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.