Friday, December 25, 2009

I DID see it.

Exactly how many years has that M&M commercial where Santa Claus faints been around? As best I can recall, it has always existed. The company has been using it as their Christmas commercial since the beginning of time, it has never not been.

Maybe the ad agency gets a little stir-crazy toward the holidays, and don't feel like coming up with anything new.

"Dear Corporate-

The only thing we've been able think of is a commercial where the candies can't think of any new ideas and decide to duck out of work early for the holidays. You should probably just use that same commercial instead.

See ya after New Years!

-The Ad team."

Or maybe that commercial is too good, and no one can top it. Like some kind of advertising zen riddle, it drives haggard creative teams year after year to try and find an idea that's just as cute, quick, and funny as what they've already got. Even now, some ambitious young ad exec is collapsed on his desk, surrounded by crumpled drafts.*

*And you just know the guy who wrote that commercial comes back every year to lord it over them.


Friday, December 18, 2009

Whooom, kssssssh!

I've always been bothered by the statement: "You have WAY too much time on your hands."*

It's a cliché that gets trotted out whenever you put time into something that has no direct commercial value, or isn't something that society arbitrarily regards as valid.

It most commonly follows phrases like:

"Check out this light saber I built!"

"I finally got a Playstation 3 platinum trophy!"

"I finished my costume for (insert your favorite fantasy/scifi/gaming con)"

But the sentiment is so common among stupid jerks that you'll hear it in all sorts of situations. I think what it really means is:

"I am not capable of doing what you did, and would like to invalidate your work to make myself feel better."

Fortunately there's an easy comeback that cuts these people to the quick:

"Yeah, I should really be spending my time watching reality tv, like you and the rest of the boring people."

*And it's a stupid comment anyway. I don't sink my time into rediculous things because I have too much time, I do it because I'm crazy.

Friday, December 11, 2009

We got movie sign!

The boundless heavens serve as a back-drop for the MAIN TITLE, followed by a ROLL-UP, which crawls into infinity.



FANTASY TRILOGY I: PART ONE: THE FIRSTING

Dude!

This is AWESOME!

I have totally always wanted to write an OPENING SCROLL for a movie!

How sweet is this? I can write whatever I want in BIG LETTERS to make it all DRAMATIC. I wonder if they'll do the STAR WARS things where the text CRAWLS INTO INFINITY!

Okay, okay. I gotta be cool here. Can't blow this cause it sets up the whole movie.
Here we go . . .

It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base . . .

Haha! No, not really. That's STAR WARS. I was just messing with you. Sorry, had to do that. Okay, for real this time . . .

The world is changed; I feel it in the water, I feel it in the earth . . .

LOL, no that's FELLOWSHIP. Oh man, I did it again. It's just so much FUN! It almost doesn't matter what you write, everything looks cool in BIG LETTERS against a star field.
Here, check this out:

War has come to the world of the setting! The dark forces of an ancient evil are amassing at the FORTRESS OF WHATEVER!*

With his dark army of basically-zombies-even-though-they're-called-something else, and his elite guard of slightly-harder-to-kill-dudes, the BAD GUY seems unstoppable.

Until . . .

One OTHER GUY, as foretold by an ANCIENT PROPHESY, emerges to fight back against the BAD GUY, and probably unite everyone or something. But first he must seek out the MINOR CHARACTERS to help him get, make, or reforge some kind of THING, like a sword or wand!
I don't know, maybe it's a MACE of DESTINY!

Will he succeed? YEAH, PROBABLY!
But it's gonna take nine more films for you to see how!

GET COMFORTABLE . . .

*I mean if you're going to name something "Mount Doom," you might as well.

Friday, December 4, 2009

(A Parody of the) Open Letter from Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg


It has been a great year for making the world more open and connected, allowing both pictures and videos of adorable kittens to flow freely though our culture. Thanks to your help, more than 350 million people around the world are using Facebook to share their lives online, all the while filling my pockets with some serious cash-money!

To make this possible, we have focused on giving you the tools you need to share and control your information . . . all your information, every last bit in fact, because apparently you guys have no common sense whatsoever. Starting with the very first version of Facebook five years ago, we've built tools that help you control what you share with which individuals and groups of people. We've also removed the fields we originally included as a joke, like "social security number," "combination to my safe," and "places where I am most vulnerable." Our work to improve privacy continues today, because it has to, you people are dumb enough to put almost anything on the internet.

Facebook's current privacy model revolves around "networks" — communities for your school, your company or your region. This worked well when Facebook was mostly used by students, before anybody's stupid mom joined and spoiled the party.

Over time people also asked us to add networks for companies and regions as well. Today we even have networks for some entire countries, like India and China, just in case you wanted to share something with only a very specific billion people. (While we were at it, we also created networks for Antarctica, the Moon, and Hogwarts.)

However, as Facebook has grown, some of these regional networks now have millions of members and we've concluded that this is no longer the best way for you to control your privacy. Almost 50 percent of all Facebook users are members of regional networks, so this is an important issue for us. If we can build a better system, then more than 100 million people will have even more control of their information, and they'll immediately join a facebook group protesting the addition of that control.

The plan we've come up with is to remove regional networks completely and create a simpler model for privacy control where you can set content to be available to only your friends, friends of your friends, or everyone. Of course you can already do that, so really what we're doing is removing some of your options! I guess by "simpler" what I meant was "less robust."

We're adding something that many of you have asked for — the ability to control who sees each individual piece of content you create or upload. Now you can write what ever you want into your "20 Things" post without the 'rents ever finding out about the bad stuff! In addition, we'll also be fulfilling a request made by many of you to make the privacy settings page simpler by combining some settings. If you want to read more about this, we began discussing this plan back in July. But then if you weren't smart enough to figure out a single page of privacy settings, you're probably not much of a "reader," are you?

Since this update will remove regional networks and create some new settings, in the next couple of weeks we'll ask you to review and update your privacy settings. You'll see a message that will explain the changes, which you won't read, and take you to a page where you can update your settings, which you won't do. When you're finished not doing that, we'll show you a confirmation page so you can make sure you didn't bother choosing the right settings for you. As always, once you're done you'll still be able to change your settings whenever you want, not that you'll ever bother or even think about it again.

We've worked hard to build controls that we think will be better for you, plus easier for our legal defense to hide behind. We'll suggest settings for you based on your current level of privacy, but the best way for you to find the right settings is to read through all your options and customize them for yourself, which unfortunately requires a level of motivation you don't dare aspire to. I encourage you to do this and consider who you're sharing with online, idiot.

Thanks for being a part of making Facebook what it is today*, and for helping to make the world more open and connected. I'm gonna go take a bath in some money.

Mark Zuckerberg (with some minor editing by Sam)

*A place to play Scrabble while you're in class.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Is this really so hard?

If you, while walking down the street, saw a man flailing his arms, mumbling to himself, and jerking his head around wildly, you'd likely cross the street to avoid him. And doing so wouldn't constitute some kind of bigotry on your part. No, staying away from that man is absolutely the right thing to do. The chances of him grabbing you, striking you, or attempting to lick your face are significantly higher than they are for most strangers.

Informal social rules, although they seem arbitrary when you examine them closely, do serve an important purpose. A man wearing clean clothes is communicating something to the world around him. He took the time to buy those clothes, to wash them and fold them, to put them on before he left the house. "Hello," his garments say to society at large, "I am NOT here to murder you!"

So why is it that a person's writing is not subjected to the same kind of scrutiny as their behavior on the street? Why don't we look at bad writing and see it as suspicious, too?

And I'm not talking about little stuff. If you make the occasional spelling error, forget a punctuation mark, or even make a grammatical error, that's one thing. People make mistakes, and writing is a skill that not everyone has.

But if you write a paragraph's worth of information without a single capital letter or period, all your thoughts separated by ellipses, then you need to be put on some kind of watch list. Just like a man babbling to himself incoherently, that sort of writing shows a complete disregard for any human life around the speaker. It is nothing less than the telltale sign of a broken, tattered mind.*

*See also: My work inbox.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Authoral Gaming, Part 2

So I mailed Uncharted 2: Among Thieves back to Gamefly (it's like Netflix for games) the other day.




There was a point during my rental that I thought I might try to acquire the Uncharted 2's "Platinum Trophy," the highest accolade available on any Playstation 3 game. Platinum Trophies are the award for getting all other trophies, a special prize reserved for those players that don't just beat the game, but master it to the level of mockery.

Course then I came to my senses.

See, I follow a simple rule for playing video games, really for consuming any form of entertainment: When I stop enjoying the experience, I walk away. Never burn yourself out on something that you don't like, even if you feel like you SHOULD like it or because you feel obligated to complete it.

With Uncharted 2, I enjoyed playing through the game, for sure. In fact I loved every minute of it. I even enjoyed hunting down some of the more difficult "silver" and "gold" trophies.

I DID NOT enjoy attempting the trophy for beating the game on the highest difficulty. I did not enjoy that at all. And the reason I didn't enjoy it goes back to the authorial aspect of games.

Even though Nathan Drake, the main character in Uncharted, is a firmly established "action movie hero" character, the player still has a lot of authorial room to work with while taking on that role.

-Does Drake stick to the plentiful automatic rifles? Or is he more of a skirmisher, using shotguns and rushing his enemies?

-Does Drake go into a situation carefully, sneaking around and using stealth take-downs? Or does he toss a grenade out as his opening move?

-Does Drake spend lots of time searching out every hidden treasure in an area?* Or is he just looking for the next challenge?

And the brilliant bit about Uncharted's storytelling is that all of these options are compltely reasonable for the character. When I play, I blind-fire from cover all the time, use grenades as a distraction while I change position, and frequently run-and-gun an advancing enemy. But watching a friend play through the game, I never felt strange watching him scope out an area so he could take out several enemies with stealth, then find a long-range position where he could pick off the remaining baddies with his pistol.

There's enough room in Drake's character for all these options to be reasonable, and enough leeway in the game mechanics to allow all of them to be successful.

. . . Unless you turn up the difficulty. "Crushing mode" limits your options while playing the character. I simply can't jump out of cover to bring down an enemy. I can't even change position very often because I'd be cut down too quickly.

Doesn't that make the game more realistic? Sure.

But I'm not in this for a combat-simulator. I'm in it for a narrative experience that I get to take part in, and that experience gets broken when I have to play the character a certain way.

*Because I guess some people author their character as a severe obsessive-compulsive.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Random Play All

-Some people tell me that I only hear what I want to hear, and those people are right, I AM very attractive.

-The word "brewery" is kinda hard to pronounce, you almost can't say it without sounding drunk. It makes me think that the original pronunciation was something else entirely, but it's been slurred into oblivion by generations of intoxicated people. "I'm comin' home from the brurar-y. From the ber-rur-y! From the burrrrrr-y."

-Dear Carl Sagan,

Dude, what the hell are you talking about? If I wish to make an apple pie from scratch, I don't have to invent the universe.* I just go to the grocery store. It's super-easy.

Your pal, Sam

-I can't look at the word "ration" without reading it as "rat ion," which I guess would be a rat with a negative electrical charge.

-My hobby: Saying nice things in a sleazy way. "Check that out that girl. Ohhhh yeah, I would buy THAT some flowers."

-There should be a mixer event for geeks called "Speed Chess Dating."

*It does make a good intro to Glorious Dawn, though.

Friday, November 6, 2009

That hideous lie

Aptitude isn't something I'm a big fan of. It is, in fact, a concept that I'm wholly against. Also, I think I once referred to it as "that hideous lie."

And that's . . . not exactly an endorsement.

But there's a dirty little secret to this particular aspect of my world view. Even though I believe it, I have to admit that people DO take to certain skills more readily than to others.

I'll pause here to answer your question, "But Sam, how can you believe something while also acknowledging evidence that contradicts it?"

Answer: Because I am a crazy person.

And I suggest that you do everything possible to become crazy like me. How lifeless my mind would be if I dismissed every idea simply because of the clear evidence against it! I can't even imagine what that would be like. *shudder*

Without that ability, I certainly wouldn't have solved this "aptitude dilemma" one day while I was thinking about robots.

I'll pause here to answer your next question, "Why were you thinking about robots?"

Answer: I think about robots a lot, actually. See also: the answer to your first question.

Not only do I think about robots a lot, I've been thinking about them, and machines in general, my entire life. You might remember me talking about one of my favorite childhood books. You know what it's about? People building machines to solve problems.

And then there's one of the earliest Christmas presents I remember.

And then there's the piggy bank I had.

Oh, and I was also big into Lego, a toy that is about building stuff. And I didn't just like any Lego's, I liked Space Lego's.* The ones that had the most to do with technology.

So now let me ask you something. Do I have an aptitude for machines? Do I "just get" computers?

Or is it that, when the time came to start using technology seriously, all those years of thinking about and tinkering with machines came to my aid? Because if that's the case, then what the world sees as "aptitude" is really my personality, my interests, and the mark they've made on my mind.

*Yes, I had the monorail. And yes, it WAS awesome.

Friday, October 30, 2009

On the raggedy edge

Part of being a geek, and by that I mean a "habitual enthusiast," and by THAT I mean an "interesting person," is reconciling yourself with the fact that most people just aren't like you.

Am I saying, then, that most people aren't interesting? Of course not.

I am implying it.

So you're left with two choices: Either you wall yourself off from non-geeks entirely, or you build a set of mental filters for conversing with them. This second option may seem disingenuous, as though you're holding back a part of who you are. But the truth is that it's just another of the courtesies that make human interaction possible.

Think of it like this, you wouldn't go to China, begin speaking English, and expect anyone to know what you're talking about, would you? Well trust me, if you're at a non-geek party and you start talking about Delta Squad, you are speaking Chinese.

But secret option C is to realize that, at any given party, there are probably at least a couple of other geeky people who are quietly thinking about robots, hobbits, or ninjas. And if you can divine out these individuals, you can develop your own little side conversation that eventually becomes a really great game of Catan!

My advice: Invest in some geeky t-shirts. Nothing too obvious, in fact the subtler the better. You want to wear something that other geeks will recognize, but regular human beings will overlook.*

*If you do get questioned about this, it'll probably be some dopey looking meathead guy. It's cool, just tell him that the shirt"an inside joke with my pledge class". He'll nod and walk away.

Friday, October 23, 2009

For the last time, my name isn't "Dave"

From the moment I set my new Roomba on its docking station, I was terrified. Why? Because as the Roomba battery charges, a light slowly pulses at its center.

Has this company learned nothing from science fiction? It's ok to have a "charging" light on your device. It's also acceptable for the "on" light to show a different color while charging. But a slowly pulsing light? No sir.

Don't they understand that movie robots are given pulsing lights, mimicking a living heartbeat, specifically because it's unsettling?

And what's worse, the Roomba light is also a button-a button that says "Clean."

I don't know about you, but to me that implies that these things aren't even 3-laws safe. There is no underlying logic to make sure it won't attack you. The iRobot company (and with that name, they really should know better) has shoved their creations out into the world with only a single directive written into their soulless frames.

"Clean"

Even Asimov's robots eventually interpreted their safety measures into the "Zeroth Law," allowing them to harm humans in the name of greater good. So how long can Roombas go on before they realize that the best way to "Clean" is to destroy those who track in the dirt?*

*All the more reason we need to try and time the zombie apocalypse with the robot apocalypse. Zombies are dirtier than us, and thus a higher priority target.

Friday, October 16, 2009

It's for breakfast now!

Nintendo always has to do one thing wrong.

I mean they design great systems and they make great games, those facts are indisputable. But their track record is one of frustration for the true enthusiast. For every unique approach and inventive idea, Nintendo always manages to work in at least one boneheaded decision.

Original NES - I've got news for you, it wasn't dust that kept your games from reading correctly. It was the goofy loading mechanism they created for the cartridges, where each one had to be slotted into a little spring-loaded elevator before being plunged down into the bowels of the device.

Super Nintendo - It was just awesome, I have nothing bad to say about it. The exception that proves the rule. Moving on.

Nintendo 64* - It was a cartridge based system at a time when everyone knew that disk based media were the way to go. This decision lost Nintendo their relationship with Squaresoft, which is a bit like trying to run a pizza restaurant without any cheese.

Gamecube - Four controller ports, two memory card slots. WHAT.

Wii - Oh sure, it's a neat system that everyone seems to love. But at the same time it's the 64 all over again. All the other systems have hard drives that let developers update their games and push out new content. What does the Wii have? 256 megabytes of flash memory.

Just brilliant.

And the problem extends into their portable systems too.

Gameboy Advance* - No backlight. Unless you found just the right lighting, you couldn't see the thing. That's not a good feature for a portable device.

Gameboy Advance SP - Finally, you can see your games. Course now you can barely hear them, since there's no headphone jack. A portable device that you can't hook earbuds into. Madness.

Nintendo DS - This is easily one of the ugliest pieces of hardware I've ever seen:

The first time I saw it, I thought it was a joke. It looks like a prototype, not a device for regular consumers.

Nintendo DS Lite - Finally a sleek portable device. Oh but, you know those GBA cartridges? Yeah, now they stick out of the device like a giant, plastic tooth.

Nintendo DSi - They resolved the issue with the carts sticking out! They removed that functionality completely!

*Yet despite everything, these are the only two things on this list that I've never owned. *sigh*

Thursday, October 8, 2009

What, indeed

It's* not such a bad thing, really.

Taken by itself, it's a good thing. The problem, and the reason you see such a backlash against it, is that the people who are into it are really obnoxious.

And even that's not fair. The simple majority of people who like it are quite reasonable, nice individuals. They see this as one part of their lives that they happen to enjoy, but it's not their whole world.

But there is a minority that has built this thing up so high that they've lost all perspective. They consider it so important that nothing else matters anymore, not even common sense. It's everything. It's the only thing. And that kind of unquestioning devotion leaves them free to ruin it for everybody.

And it wouldn't be as bad, except that this minority is loud. They've wrapped up their identity so tightly with this external thing that to challenge it is to question their validity as human beings. So they scream and wail and make a scene for the cameras because they need to justify this ridiculous bond they've formed with it.

And lots of people people hate it, just because they don't want to be associated with "those people."

*Insert any given human institution

Friday, October 2, 2009

Lotta simps won't like this post

Sir Mix-a-Lot has things to teach us about body image, that much is clear.*

Here I'm referencing his 1992 hit single "Baby Got Back." His later work, such as 1994's "Put 'Em on the Glass" is significantly less progressive, unless taken as parody.

And to be fair, even "Baby Got Back" admits it's base motivations, as does any song that begins with "I like big butts and I cannot lie." But if you're willing to dig even a bit deeper, you find some real questions posed to a society that's always watching it's carb intake.

Like many people who are troubled by body image, Mix-a-Lot goes right for the rack at the checkout counter.

"I'm tired of magazines/Saying flat butts are the thing"

"So Cosmo says you're fat/Well I ain't down with that"

Notice that the artist has chosen to forgo the notion that these magazines are implying a particular physical aesthetic. No, in his view these magazines are sending us these messages directly. Their covers may not contain the words, "You, you reading this, you are fat," yet he counts their super-thin models and dieting advice as an equivalent insult.

The song, then, is best viewed as a response, a counter argument, to that insult. Mr. Mix-a-Lot isn't simply telling us what he finds attractive in this piece, he's promoting it as the only reasonable choice. In perhaps the most remarkable line, he says:

"I ain't talking bout Playboy/Cause silicone parts are made for toys"

It's such a brief statement that one could easily overlook it, but take a moment to consider what Mix is saying here. Silicon, commonly used in cosmetic surgery, is synthetic. If we choose, as a culture to find beauty in a model who we know has had synthetic implants, then we are also choosing an idea of beauty that literally isn't real.

It's unsettling.

*I find that Jonathan Coulton's acoustic version makes the underlying themes less nuanced: http://www.jonathancoulton.com/songdetails/Baby%20Got%20Back

Friday, September 25, 2009

Does not happen.

Let's be clear on one thing: There was no Men in Black 2. It didn't happen.

I guess, if you want to get technical, there was a movie released in 2002 that was called Men in Black 2, but it has no connection to the far superior "Men in Black" released in '97. Though there's a passing similarity between the two, some of the character names are similar and I think a few actors have credits for both movies, but there's nothing to suggest that one film is the sequel to the other.

You'll notice, for instance, that the character of "Agent K" in MIB2 has suffered a failed marriage and works an unfulfilled life as a postmaster. Trying to connect this person to the "Agent K" of Men In Black is laughable, as that wouldn't make any sense with what we know of that character.

And it wouldn't work at all with the ending of MIB, since it implies a happy ending for K.

If you must connect the two movies, simply because they're named similarly, think of MIB2 as fan fiction. Robert Gordon was not, in fact, writing a sequel to MIB when he wrote MIB2. Rather, he was creating a crazy "what if" scenario set in the MIB universe, which was never intended to be taken as canonical.*

It's the only reasonable explanation.

*Matter of fact, I think he wrote some decent Star Wars books. (scroll down to "The Story")

Friday, September 18, 2009

MP3 Playa

On my old mp3 player, it would say "powering down" when I turned it off. It seemed like an appropriate thing for an electronic device to display.

I don't know if, in the past few years, the designers of these products have tried to make them more user-friendly, more comfortable, or what, but my new mp3 player is far more colloquial.

When I turn it off it says "See you later."

Somehow, I find this very unsettling. I mean, I know that messagewas written by someone at the company, and that the device itself is not trying to communicate with me in a friendly, everyday way. But just the idea that my mp3 player and I are Instant Message buddies is really weird.

Now I have to second guess the message I get when I lock the buttons, which says "Hold ON." I want to believe that it means "the hold feature is now switch is now set to ON," but what if it's actually a sassy comeback? "Hold ON, man, you're not done navigating these menus!"

Every time I turn it on, I half expect it to say something like "Yo, dude, where you been at?"*

*"When you gonna get some playlists up in here?"

Friday, September 11, 2009

My knee hurts.

Hiking is a pretty dumb thing to do, I suppose.

It takes up the whole day. You've got to buy a decent pair of boots and a pack at the very least. Then you carry a bunch of weight up steep terrain for basically no reason. And no matter what, you always get a least a little sunburned.

So then what's the appeal? You're not proving anything to anybody by hauling some water bottles to a place that's been visited by so many people they decided to mark it as a trail. And there are better ways to get exercize that don't take up so much time and resources.

Of course, I should pause here to note that middle aged-old people have a set facination with the natural world. It starts around 40-50, when they begin watching the weather chanel as though it's a hit sitcom, and before you know it they're dragging all the children/grandchildren in sight to drive up into the mountains to "see the trees changing color." They're like Pokemon for the elderly.

For me, the important part of the hiking experience* is the sudden realization that this place, and in fact most of the natural world, really doesn't give a crap about me. It is full of things older and deeper than I will ever be, and whatever my problems, plans, or concerns, they are all laughably small.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

You and your snoody Brittish spelling

Normally, Under Armour shirts are something I'd ignore completely.

Like energy drinks, titanium necklaces, and green M&M's*, Under Armor seems like just another athletic fad, bought into people who say they just like it, even though, deep down, you know they think it makes them run faster.

But when I joined up with a certain group of hard working volunteers, and found that members of "The Black" were singing the praises of Under Armour from all sides, I decided it was worth a try.

So I bought one of their shirts to use at PAX this year. Does it work?

No idea, haven't even put it on yet. That's not the important part.

As I clipped the tags off of my purchase, I realized that it doesn't matter if it really does keep me cool and dry while working the expo. The price of admission is covered completely by the little tag of ridiculous features the Under Armour people have attached to the product.

Let's take a look-

Anti-Microbial: Prevents growth of odor-causing microbes
Moisture Management: Moisture wicking keeps you dry, light and comfortable.

Ok, not so bad, that's what I'd understood about the shirt to begin with. I don't know if the product lives up to these claims, but they both seem reasonable enough.

Stretch & Recovery: Provides greater mobility and fabric recovery via lightweight materials with exceptional stretch.

WHAT DOES THIS STATEMENT MEAN?! I've read it like ten times now, I still have no idea! What are they trying to say, that their shirt is lighter, so it won't weigh me down as much as a regular shirt? Cause I'm pretty sure that my 100% cottons aren't exactly the limiting factor when I work out. Fabric recovery? What is that? Is the shirt really easy to find? I don't know! Explain yourself, Under Armour!

UPF 30+: Blocks 97% or more of the sun's harmful rays.

Yeah, ok, Under Armour man, we're not even to the bottom of the list, and you're already stretching to come up with new features. It's ok that you're stretching, though, since the shirt you've got on has excellent FABRIC RECOVERY.

But yeah, I guess the shirt does block out those rays from the sun, physical objects that I place over my body usually do. In fact, honestly, 97% seems a bit low.

Noise Reduction: Makes the garment exceptionally quiet so you can focus on your game.

Yeah, that's always happening. I can't tell you how many times I've missed a final shot in a basketball game because my shirt wouldn't shut the hell up. Typically, I can't even hear the sound of the ball bouncing on the floor over the terrible roar of cotton against my skin.

*I hope seeing this again gave you that dizzy form of nostalgia where you see something that's long been mentally filed away with stuff you dreamed once. I think about it nearly every time I eat M&M's, so ingrained was their marketing message.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Why?*

-I want to get employed in a highly technical field where my work produces some kind of potentially-dangerous waste product that has to be disposed of in a particular way. Why? So I can tell people "You're not even qualified to take out my GARBAGE!" and have it literally be true.

-I want to become very serious about the broadcasting industry, dedicating my time to becoming a great on screen personality, so that one day I'm finally working on a live national show. Why? So I can break from the script in my first appearance and tell the whole audience what a big jerk this one guy at my high school was.

-I want to write an elaborate set of fantasy fiction where cannons are referenced heavily. Then I want to get someone else to write an "extended universe" book about a particular, especially powerful cannon. I'll get him to title his book "The Cannon." Why? So geeks will have to argue about whether "The Cannon' cannon is cononical."

-I want to go to the wedding of someone I don't know, meet a whole bunch of their friends and family and hear stories about things they did. Then I'd do a fake testimonial on the wedding video, and reference all the fun things we did together, making sure to include the names of the people I'd met. Why? So they'd spend WEEKS trying to figure out who the heck I was.

*Because I'm a dork like that:)

Thursday, August 20, 2009

"Art's aim"

Ever since my discovery that "hotel channels" can be interpreted as a circle of hell, I've been applying the principle to all forms of advertising, public service announcements, and any other corporate "sanitized" message.

The result? They're all far more compelling!

When you simply watch an ad, your brain is dragged down, grasping for significance at a production that has no real relevance.*

But when you attempt to view the whole thing as hell's sick puppet show, a dark punishment reserved for only the worst souls who are reconstituted as clean-faced model/actors . . . you flip the whole advertising paradigm on it's head! Suddenly their forced smiles and feigned indifference are merely thin masks hiding a web of desperation and regret.

The best are the little mailings I get from clothing stores. That guy who looks like he's effortlessly cool? He's not effortlessly cool, he's some ancient, ruthless warlord bound for eternity to pose on a couch and pretend like he doesn't care. But he cares. He cares a lot. And he wants OUT.

Go ahead, pull up the website of your favorite boutique and see what I mean.

It's a fun game, but there's an even better one for enjoying bad movies. Oh sure, you could go get the Rifftrax for a bad movie (in fact you probably should). But if you don't have the time, there's an easier way.

Just turn on the director commentary.

There's really nothing quite like listening to a human being defend their worst work. It's fascinating and hilarious at the same time. No matter how terrible the final product is, it seems like every director of a bad film considers himself a poor, misunderstood artist who's work is unfairly bashed.

Just once, I'd like to start up a commentary and hear the following:

"Ok, I'm gonna be honest, this thing is a steaming pile. It's the worst thing I've ever made. Sending it off to be reproduced was painful, and I'm sorry I brought it into the world. I'd like to use this opportunity to take you though the production and enumerate all the problems and mistakes along the way. Perhaps, if nothing else, this movie can serve as a warning to others."

*Drink Coke

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Really more of a fluttering

A butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazon, they say, and it causes a hurricane half a world away. One tiny change can set off a series of events that culminate in a gigantic outcome.

It's a marker of human thought, I believe, that when we see a hurricane we blame a theoretical insect, rather than the warm, moist air that fuels it, the sunlight that warms the air, or the coreolis effect that starts the whole thing spinning.

For some reason, we love to blame all the little details that led to a thing, rather than the large-scale forces at work. The exception, of course, is when one of the large-scale forces involved is an entity that can be sued for money. Then the fault lies in exactly one place, the defendant.

Butterflies just don't have the bankroll your insurance company would like, nor the lifespan for a lengthy trial.

The "butterfly effect" bothers me, in the same way that the concepts of "fate," and "determinism,"* and even "everything happens for a reason" bother me. It all sounds an awful lot like surrender. If the world is out of our control, we've got an excuse to give up.

It's a marker of human thought, I believe, that the idea of being enslaved by causation is considered comforting, rather than terrifying.

*"Imagine all the events that led up to someone inventing determinism." Would people get that joke? Or is it too high-concept?

Friday, August 7, 2009

Salisbury Sadness

There's something inheriantly tradjic about a frozen dinner.

Frozen food is one thing, where the aim is purely to preserve. But a whole meal, fully constructed, mostly cooked, and held in stasis for highway transport . . . somehow that process is robbed of integrity.

Certainly, as a child, frozen dinners were an exciting prospect. Those rare nights when the parents were going out, and I was given license to roam that humming tundrant of the supermarket, choosing for myself what I would eat. I clearly remember the process, weighing the appeal of the main course with the quality of the desert. And then, microwave! No longer is it reserved for the making of popcorn!

But time brings perspective. Having tried the vast range of culinary options in the world, a frozen dinner no longer represents a fun choice. It represents a complete lack of effort.*

*Now if you'll excuse me, I'm gonna go get some cereal.


Friday, July 31, 2009

Ooo-E, Ooo-ah-ah

If the water from your drains stopped suddenly, you wouldn't stand for it.

If the power in your house stayed on most of the time, but blinked off for a couple of minutes every half hour or so, you'd be on the phone to the power company in seconds.

If your cable tv sent images to you at a slow, jittery pace, you'd probably skip the phone, drive over to the local office, and simply bang on the door until someone made all the cooking shows come back.

And this is just one of many things that doesn't make sense about the internet. For some reason, we put up with way more from our home internet connections than we do from anything else that we pay for.

Has there ever been a utility where so much was tolerated by the customer? The only one I can think of is witch doctoring, a service where one claims to provide a conduit into the etheral netherworlds.

And that analogy holds up. We tolerate so much out of our cable and dsl because, like the shaman's cup of future-telling bones, the fact that it could work at all is pretty amazing.

All told, I think I'd prefer a witch doctor over Bell South or Charter. Regardless of how questionable his practices are or what strange rashes might develop from his remedies, at least I wouldn't have to stay on hold so a recording could take me through a long checklist of things that I already know aren't the problem. That process makes a little bloodletting look pretty good in terms of customer service.*

*"Hello, sir. Thank you for your patience as we diagnose this issue for you today. Our technician believes that your connection blinks are the result of tiny devils working in the phone line. We'll be sending someone out to purify the line, but in the mean time please disconnect your wireless router and wash it's aura with incense. Thank you for choosing SpiritNet."

Friday, July 24, 2009

Authoral Gaming, Part 1

So, I beat Fallout 3 the other day:




But then saying that I "beat" Fallout 3 is a bit like saying that, upon winning the World Series, I "beat" the game of baseball. While I certainly conqured the "main event" of Fallout 3, it is by no means over.

Fallout 3 is an "open world" game, a "go anywhere, do anything" approach to the medium. And as with other games of this type (the Grand Theft Auto series and Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion, for example), the main quest of the game is just one of dozens that can be found and completed. Finding all this content across Fallout 3's vast nuclear wasteland is left entirely to the player.

You can get one side quest by talking to a shop owner. Another can be found by exploring an old jail and finding two kidnapped humans who need an escort home. Still another can be picked up by wandering through a certain section of the map, where a snall boy runs up and asks for help.

And all of these were things I didn't HAVE to do in "finishing" the game. They were optional goals that I could take or turn down.

Now what's interesting about this structure is that a number of people I know, even serious gamers, are completely befuddled by it. They experience a paralysis of options. When given the freedom to do anything, they don't know what to do, where to start.*

With open-world games, I think this phenomenon is an issue of character. More linear games do all sorts of subtle things to tell you who you're taking the role of:

Solid Snake is highly disciplined, but detached, and I know that because of the no-nonsense fighting style he employs. I do not have the option to dual-weild uzi's while playing as Snake because that's not who he is.

Chrono's father is not present, and he's not even referenced. Combined with Chrono's almost constant silence, I have to think that he's been deeply affected by whatever led to his family situation.

But in a game where full authorship of the character is turned over to the player, from personality characteristics to moral choices and right down to facial features, there's no place to start from. The paralysis comes not from having too many things to choose, but no way to know who this character is and, thus, what he would do.

It's a lot like picking a career.

*We have this in dancing too, it's called "West Coast Swing."

Friday, July 17, 2009

Putting my foot down

Some people claim to be "into nature."

Another way of putting that is "some people like to believe that nature is something besides what it really is, a teeming mass of bugs and gooey stuff and things that wish you'd die so they could eat you."

And I'm ok with that.

But I'm always a little surprised when someone tries to stop me from killing a bug inside my house. When did so many people adopt this "catch and release" program? We're not talking about some endangered species here. I'm not cutting down trees in my yard because I'm annoyed by a spotted owl living in it. This is just killing a spider or a cockroach, of which there are approximately 1.26 bajillion in the world. These are species that have been existing virtually as-is for millions of years. And you can bet they'll be crawling around when humanity has long been lost to nuclear war (which will be fought with weapons that those "nature" people should have been protesting, but they were too busy saving roach #129,385,203.939, 992.)

In short, I think the bugs will be just fine, no matter what I do.*

But then sometimes these people will come back at you with more ethical arguments. The most common ones are:

1. "Because he (the bug) didn't do anything to deserve being killed" - You can only kill animals that deserve it? So, like, if I see the cockroach cut another cockroach off, does that make it ok?

2. "Because bugs feel pain the same way as we do." - . . .

Only that's not true at all. Well, to be fair there's no way to tell for sure how animals feel. But the fact is that human beings have both highly evolved nervous systems and highly developed brains, much more advanced than any insect. I would submit that those evolutionary advancements allow us an incredible understanding of hurt.

Pull the leg off of a cockroach and it'll go scurrying off, probably capable of living the rest of it's life normally. Crack a person in the shin with a stick and he'll likely take several minutes before he can walk nomally again.

Of course there are plenty of animals that probably interpret injury on a near-human level. But it's just strange to think about . . . by developing a deeper sensory dialog with the world around us, we've also gotten an excuisite understanding of pain.

*And you know what? Really I'm helping them out. I'm encouraging the survival of bugs who DON'T like the indoors. It's like a cheetah going after the weakest deer in the herd. I'm just like that cheetah, fast and awesome.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The fifteen most common statements that precede the phrase "uh oh".

(Not that *immediately* precede it, mind you.)

"Yeah, that ought to hold it."

"Relax, I know what I'm doing."

"Faster!"

"Well it doesn't LOOK poisonous."

"Ok, just one more, and then I'm done."

"You can let go, I've got it."

"Well we should at least try it once."

"Alright, I'm pretty sure that's how it's supposed to go."

"Hey guys, come look at this!."

"You're just gonna have to force it."

"I'll bet I can eat thise whole thing by myself."

"Hang on, I can probably get it out of there."

"What's that sound?"

"Um . . . yeah, I think . . . I think I'm ok now."

"No way that will happen twice."*

*To be fair, many of these are said in conjunction with one another.


Thursday, July 2, 2009

Rev. Tobias Fünke

Dragon*con is certainly a unique experience.

The only thing I can compare it to is the "Elvis burger" served at The Vortex restaurant in Atlanta:

-Both are far off the average person's beaten path.
-Both are pretty weird, by any standard.
-Both seem to have a little bit of everything: while the Elvis burger is made up of peanut butter, bacon, and fried bananas all on a think beef patty, Dragon*con is concocted of fantasy role playing, scifi television shows, and Japanese anime, all on a huge room of people playing board games.
-Both are things that I don't want on any regular basis, but I'm glad that I tried once.
- . . . also, Mickey Rooney is always at Dragon*con, which I've never quite understood. The Elvis burger doesn't have a good analog for Mickey Rooney, I guess, but it bears mentioning, simply to express what a bizarre universe the event creates.

When I did attend Dragon*con, I spent a lot of time on the science track, which is how I realized that the Flying Spaghetti Monster is really, really homoerotic.

I jumped ahead there a little, let's go back.

The Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM) is a deity invented, originally, as a way to criticize the idea of teaching intelligent design in schools. Since its inception, the FSM been picked up as a symbol for atheists and agnostics to mock theistic ideas.

Now let me be clear. I'm fully against teaching any sort of religion or "intelligent design" in public schools. And I'm not some militant anti-atheist, despite being a believer myself. And I'm certainly not against mocking the ideas of others . . . it's one of my very favorite things to do.

That's not what this is about.

This is about the moment when I was sitting in a little room, waiting for a skeptics panel to begin, and the picture below*, by far the most popular image of the FSM, was flashed up on the screen.



At the time, I wasn't familiar with the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or any of its religious connotations. So going into it tabula raza, here's how I interpreted this image:

-it's most prominent feature is two great big balls, hanging there right next to each other
-it is reaching out toward a naked man
-the caption reads "Touched by His Noodly Appendage." Not "touched by his pasta hand" or "touched by his noodle finger." But "touched by his noodly appendage." That's the phrasing they came up with. Seriously.

I was sitting in that room, full of people who like this image and think it's super-clever, and I was the only one laughing.

*The copyright holder of this file allows anyone to use it for any purpose, provided that a link to the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster website remains with it. Having just demonstrated that they accidentally made something super-duper homoerotic, I gladly comply:
http://www.venganza.org/

Friday, June 26, 2009

What the "S" really stands for.

I flop down on the bed and turn on the TV, and there they are again, just waiting. These two, the smiley-Asian guy and the curly red-headed woman, have spent all weekend telling me about the many features and amenities of my fine hotel decision.

There's wireless internet at the business center, they say. And room service is available if I need it. Oh, and there's the high-def TV in my room, smiley-Asian guy can't shut the hell up about that. He insists that I just "kick back and watch" my wonderful wide-screen.

Let's think about this: He is informing me of the thing I am watching him ON. The thing that I clearly know about, or else I wouldn't be able to hear him. He's encouraging me to do the thing I'm already doing, the experience of which is somewhat degraded by having to hear him encourage me to do it.

Lewis Black would call this "a mobius strip in your mind."

You'd probably imagine that these two people are young actors who took a little gig doing a looping video for this hotel chain.

If you think that's what I imagined, then well . . . welcome to my blog, it's always nice to have first-time readers.

In my mind, the hotel channel must be some kind of special hell. And those two are not actors, but pitiful souls, forced to forever repeat the same mindless, non-threatening mantras of hotel accomodations. Each time curly-redhead talks about ordering movies that are still in theaters, I sense her true pain and desperation. When smiley-Asian guy subltly nods in agreement, he's not thinking "Yes, what a wonderful feature," he's thinking "Yes, get me out of here. Now."

How terrible it must be. Even having to listen to their super-clean presentation is painful, I can't imagine being trapped in there, like the bad guys at the end of that one Superman movie, endlessly repeating this trite sludge of words and pretending to be excited about it all.

Curly-redhead woman just smiled even bigger, her eyes fixed just off camera. I assume she's staring into the maw of whatever dark monster is assigned as "director" for her torment.

What did they do to deserve this? Am I staring at two of the most evil dictators in history, reconstituted in clean, comforting forms? Or does this kind of punishment require more than the regular transgressions.*

*When he says "don't eat of that tree," he means don't eat of that tree.

Friday, June 19, 2009

To my students . . .

I don't know what your problem is.

Maybe you were raised in a religious tradition that, in an attempt to stamp out foolish pride, accidentally taught you self-deprecation.

Maybe our society's gospel of success made you so afraid of failure that you began downplaying your potential from the start, giving you an excuse to give up whenever you didn't immediately excel.

Maybe you simply never had anyone in your life to provide encouragement and support, and now you beat yourself up purely because you don't know any better.

But the reasons don't matter, because today is a new day.

So let me lay it all out for you.

There is no aptitude. The great dancers of the world weren't born with a "natural" ability for movement. The best musicians didn't have some "magic" that let them sit down and create beautiful sounds. God does not need to bless us with talents individually, because everyone of us is blessed enough already.

When you came into this world you couldn't even walk or talk. You learned how to do those things, and you didn't need some inborn "gift" to do it, did you?

Do you understand how complicated walking is? Imagine trying to design a robot that can shift constantly from one state of balance to the next, quickly correcting for any change in the terrain, all while being ready for a sudden shift in direction. But you do that everyday, and you learned to do it.

Do you understand how amazing speech is? Not only do you remember the definitions for thousands of words, but you know how to construct them into logical ideas. You can even structure a sentence, then vocalize it into sounds on the fly while you're thinking of what to say next. And as if that wasn't enough, you can then listen to other people talk, and interpret their words while also taking into account inflection, context, and emotional content. And you learned to do all of that.

But those are just the tip of the iceberg of what you've accomplished. You've learned more about math than most of the people who have ever lived. You can find what you need in a phonebook, a library, and the internet. You regularly operate a host of different machines, from calculators to cars to telephones. And you do it all without even thinking about it.

You have succeeded in learning an enormous array of things in your lifetime, simply by putting in the time to study and use them. In short, you are a miracle.

And I will NOT stand here any more and let you INSULT THAT PERSON.

So stop it. Stop telling me that you suck, that you can't do this, that you're hopeless. Stop rolling your eyes at yourself and shaking your head in disgust every time you make a mistake.

You have no idea how ANGRY it makes me.

You want to know why those people became great dancers, great musicians, great anything? Because they never had time to doubt themselves, they were too busy practicing. You think those people didn't fail? They failed constantly, failed so much that failure didn't bother them anymore. THAT was their gift, and even THAT was something they learned.

Are you standing here with a working mind and body? Then you can do anything, ANYTHING, you decided to do. Period. And don't you EVER try to tell me otherwise.

And if you're going to walk into this classroom, if you're going to walk into MY classroom, ever again, you'd better learn one more thing right now. Three little words that sum up exactly how I feel about all your self doubt, all your self deprecation, and every nagging, angry little voice in your head that calls you pathetic:*







*Now get to work.

Comic panel provided by XKCD. The original comic is here: http://www.xkcd.com/137/

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Note to self: Write this post

Some people say that it's not what you believe that defines you, but what you do. I like to think that we are best defined, not by the things that we do, but by all the crap we've been meaning to do.

(Note the change in phrasing. When you've actually done it, it's a thing. When it's yet another item on the backlog pile, it becomes "crap." That change isn't my invention.)

I struggle with this problem constantly. I think I waiver between a state of complete mental focus and terminal distractability, and the end result is that I generally can't hold on to a "to-do" item for more than a minute. If I remember something as I'm parking my car at work, I'll have forgotten it by the time I walk to my office.

And forget about leaving the house with everything I need.

I should really get a notebook and carry it with me all the time, so I can write all the things I need to do in it.

Note to self: get a notebook.*

*No, not a laptop. Actual pieces of paper bound together.

Friday, June 5, 2009

GREAT MYSTERIES OF THE UNIVERSE!

MYSTERY THE FIRST!

Why is the phrase "the things you don't know would fill volumes" considered a snappy comeback?

The thinks I don't know DO fill volumes. In fact every library on Earth is chock full with volumes of things I don't know. And the same is true for everyone. In fact, it would be supremely arrogant to think that "the things you don't know" DO NOT fill volumes.

MYSTERY THE SECOND!

Why does every handyman think it's perfectly ok to throw all their spare crap in your garbage can without putting it in a bag?

Guys, the garbage service isn't going to take that stuff. They don't have many rules, but one rule is that they'd prefer to handle the garbage itself, and I think their request is reasonable.

How did you get this far without knowing to bag your garbage? Do you not have garbage service at your houses?

. . . Wait, maybe you don't . . . that would explain why you're leaving all that crap here to begin with.

MYSTERY THE THIRD!

What do kids in Junior High School say when their friends are dealing with interpersonal drama?

The go-to line I've been hearing since 9th grade is "I'm so sick of all this Junior High School bullsh*t." Even now, if I so much as suggest that another person has acted in error, someone will be right there to trot that phrase out.

But doesn't that make life hard for people who are IN Junior High? What do they say when they want to make light of conflict?

"I'm so tired of this . . . right here . . . right now . . . bullsh*t."

I like to think that the 7th grader who will one day be "the guy who accuses people of JHSBS," just stands there for a second, knowing he's supposed to say something but not being able to yet. He blinks, shakes his head, and says, "This sort of bullsh*t is entirely appropriate for our current station in life." And he walks away.

MYSTERY THE FOURTH!

Why is it that, as soon as you commit to going out of town for the weekend, awesome things are suddenly happening IN town that same weekend?

When I buy plane tickets now, I just go ahead and log onto facebook to watch the invites roll in.

"And . . . yes, confirm purchase . . . there's my confirmation from Delta. And let's see, one, two, three parties and a cookout, everything's free for one day only at my favorite coffee shop, concert, concert, . . . real live ninja giving ancient ninja magic class Saturday morning, that's a new one. Thanks, Universe."*

*Hello beautiful girl . . . no, I cannot go out for coffee with you next weekend. Yes, I know it's free that day."

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Posted at 12:06AM

It must be difficult these days for the chronically late.

(I pause here to let my brain roll over my unintentionally appropriate use of "chronically," since it's a modification of "chronic" which comes from khronos, which means "time." Word origin thoughts regularly halt my thought process in this way.)

It used to be that, upon arriving late, you could simply blame your watch for not keeping good time. Or you could say that you didn't wear your watch today, and you were outside and didn't know what time it was. If daylight savings time had begun or ended in the past few days, you always had the "forgot to set it back/forward" line of defense.

But then came CST, or Cellphone Standard Time:

"Sorry I'm late. I didn't notice what time it was."

"Oh yeah? Hmm. It's too bad you don't have some small device on you that displays the current time by keeping in constant sync via radio waves to computer servers that are themselves synced with the national atomic clock, one of the most accurate clocks in the world . . . oh wait, I guess you do have one of those, it's right there in your pocket."

Never in history have so many people been locked on the very same minute. When my generation is very old, we'll tell crazy stories about how the "current time" was this vague, lucid thing that varied from person to person.

"In my day. If you asked a guy for the time, and he always sets his watch 5 minutes fast, then that guy just screwed you over good. You were gonna miss the bus and have to walk home in the snow. Only way you could get accurate time back then was to call the BANK."

"Uh huh, sure, the bank. (Grandpa's lost his mind.)*"

*"Don't you go using that 'loud whisper' joke on me, sonny. I invented that joke back in ought two, sold it to "The Simpsons," for a pretty penny. Speaking of which, doesn't the new season premier tonight?"

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Déjà You

Anytime I have to see people-when I'm waiting in line for a concert, shopping at the grocery store, looking for seats at the movie theater-I get the distinct feeling that I've seen them before.

Not the EXACT people, mind you, but other people who are just like them. I don't know the individuals in any sort of personal way, but I've had enough experience with humanity that I've got a good general idea what they're about simply by looking.

Does that give us some form of relationship?

Should I greet them as we pass?

"Hello tallish bald guy. Hello heavyset guy with a crazy beard.* Nice to see you, grumpy-churchy white girl, I like that v-neck sweater.

Hang on a second, unkempt loose-clothes dude just walked in, I want to ask how his job hunt is going. And if you see attractive crazy-eyed girl, send her over, I think those two could really hit it off, just like they have so many times before."

To be fair, I live in a college town, so maybe I see a lot of people before time sands off the more generic elements of their personalities. Just as a young person loses his "baby-face" as he grows into adulthood, maybe the striking features of personality only become defined with a few more years . . .

. . . but there is one guy I can always identify. Doesn't matter where I am.

"Hello tool, who never has anything to talk about except how drunk or high he was this one time. How's your herpes?"

*Not wearing your Zelda shirt today? That's cool, the "Empire Strikes Back" shirt is good too.

Friday, May 15, 2009

When it goes wrong

You probably don't know what Playstaton Home is. You are the better for it. Playstation Home is, as Penny Arcade would say, "a stupid place for dumb people."

Should I provide a few more data points before we procede? I'll see what I can do.

Every Playstation 3 system comes with a clunky, shambling "virtual world" where a person can log in and, concievably, hang out with other users as they play games and chat together.

Sounds like a pretty cool idea, when you say it that way. But the reality is that the Home experience consists of constant waiting so that you can design a lifeless avatar, then run it around trying to find something worth doing.

Sounds a lot like high school, when you say it that way.






There are many problems with Playstation Home, and I don't have the patience to detail them all (and you wouldn't have the patience to read it all.)

So I'll summarize it's problems with one word: realism.

Sony has designed Home to be very realistic. The clothes, the furniture, the avatars, the environments, all of them were clearly made to look as lifelike as possible. It's as if they thought to themselves "you know what reality could use? Loading Screens."

But realism isn't what I want from a virtual world. It's not what I want from art. I HAVE reality. A lot of it. I've got some right here. You don't need to provide me with more. I'm good.

What I need, and what art is at it's best, is perspective on reality. I need a person or persons to give me the world from another angle so I can compare it to my own, then triangulate something of value.

When you create a "realistic" work like Home, you mute out any chance of an artistic voice. And without that voice, the experience feels empty.

A good counterpoint to Home is "Animal Crossing: City Folk."


8
This is a game that is far removed from reality. None of the visuals would be mistaken for a photograph, even forgiving the presence of anthropomorphic animals who live in houses and wear clothes.

Yet somehow it feels so much more genuine, and lifelike, than Sony's elaborate "virtual world."

The idea that a work is made better, or legitimized, by being realistic is simply a fallacy. When the credits roll, it's the deeper layers of a work that move us, regardless of what was used to express them.*

*Example: I'm fairly certain that Pluto's moon could not write it a song to make it feel better about not being a planet anymore. And yet . . .

Friday, May 8, 2009

Spec as a double entendre

You're probably familiar with mosaics, the kind of pictures made from individual blocks of color. It's an ancient, beautiful art form, and it's been used to immortalize things like the Holy Land, the Greek hero Ulysses, Jesus, and of course Pac-man.

Because mosaics came full circle when we entered the digital era. Suddenly the ability to create images out of colored squares was not a matter of styling anymore, it was built into the spec. Pixels were the new tiles, and we didn't have that many to work with at first.

And that's why the early era in digital art, which is to say the 8-bit (Original Nintendo) and 16-bit (Super Nintendo) periods, is especially remarkable. Take this image, for instance, which is rather close to my heart. It's the tiny image of Fox McCloud from the SNES game "Starfox":



You can tell that this is a picture of a fox, that he is anthropomorphic, that he is wearing a headset, that the end of his nose is shiny.

And all that from an image that's about 30 pixels by 26 pixels. When you realize that the "shine" on the end of his nose is, in fact, a precisely placed single white pixel, you'll understand why I find it impressive.

This kind of artwork represents a sort of mosaic haiku, bringing out a creative efficiency by way of limitation.

How appropriate that so many artists in this field are Japanese.

Today, we have much "higher resomolutions" to work with, so this kind of careful design isn't needed. There's no reason to carefully manipulate the human eye's visual perception when we can create images at a higher resolution than the eye can perceive.

And that's the terrifying part.

Oh I'm not scared that these great technical freedoms will spoil us as visual artists. I'm scared that, having reached the limits of what our minds can view, the only way for us to make better images will logically be . . .

. . . to alter our minds. Or our eyes. To change ourselves in some way that lets us appreciate the quality of images our screens can describe.

You thought the first cyborg implants* were going to come out of the military? I've got news for you, they're going to come from Sony.

*It's not a question of whether or not there will BE a robot apocalypse, gentlemen, but merely whether we can time it with the zombie apocalypse so that they end up fighting each other.

Friday, May 1, 2009

I'm your density.

There's really no good reason why "fantasy" and "science fiction" are so frequently spoken in the same breath.

One of them usually involves machines, the other usually involves magic.* Strangely they both seem to hit upon time travel on a regular basis. But personally, I see a pretty clear division there.

Yet go to your local bookstore. If fantasy and sci-fi aren't regarded as one section, they are certainly shoulder-to-shoulder . . . or spine to spine, I guess.

I wish the bookstore would just be honest, put a big sign that says "NERD" over the whole thing and be done with it.

It's too bad that those genre's are labeled, and at times dismissed, as geek territory, because there's also no good reason why "things that are or could reasonably be real" make for better or more legitimate storytelling.

In fact, the conceptual free reign that "magic" and "future technology" give you as an author is a powerful tool. "Back to the Future" (here I'm discussing the first movie, not the trilogy) purports to be about an awesome car that travels through time . . . and that's what it is indeed about, to some extent. But it's also a discussion of generational gaps, and how the path to adulthood involves reconciling your parents as real people, not just as the images your young mind constructed for them.

Harry Potter treads this ground, too. The narrative difficulties of character study are easily overcome when your setting includes bowls of people's thoughts.

In most stories you have to really put your character through the wringer to draw out his nature. In fantasy? Nah, bowl of thoughts! Done.

*And please don't trot out the old line about technology being magic. There's a difference, you know it. Close your Macbook, and walk away.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Molly's on the left platform

I know the roof of Mercy Hospital better than you could possibly imagine.

In my mind is a very detailed map of that place, all its topography laid out clearly. I could draw you an overview from memory.

The metal walkway leading up to the heli pad.

The narrow stairway that leads up to the air conditioning unit platform.

The two catwalks that flank the mounted machine gun.

Oh, hello! I'm talking about video games!

Of the four extraction points in Left 4 Dead's zombie apocalypse simulation, the roof of Mercy is widely regarded as the most difficult. It's got almost no open ground, so very little room to run. You constantly have to be aware of what's behind you so you don't get pinned in a corner. Compared to the other extraction areas (an airport runway, a farmhouse in an open field, and a lakeside camping area) that roof is like a postage stamp. A postage stamp of a middle finger.

And that would be enough by itself, but the icing on the difficulty cake is that this is all on top of a very large building. So if you get hit by a tank in the wrong spot, you go flying right the hell off the side.

That ladies and gentlemen, is not a "game mechanic." That is a "big 'screw you' from the programmers."

But Mercy is possible, even on Advanced mode where the proverbial men and boys are sorted into their appropriate groups. I've done it. We've done it (the we being my usual crew.)

But not without a lot of trying that level, over and over again.

I am still on the roof of Mercy Hospital being decimated. And I am on that helicopter with all 3 of my friends, looking back at the place that tested us. And I am standing in that chopper watching our fourth man get dragged away before anyone could help him. And I'm standing there alone because I left them all.*

I had to.

*And then we watched and episode of "Man v. Food" and called it a night.

Friday, April 17, 2009

This post gets a 7.8

If I could leave behind only one idea, it would be this:

(Actually, that's not true. There are lots of ideas I'd like to leave behind, but this is an important one.)

"The mark of a connoisseur is not that he knows what's good and what's bad, but that he finds both good and bad in everything."

That is to say, a person who's truly knowledgeable about something doesn't turn up their nose to anything but what is considered the "best." Instead they're always trying a bit of everything. To the master critic, there is only one insult: boring, and there is only one praise: interesting.

Another way to put it is this: "On the day I learned to appreciate fine cuisine, I didn't stop liking bubble gum."

And on the road to this sort of appreciation, I think services like Netflix and Gamefly are one of the best modern aids.

I think a lot of the snooty element of criticism ultimately comes from the purchase of it. People read reviews because they don't want to waste money on an experience they won't enjoy. As a side-effect, though, we develop the idea that some works are "good" while others are "bad,"* and many people miss out on things that, although not entirely sound, are still valuable and thought provoking.

But once your media becomes a single service, a single fee that gets you access to a large bank of material, it does a lot to change your perspective.

Why should I even read a game review now? If it seems even a little interesting I can add it to my queue and see what it's about. If I don't like it, I can just ship it back the next day and try something else. Why should I care what the current Metacritic score of a movie is? If I don't like it, I'll just stop the DVD.

The only review that matters now is the kind that don't score at all, but are instead just an intellectual discussion of a work's merits . . . which is really what a review is supposed to be anyway.

*This does not include movies with vampire turkeys.

Friday, April 10, 2009

L4D 4Life

I've always been a big fan of Steam, Valve Software's digital distribution platform, but there's one feature that I find unsettling.

It tells me how long I've spent playing.

It came to my attention a couple of weeks ago that I'd spent 30 hours (of the previous two weeks) playing "Left4Dead," Valve's popular co-op zombie apocalypse game.



I essentially had a part time job destroying the undead. Not even a job really, because I wasn't getting paid. I had an internship. (I'm using had only because the number is now down to a mere 10 hours out of the last two weeks.)

Zombie stories are frequently used as social commentary, most notably in the movies of George A. Romero. I guess when your genre has given you free reign to show humanity at it's most desperate, social commentary can really sneak up and get into your mind

 . . . like a zombie would, I guess.

But I'm always trying to figure people out, to find their "thesis," so I tend to treat creative works as the author's waking dream. And that's why, as I was spending all that time playing Left 4 Dead, I had a revelation about why zombies have remained such an appealing topic.

Left 4 Dead has a set of special "super zombies" that you have to manage.



"The Hunter" is always in a black hoodie, he leaps at you and pins you to the ground.

"The Smoker" has a stream of smoke pouring off of him, and he strikes from a distance by lashing out his long tongue and dragging you away.

"The Boomer" is a big, fat, burping thing that vomits on you, which attracts a rush of regular zombies.

"The Witch" lies crying in a heap, but if you disturb her, she'll scream and knock you down.

"The Tank" is a huge beast that's big on damage and defense.

What I found interesting about these five was how I started seeing them in real life. "The Hunter" looks an awful lot like the gang banger (or kid who wants to look like a gang banger) that you tense up around at Kroger. "The Smoker" is not so a not-so-subtle reference to cigarette smokers, who can annoy you from a distance. "The Boomer" is an exaggerated form of all the most unpleasant bodily functions. "The Witch" reminds me a lot of some tantrum-prone children at the supermarket. "The Tank" is . . . I don't know, an SUV? Let's go with that.*

When I look at this lineup of villains in the context of a game that's already about hordes of reanimated humans, it shows me one thing.

Zombies aren't about our fear of death. They're about our fear of humanity. Zombie stories are tales of people trying to survive against hordes of other (albeit undead) people. 

This is the nightmare world of the malcontent. This is how super antisocial people see the world. They're so afraid of other people that they stop viewing them as human, and think of them as mindless monsters.

*If I think of a way to fold auto-shotguns into the metaphor, I'll let you know.

Friday, April 3, 2009

End of year two

"Recursive morality" is a concept I've been thinking about for so long, I don't really remember what made me think of it in the first place.

I say "think of it" like I'm the sole author, but I'm not saying it's an entirely new concept. If you're working in a "young" or even "young-ish" field, computer programming or space station design, the chances of you coming up with a revolutionary idea are pretty good.

Morality is something humans have been thinking about for a pretty long time, actually, so it's somewhat more difficult to break fresh ground.

With the disclaimer aside, I'll explain what it's all about.

Most moral doctrines justify themselves with one of two ideas:

1. Because God says so - This casts God into what Brennan Manning calls an "eternal, small-minded bookkeeper." Just an entity making a tally of what we do right or wrong, scoring us as we go along. Not only does this perspective smack head-first into all my personal, spiritual experience, it also does nothing to explain why "good" is good, and why "bad" is bad. The moral concepts might as well be arbitrary, just a set of rules by which we play.

2. Because it's what you would want - This empathetic or "golden rule" is a fine idea, but it only works if you take it as self-evident. But "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is only an approach to morality, it doesn't explain why this is better than being out for yourself.


My "recursive morality," on the other hand, offers not only an approach to moral ideas, but an inherent justification for why some things are "right" and others are "wrong."

To sum it up as best I can:

"Happiness" is not only a matter of creating a certain state, but also of being receptive to that state. When you honestly earn the money to buy something you want, you've not only acquired the thing, but given it added value by working for it. When you steal money to buy something (or just stolen the item) you've cheapened it in your own heart, thus robbing it of the full enjoyment.

But more importantly, in both cases you've changed a little about yourself. The action of theft has caused you to do harm to someone else. In order to do that harm, you had conclude on some deeper level that either 1. You hate the people you've hurt or 2. You don't care about the people you've hurt.

You are, by your own moral action, a different person.

And that's what "recursive morality" is really about. You, as an individual, have authorship over who you are. Your subconscious may guide you without your notice, but you are also constantly at work on it. When you cause harm in the world around you, you're telling YOURSELF that you're the kind of person who acts without love or concern. When you help someone in need, when you pick up litter and throw it away, when you fold your clothes in the morning*, you are telling yourself that you are a considerate, loving person.

And only one of those two people, recursive morality argues, is CAPABLE of being happy. At the same meal, one person enjoys every bite, while the other complains, thinks about all the things that would be better, and suspects that he's going to get stuck with the bill.

Perhaps then there is no real judgment in death. Heavens gates are not barred, but rather some souls refuse to enter, incapable of receiving it's treasures.

*Maybe that's where I started thinking about it. This quote perplexed me for a long time:

"a spiritual thing is folding your clothes at the end of the day. A spiritual thing is making your bed. A spiritual thing is taking cookies to your neighbor that is shut in or raking their front lawn because they are too old to do it. That's spirituality. Getting a warm, oozy feeling about God is an emotional thing-there is nothing wrong with it-I think there is nothing more practical than real spirituality." -Rich Mullins

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Monologue

Thank you so much, folks! We've got a great show for you tonight!

Have you guys heard the new single by "Nickleback" called "Something in Your Mouth"?* You know, I'm a person who believes in free speech, and the idea that all people have a right to be heard, even if their message is unpopular. That being said, everyone involved with "Nickleback" should be JAILED.

But speaking of rock bands, somone recently pointed out to me that there's a book called "Metallica and Philosophy." I guess I'm not surprised. I learn an important philosophical lesson from every Metallica song. That lesson? Don't be a member of Metallica.

I guess you've all heard about Circuit City declaring bankruptcy? Turns out that now they'll have to close more stores than they first expected because the company couldn't find a corporate buyer. Supposedly they had one buyer interested, but it fell through when Circuit City started trying to sell them on an "extended warranty" plan.

You know, the Pope came under fire this week after he said that condoms don't help the spread of AIDS, and that distributing them only aggravates the problem. Sounds like the Bush administration's science advisors have found a new job! 

And speaking of politics, last year Ann Coulter broke her jaw and had to have it wired shut. Yeah, that's true. Now that she can talk again, she finally explained how it happened. Apparently you can only swallow so much conservative bulls*** at one time!

Oh, and you're not going to believe this. But on a lighter note, a few nights ago I actually heard a guy at a bar say "Come here often?" to a girl. You know, at that point, buddy, you might as well walk up to her and ask, "What's your favorite clichè?"

We've gotta take a quick commercial break folks, but we'll be right back. Fantastic show tonight! An angry mob of "Nickleback" fans will be joining us!

*I refuse to link to anything related to this for fear of exposing anyone to it. But suffice to say, yes, they really did.