when they've found a good hook.

*And by that, I mean that it's our CELL PHONES!

Friday, June 6, 2008

The Latest Addiction

Oh Lord.

This, my friends. This could be worse than "Settler's of Catan." Much worse, considering the online version of it is free.

Oh the time I will spend coming up with new and brilliant strategies for constructing railroad lines at peak efficiency. If ever someone wanted to "Nerd Snipe" me, a board game with lots of strategic options would be the way to go.

Wow, that's some real Smaug info I just gave you there. If you could just forget all about it, that would be awesome.

But as much as I enjoyed "Ticket to Ride," it brought up an unsettling point.

See, at their best, competitive games serve as a sort of personality test. The point of a game is not to win, but to find out what happens when you try to win. By pitting yourself against other people, you draw out elements of yourself that you wouldn't otherwise see. Anyone who has found an extra reserve of strength in the final moments of a football game will know what I'm talking about, but that's not the extent of it.

Do you go after the high-production spots on the Catan board, or do you build away from them in fear of being cramped by your opponent's roads?

Are you the kind of person who builds a big-point city in Carcassonne? Or do you make a bunch of tiny cities on a field that contains one of your farmers?

In "Ticket to Ride," do you find that you are at your best while saving up cards to cross the continent, out-building the competition . . . or are you like me?

Are you kind of a bastard?

I don't know what it is, but I just can't win through non-combative tactics. My best bet in "Ticket to Ride," just like in Carcassonne, is to secure a few points for myself and then spend the rest of the game getting in everyone else's way. I play for the block, it's how I roll.*

But while competitive games offer us one view of ourselves, the oft-missed co-operative game experience show the other half of that coin. How you react in competition with other humans is one thing, but how do you react when you have to work alongside them?

A few months back, I realized that I've always been one of two things in co-op video games: a healer or an archer. They're not that different really. Both are ranged jobs, away from the main fight. Both are support roles: the healer keeps everyone going, the archer keeps an eye on the whole fight and deals with problems (read: dark wizards).

And when I think about that, it reminds me of how startled I was that I liked teaching, and that I was good at it.

And maybe I shouldn't have been so surprised.

*See? Roll? Like dice? Eh? Eh! Oh. Hmm.

Friday, May 30, 2008

My Thought Process: A Beginner's Guide

1. Oh hey, that's a good idea for a blog post.*

2. You know, I should really write that idea on my Ideas list, so I don't forget it. I'm always thinking of these things, but I don't write them down and they're long gone by the time I sit down to write.

3. Ok, so Firefox. Click "More," then "Documents." Alright, in my Google Documents. "All Items," and scroll down . . . "Ideas:", there we go.

4. What was that idea again?

5. Hmmmmm . . .

6. Crap.

7. What what was I doing just now? Did something inspire it?

8. Gotta think. Ok, turn off the Penny Arcade podcast. Put the Animal Crackers away. No distractions.

9. Ummm . . .

10. Crap.

11. Maybe it was something on one of the web pages I have open. Joystiq? No. Fark? No. Garfield minus Garfield? Can't be, even though that one's hilarious. Ring of Fates item list?

12. What? How would the Ring of Fates item list inspire a blog post? My new Wolf's Bow isn't exactly a latter day muse. Wow, now I'm just desperate.

13. Urrrgh! What could I possibly have been thinking about? It was like two minutes ago!

14. Wait a minute! Now I remember! That IS a good idea. Sweet, just enter that in the "Ideas:" list, save it. Good to go.

15. Get the animal crackers, turn my podcast back on.

16. Oh right, I got the idea from something they said in the podcast.

*But not as good as this one!

Friday, May 23, 2008

Ok, so Indy 4

Under no circumstances should you see "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull." Sweet merciful crap it's bad. I mean ugh.

I take that back. If you just picked up the kids from soccer in your SUV, and you want to go to the movies anyway just so you can see one of the Fandango commercials that you always laugh at because those paper bag puppets are just "so cute," then by all means plop down your whatever-you-last-paid-for-a-move-plus-75-cents and go see it.

Make no mistake, it's not Harrison Ford who's showing his age in this movie, it's George Lucas. I honestly don't know if the man remembers how to tell stories anymore, or at least which ones are worth telling.

For the core of the problem, I point you to "Wikipedia:"The film's long gestation coincided with Harrison Ford growing older, and this meant the filmmakers had to give a new approach and setting. Instead of tributing Republic Pictures's 1930s serials, the film needed to be more like a 1950's B-Movie."

WHAT.

The 1930 serials had charm, George, charm that came through brilliantly when real actors and directors were applied to it. There's not a lot of charm in "The Crawling Eye" or it's contemporaries, and I know because I've seen plenty. Now please stand up an admit to the class that you just wanted an excuse to make another movie set in the 1950's, because you and Spielberg are part of that generation that remembers the era as a sort of Eden. Also, apparently your Eden is a time when women were largely subjugated and black people weren't allowed to vote.

Lucas' chronological obsession is why Indy 4 goes out of it's way to beat us over the head with 1950's clich├ęs. When Indy was in the diner and told his greaser sidekick to punch "Joe College" so they could escape the Communists, and a classic 1950's hit started playing at just that moment, I knew it was all over.

Three final thoughts on the matter:

1. The sad part is that "Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" keeps alluding to Indy's career with the OSS during WWII, which sounds far cooler than the chapter of his life we got. "Indiana Jones and the Quest to Kill Hitler" is infinitely more promising than Harrison Ford running around like Bugs Bunny on a nuclear testing facility. Hey, maybe Lucas could farm that "OSS" stuff out to Genndy Tartakovsky like he did with "Star Wars:Clone Wars!"

2. Every time I try to think about Indy 4, I find myself drifting off to "Uncharted: Drake's Fortune." That game was really a lot of fun, and a better model of this kind of story.

3. They waited ten years to find this script. To find THIS SCRIPT! THIS ONE!*

*TEN YEARS!

Friday, May 16, 2008

Ok, so superhero movies, Part 2

But the fact is that human beings think differently. And I don't mean that they have differences of opinion, I'm saying that they process the same information in different ways.

Imagine three factories standing alongside one another. The first one makes toys, the second makes shovels, the third one makes bombs. All three factories get a daily delivery of steel.

It's the same way with entertainment. People approach it wanting different things, they handle it in different ways, and what they take away from it is all their own.

Which is why reviewing a creative work with a score is such a fantastically stupid idea. It's like saying that steel can be given a numeric grade, like "7.2," and that number summarizes all the toys, shovels, and bombs in the world. You can't measure a movie because there's nothing to measure it against. You and the guy next to you had very separate experiences.

And maybe that's why a lot of the creative things that endure have a knack for hitting the audience on multiple levels. Take Shakespeare. He wrote with elegance, grace, and respect for his characters . . . characters who routinely murdered, went insane, hung out with witches, ran from bears, and settled it all with a good sword fight. He was a good writer. He didn't need to avoid the exciting hooks just to get his work respected. He wrote for the queen and he wrote for the peanut gallery, all in the same stoke.

Which brings me, naturally, to "The Incredibles." It's my favorite kind of movie: the one that's so much better than it had to be. Pixar's reputation and talent plus a superhero theme equals cash money money, dolla dolla bill ya'll. It doesn't have to be any good to make back every cent that goes into it.

But it is good. It succeeds as an action movie. It's entertaining to kids and gives them characters they can identify with. But it also has a lot to say about aging and feeling trapped, about strength and weakness and how they coexist, and about family.

It's really . . . remarkable.*

*Thought I was going to say "incredible," didn't you?

Friday, May 9, 2008

Ok, so superhero movies, Part 1

This week, someone told me that "Iron Man" was, and I'm quoting here, "stupid."

As you might guess, I'm inclined to disagree, but then I did just see it for the second time, so maybe I'm partial at the moment.*

"Reviewing" creative works has always been a nebulous process. People approach their entertainment in an expanse of ways, and the great value of criticism comes in understanding just how deep and complex that expanse can be.

Take "Superman Returns" for instance:

I thought it was terrible. See, I feel that one thing you usually need in a story, and especially a story about good versus evil, is conflict. Maybe I'm crazy, but conflict seems like a pretty important element. "Superman Returns" doesn't really have conflict, because Lex Luthor doesn't have any sort of plan. Oh sure, he's got his little crystal that he's going to throw into the ocean, so he can create an island and flood the world. But does he have a way to defend said island? Missiles? Rockets? A BB gun, anything? No. So why is Superman even bothering with it, when a single army helicopter could handle the whole thing during lunch? Do we send Superman to deal with a gas station robbery? No, we call the local police. Lex's "plot" is so poorly thought out that he might as well have knocked over a Texaco. When Superman showed up, and the henchmen were LITERALLY playing cards, because the script had written them into a corner with nothing else to do, I laughed.

Which is why I was so confused when a friend told me how much he loved the movie. And the weird part is that I agreed with most of his reasoning: The acting and direction were, after all, pretty solid. But to me those elements are a means to a end: telling a good story. If the story isn't good to begin with, then the rest is null and void.

I had never occurred to me that someone might see a movie JUST to see good acting, or good direction, not caring what the story was about.

*So awesome.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Moments of Wii-kness

I have a policy about first-generation electronics (that is, the first run of a product with a new technology).

This policy reads: "How about NO?"

Among geeks, early-adoption carries a fair amount of "cred," but it comes with a price . . . and I mean that literally, it comes with a direct monetary consequence. Plus there's a risk of the hardware defects and software bugs that are common with new products. You're generally better off waiting for the next iteration, which will cost less, have more features, and be more reliable.

Funny how the promise of a government rebate can overwhelm my own good advice. Sweet Lord I want a Kindle.

It's an electronic paper device, which also puts it into a substrate of technology that I try to avoid anyway, separate from the "first-gen" issue.

This substrate is labeled: "Solutions to the problems that no one has."

The Segway is a fine example of this kind of technology. Its very existence asserts that cars, bicycles, and even feet were always missing something, and that this something is best resolved with a several-thousand-dollar piece of equipment that has to be recharged. Unless you need an alternative to a wheelchair, I can't think of a good reason to have one.

And electronic paper is the same way, despite some of its unique properties.

Because, you know, in general . . . regular paper seems to work just fine. The book has been around a long time, and there's a reason. It's a really good design.

But eReaders make use of technology's intoxicating little "hook," they unfold (no pun intended). The most desirable machines always have a "reveal" quality, they open up or unfurl. This is why the XMB won an Emmy. It's the reason cell phones are always finding new ways to flip open. It's why Transformers resonated so strongly with my generation.* There's just something about watching the text of one page vanish into a whole new page that makes your better judgment all woozy.

It's like bananas, really. Bananas are a perfect metaphor of superfluous technologies. In most ways they're completely impractical. They bruise easily, aren't very durable, and you've only got about a two day window between when they're no longer green and when they're black and gooey. But there's just something neat about how they peel. They even have a handle!

*It's also why I'm sitting here thinking about new electronics right after seeing "Iron Man."

Friday, April 25, 2008

As best I understand it

If you get together with your friends in an online game, cooperating in a team environment to complete a challenge, that's weird.

If you get together with friends and silently watch that latest reality TV show, which you know from the credits has writers, that's normal.


If you dress up as an imaginary character, go to a friend's house and play a role playing game, essentially an elaborate improv exercise, that's weird.

If you dress up in a football player's jersey to show emotional support for a guy who makes several times what you do, simply because he got hired by a team that's headquartered somewhere near your home, that's normal.


If you spend a few weeks practicing a rhythm-based video game so that you and your friends can interactively listen to music, that's weird.*

If you spend years of your life honing your skills at a real instrument that you never play publicly, that's normal.


If you read a book about ethereal beings with superhuman powers who struggle in a battle of good and evil, that's weird.

If you're Catholic, that's normal.


If you travel across the country to attend a video game expo, where you sped several days trying out unreleased titles, playing in free tournaments, and enjoying free concerts with thousands of other people, that's weird.*

If you travel across the country to attend a convention for a job that you don't like, that's normal.


If you write your thoughts onto a blog, where the people you know can read and respond to them, that's weird.

If you write your thoughts into a journal or diary that you never show to anyone, that's normal.

*Not to mention going to the hardware store so you can get something to modify your pretend-guitar, just so you won't accidentally hit the "Playstation" button anymore.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Thx.

Thank you. Thank you stranger.

Where would I be now without you? What kind of person would I have become? Would I still be the sort of wretch I once was, before you came along?

There was a time . . . it seems like several lifetimes ago . . . I was so naive about everything: politics, religion, even the very world around me! I was a part of the problem.

But then in one fell swoop you changed my whole perspective. You taught me about all the evils of our time, and how we can all live in peace.

I'll never forget that day, stranger, the day I read the bumper stickers on your mid-90's Honda Accord with one broken tail light.

Each one was special, but I think the "Coexist" sticker had the most powerful effect. Something about the way it was written out all in religious symbols . . . so clever! Yet so true. So very true. If only we could get that message to all the countries in the world where religious intolerance exists today, we could change everything! People would stop, mid-persecution, and realize how wrong they'd been. Even if religion was only an excuse used to cover up more serious cultural and economic motivations, even then the tyrants would be left stunned . . . if only they could be stuck behind you at a red light.

And then there was your "F The President" sticker, right there in the center of your rear window. I was so shocked. I didn't even know that some people didn't like our president! I thought the job he'd been doing was actually super-good. But you knew better. And you knew that only by purchasing a sticker of your beliefs and slapping it on your window could you ever change people's minds . . . and hearts.

When I meditate (as I do nightly) on your wisdom, I wonder: Does that sticker mean you're giving the president a grade of "F?" Or is it short for the expletive, and you're saying "F the President" If only the light hadn't changed when it did, I would have asked.

Oh if only you hadn't driven away, how much more I would know now. I could have posed all my questions to you and been enlightened by your informed, well-thought-out arguments on each one. And your ideas wouldn't be based on egotistical snobbery, like so many others in the world, but on calm and careful reasoning that points to a clear, comprehensive plan for action.

As I consider each one of your nineteen other bumper stickers*, divining out their tenants on heath care, war, and global warming, I take comfort in knowing you're still out there changing the world, one stop sign at a time.

*One of which is always a Mac Apple.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Cope

There are these things we say that don't have any actual meaning, if you stop to think about them. They are pure filler, existing just to take up space in conversation:

-Every dinner discussion of religion will undoubtedly end with someone sing-songing: "Well-in-the-end, it-all-comes-down, to-a-matter-of-personal-faith." And that phrase will end the conversation every time, no matter what issue or religion you're talking about. It doesn't have to have a direct correlation either, it just means "I'm tired of talking about this, for the love of whatever god you believe in lets move on."

-"I know just enough to be dangerous" is one that drives me crazy. First of all, knowledge doesn't just make you dangerous by itself. Thinking that you know more than you do, now that's dangerous. But if you're using that phrase, then you know how little you know, so you should probably just not do the thing you're dangerous at. It doesn't make any sense, but people say it anyway, and other people chuckle, even though it's totally not funny.

-Saying "lets shed a little light on the subject" when you hit a light switch. This one is, I'm fairly sure, limited exclusively to my mother.

And those are just the day-to-day meaningless phrases. We have more complex ones for more complex situations.

Break-up talks often use this little gem: "I just need to figure some things out" and the even more hilarious, "YOU just need to figure some things out."

The implication here is that human beings achieve emotional stability through a complex series of calculations! It's as though the person is going to retreat into a quiet library with an abacus and a box of tissues, gradually working out some kind of psychological sudoku puzzle until they sit bolt upright and yell, "Of course! Six and Eight have to be in the bottom block, so only seven can go in the middle square! That's why I'm scared of intimacy!"

But I think my favorite of these phrases is the tragic-news go-to: "Let me know if there's anything I can do."

I know it's just a nice thing to say, but I always find it difficult to hear, because . . . . I mean seriously . . .

How can I let an opportunity like that go?

"Actually there is something you can do, get me fifteen red paper clips."*
"What?"
"Paper clips. Red. Fifteen exactly. I don't care what size."
"Well, ok . . . why?"
"Just get them. RIGHT NOW."

*Other options

1. A blond wig, a can of motor oil, and a glass eye.
2. A gold plated hand puppet in the shape of a monkey.
3. Swords . . . SWORDS.