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."

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.