Friday, February 29, 2008

I thought the lines disappeared when you completed them

I got a new game recently.

It's not an adventure game, really, not the way one usually thinks of them. It's more of an adventure game motif that acts as a delivery system for a few (and by few I mean 135) logic puzzles.

And it's great. I love being able to work out the old "get the wolf, sheep, and grain across the river" challenge on a little screen, moving the animals and raft around with my stylus. And I love all the side quests that the game throws in, like the one where you collect parts to build a robot dog (which, along with zombies, melee attacks, and at least one sniper rifle, is on my list of "things that should be included in every game, ever").

So I'd say that I enjoyed the game. Or a least, I enjoyed 134ths of it.

But Puzzle 135 . . .


I'm not sure if you're familiar with L'ane rouge, but have a look. The name means "red donkey," probably because the first person who played it immediately screamed something about the inventor being a "communist jack*ss."

Does this kind of "sliding block" puzzle actually do anything to test your intelligence? To me it seems like a very good test of how long your brain cam be caught in a dangerous loop of arbitrarity.

Maybe solving it has nothing to do with how smart you are, it's just that you sure feel really smart when, after hours of pushing around little blocks, you finally get that big block out.

I wouldn't know. I cheated.

Now some would say that cheating defeats the purpose of playing a game. After all, you bought the game to be challenged, so by reducing or removing the challenge you've destroyed the game for yourself.

But that's not always true.

There is a difference between:

"This is an engaging challenge that I'm not willing or able to step up to."


"This is some bullsh*t."

Ever seen a movie that had some great elements to it, but ultimately flopped because the creators got in their own way?

That's roughly the equivalent of a video game that requires you to "press x to not die."*

And be honest, if you could pause your movie, go to a website, and find a code for your dvd player that let you experience the good aspects of the film without wading trough the missteps, wouldn't you do it?

*Resident Evil 4, I'm looking at you.

Friday, February 22, 2008

They can't all be "The Bone Collector"

This is getting ridiculous.

Why doesn't anyone seem to notice what the man is doing?

It seems so obvious to me, why don't other people pick up on it?

Is everyone so blind?

I'm speaking, of course, about Denzel Washington. In the last 8 years he's acted in 11 movies, and yet has only taken on 2 roles:

1. The good guy, who's actually a bad guy, even though he's really a good guy, if you think about it.


2. The inspirational mentor who makes us all want to shape up and go to college.

To be fair, it's probably not all Denzel's fault. His natural presence is simultaneously calm and intense, which (and isn't this a weird dichotomy) makes him ideal for playing both great teachers and great pseudo-villains. It's kinda like how Chris Cooper gets all the "hard-ass" roles, and how the guy who played Carl Winslow on "Family Matters" always gets cast as a cop.*

But I notice the same thing happening with writers, who don't have typecasting as an excuse.

Issac Asimov: The main character is an academic who discovers something that is a threat to all of humanity, only no one believes him. So he studies the problem while being hindered by those who don't want to believe the truth, then solves everything in the last 10 pages.

Neil Gaiman: The main character is a regular Joe who gets pushed around by a woman he idealizes while being handed the short end of the stick in all other aspects of life. But really he has the potential to be amazing, which he comes to realize during his travels in an amazing world that's completely foreign, even though he somehow already has a place in it.

Now try to tell me which book of Asimov or Gaiman's I'm describing.

Do writers realize that they do this, or is it a weird subconscious thing? Are they intentionally executing the same premise over and over again, using it as an easy way to talk about something else? Or are books an author's waking dream, full of little patterns that give insights about his psyche?

Have I written this post before?

*I like to imagine that the cop in "Die Hard," also played by this actor, is actually Carl Winslow. He drags himself into the house after being up all night and shooting someone for the first time in his career. Thirty seconds later Steve Urkel comes flying through the front window and we hear a voice say, "Not today, jack*ss."

Friday, February 15, 2008

Really more "refresh" than "turn"

There are certain parts of your brain that just never go away.

The English major part of my brain is always writing the world around me into a story.

The techie section is constantly looking for systems, rules, and interactions.

And then there's that special part of my personality that draws on those first two and works out theoretical zombie attacks and the best ways to defend them.

But perhaps my favorite "always on" mental tool is the little one that is dedicated, at all times, to making fun of the song "Turn the Page."

First of all, I've always had a problem with songs about music, books about writers, etc. Maybe that's why I never liked "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man." Why would you want to read a book about how some guy grew up to become a writer who spends his time writing books about how he became a writer? Or, to simplify, why are you such a jack***, James Joyce?

Strike two against "Turn the Page," or as I will refer to it from here on out: "Boo Hoo, I'm a Rock Star," is that it's not just self-involved, it's actually whining about being a professional musician.

And yes, I know that not every musician is a star. Plenty of talented people work hard all their lives and never get lucky enough to find success. But still, if you are out "on the road again," then that is the life you have chosen. And you chose it because you had the option to. You're not working fifteen hours a day in some mill or factory at a job that bores the life out of you while wearing out your joints, so you don't get a lot of sympathy. Why don't you write a song about that guy, Mr. "I have long hair and people look at me, waaaa!"?*

But the worse part of "Boo Hoo," the part that really gets me, is this line:

"Yeah, most times you cant hear em talk, other times you can"

Well yeah, those would be the options, wouldn't they? In fact, everything that exists either can or can't be heard. There's not really a third option.

Did you even need to write that line into the song? Isn't it implicit in REALITY?

*There's more money in country music, after all.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Just like the cake

-You should learn to dance.

-I can't dance.

-Uh, yeah, that's why you should learn.

-I can't learn. I'm just not a dancer.

-That doesn't make sense. You can learn, just like I did.

-Yeah but you have an aptitude for dancing, you just "get" it.

- . . . So you think I'm good dancer because I have a natural ability to dance?


-And it has NOTHING to do with me spending all that time at lessons and dance nights, being taught by experienced dancers and getting pointers from girls I danced with?

-Well . . . there's that, but you were able to learn it in the first place because you just understood the concept.

-Let me get this straight, you're saying that every person has a preset list of things that they "get," and those are the only things they can learn how to do?

-Yeah, either you have an aptitude for something, or you don't.

-And you believe this despite the fact that everyone you know has learned how to divine complex meaning from little figures scratched on a piece of paper, operate large pieces of machinery to take them safely across hundreds of miles, and remember thousands of details about the natural, economic, and social worlds they live in?

-But those things are easy!

-No they aren't. They're all incredibly complex. Yet you can do all of them. What happened, did you just get lucky and wind up having an "aptitude" for all of them?

-It's not the same. Dancing and music and other creative things require you to understand them from the beginning.

-That's even more ridiculous. No human society has ever existed without music and dancing, they are one of the most natural things for a human being to take part in, and they're a hell of a lot more natural than long division. The only difference is that you decided you HAD to learn how to read, you HAD to learn to drive a car. You never stopped to think that you COULDN'T. Where, in the course of learning all the things that you know, did you decide that certain things were IMPOSSIBLE, were MAGIC. And why are you letting that abominable idea rob you of something that could be beacon of your life, stirring your soul and connecting you to other people in a way that's as intimate and real as the deepest conversations you've ever had? "Aptitude" is a lie. It's a horrible lie and I am sick of people using it to forget how amazing they are. Anyone can dance*, anyone can write, anyone can sing. You may never be Mario Andretti, but damn it you can learn to drive, and it can take you anywhere.

- . . . Left, Right, Rock-step, huh?


*Except for that one guy. Sheesh! Dude is NEVER going to get it.

Friday, February 1, 2008

I'm like a shark

Being a techie forces you to become a master of the analogy. Computers are a strange dark art, where everyday work is done in a theoretical soup of pictures generated by words, words which are themselves descended from tiny pockets of electrical charge that represent, in a kind of philosophical mind trip, the vague concepts of "yes" and "no."

So when someone asks you what is, to their mind, a simple question about why this nebulous rabbit hole failed to represent . . . oh, say, the first level of "Desktop Tower Defense" or a far less respectable game of "Solitaire," you generally want to shake that person firmly and scream, "BECAUSE IT'S A MIRACLE THAT IT WORKED IN THE FIRST PLACE! DON'T YOU UNDERSTAND? SOMEONE WROTE WORDS ON A MAGIC BOX AND THEY CAME TRUE!"

But you can't do that. At least not more than once. TRUST ME.

Instead, you must learn to delve back into the ethereal and find some way to explain to users (by which I mean normal, healthy people) how to fit this madness into their lives.

And that's how I came to realize that browsing the web is like throwing a little party, where each of the pages you visit is a person you invite over. If you limit the guest list to those you know well, you'll have a fun, safe time. But put up a flier for the party in your local downtown area (analogous to searching Google for "free screen savers" and clicking all the links you get back) then your party will be populated with strangers who spill drinks on the carpet, throw things at your TV, and stop up your toilet (None of those examples are direct analogies. Don't try to figure out their computer equivalents.)

So when someone asks me how they could possibly have gotten a virus, or some spyware, or 30 gigs of Hollywood movies divided into thousands of .rar files on their computer, I like to imagine that person standing in the defiled, burning wreckage of their former home on the morning after a flier party, confident that this isn't their fault.

But if that's who the strangers are, then who are your web browsing friends? Even trusted friends aren't perfect, right? They each have their own little quirks, and it's worth reviewing what each friend contributes to your gathering. is a pretty good guy, generally. He's always up on current events and can converse, at least a little, about nearly anything. The only troubling part is his obsession with Britney Spears, who he talks about with the same regard that he has for the Iraq war and major political shifts. has a lot in common with CNN, but you should usually keep them apart. Fark is very knowledgeable and current, but she has a cynical sense of humor and likes to make fun of everyone, including CNN. Secretly, I suspect CNN is bitter about how often Fark is more up-to-date than he is. is your all around sports guy, a staple of the good party. He knows all the scores, remembers all the big plays, and is generally fun to be around. Too bad he has a tendency to get on a single topic and run it completely into the ground. Inexplicably, he too is prone to ramble about Britney Spears. is your gossipy socialite. She knows everyone, even knows who knows whom, and is on top of every relationship, breakup, and engagement. She's great to have around, for the most part, always reminding you of someone's birthday or an upcoming event. Just make sure to specify how much of your information she's allowed to repeat, because otherwise she'll broadcast it to everyone you know. is a total geek, no doubt about it. He talks so much that critics constantly accuse him of making it all up, even though they're hard-pressed to find any examples. But say what you want, he's the only guest that can talk history and light saber fighting styles with equal fervor.


* is generally funny, sometimes incisive, but talks about video games WAY too much.