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April 29, 2008

Things I Learned About My Dad (in therapy)

Things I Learned About My Dad (in therapy), a compendium of essays on fatherhood headed up by Dooce's Heather Armstrong, hits stores today. I contributed a chapter, with the caveat that it not follow any of those of the other writers (as they are all so astoundingly talented that mine would pale in comparison), and also not come first. I'm not sure how Heather pulled this off. Stayed up late last night, printing out copies of my piece from her home PC and stapling them to the back covers, is my guess.

 
April 28, 2008

The Shape of Things to Come

Tired of the protracted Democratic fight for the Presidential nomination? Want to pretend we're already in the general election phase of the campaign? Why, just head on over to Snopes for a preview of what things will be like six months from now:

And lots more.

It's hard to pick a favorite, but "The Book of Revelation describes the anti-Christ as someone with characteristics matching those of Barack Obama" is definitely in the running:

According to the Book of Revelations the anti-christ is: The anti-christ will be a man, in his 40s, of MUSLIM descent, who will deceive the nations with persuassive language, and have a MASSIVE Christ-like appeal.... the prophecy says that people will flock to him and he will promise false hope and world peace, and when he is in power, will destory everything. Is it OBAMA??
I usually dismiss such prophecies out of hand, but this one has me a little unsettled. After all, it has already established its credibility by successfully predicting the religion of Islam, which was founded half a millennium after Revelations was written. (Fun facts: other warnings in Revelations include the failure of the McDLT, the prohibition against putting metal in the microwave, and the cancellation of Firefly after only 14 episodes.)

April 25, 2008

The Bad Review Revue

Deception: "A nonprescription alternative to Ambien." -- Lou Lumenick, NEW YORK POST

88 Minutes: "Will be hard-pressed to last much longer than its title in theaters before doing time on DVD." -- Michael Rechtshaffen, THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER

Never Back Down: "Speeds up and slows down as though controlled by a director in the grip of competing medications." -- Jeannette Catsoulis, THE NEW YORK TIMES

Superhero Movie: "Writer/director Craig Mazin took the screenplay for Spider-Man, propped it up next to his MacBook, and just went through it, inserting fart gags, pratfalls and the lamest of jokes." -- Peter Howell, TORONTO STAR

College Road Trip: "Better than most Martin Lawrence movies, much as strep throat is better than malaria." -- Kyle Smith, NEW YORK POST

10,0000 BC: "Apocalypto for pussies." -- Peter Travers, ROLLING STONE


Ding Dong!

Ding Dong!

Yeah, you're gonna want to see that one at full-size.

[ link | Links]


April 24, 2008

Computer Games I Have Known And Loved

I'm not a big computer game player, but here's a few that have reeled me in recently.

Skyrates: One of my favorite types of board games are those using a mechanism we call "pick-up-and-deliver", in which players acquire things in one location (quests, passengers, commodities, etc) and receive points or money upon successfully transporting the cargo to its intended destination. It's perhaps no surprise, then, that I find computer games employing this gameplay to be equally satisfying. I lost several weeks to Escape Velocity back in the day. More recently, I have been hooked on Skyrates, an online, browser-based game where you assume captainship of a plane, and fly around the various "skylands" buying goods where they are plentiful (and cheap) and selling them where they are rare (and expensive).

Two aspects of the game really set it apart. First, it can take anywhere from 30 to 240 minutes to travel between the skylands, in real time. So rather than playing for large blocks of time during the day, you instead give your pilot his marching orders, close the game, and check back on his progress a later. It's the perfect game to "play' at work, as you need only visit the site for five or ten minutes, a few times a day. Second, the economy of the world is influenced by all the players. If diamonds are abundant (and thus inexpensive) on skyland X, you may rush over there to fill up your cargo hold; but if dozens or hundreds of concurrent players get there before you and buy in bulk, the gems might be rare (and thus pricey) by the time you arrive. It's a clever way of introducing player interaction that doesn't involve combat. A solid game all-around, and one which I have become addicted.

Blocksum: Just when the whole "match three" genre of video games (epitomized by Bejeweled) seems played, someone comes up with a new gimmick to revitalize the field. In the freeware game Blocksum, each piece contains a number, and when a certain quantity of pieces containing the same number form a contiguous group, they disappear from play. The gimmick here is that you can merge adjacent blocks into blocks, containing the sums of the merged blocks. (You could merge a 3 block and a 4 block into a 7 block, for instance). A bit more cerebral that most titles in the field, but one that you will nonetheless find enthralling. I defy anyone to get past level 8, though.

ForumWarz: Unforgivably profane and entirely too hard, ForumWarz still managed to gnaw away at my free time for a span of two weeks or so. After a while I found it to be pretty repetitive, but I was undeniably hooked there for a spell. The game allows you to start playing even before having an account, so there's no reason not to give it a try--assuming, of course, you are essentially unoffendable, which is the only people to which I would recommend it. (Also: Andy Baio interviews the game's creator.)

Moonbase Commander: Simple! Fun!! Long out of print now, alas, but if you can still find copies for sale (and, ahem, binaries for download) if you look hard enough.


Afternoon Sealight

Two things of interest I discovered while searching the Internet to craft the Darwinian language in the previous post:

1. The Coolidge effect is the tendency of males of every tested mammalian species to perform at their sexual peak when introduced to a new receptive female. The term comes from this old joke:

President Calvin Coolidge and his wife visited a poultry farm one day, and, during the tour, asked the farmer how he managed to produce so many fertile eggs with such a small number of roosters

The farmer explained that his roosters performed their duty dozens of times each day.

"Perhaps you could point that out to Mr. Coolidge," replied the First Lady in a pointedly loud voice.

The President, overhearing the remark, asked the farmer, "Does each rooster service the same hen each time?"

"No," replied the farmer, "there are many hens for each rooster."

"Perhaps you could point that out to Mrs. Coolidge," replied the President.

2. This photograph:

You can go here to see what the actual caption is. I prefer to think it reads "A mated elephant seal pair, having consulted the Kama Sealta, decides to give the missionary position a whirl."

[ link | Misc]


April 23, 2008

The Descent of Bandann

While I allowed my blogging muscles to atrophy, my longtime friend has been pumping his up, and recently became the in-house blogger for the The Soup. And by "longtime friend" I mean, like, since first grade, although I've always known him by a name other than "Clog Narter." I can only assume that that's a pseudonym and/or anagram of "furry for life."

Reading his blog yesterday, I cam across his entry on Bret Michaels which was a little unsettling because I'd never even heard of this guy until an hour prior when I came across this mindnumbingly atrocious video, apparently drawn from a "tv show" where "girls" compete to go on "dates" with the Mr. Michaels. I've known for a while that the teaching of evolutionary principles in the public school system has been under siege, thanks to religious fundamentalism, the ID movement, and Ben Stein. But never have the horrific consequences of these efforts been as apparent as on Rock of Love. Surely any woman with even a cursory knowledge of phylogeny would recognize that the female's "mate choice" sexual selection criteria are askew when they vie for the affections of an organism who has, along with other exaggerated morphological features, a propensity for wearing bandannas.

April 22, 2008

Bit of Free Verse That Popped Into My Head At Three O'Clock This Morning

Somewhere in the annals
of European history
Is a man by the name
Of Al Dente.

Who served to his guests
Plates of undercooked pasta
And then stubbornly insisted
He had done so by choice.

[ link | Misc]


April 21, 2008

Reflections On My Netflix Queue

Black Sheep & The Host

So I'm out on one of my woefully infrequent nights of carousing, and at some point a buddy of mine opines that I would like the movie Black Sheep, and also, while we're on the topic, this other film called The Host. And somehow I write these titles down, which is fairly amazing since it required (a) paper, and (b) a working pen, and (c) the presence of mind to actually record the names of recommended movies for future references, three things I very rarely possess simultaneously. Anyway, as soon as I start writing, my buddy goes, "well, uh, I should probably warn you ..." and I am all like "Silence! It is too late to deter me, for my commitment to watching these so-called 'motion pictures' is already ironclad. Let us speak of them no more!"

Anyway, long story short, a week later both discs arrived from Netflix on the same day, and I was all like whuuuh?, and it took me a while to recollect the above (and possibly paraphrased) conversation. (I was never able to remember actually adding the movies to the top of my queue ... ah, late night inebriated Netflix queue adjustments ...) So The Queen and I watched them, and: hahahaha! Yes, you should see these films! And learn nothing of them in advance, as I did. (I will, however, forward the one disclaimer than my friend insisted in divulging: "When renting Black Sheep you want the 2006 film ... not the one with Chris Farley!")


Downfall

Maybe you've seen the various Hitler gets banned from a computer game videos and wondered what film the footage was drawn from. *** spoilers! *** it's 2004's Downfall. An absolutely fascinating film that shows a side of Hitler and his regime that you rarely see on screen: as a bunch of losers. (Not losers in the "sitting around in their boxer shorts at 11:45 in the morning eating chips and watching To Catch a Predator on TiVo" sense, obviously, but as the side that lost the war they initiated.) It's a testament to the skill of director Oliver Hirschbiegel that this portrayal of the "bad guy's point of view" manages to evoke neither sympathy for their plight nor revulsion at the horrible acts you know they have committed, and instead makes you feel like the proverbial "fly on the wall," watching the drama unfold with a dispassionate eye (or "dispassionate compound eye" I guess, to extend the Dipterian metaphor). And here, I'll spare you the trouble of pausing the film halfway through to visit Wikipedia: the exact cause of Hitler's tremors is unknown, though syphilis or Parkinson's disease (or both) are suspected.


51 Birch Street

At first I though this documentary Doug Block made about his own parents was just so much self-indulgent navel gazing. Then he began hinting at their Dark, Hidden Secrets and I got all intrigued. Then said secrets were revealed and I was back, to, "dude, did you just trick me into watching your home movies?" Perhaps I would have been as enthusiastic about this film as the critics if I hadn't felt suckerpunched. Or whatever the opposite of a suckerpunch is. Like when some guy says "I'm going to punch you in the gut!" and then he just gives you a friendly slug to the shoulder and you're all like "wtf man I was all tightening my abdominal muscles and preparing to die like Houdini, lame." Like that.


Juno

Aww, why the hate? Yes, it was aggressively quirky, but I still liked it twice as much as Little Miss Sunshine, to which it was often compared. I mean, at least this film was about a real issue (teen pregnancy), instead of a bunch of dilemmas as zanyfied as the characters themselves (I can't be a pilot because I'm color-blind, waaa!). I guess this is one of these deals where hipsters liked it when it was largely unknown, but then when it got popular and started winning things they decided it must actually suck (see also: Barak Obama).


There Will Be Blood

How sad is it that, during the climatic end scene, I'm sitting there on my couch thinking, "I'd bet a hundred bazillion dollars that someone has already mixed this monologue with that abominable Kelis Milkshake song and posted the resultant video to youtube." And then, after the film was over, I checked youtube and found it. And the topmost comment on the file was "i knew someone wuld make this!!!!!!"

April 10, 2008

Last LOST Post For a Year, I Promise

Okay, a friend and I just did the math.

The final episode of LOST Season 4 will be #82. After that there will be two more seasons, each with 16 episodes.

The premiere of LOST Season 4 was in mid-January, 2008. Let's assume that the final season starts in mid-January of 2010. At that point, 98 episodes will have aired. So, what's January 15, 2010, minus 98 weeks?

Answer: February 29, 2008.

So: if you've never seen LOST, you can start from the pilot now, view one episode a week (with five double-headers), finish right before the start of season 6, and see the remaining installments in real time, thereby watching the entire series without hiatus.

Lemmie know how that works out for you.

April 09, 2008

Research Day: The LOST Script Style

This post contains a minor spoiler from the first season of LOST. It also contains the word "fuck." A lot.

Speaking of LOST (as I often am, these days) ...

If you are interested in the show, screenwriting in general, or wanton profanity, head over to The Daily Script and check out some of the LOST screenplays. They are written in a style that is, as far as I know, unique within the industry:

And as Jack slowly looks up -- standing right in front of him -- just FIVE FUCKING FEET AWAY --

Is ETHAN.

            ETHAN
    Hello, Jack.

Holy. Fucking. Shit.

Jack looks at him, ragged breath, but EYES BURNING. And he asks the question that hopefully all of America has been asking for the past week --

            JACK
    Who are you?

And we're LOOKING UP at Ethan. SOAKING WET but seemingly oblivious to the rain. And his EYES. His FUCKING EYES.

That's from "All the Best Cowboys Have Daddy Issues", season one, episode nine.

J. J. Abrams (the series creator) established this style in the pilot with phrases like "HE SCREAMS BLOODYFUCKINGMURDER" and "this guy is a Class-A prickfuck" (wha-?!). Since then it appears to have become part of the show's template. Most LOST scripts read as if the writer has just hit his thumb with a hammer.

Of course, most screenwriters put some subtext into the action descriptions. In his book Crafty TV Writing, Alex Epstein (author of the screenwriting blog Complications Ensue) dubs these "subtitles for the nuance-impaired."

Subtitles for the nuance-impaired are legitimate when the episode, if properly shot and edited, will easily communicate something that the script might not get across. Producers and executives are used to reading dialogue, but editing, for example, doesn't read well ...

[But] be careful writing directly to the reader this way. It's slightly naughty.

The LOST scripts take naughty to the next level, going beyond "subtitles for the nuance-impaired" and into the realm of "before the nuance-impaired can fucking process anything, the writer SMASHES THE PORCELAIN FOOD BOWL RIGHT INTO THE SIDE OF HIS FUCKING HEAD!" (Actual line from Lost 220! Well, sort of.)

I asked Epstein why the LOST staff writes this way. "It gives an 'energetic read'," he replied. "Network execs like it. They don't have to put too much energy into reading it." He also speculated that it had become part of the LOST culture. "Everybody does it 'cause their boss, JJ Abrams, does it."

Some do it more than others, though. Search the pilot for "fuck" and you'll find it 28 times in 96 pages; do the same on "Two For the Road", and you'll get 96 hits in 56 pages. My goodness. I wonder if they write emails to their mothers using the same fingers they use to type these screenplays. (Though, as Epstein points out, "Abrams probably rewrites all the scripts, so he may put the f-bombs in himself.")

So, is this a good style for an aspiring screenwriter to adopt? Epstein again:

I find it annoying. If I got a script like that, I might not keep reading. I find it vulgar and cheap -- and by cheap, I mean you're getting a zap! into your script without actually working for it.

It's imprecise. Use words like bullets, not like a spray of birdshot. Note how the porcelain bowl line does not mention whether the food bowl breaks, or whether his head caroms off the bowl. Is there blood or not? It's loud, but it's not visual. It's abstract.

JJ Abrams gets paid a lot more than I do, so he can do as he likes. But just because e. e. cummings wrote free verse in lowercase doesn't means you should write poetry that way.

Duly noted. Indeed, when I write my LOST spec script, I intend to adopt a different style entirely:
Jack is peeved as all get-out! His DANDER is TOTALLY UP!

He draws his gun and points it RIGHT AT JOHN'S GOSH-DARNED HEAD!!!!!

            JACK
     See you in aitch ee
     double-hockey-sticks, you
     good-for-nothing so-and-so.

Then, when the LOST staff reads it, they'll be all, "Whoa, check out this FRESH NEW VOICE! This SON OF A BITCH can THINK OUTSIDE THE MOTHERFUCKING BOX!!!"

April 08, 2008

The Perverse Appeal of LOST

This post contains no spoilers.

The Queen and I are halfway through season three of LOST and goddamn I love this show.

It's hard for me to admit because LOST is popular, and it's crucial to my self-image that I only enjoy television shows that hobble along for a season or three, unappreciated by the unwashed masses, before getting unceremoniously axed. Freaks & Geeks, Arrested Development, Firefly, and so forth. (We are going to conveniently ignore that I also liked The Sopranos, and that I laugh until my stomach hurts every time I stumble across AFHV ...) And yet here I am, a LOST junkie, just like half of America.

Intellectually I recognize that the third season has all of the same problems of the first two: it shows us the trees, so to speak, and willfully ignores the forest. In other words, the creators of LOST have inverted the traditional mystery formula by making the clues themselves the focus of the show, instead of using them as an means to a end (the end being the solution of the central mystery).

Here's a hypothetical example (hypothetical in the sense that I just made all this up; again, no spoilers in this post.) An episode ends with someone on LOST finding a leather-bound tome entitled "Secrets of the Island." Yes! Finally we'll learn what's going on! But in the next installment, that person opens the book to discover that the whole thing is written in ancient indecipherable pictograms. Dammit! But in the last five minutes, someone notices that the final third of the book is blank, and the ink of the last entry is fresh! "It's a work-in-progress," says Major Character. "Someone is still writing it!!" And in the last five minutes of the next episode it is revealed via flashback that Other Major Character studied Ancient Indecipherable Pictology in college--holy shit!!!! And this goes on for three more episodes, at which point Major Character confronts Other Major Character with the book, and he (O.M.C.) confesses that he is using the book to record the movements of the other castaways, but only because a giant, ambulatory, sentient coconut threatened to kill him if he didn't. And you, the viewer, are, like, "well, I'm glad the mystery of the book is cleared up BUT WHAT'S THIS ABOUT A GIANT AMBULATORY SENTIENT COCONUT??!!!" Lots and lots of clues (and episodes about clues), but you're not one jot closer to understanding the central mystery. And meanwhile the LOST prop department is hastily burying the book in a Superfund site, hoping that no one remembers the title.

I found all this exasperating during season two (during which I parodied the style with The Adventure of the Missing Stocking.) But I've succumbed to Stockholm Syndrome or something, because now I kind of enjoy the sheer absurdity of it.

The structure of the narrative reminds me, in many ways, of a computer roleplaying game (CRPG). A quick primer for my seven non-nerd readers: in a CRPG (such as World of Warcraft, a.k.a. WoW), you typically start out as a puny little nothing, a 47-pound weakling armed with a broomstick. As such, you only have the wherewithal to fight monsters of a comparable degree of fragility (rats, typically). But every time you dispatch one, you gain "experience," and once you've acquired enough experience, you "level". Leveling (as it is called) means that your abilities go up, you are able to buy and use better weapons, and can now go toe-to-toe with slightly more menacing creatures--giant ambulatory sentient coconuts, say. Kill enough of those, level again, and move on to the next class of baddies.

I love CRPGs (so much so that I've avoided WoW like the plague--if I wanted a all-consuming addiction I'd pick up some heroin from a Seattle street corner, thanks). I love them despite my frequent realizations, while playing, that in-game progress is largely chimeric. When you're a level 1 squire it may take you two minutes to kill a rat; when you are a level 9 knight you can kill a rat with a single stroke--but you don't fight rats, you fight ogres, and the time it takes you to kill them is ... two minutes. You environment levels up as you do, such that you are pretty much playing the same game all the time, albeit with cool new equipment and a more impressive sounding rank. The excitement you feel upon leveling fades almost immediately, as you start accumulating experience to reach the next stage.

This is the LOST formula in a nutshell. During each show you gain a little experience in the form of new information: about the island, the characters, or both; every four episodes or so you level up, as some (allegedly) major piece of the overall puzzle falls into place. After leveling up in a CRPG, you typically head to Ye Olde Flail 'N' Scented Candle Emporium, sell all your current equipment, and buy the improved weapons that your enhanced abilities now allow you to wield; likewise, after a revelatory LOST episode, fans chuck all their old theories into the dustbin and cook up new ones consistent with the revised facts. Then, having done so, each--the player of a CRPG, or the viewer of LOST--is handed a brand new quest, or puzzle, or plot plot. The ephemeral thrill of leveling vanishes, replaced by a longing to hit the next milestone. You never disembark from the treadmill, it just goes faster.

This may sound like criticism, but it's not. It's admiration. Like the creators of World of Warcraft, the writers of LOST have managed to throw a saddle on the addictive lure of leveling and ride it to success. And bully for them. Like I said, I love this genre, even if I can visualize the levers they are pulling.

LOST is not the first program to attempt this, to be sure. Lynch tried it with Twin Peaks, but the wheels flew off the cart in the second season (and even before that, the ride was pretty bumpy). The X-Files came close to pulling it off, but it wasn't certain if the writers would ever provide resolution to the core "mythos" mysteries, and after a while fans (such as myself) gave up on the series. That's what CRPGers call an "endgame problem"--the game might be fun to play, but the whole enterprise feels pointless unless there's a clearly-defined "ending" on the horizon. (Even WoW, which you could conceivably play forever, has a maximum level that a character can reach, giving players a concrete goal toward which to strive.) The creators of LOST obviated the "endgame problem" by announcing that the series will end in 2010, and swearing that answers will be supplied. (For details, see this commendably spoiler-free USA Today article from last year.)

Another piece of lingo that crops up a lot in CRPG circles is "grinding": when your character has to do the same thing over and over again (killing rats, for instance) to acquire the experience necessary to level. If the CRPG isn't intrinsically interesting, then grinding is just that: a grind. But if the world is well-constructed, and the game is well-written, grinding is tolerated (and even enjoyed) by players as a necessary evil, something to keep you immersed in the storyline as long as possible. After all, a game in which you started at level 70 and killed the End Boss in your first fight would be lame beyond belief.

Much of LOST is grinding, honestly: stuff to keep the viewer occupied until the next bombshell drops and the story is taken the next level (so to speak). But here, halfway through season three, it's becoming increasingly obvious (at least to me) that the grinding itself is pretty fun. That's high-praise right there: these guys can even stall entertainingly.

Yes some of the episodes are clunkers, and lot of the plot twists don't endure a moment's scrutiny, and I STILL REMEMBER THE TITLE OF THE BOOK YOU GODDAMNED CHEATS!! But the game's been a lot of fun so far, and I'll gladly play through to the end.

April 07, 2008

defective yeti's Kost Kutting Korner

Tip #22: Limiting your weekly showers to one or two can save you a lot of money on water, soap, shampoo, and dating.


Up For Air

Hi! Hi! Sorry!

I'm still here. Everything is fine. I've just been busy on this thing. And this other thing.

Here's the problem in a nutshell: I'm not one of those people who writes because he "needs to," I'm one of the people who writes because, at the end of the day, he likes having written (in the much the same way that I would love to know how to play guitar, but am not particularly interested in learning how). So if, at 8 PM, I've already cranked out 1000 words on some non-dy piece or another, I'm pretty much done for the day. Sorry NetarWeb.

The flip side is that, for five years or so, all my other projects have been getting the shaft: I'd write on defective yeti and punt on everything else, having already hit my word count quota for the day.

My New Year's Resolution for 2008 was to chip away at those projects that I have been putting off (crime stories, board game designs, etc.) This is the exact same resolution I made in 2007 and then more-or-less ignored for the subsequent 12 months. Last year I completed, like, one of my listed projects; right now I am wrapping up my third for 2008. Whether blog abstinence is contributing to my productivity or is a side-effect of it is anyone's guess, but it would appear that I can only work on one project at a time, and defective yeti qualifies as a project.

Sarah Hepola wrote eloquently (as usual) about this phenomenon in her Slate essay Why I Shut Down My Blog. Which isn't in any way to compare my ability to write to that of Sarah Hepola, only my ability to quit.

There have been some other factors keeping my out of the blogosphere as well. For one thing, the project I am currently working is about blogs, a upshot of which is that I am thoroughly sick of them. Except for yours, I mean. I still check yours twice daily.

(For the record, I am not being coy about the exact nature of this project because you'll hear about it soon and I need to keep it under wraps, but because the chances of it going anywhere are fat and slim. That said, remember this post when you start seeing ads for "Bla-La-Logs! The Musical!!" I've said too much already.)

Also, about two months ago, The Queen read the first 700 pages of The Stand and promptly came down with the superflu, so I had to spend a week spoon-feeding her chicken soup. That signaled the start of my hiatus. I had only intended to take a few days off, but then banded together with a motley crew of exhaustively described characters to walk to Las Vegas and confront the Walkin' Dude. So the whole thing took a bit longer than anticipated.

ANYway, my head is suffused with the observational detritus I have accumulated over weeks of not writing here, so I'll be back for this week at least. After that, we'll see how it goes. Cheers!

P.S. Thanks to everyone who who kept the home fires burning. It is comforting to know that, should I ever fall into a well, a crack team of blogonauts is standing by, ready to mock my absence.

P.S.S. My god, is there anything as intrinsically bloggy as a long and tedious post explaining why you haven't been blogging? Someone should start a blog that consists solely of daily, long-winded, and humorous entries purporting to explain why it hasn't been updated. Free idea. Yours for the taking.