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


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


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:


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.