Thursday, July 31, 2008

Treadmill Desk, Day 1

I rolled out of bed this morning and onto the treadmill. I had to make a few adjustments. The keyboard and mouse were too low, so I propped my plank up with some books. That worked pretty well; answering e-mail and reading is easy enough.

I did a little coding and debugging, too, which worked out all right. I'll do some heavier stuff later.

After running about three hours, with about a 15-20 minute, the treadmill stopped dead.

Huh. $50 doesn't go as far as it used to.

It started up again a few minutes later. I'll have to test the limits of this thing. On 2, off 1, etc. I understand one really needs a commercial treadmill to run it for a full eight hours. (Actually, I've seen commercial treadmills that say you should only run them six hours a day. So, go figger.)

I'll say one thing for it: It does keep you from nodding off.

Paris Hilton Pegs The Irony Meter

McCain's campaign ad suggesting Obama is a lightweight celebrity famous for being famous ended up pissing Paris Hilton, whose image it used (along with Britney Spears).

Paris apparently objects on the grounds that he didn't ask permission to use her image.

Heh.

Here's a woman who's probably signed a deal with Lucifer to get her image out in every medium possible allegedly upset by the fact that someone, you know, put her image out there again.

I'm pretty sure it falls in the "fair use" category. He's not suggesting you endorse him. You know, maybe he's trying to smear Paris with associating her with Obama, didja ever think about that? Paris' best counter-attack is probably to say she supports Obama.

Britney isn't in the same category. She's a has-been (with plenty of time to come back), not a never-was.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Underdog vs. The Flash

Did anyone notice that in the recent Underdog movie, Underdog gets his powers in exactly the same way The Flash does in classic DC comics? OK, in The Flash, lightning strikes Barry Allen's CSI laboratory, knocking a shelf-full of chemicals over on to him, resulting in him having super-speed.

In the movie, Shoeshine knocks over a shelf of Simon bar Sinister's chemicals resulting in him becoming Underdog.

Of course, nobody saw the movie, and only a few people remember The Flash, so...

Hmmm, Googling "the Flash" and "Underdog" isn't helpful at all. I'll take credit for noting this bit of plagiarism.

Despite the presence of Jason Lee, Peter Dinklage and Patrick Warburton, Underdog falls short of captivating. And what's with using Jim Belushi? Didn't already do his time with K-9 back in the '80s?

Footnote: Wow, Jim Belushi was in two direct-to-video sequels to K-9 in the late '90s and early 2000s. Guy's a working actor.

Treadmill-desk

I wrote that last post on my new treadmill desk. Have you heard of it?

OK, mine doesn't look anywhere near that slick. Mine is a plank of wood on top of a used Proform 770 I picked up on Craig's list for $50. Also, I had to pick up an arm mount for a monitor.

The idea is to replace the time you spend sitting on your ass with time you instead spend walking at a slow pace. Regardless of weight, I tend to think the body needs to be active to function well.

I've got some ergonomic issues to work out, still: The desktop (i.e., my plank of wood) is too low, so that's a ticket to RSI. It might need to be angled away from me, which sounds weird but actually means my hands will be in a normal resting position instead of bent back at the wrist.

So, does it affect my work (negatively)? Can't tell yet. It's not completely unworkable. I'll have to try tackling some particularly challenging problem to see how it goes.

Say what?

Apparently, Time-Warner is planning to spend $25M on advertising the DVD for the moderately successful (and surpriginly good) Horton Hears A Who, with the idea that its target audience is, you know, addled (either from having children or being children). No, that's not it. It's that they have the book, so they'll want the movie.

Well, okay. I like the movie, but I barely associate it with the book. No loud-ass blockbuster Jim Carrey flick is on the same plane as a book. Not saying better or worse, just not comparable. But, okay, that's just me. Others doubtless go, "Ooh! A movie based on a book! That I've read!" and snap it right up.

OK, so with a $25M ad budget how much are pricing these at in order to move those puppies?

$29.99


Say what? My initial shock was ameliorated somewhat when I realized that that was the "retail price", i.e., the price you pay at the convenience store for, you know, convenience, and that the real price will be somewhere in the $20, probably $15-25.

Still, I have to wonder if they've really worked out the curve on this.

My first "real" job was for Paramount Home Video. I was customer support. I don't mean that I worked in customer support, I mean that I was customer support. And it was a part time job. (The other part of the job was accounting.)

At this time, it was commong for videos to cost $40-$50, or about 30 gallons of gas, if you want to scale for inflation. (What? What do you mean that doesn't work?) Anyway, it amounted to over $100 in modern "fun-time bucks", or whatever we're calling greenbacks today. You could pay $100 for a copy of Gator Bait, or other movies that were "priced to rent".

Not long before I got there, some genius at Paramount had figured out that if you sell a video for $20, instead of $40, you sold a whole lot more videos. In fact, they had launched a big promotion with Pepsi and (I think) Burger King, in conjunction with that modern classic Top Gun (dir. Tony Scott).

And they had, for the first time, sold over one billion copies of the Tom Cruise/Val Kilmer love story.

What? OK, one million copies. But they sold 'em lightning fast. And they sold another million pretty damn fast as well.

Over the years, prices have dropped both on the tag and in real dollars. I don't know about y'all, but that makes me very inclined to pick a movie up casually. $7 for the Bedazzled remake? Worth it just for Elizabeth Hurley's 14 outfits. (And she's the weakest part of that movie!)

I've noticed that the HD--well, not anymore, but the Blu-Ray movies are back up to $30 and $40. Whoa! Shock to the system! Since a big part of the high-def push is to find ways to lock content down, you might think they'd use marginally higher prices (on the newer stuff that actually benefits from high-def) while keeping older classics at the same prices (or even lower!). That would be a very compelling argument for getting a new player.

Then they could sneak in whatever dastardly content protection they wanted.

Unfortunately, they are the greediest of the greedy. They fought VCRs tooth and nail, and when they lost that battle, they made billions off the VCR. They really feel that not only do they deserve to charge you $40 for a movie that was made before any of them were born, but that the laws of the land should be changed to make it so that they can charge you whatever they want long after their bones are dust.

Of course, the bandwidth for truly high-high-high def stuff isn't out there. You can't get a computer to deliver it. But now that the cat is out of the bag that you're not actually getting it when you pay for it, from your cable/sat/etc company, it'll be intriguing to see how it all plays out.

Oh, and the $30 for Horton. Well, when I worked there, one of the most expensive movies we had that wasn't rent-to-own was The Godfather. You needed two video tapes, and it cost about $70 bucks ($150 or so today). Cost to Paramount to make those tapes? $2.62.

DVDs are even cheaper, however you measure.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Baghead (Not A Story Of A Trooper York 3AM Date)

There's some well-worn ground in the new little flick Baghead. Four actors who long for bigger and better careers are inspired after watching a (amusingly pretentious) low budget film to go into a cabin in the woods to make their own picture. The sexual dynamics between them are ambiguous on the one hand, and on the other, one of them dreams of a man with a bag over his head, and turns them down the road of making a horror movie.

Until Baghead starts making his presence known and they start disappearing one by one...or do they?

So we have a relationship movie about guys making a movie, that's also a horror movie about guys making a horror movie.

It works pretty well. Someone on IMDB compared to the Coen Bros., but this is no Blood Simple. That said, it's not bad.

Our characters are: the handsome one (Matt, played by Ross Partridge), the nebbishy one (Chad, played by Steve Zsiss), the older-and-wise blonde hottie (Catherine, played by Elise Muller), and the new blonde hottie (Michelle, played by Greta Gerwig). Matt and Catherine are "beyond labels" in their relationship, while Chad is crushing on Michelle. Michelle, of course, is crushing on Matt, which pisses Catherine off. Chad is resentful of Matt, who he thinks gets all the girls, but Matt isn't doing too well, apparently, since he broke up with Catherine.

Somebody shoot me.

This stuff's all right. There's a lot of drinking. And scheming. But it's a bit slow.

It's also a bit familiar. I kept wondering if I knew these actors or I just knew a lot of people like them.

Baghead livens up the proceedings but the movie sort of plays with being a horror movie without ever actually being a horror movie. That's not necessarily bad, except for me finding that, when they finally commit at the climax of the movie, I was curiously unimpressed. I didn't buy it whole hog. The filmmakers didn't convince me that they would actually allow the things to happen that I was seeing.

Part of this is the limit of low-budget-ness. The camera's at a pretty removing distance most of the time. Part of it is the limit of the story, though, too. There's a sleight-of-hand that's not very convincing even when it's all laid out at the end.

But, all-in-all, not bad. Short. Fairly thoughtful. They do manage a few good scares, though I would hasten to point out that that's a relatively easy task compared to making an effective full-on horror movie.

Nonetheless, no point in critiquing it for not being what it's not trying to be. It does what it tries to do fairly well. So, good work to the Duplass brothers who wrote and directed.

Pet Peeve of the Milennium

Know what I hate?

Really, really hate?

You know how when you're watching a TV show and then the commercial comes on at double the volume? I have that licked: I stopped watching TV with commercials, for the most part.

But in recent years, movies and TV shows are mixed so that dialogue is very, very quiet, while the transitional music is super loud. And special effects.

Don't these dunderheads know that you want a much smaller range of audio dynamics for home viewing than in the theater--and frankly, it's overdone in the theater, too. If the only way you can get a reaction out of the audience is to turn the volume to 11, maybe it's time to pack it in, mm-kay?

I was just trying to watch Secret Diary of a Call Girl with the lovely Billie Piper (Rose from "Dr. Who") and it was done in this muttering dialogue style with loud transitional music.

It's TV, fellas, mix it down!

Monday, July 28, 2008

Post Apocalpyse Now Redux

My post-apocalypse top 10 has gotten a few hits and I've been looking around at some other top 10 Internet lists. Here's the Google search.

'k.

Couple points:

Escape from New York isn't really a post-apocalyptic film, or I would've included it. Or is it? I guess it meets the definition in some senses. I sort of don't think of it as such, however, because (like the sequel) it depends on a civilization existing outside of it for its impetus. (Save the President!) Maybe, though. It has a lot in common with them. I'll let this one pass.

12 Monkeys. No, I don't think so. It's mostly about the pre-apocalypse. If you include this, you may as well include Terminator movies.

The Quiet Earth. Never heard of it. But it's New Zealand. How would you know if the world ended in New Zealand?

Death Race 2000. Think I mentioned it, but if I didn't: Dystopic, not post-apocalyptic.

Cherry 2000. This unusual pic with pre-fame Melanie Griffith as a sex-droid is smarter than it sounds. But it's still not very good.

Red Dawn. Apocalyptic, not post-apocalyptic, and frankly, not all that apocalyptic, any more than, say, Verhoeven's Flesh + Blood (with Jennifer Jason-Leigh and Rutger Hauer). It's a war movie movie. Include this and you have to include a whole bunch of WWII movies.

Tank Girl. I actually love this movie with Lori Petty and Malcolm McDowell, and Naomi Watts as Jet Girl has never been sexier. But it's fairly camp, and hasn't aged well.

They Live. Another Carpenter flick. In fairness, all of Carpenter's films feel like they're post-apocalyptic. Even Starman has a kind of end-of-the-world feel to it. It's a directorial style thing. Even Halloween kind of feels like Mike Myers is going to murder the whole world. Nonetheless, They Live is more dystopic, and really more just anti-'80s materialism, than post-apocalyptic.

Reign of Fire. What a great idea! What a bad implementation!

Waterworld. I haven't seen it. I do have my limits.

The Postman. Ibid.

Hell Comes To Frogtown. Dunno. This one has never done it for me.

Tooth and Nail. I wrote about it extensively here. Note that I incorrectly identify Children of Men as post-apocalypse when it's more mid-apocalypse. (Since I'm talking about apocalyptic mechanics, it doesn't reflect on the point being made, but still, the world hasn't ended in Children, it's just threatening to.)

Cooties

In the aforementioned "Hannah Montana" girl-fest, the subject of kissing boys came up. To wit, one of the girls has a crush on a boy and wants to kiss him. (The Flower is seven! The other girls no more than eight.) I was relieved to hear that the other girls looked at the...advanced...one like she was Martian.

That's good. Some seven year old boy out there might have just had his life saved.

Surreal Panhandle

"Got any change?"

"I'm sorry, I don't carry money any more these days. Plastic."

"Buy me a Pepsi?"

"Sure."

(I buy a soda and hand it to him.)

"Here ya go. Good luck."

"I wrote this book."

"Wow."

[garbled] "...it's how to live like a millionaire."

. . .

(Hands me paper.)

"That's my name. White King. There's my website."

. . .

"Buy my book? Help me feed my family?"

"I don't have any cash, sorry."

I think I misunderstood, but I was sure until I checked it out that Mr. King was panhandling, trying to get me to buy a book on being a millionaire. (But, I reasoned, being a millionaire is a different skill than becoming a millionaire. So, in a riches-to-rags possibility, he could have a product there.)

Well, here are the websites this guy points to, and it turns out that he claims to be a millionaire "celibrity" (heh), and he was trying to sell me Volume 1 of his three-volume autobiography "Cuban-American Millionaire Celebrity."

He's also written some suspense novels which, hey, have sold better than any of my books on Amazon (though, in fairness to myself, my books were all written and out-of-date before anyone had heard of Amazon.com).

The guy who stopped me may not have been the guy who wrote the book, though he did look a lot like the pictures on those sites. It was hard to tell, since this millionaire celebrity panhandler wasn't wearing a suit like the guy in the picture. (He was barely wearing a shirt.)

So if a guy claims to run a half-billion dollar institute, how much change do you give him?

Just another day in the city.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Donny Osmond

On our way back from Pasadena last night, we passed a Miley Cyrus billboard. Then a Hannah Montana billboard. (And the Disney studios. And then Warner Bros., where Rope was filmed.)

Anyway, I got to thinking about Donny Osmond. Back in the '70s Donny and sister Marie were huge. They were huge in a way that's almost hard to comprehend today. It's not exactly the same, mind you: On the one hand, the PR machines today seem a lot broader in scope. There was no Donny & Marie movie, on the one hand, but there's no Hannah Montana SatAM cartoon on the other.

Anyway, when the Donny & Marie show ended, Donny's 15-year career came to a crashing halt. He was 21 and probably didn't remember a time when he wasn't constantly getting more popular.

I almost felt sorry for the guy. Being a 21 year old and washed up can't be easy. Sort of like Britney or Lindsay or any of these modern train wrecks.

I almost felt sorry, except for two things. First, he always came off like a jerk. It was fairly well sublimated on the show (men were the butt of jokes on the male/female variety shows of the '70s), but he made no bones about it in subsequent interviews. Only recently have I seen something like Second, at some point, shouldn't you just be grateful you had that time in the sun? Fifteen years is pretty long in show-biz terms, and it's not like anyone owes you attention.

At that point, you ought to have enough money to pursue whatever you want, right? You have a big family, lots of money, you have it all. Lots of guys slave away for decades and never achieve anything like a fraction of the fame you have. And--be honest--you know many of them are better musicians and performers. So why the hell not be grateful and keep working at it (if that's what you want) . Yeah, you'll probably never get lucky like that again (and that level of fame always depends on luck), but at least you won't spend the next 10, 15, or 20 years hating your life.

(Of course, I'm just assuming that's the case from the few snippets of interview. Maybe he just gets angry when he gets interviewed.)

So. Yeah.

Anyway, I hope Miley doesn't get bitter when her current level of fame subsides.

In Which My Life Resembles A Benetton Ad

The Flower had a Hannah Montana party last night. (Said party drove me and The Boy out to see Baghead, so expect a review of that later.)

Her invitees were two next-door neighbors--the one on the left being black, the one on the right being hispanic--and a girl from her basketball team, whose mother is Muslim enough to wear a hijab. The flower, by contrast, is lily-white, though the black girl (who's quite dark indeed) epitomizes beauty to her.

There's actually nothing remarkable about that to anyone here.

And it all occurs without any sort of discussion about race whatsoever.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

"You're Quite A Good Chicken Strangler As I Recall"

I cannot watch Alfred Hitchcock's Rope without being fascinated by the cityscape of New York City (1948) in the background.

The clouds move slowly by, the lights flicker off and on, and it's hard to believe that it's just an elaborate model. (Yeah, it looks like an extremely elaborate model, but Technicolor is like that.)

I mean that tonight you've made me ashamed of every concept I've ever had about inferior and superior beings. I thank you for that shame.

The Pauline Kael "Nobody I Know Voted For Nixon" Award

Even though it's pretty well established that she didn't actually say it as it's commonly reported, like fictitious suicidal lemmings and boiling frogs, Pauline Kael will be forever known as saying nobody she knew voted for Nixon, and symbolizing the New York City dweller's out-of-touchness with the rest of the country (which voted for Nixon in one of the great electoral and popular massacres of American history).

I therefore institute the Pauline Kael Award for Insularity, and make its first nominee yet another NY Times writer, Dan Ariely, for his article "Eyes off the Price".

Mr Ariely suggests that it's the very act of watching the price go up that makes us more sensitive to price increases there than other places. That we don't notice the other prices going up because we don't spend the money in the same way.

Really? If you've got a bunch of kids and they go through a gallon of milk a day, you think you don't notice the price going from $2.99 on average to $4.29 in six months--as happened between January 2007 when the ethanol push started, and June 2007?

You don't notice the weekly food bill going from $250 to $350 over a year? You don't notice the water and power bill when it spikes?

Five years ago gas was under $2 and today it's over $4, which makes the increase considerably greater than the increase in milk prices (albeit less condensed).

That's why we notice.

The people who don't notice price hikes in other items are people with lots of disposable income they're not paying much attention to. (I suppose you could be someone without a lot of disposable income whose not paying much attention to it, too, but eventually it'll up and slap you in the face.)

I dunno, maybe I'm off-base. But not everyone drives. Most everyone eats. The food price spike probably hurts a lot more.

Graphic Nouvelle

In the Dark Knight Consterns post, Trooper brings up one of his favorite points: That comic book movies are good now because the people doing them are people who understand and like them.

To which I would only add: And technology makes possible reasonable approximations of the graphics in those comic books. You can't make a movie about The Human Torch if you can't come up with a reasonable looking man-on-fire effect. You can't do a Superman movie unless you can reasonably make it look like one or two normal sized humans can incidentally trash a large city.

Another issue, however, is costumes. What comic book artists do is draw naked human bodies and color in where the costumes would be. Real life costumes, of course, hide definition. Take, for example, Superman.

Besides the bicep definition and the pronounced ribs, he's impossibly barrel-chested. Compare to Chris Reeve, who bulked up for his role as The Man of Steel.

He looks almost scrawny, doesn't he? This is a still, so he's in the best light they could put him in. In the movie he almost looks slender. Probably few, if any, humans actually have even an approximation of that form.

And Brandon Routh's not much better. Although obviously in superb condition, there's no way to create a fabric that doesn't hide definition.




Batman, on the other hand, started out pretty slender, and ultimately grew into Frank Miller's monstrosity. Miller, of course, is not what you'd call "naturalistic" in his styles. The angrier The Batman gets in The Dark Knight Returns, the broader and squarer his jaw gets. In this picture, here, he's actually dwarfing the horse he's riding on.

There were early actors who wore Batman's gray suit, culminating in Adam West--100% pure West. But by the time Keaton rolled around, they were adding fake muscles to the suit. Bale's Batman outfit is, at least, supposed to be bulletproof, giving some justification for the articulated look.

Meanwhile, if you take a bodybuilder and paint a costume on him, the look is much closer, though without the exaggerated V-shape of the torso, and of course without the scale alterations. (Comic book artists change the size of the hero for dramatic effect, which is a little dodgy in live action.)



<--Superman
Batman-->
(You knew that, right?)







Curiously (heh), the X-Men movies go this route for Mystique who, I believe, is usually depicted as wearing a long dress (though split on both sides to the hip). Rebecca Romijn hardly needs clothing, however. Does she look like a superhero? Who cares. We haven't seen hot blue chicks since the original Star Trek.

The X-Men movies made a lot of successful visual changes from the comic books. Could we take even Hugh Jackman (that guy's ackman is huge!) seriously if he were in yellow-and-blue spandex with giant eye-flarey-thingies? (Seriously, what is up with those?)

Another X-Men character is Dark Phoenix. Here's an inspirational photo.

Here's the lovely Famke Janssen in that role, though looking a bit less provocative.

And lastly here's our friend with the camera and models who like to be painted. Stirring, no? This guy's flickr page has a set of superheros, including higher-resolution versions.

The point, of course, is that one medium (comic book art) uses tricks that don't translate to other mediums.

Cthulhu '08

At long last. The coveted Bit Maelstrom endorsement goes this year--as it does every year--to that Elder God of Unfathomable Evil, Cthulhu!I have to wonder: Can a guy possibly get elected President when all the focus is on the other guy. Love him or hate him, Obama's got all the attention.

I loved this take off his logo, which you can buy on assorted merchandise at Cafe Press.

The Dark Knight Consterns

Batman Begins has the distinction of being the first Batman movie that isn't even a little camp. The Batman has a particularly checkered past--which is saying something in the comic book world--including the rather famous TV series, which itself was reflective of the late '50s/early '60s era of Dark Knight comix. (I mean, really, his outfit was done in a variety of pastels for one issue.)

The 1989 Tim Burton blockbuster proved that, given a big enough budget, you could create a good enough rendition of Gotham that people would line up to see it, even if you had no understanding of comic books, no insight into Batman, and fell back on camp in any mildly serious situation. (Burton's Batman is positively casual about killing people, though only the Joker's death is shown.)

Also, the 1989 script was just gawdawful. "Did you ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?" That's up there with "Don't feed them after midnight" in the world of screenwriting.

Far worse was the follow-up with The Penguin and The Catwoman, where Burton makes it perfectly clear, he has no concept of comic book heroism. (Seriously, dude: Was there ever a comic book movie that had, as its overriding message, "We're all victims"?)

After that, they just sort of gave up. Joel Schumacher publicly apologized for the fourth one, if not the third.

By contrast, under Chris Nolan (Memento, Insomnia), the Batman is starkly real and almost entirely humorless. There's no camp to be found, which is good, but there's also an unrelenting grimness, which is not so good. As severe as the first movie was, the new movie, The Dark Knight, is far more so.

The first movie used a stylized Gotham--not as heavily stylized as Burton's movies, which took place primarily on sound stages and a small area inside the WB lot, but still obviously not any real city, and particularly fake in the ghetto where the fear drug was released. The new movie uses Chicago, without changes, and looks entirely different, and entirely real as a result. Also, The Batman himself is less stagey, appearing in full light from time to time.

I guess this is good. I have mixed feelings. I think reality is over-rated.

But realism is the watch word. The story concerns the highly corrupt Gotham as a few good men Bats, along with Gordon (Gary Oldman) and D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) try to pull an Elliot Ness and bring down some mobsters. Mixed in to this is Heath Ledger's psychotic Joker, whose sole purpose in life is to bring down the Batman, and to bring chaos into the world. (This, actually, is not so different from Ra's al Ghul in the first movie, though the Joker is supposedly less well organized, a premise which isn't really sustainable given the things he pulls off.)

The primary struggle in the movie is how the three men, and Rachel Dawes (with Maggie Gyllenhall filling in ably for Katie Holmes) deal with the threats to their lives, their loved ones, and to civilization.

Heady stuff.

This aspect of the movie works fairly well. Gordon's approach is different from Harvey Dent's--and Aaron Eckhart's performance has been, but shouldn't be, totally neglected in favor of Ledger's. The problem is with the Batman himself. And it's something not easily retconned.

Two thing are apparent in the hyper-realism of this movie: It would be impossible not to kill bunches of people as a vigilante in the mold of Batman. The somewhat weak attempts made here to disguise the fact that all kinds of people, innocent and otherwise, would be killed during the caped crusader's hijinx, breaks rather hard. Secondly, it's just stupid for The Batman not to kill the Joker.

The Batman's code--famously not to kill people, though he used to bump people off pretty casually in the '40s--just doesn't make sense in the context presented in the movie. The Joker even points it out: Batman will let lots of people die rather than do what needs to be done.

This has been a kind of running gag in Batman for decades, with Frank Miller providing the ultimate answer in his iconic The Dark Knight Returns.

Powerhouse acting--when your supporting crew is Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine, you know you've got dramatics to spare--reasonably good action scenes, some suspense, and a little mystery, all combined with some pretty heavy drama, and you have yourself a good summer flick.

Althouse reports hating it. Heh. The Boy approved. And, really, so do I, but I think two things are certain:

1. It's really not the greatest film ever made, whatever 125,000 IMDB users think.
2. Heath Ledger's peformance is good, maybe even great, but his death is probably the main reason people are talking Oscar.

Batman was off-and-on my favorite comic as a kid, but to be honest, it was the "little" stories. Probably as a reaction to the series, the Batman of my youth were quiet little mysteries, often featuring ordinary people in a more Sherlock Holmes-like setting. Even pitted against the Joker, the setting was intimate. He seldom had more than a rope and grapple in his belt, and certainly he was not bullet-proof.

You couldn't make a summer movie out of that, these days. It's something PBS or the BBC might do.

Oh, well.

Friday, July 25, 2008

That Leftist Media

As mentioned, I prefer my entertainment politics-free, and would argue that the early Simpsons episodes were better in part because they focused on social satire rather than partisan clap humor. Springfield used to remind me of the classic tales of Gotham, in that it transcended cheap political points.

When the bias gets really deep, it comes through even when the writers probably don't even realize they're taking a side.

As a case in point, recent episodes of both The Family Guy and The Simpsons featured situations where the local government was going to do something really swell, and it was only going to cost a penny (or a nickel, or somesuch). The townspeople react with horror and hysteria.

Ha ha. The government, no matter how much money it has, never seems to have enough in some people's view. (Back in the old days, there was often at least a nod to government corruption and incompetence. But now it's just "look how dumb people are, they don't want to pay more taxes".)

Normally, not only do I not notice this stuff, but when I do, it doesn't bother me because almost any story can be looked at as an individual set of circumstances. For example, our soldiers have done terrible things (in every war in our history), but those acts are outweighed by the everyday heroism--and the fact that they're probably less inclined to do such acts for their demographic groups, all other factors controlled for.

But still, it's legitimate to tell a story about bad behavior among soldiers. It's when every story is about bad behavior that you begin to suspect the world view--or intentions--of the people making them.

Well, not really. A Hollywood writer being left wing is hardly man bites dog.

But I did think of it when I saw this over at Protein Wisdom.

California state government spent $145 billion last fiscal year, $41 billion more than four years ago when Gov. Gray Davis got recalled by voters. With all that new spending — a whopping 40% increase — we ought to be in a golden age of government with abundant public services for all.

So why does it seem like the quality and quantity of government is not all that different from 2004? How many of us feel like we are getting 40% more public services, 40% better schools, roads, parks and so on?
When the gov't takes 40% more to deliver the same services, but threatens us whenever they get less money--and always from core services--I think the viewpoint of the public being stingy is about as funny as a "stoopid Bush" joke.

And as insightful.

Ugly Cartoons

I never got into "Ren and Stimpy". It was my kind of humor (in parts), it was targeted at my demographic, even, but...it was ugly. I don't mean content-wise, which was a combination of juvenille and surreal, but the actual graphics were.

But I blame it for the rash of ugly cartoons that have persisted to this day. Many use similar techniques that John K. pioneered (not all of them unaesthetically).

I shouldn't say "blame", since I just don't watch shows like that. There's a new one called "The Misadventures of Flapjack" which reminds very strongly of R&S.

I'm not sure where the line is or when I drew it. I love, for example, "Duckman", though that's right on the ragged edge. I watched the crudely drawn "Home Movies" faithfully, the Hanna-Barbera styled "Sealab 2021", and I can even endure "Aqua Teen Hunger Force". (Except for "Duckman", these are all Adult Swim programs.)

Meanwhile, I can't watch "Tom Goes to the Mayor" or "Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job!", even though there are a lot of names I like associated with it. Same with "Metalocalypse".

I used to watch Adult Swim pretty faithfully, but it's to the point where 80% of the shows are just ugly.

Time Flies

It looks like I haven't posted all week, but I realize now that's because I started the post-apoco top 10 on Monday and posted it on Wednesday, but blogger kept the Monday date.

I was playing with that format a bit, too. It's a fair amount of work. The pictures all link to Amazon, yet Amazon itself does not host the images. Those are actually on my server. I could've uploaded them to blogger, but blogger wanted to change the size. And I looked at uploading them to an image hosting site, but I didn't see an image hosting site that would let me upload all 12 images at once.

So I just copied them to my local server. One day, the pictures may be gone, but they'll still link to Amazon.

I was thinking of doing a "top 10 Old Dark House" movie list. This was a genre that had its heyday in the 19th century and devolved into camp in the early 20th century. This PBS site has Poe's Usher as the first ODH, but I think you can trace the genre back to the Gothic novels of Walpole (like Castle of Otranto) and Mrs. Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho. (The beauty of 18th and 19th century literature is that you can read it for free online.)

As the link notes, Mary Robert Rinehart's wildly popular play "The Bat"--the real life inspiration for The Batman, as well as Bruce Wayne's inspiration for the Batman costume--was probably the beginning of the end for the ODH. The tropes used so permeated society--books, movies and tons of old radio shows--that they became mundane and impossible to fear. It became easier to play it for laughs than play it straight--and worry about getting the laughs anyway.

As a result, the otherwise effective The Cat and the Canary is ruined by Bob Hope's quipping. (Or saved by it, depending on your point of view.)

The ODH persists, though it has mutated somewhat. Ed Wood's Bride of the Monster is a late attempt at playing the ODH straight. William Castle's House on Haunted Hill and Thirteen Ghosts are reasonably straight attempts. There's nothing straight about Rocky Horror Picture Show, but the ODH influence is strong there.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. More later on.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Top 10 Post Apocalyptic Movies and TV Shows

Good Post Apocalyptic movies are rare. Every dime store wannabe Roger Corman (including Roger Corman) makes a post-apocalyptic movie because it's cheap. All you need is a handful of actors and a desolate shooting location and, voila, it's the end of the world as we know it (and I'm not feeling so good).

I didn't count the Terminator movies since they actually take place, for the most part, in the pre-apocalypso. I also don't count Planet of the Apes, since for all intents and purposes it takes place on a different planet. The same goes for Time Machine. In other words, if it's so far post-apocalyptic that there's nothing left of the original civilization, it doesn't really count.

You won't find that first serious post-nuke movie, On The Beach, on this list, because two hours of "Waltzing Matilda" makes waterboarding seem humane by comparison. And it's really "mid-apocalyptic" like The Day After. And, for the record, Glass's Einstein on the Beach defines "inane".

So, the basic rule is there has to be a complete breakdown of existing society, but enough time for some new form of rudimentary society has to have risen that recalls and clings to the old but is fragile and primitive. Scope is usually large and time is usually from ten to a hundred years or so, but that's not necessary (see the list).

Anyone remember Ark II? It was largely forgettable SatAM moralizing about the environment but I never did actually forget it, because the Ark itself was parked in a lot visible from the 101 as you head downtown. Also, they had a jet pack.

Top 10 Post Apocalyptic Movies & TV Shows
(With The Caveat That I Haven't Seen More Than A Few Minutes Of "Jericho")

1. Road Warrior: Mad Max 2

Can there be any doubt? The '80s were the glory days of action, and this movie spawned a horde of imitators. Italian teens in grungy armor running through warehouses and crap like that. But it's a solid story, with action that really holds up.

The first Mad Max was so-so--make sure you don't watch the version where Mel Gibson and the other Aussie-accented ones are dubbed--and the third one (Beyond Thunderdome) was pretty good, and arguably should be included on the list.

2. Wall-E

You know, you don't get a lot of family-oriented "post apocalyptic" movies. "I know! Let's make a movie for the kids about how the world has come to an end!" This is a unique accomplishment discussed twice on this blog already.

3. A Boy and his Dog
This is probably the only movie based on a Harlan Ellison work that actually captures the guy's cynical, misanthropic, but highly amusing attitude. A young Don Johnson cavorts around the wasteland with his telepathically linked dog, until he's given a chance to rejoin society, a weird midwestern small town ca. 1935 that happens to be underground. Jason Robards co-stars. The end features the worst pun in movie history.

You can watch this or download it free online here.

4. The Matrix

Over-rated and seriously tarnished by the two sequels, which played like movies done by people who had read and believed all the great things other people were saying about them. Nonetheless, a watershed action film that holds up well over time.

This is a somewhat dubious entry as post-apocalyptic because there is obviously a new order; it's more "alien invasion" in a lot of ways. But the underground life of the surviving humans is very typical of post-apoco movies, and the Matrix itself assures that the previous civilization is never forgotten.

5. 28 Days Later

Return of the Living Dead did it first, but director Danny Boyle made fast-moving zombies fashionable. Bonus points for animal rights terrorists causing the end of civilization. Actually, probably the only film on the list that's got a plausible post-apocalpytic story, made possible I think because it's only a month after the end of the world.

Yes, I know, it's only the British Isles that end but, while global apocalypses are the norm, any isolated area where civilization's ability to intervene is highly limited can also work. (See #9 below.) You could argue, for example, that Lord of the Flies is post-apocalyptic, in a way.

6. Dawn of the Dead

Speaking of zombies, Romero's second zombie film is still pretty funny and fast-paced, despite the heavy-handed social commentary that's as dated as a tie-dyed shirt.

Night of the Living Dead--probably the grandfather of modern horror--is mid-apocalypse (and they don't even know it). Day of the Dead and later movies get increasingly heavy-handed, resulting in things like the ludicrous Land of the Dead: A good movie with a ridiculous premise that we should learn to co-exist with zombies.

Nonetheless, Romero makes a good movie every now and again, mostly about zombies. (Knightriders is a solid picture, often overlooked.) And Dawn of the Dead is easily one of his best.

7. The Last Man On Earth

Vincent Price in the original rendition of Richard Matheson's tale, later to be remade with Charlton Heston as Omega Man, and again with Will Smith under its actual title, I Am Legend.

Omega is way too hippie, though. It has become camp over time. I Am Legend is a typically facile modern remake done up big budget with lots of CGI and not a lot of heart, riding on Smith's charisma. And I'm sure I'll feel that way even after I see it.

Yes, the Price version is very low budget, stagey and a little slow. I still prefer it. Make your own damn list if you don't like it.

8. "Day of the Triffids" (1981 BBC TV mini-series)

Low budget, shot on video, but remarkably effective telling of John Wyndham's story of alien plants run amok. Previously made in America with Janette Scott in a not very good movie, immortalized by the theme from Rocky Horror Picture Show.

9. "Twilight Zone" (various episodes)

TZ rocked so hard that they could have the pre-apocalypse, apocalypse and post-apocalypse in one episode. You know what I'm talking about: Burgess Meredith and his famous glasses. But there were other good pre-, post- and mid-apocalyptic shows. Arguably, the very first episode is post-apocalyptic. Then there's "Two" with, I think, Elizabeth Montgomery. Etc.

The famous Billy Mumy episode, "It's a Good Life", where little Billy wishes people into the cornfield, actually fits pretty well into the post-apoco category. The town is completely isolated and the order is sort of a mockery of what it was.

Tie:
10. Wizards

Wildly uneven, hippy-tastic, cheaply made and crude, Wizards is still one of my favorite films. In a post-apocalyptic world, the forces of good, represented by a magic wizard, hot faerie chicks and asian looking warriors, do battle against the forces of evil, represented by mutants and technology and lots of Nazi stuff.

Ham-handed? Sure. But it's also ridiculously accurate about the desire of some for a world where magic makes technology unnecessary.

Besides which, it's fast, funny, and--where it's not terribly hard to look at because it's so cheap--very fun to look at.

10. Death Race 2000
Sharing 10th place with Wizards is the campy '70s flick Death Race 2000 with David (heh, put "Bill" there originally) Carradine and Sylvester Stallone as racers in a future where glory comes from a cross-country road race, where points are assigned by the number and kind of pedestrians you hit.

Paul Bartel's film is not aging all that well, again having that sort of ham-handed hippy-esque anti-America feel, but maybe, for what it is--a $300K film with a relatively interesting premise made in the high '70s--it's aging pretty well after all.

Paul W.S. Anderson (whose Resident Evil series didn't make the top 10) is remaking this movie as Death Race with Jason Statham and Joan Allen. ISYN.

Honorable Mention: Korgoth of Barbaria

There's only been one episode of this funny, funny show, but it's well worth watching if you can find it, and lack any sort of good taste. It's basically a high fantasy setting, but it's post-apocalyptic (ike Wizards, which it rather resembles) and has plenty of modern references for humor and plot reasons.

This brain child of Genndy Tartakovsky (Dexter's Laboratory, Samurai Jack, Clone Wars) and Aaron Springer (Spongbob Squarepants) features over-the-top violence, dumb jokes and plain ol' slapstick. Somehow, it all works.

Serious Examination of Alternative Energies

Before the Left made everything personal, it was possible to examine some issues from a purely scientific point-of-view. Steven Den Beste did a great post on his now defunct USS Clueless about what it an alternative energy source needs in order to be a major contender.

His recent recap is here. Here are the five bullet points, though:
  • It has to be huge (in terms of both energy and power)
  • It has to be reliable (not intermittent or unschedulable)
  • It has to be concentrated (not diffuse)
  • It has to be possible to utilize it efficiently
  • The capital investment and operating cost to utilize it has to be comparable to existing energy sources (per gigawatt, and per terajoule).
Then he gives the bummer news that only petroleum, nuclear, coal and hydro power meet all five criteria.

I think this stuff is important, because recent arguments about power tend to be abstract. If we could live on nothing but solar, I doubt anyone would be against that. But just in terms of how much energy actually hits the earth from the sun, we need a very, very, very large area covered with solar cells indeed. (Think in terms of, say, an area the size of the state of Georgia.) And that's true even if we could get (an impossible) 100% efficiency. (You'd need something like 40 times the surface area of your car in solar panels to make it usable.)

Instapundit and Slashdot both regularly run features on improving solar technology efficiency, which is something I welcome (I think if it were about 10X more efficient than it is now, I could justify using it here), but you do come hard up against physics at some point.

This isn't a reason to stop looking for better sources of energy--though I am a gasoline fan.

Freed from the constraints of engineering and physics, I can imagine a massive solar sail-like thing--bigger 'n' Texas--positioned somewhere above the earth that captures all kinds of solar energy and beams it down to a local power station.

How do we get that much solar material and how do we beam it? I dunno. I'm an "idea man". The details I leave to you.

New Loaded Questions Contest

Kelly@LoadedQuestions is having a new book giveaway, plus a "Ask a bestselling author a question" dealie over at her blog. Check it out.

She's been doing the sci-fi thing lately so I think you'll be seeing her blog expand beyond historical fiction.

Review: Hacking MythTV

I hate trashing books, really--another reason I don't review them often, but below is a review of a book on MythTV that I wrote for Amazon.

I used to write a lot of reviews for Amazon. I was, at one brief point, in the top 500. I was in the top 1000 for a long time, which is pretty good for someone who just did it casually for the weird niche products. (Lots of folks are seriously hardcore.) But I noticed when doing a review for the dreadful "Heroes of Might and Magic 4" that the review didn't appear. Multiple times I wrote that review and it went into the bit bucket.

That kind of pissed me off. No explanation or nothin'. (Actually, I was just reading...Amba?...where she had a sort of mini-Jihad because her review had been rejected for nebulous readings.) So I stopped writing reviews for 'em. But I figure with the blog, I'll just put the reviews here along with the Amazon ones, and add stuff that Amazon won't let me add, like if I know a particular author is a real *****CONNECTION LOST~~~~~~

---------------------------

Also, I should note that you may not know what MythTV is. MythTV is a software package (a set of computer programs) that turn your computer into a super-powered PVR--like TiVo on steroids.

Like TiVo, you can time shift, set up complex recording schemes, and do things like rewind "live"TV". Unlike TiVo, you can archive those recordings. You can also rip, play and archive DVDs. (None of my DVDs last very long, so this is a big deal for me.) And you can fairly casually extend the disk storage.

It also does a shedload of other things, like play music, allow you to watch streaming TV (there's not much worth watching yet, though), record one (or more) things while watching another, provide you with weather reports, play video games, etc. etc. etc.

It's amazing. But it ain't easy to set up. And it's not really cheap. (I mean, it can be. You could probably run a non-high-def edition on $50 worth of hardware + a hundred or so more in tuners. But you're going to want more storage, and probably high-def, and so on.) And if anything goes wrong, you need to be somewhat high tech to deal with that.

This book would purportedly help you setting up MythTV but I didn't find it helpful.
---------------------------

Look, I'm not going to say that these guys didn't try, or that this is a cynically written attempt to cash in on something, but this book is as close to worthless as I can imagine.

Now, again, this is not entirely the authors' fault. MythTV is highly dynamic. What's true today isn't true tomorrow. I'm a journeyman MythTV builder, and a lot of what I've learned in the painful progress I've made simply does not apply any more.

That said, a lot of stuff =hasn't= changed, and it's here where the book falls apart. They should have started with the basics of content flow, i.e., where is the media coming from? Because that's the first thing you need to know before you even decide if MythTV is right for you. (Over the air content, for example, is easily handled by Myth, while controlling a set-top box from a cable, satellite or fiber optic company is a whole 'nother kettle of fish.)

While support has been added since this book was written, the stuff mentioned is not well covered. For example, to set up your MythTV backend, you have to select from various capture card types. There are V4L, MPEG2, DVB, etc.--how about explaining what these are? No explanations is the norm, and when there is an explanation it's often simply restating the on-screen text without actually clarifying.

Six months of having this book and I've never once found an answer to a question I had. Now, I don't go looking for product specific stuff, because (as I said) there's no way they could cover that, but just basic joints and cogs and so on.

See, the thing about MythTV is that if you have just the right hardware and a simple enough setup, it might take you fifteen minutes to set up. If you don't, it could take you weeks to set up, or you might never be able to do it.

To be useful, this book really should have explored =how= to troubleshoot. They couldn't do the actual troubleshooting for you--there are too many things that can go wrong--but they could tell you about the utlities and hardware settings that allow you see where your problems lie.

Maybe they just didn't have the space. But, as I say above, it makes the book almost completely worthless.

Civilization Drivers

Well, up till now, I had thought all civilization was an attempt to impress people of the opposite (or sometimes the same) sex.

Michael Grant reveals that kvetching, is the thing that drives civilization.

(But isn't it sex that makes the kvetching effective?)

Why Didn't I Hate Wall-E?

I saw Wall-E again, and was wondering to myself why I didn't hate it. (This actually triggered a long rant on the nature of multiple viewings, but it's such a mess I can't bring myself to publish it.)

Anyway, conceptually, this Pixar movie contains pretty much all the elements of the crappy enviro-dystopic children's "entertainment" of my youth, which may have something to do with my current hobby of deconstructing post-apocalyptic scenarios.

I mean, look at it: Wall-E posits a future--just 100 years away, mind you--where we've consumed and disposed of so much that we've actually destroyed the planet, and covered it with so much trash that we have to keep it in the cities that we lived in. And there's enough to make cities with itself.

People have no sense of the scale of this planet, it's just too big for people to grasp. We throw trash on the ground and weep like a fake Indian, but the impact is personal and aesthetic. (Likewise, the planet cares not whether it's warmer or colder.) It is not "global".

At the same time, we have an alternate utopic dystopia, if that makes sense, on board the Axiom. All human needs are taken care of, to the extent that humans themselves are totally incompetent. Yet despite this, the market structure seems to be unchanged. In other words, in a world where robots do all the work, people are still "buying" stuff somehow, and there's an implication of exploitation, even though there's nothing to actually exploit.

Meanwhile, the ship itself jettisons massive amounts of garbage out of itself--but from where is all the raw material for this garbage coming? Given that energy seems to be no problem, why wouldn't this solution have worked on earth?

We won't even talk about the whole babies thing. None of the people seemed to actually have ever had any physical contact with each other, and there are no children on the ship, only adults and babies. This suggests that the babies are gestated in some mechanical fashion and raised by machines until adult. I'm pretty sure this would create psychopaths.

Did I mention that a group of humans who were so physically underdeveloped and so conditioned to a trouble-free life would have zero chance of fixing anything? I mean, seriously, they'd have no hip sockets! (I bet you didn't know that we're not born with hip sockets, we make them by crawling and walking!)

Actually, they'd also be insane. If you've never noticed this, as society removes more and more real survival problems from people's lives, they get crazier and crazier. Did you ever hear of a neurotic barbarian? Neuroses are a luxury of civilization.

Nope, Wall-E makes no sense, structurally. On top of that, it's a story about robots with feelings, and there are few premises I find more annoying.

So, why didn't I hate it?

First, it's Pixar. Which means that it was executed at the highest level of artistic quality. You don't hear talk of Lasseter retiring Pixar into the Disney brand; I think it's clear that "Pixar" is going to maintain the premium brand.

Second, it's Pixar, which means that there is a whole 'nother movie's worth of interesting, entertaining and funny details.

Third, it's a kid's movie. Director Stanton (A Bug's Life, Finding Nemo) makes kiddie movies, and he does so very well, by simplifying and streamlining things. Wall-E reverses the trend of kiddie movies getting longer and longer, so we can forgive him not showing the electro-re-programming machines that turn angry, psychotic teens into passive consumers. (Compare this to Brad Bird of Ratatouille, The Incredibles and Iron Giant, whose work tends to have a hard edge.)

Fourth, it's very gentle, steering strongly away from the misanthropy that usually characterizes such films. The theme isn't "evil humans destroyed the earth" so much as "we got kind of carried away and let things go, but it's up to us to fix it". The former message is a pretty crappy trick to play on kids, the latter a reminder to look at the real world once in a while, and to take care of it.

Finally, and this became apparent on a second viewing, Wall-E is first and foremost a love story. Like a Charlie Chaplin movie, the social commentary frames the story without changing it from boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl.

The two robots are the most human characters in the movie. And again, I have to fall back on the "Well, it's Pixar!" thing again. These are the guys that make you care about toys, bugs, rats, and a freakin' lamp. There's the triumph of animation that can bring life to everything--and indeed, we find all the robots have personalities, even the poor, doomed security robots, this movie's "stormtroopers".

It would be odd to tihnk of the robots as not real, living beings.

So, I guess, on the scale of things, while it's a message movie, the message is way more abstract than, say, Toy Story 2, which basically told your kids they were soul-destroying monsters for giving away their toys.

And I love Toy Story 2, too.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Random Linkage

I haven't watched this comedy clip yet. I hear it's funny.

On an Althouse thread about Obama's fondness for the heavy-handed Dylan song Maggie's Farm, there's some discussion about whether the narrator is supposed to be viewed as heroic or noble. My feeling is that one analyzes Dylan lyrics at one's own peril.

This led Theo Boehm (indirectly) to post some stuff from a blog called Maggie's Farm about the clavichord and piano. Theo and Palladian's taste in (and attitudes toward) music is frighteningly similar to my own. (I say "frightening" because I went through college without finding anyone who shared my more peculiar tastes.)

I've been reading
through Anne G's 2.5 part abortion essay on Ambivablog. I'm thinking, after three years, she's never going to finish part III, but what's there is a lot. She actually does what I suggest: tries to change people's minds. (Normally, that's something a Church would do.) But she can offer insight that I can't, having gone from what might be called the accepted liberal view on abortion to a firm believer in its wrongness, by virtue of having had one.

This is not a little bit gutsy, I think, to take the position that something you, yourself, have done is terribly wrong. The reflexive left might call it hypocrisy, but I think it's experience. Pastor Jeff linked to study on repeat abortions, but I think it's telling that 50% of the women who have an abortion don't have another one. I doubt these women are going to be wearing tees.

And the ones who repeat tend to be minorities. Which is why I always get that Sanger-esque eugenics/genocide vibe off pro-choice organizations.

And again, I remind you, I am pro-choice.

Trumbo: First Blood Part II

Trumbo! Ed Driscoll does a video commentary on the new documentary, pointing out that the movie never says whether Trumbo actually was a member of the Communist party. In its defense (sort of), it implies very heavily that he was, as were the others, because "it was the most liberal thing around". He runs down the lengthy list of movies on the McCarthy era, and searches hard to find a few paltry counter-examples.

There actually isn't anything like "Trumbo" on the other side. Refuseniks, for example, features no celebrities. Andy Garcia's The Lost City was basically buried, and it was about the relatively small awfulness of Cuba's "revolution". Most of the anti-commie action films of the '80s were essentially anti-Nazi films with upgraded hardware.

There's a remarkable wealth of material and ideas that Hollywood simply leaves on the floor. Imagine a movie with a religious hero, where a corporate executive saves the day, where a communist rounds up dissenters and kills them, and so on. Wild, eh?

As for Mr. Driscoll, someone will have to explain to me why he says he's in a movie lobby when he's clearly in front of a green screen. And also whether his suits are too big or his head is too small.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Brain Download coming...

I've been wanting to follow up on Wall-E, abortion, alternative energy, global warming, real estate, perils of remodeling etc.

It's just been crazy around here.

I picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue.

Later tonight.

Out Of Touch

I've mentioned before that I'm out of touch when it comes to pop music. Truth be told, when I know of a pop song, it's almost always because I've heard in a movie. I've never been able to listen to the radio for two reasons: 1) I hate commercials. It's bad enough when they're on TV and you can mute them. But when you're aurally focussed on something you're enjoying and then something as obnoxious as a radio commercial comes on, it's far, far worse; 2) It always seemed like I could use my listening time better by playing my own selection of music.

So when those "greatest hits of the XXs" album commercials play on TV, a lot of times that's often the first time I'm hearing that song, even though I was around at the time. (And even in decades when I was the target audience.)

I had one album by The Who ("Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy") and I had seen Tommy as well as read some sheet music with their music on it. But I heard "Won't Get Fooled Again" for the first time in this version. (I can't really make out John Williams guitar work on this recording, which was very cool on the recording I have.)

As is traditional for me, I played it without a capo and entirely using bar chords. Seeing it now for the first time, I realize they're not working half as hard as I was. (That happens to me a lot.) Their guitars have lighter, lower strings, too. Oh, well.

I suggested performing it once to a friend of mine, and he indicated it was pretty tired, kind of all played out. Cliché even. (That also happens to me a lot, a consequence of not listening to the radio, etc.) My response is generally, "Huh".

True story: Because every time I played anything with fingerwork someone would say, "Is that "Stairway To Heaven"?" I had my guitar teacher teach me "Stairway to Heaven" so I could say, "No, this is "Stairway To Hevaen"!" I knew how to play that song years before I had ever heard it.

Friday, July 18, 2008

I'm An Idiot

...but I have a lot of company.

A few weeks ago I took up with Montana Urban Legend over at Althouse. I don't even recall what it was, but I was suckered in by his assertion that he wasn't a partisan hack. Many frustrating posts later it was clear that, well, no, he didn't think he was a partisan hack, he just believed the exact same things that every leftist partisan hack believed.

Troop vouches for him, and that's good enough for me.

But I ain't wasting my carpal tunnels on "serious" debate with him.

My G-G-G-G-eneration

The Kids Are Alright is on TCM now.

I love The Who.

But I don't really relate to them. There's never been much about pop music that I actually relate to, though I enjoy a lot of it. (Theo Boehm made a good comment on the tiredness of politicians "relating" to music and why can't just one talk about Bach and The Art of Fugue?)

Every time I see Keith Moon, I think of Spinal Tap.

I also think of Bill Maher's dumb-ass assertion that his music collection wasn't hurt by drugs. (Even if it's not entirely appropriate in Keith Moon's case.)

Anyway, good show.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Reality Shows Up

I looked at buying a house in the early '90s and couldn't even think about affording one.

Then in the mid-'90s during the tech bubble, I had a lot more money and prices had come down drastically, so I bought one. My credit was bad due to some hospital bills, so I got an adjustable 11-point-something%. It seemed high, but I remember my mom buying a house with a 17% mortgage.

The house I bought was well under what I could afford, according to various calculations. It cost about what I was making in a year at the time. After three years of payments, I refinanced at 7% and now I'm at 5.65%, looking at sub-5% on a shorter term loan, if possible. (Think I missed the window on that, unfortunately, as it was a race between rates and declining property values.)

Anyway, after about 10 years, the house had gone up to where it was appraised at nearly 4x what I had paid for it. But, I thought (and think), who can possibly afford that? Certainly not me. Over the first ten years my income dropped to--well, first to 0%, then to 40% (bye-bye tech bubble), and now I'm at about 2/3rds of what it was at its height.

(I've been poor and I've been slightly less poor, and slightly less poor is better.)

But my humble little home is still "worth" over 2.5x. I don't see how that can stand. I make more than most, though granted single income and innumerable offspring cost heavily. Even so, a house should be a matter of security and an asset, not a crushing liability.

Real Estate in Southern California is like the changing tides. Or maybe like a grunion run. It's actually kind of funny. At least three times in my life, I've seen real estate runs. Everyone you know starts working in real estate, whether it's becoming an appraiser, a loan broker or an agent. Everyone starts talking the lingo.

I remember being in a traffic school class and using the phrase "single family dwelling" (a street with 50% SFDs is legal to u-turn on) and the sheriff teaching asked if I was an RE agent. I didn't say what I should have, which is that I'm a Southern Californian, and we know real estate.

Of course, we don't really. What we know is that there's tons of money being thrown around and we want in, so we quit our day jobs (if we're really, really, em, "optimistic") or go to night school, and start trying to cash in. Because one thing we know for sure? It's going to last forever.

When I pointed out on many, many occasions over the past five years, that the market was going to crash, my father, a usually sensible man, would actually say "Well, not necessarily." He's not the real estate type, mind you, so he didn't chase after this gold rush. Nonetheless, it was a conversation killer. What can you say to that?

But my point, over and over again, was "Who can afford that?" My father's reasoning seemed to be that people were buying houses and therefore they were driving up the demand, and why should that change?

Perfectly sensible, I suppose. As an ignoramus, I just looked at the pattern and said, "I don't know what causes it, really. I just know it's something that happens over and over again." What seems to happen is that the premise of "prices will rise forever" is used to justify stupid investments. The same thing that seems to fuel every bubble, whether in the RE market, the tech market, or the freakin' crash of '29.

This, by the way, makes me think we might just see an oil price crash. Ultimately this kind of price pressure has to result in new oil sources opening up. I know I wouldn't invest in oil future right now.

But for houses, I just can't see how people can afford even the current houses. I mean, assuming you come up with 5-20% of the down, you're still looking at $2K-$2.5/month mortgages, or about $25K per year, plus another, say, $5K for property taxes and that's $30K. The median income for the area is $50K.

Even with $50K household not paying income taxes, that's an unmanageable chunk. (If you're renting that house, it'll run you $18K-24K/year, but you don't have to directly pay for any big maintenance, or come up with a down-payment.) Even at $75K/year, that's too big, if not completely unmanageable. But drop that down to $200K, you've halved everything, including the taxes, and you're only looking at about $12.5K.

Of course, these are numbers that I'm more comfortable with, and I try to live as though I might suddenly quit my job and go into full-time banjo busking.

And then, what will happen, at those rates, is that the demand will start building again, and the prices will start climbing, and your plumber will start working on his RE license again....

It's sort of the circle of life in SoCal.

But when I bought this house, there was a castle for sale not far from here that was $600K. It wasn't huge, mind you, but it was a castle on a nice piece of land overlooking the nearby serfs. Those sorts of prices strike me as a much better opportunity for people (even ones who already own property) than the one where we all pretended we were rich because a toolshed with a tin roof was going for $450,000.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Mid-East Prisoner Exchange

Israel and Hezbollah are exchanging prisoners right now, according to Fox News. (They interrupted "Red Eye"!)

It looks like they're swapping two Israeli dead soldiers for a toddler murdering terrorist and four similarly-minded pals.

Doesn't seem like a fair exchange, unless they poisoned the terrorists.

Comic Tragedy...or is it Tragic Comedy?

This New Yorker cover, if you haven't seen it, has caused some controversy. It is, of course, a ham-handed swipe at right-wingers, though I guess not so ham-handed that some righties didn't go, "Yep, that's 'bout right."

In any event, the wrong people got upset about it. Instead of conservatives saying "Hey, we have problems with Obama and this sweeps them all under the rug!" we got lefties getting all huffy with "O noes! The rubes will misunderstand this!!!"

Jeff Goldstein at Protein Wisdom came up with a very good explanation as to why.

Victoria at Sundries ran with this and came up with her own angle.

The delightful Ruth Anne saw a "right-wing" response at The Anchoress.

I rather like the ebb and flow of internet memes more than the story itself. Though I wonder about the "right wing" response being on The New Republic. Shouldn't it be on, I dunno, American Spectator?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Conversations from the Living Room, Part 4: Lynchpins

"You're not fooling anyone."
"I'm fooling myself."
"Well, self-delusion is the lynchpin of modern civilization."

Gaming vs. Reality

When The Boy was very young, about 13 months, he was wracked with grief over the absence of his mother and I was at a loss as to what to do with him until she returned. Even though he could speak quite well, he was (as all toddlers) a grief terrorist. He'd cry until his demands, however unreasonable, were met. Completely inconsolable.

In frustration, I asked him if he wanted to help me shoot monsters. This captured his attention, and for the rest of the afternoon we played "Doom II". (I steered, he shot.) From that point, our relationship fundamentally changed. All of a sudden, I was Mr. Cool. We probably didn't play again for months (we were moving at the time) but shooting monsters sustained him and fired up his imagination. Also, being with me became an entertaining prospect rather than a dreadful one.

I've never been able to recapture that with his younger sisters, not because they don't want to play, but because they refuse to let me help. They both want to shoot and aim, and they're simply not that coordinated. So other avenues have been necessary there.

The upshot of this is that I've had The Boy as a human lab on which to test the notion that games de-sensitize us to violence, or incline us to violence, or do something or other bad regarding violence that the nattering nannies of negativity previously projected on to D&D, SatAM cartoons, rock muisc, horror comics, flapper music and pulp fiction (to hit the highlights of the 20th century).

Suffice to say that The Boy was the gentlest, most empathic and most kind child I've ever known, and playing games seemed to not affect that at all.

In fact, it was an issue even back in his pre-school days (the late '90s) that he wanted to play boy games, boy games being almost inherently violent. (Though he also excelled in organizing other children, even older ones for more community sandbox engineering projects as well. And he's very, very good at directing younger children to do his bidding. As he says, he's always wanted minions.)

But his clarity between the difference in playing games and living reality was such that I never worried about it. He could go from vigorously competing in some fashion to helping someone in pain or need within a heartbeat.

As a gamer, I tend to look at games in terms of numbers. Now, the best players, the very best players there are for any game, almost always have a clear breakdown of a game's mechanics: The numbers that make it work. As a game designer, I often tried to hide those numbers in order to make the game more immersive. (And as a Dungeon Master, I'm willing to sublimate them complete for a necessary plot turn, which is probably why me and the new D&D don't get along.)

In reality, hardcore gamers don't play games so much as they crunch numbers. That's why they can play something that is absolutely horrifying in the narrative sense. It's also why they really can't be adversely affected by a game, and very often do things like skip cutscenes and narrative text.

But.

Ralph Koster, in his "Theory of Fun for Game Design" talks about a game which has you as a Nazi running a gas chamber. You're given Jews and required to stack them neatly, at which point you can gas them, sweep them out and take more Jews. They're shaped differently and they come faster and faster, and you lose when you run out of room in the chamber before you can gas them.

Horrifying, isn't it?

Mechanically, what Ralph is describing is "Tetris", one of the most innocuous--and popular--video games ever made. He's just given it a back story. The first video game ever banned, I'm told, was "Death Race" back in the early '70s. Inspired by the movie, presumably, but before licensing rituals were established, "Death Race" had you drive your little car around a ring and run into stick figures, which turned into gravestones.

It was about as offensive as "Tetris" to look at, but you could infer some offense from it (and some people did!).

The reason I was thinking about all this is that I play "Civilization" (Civ). Civ began as a board game in the '80s by the legendary Avalon Hill, and was adapted to computers by Sid Meier in the '80s. Sid went on to do a lot of other games, like "Colonization", "Pirates", "Railroad Tycoon" and "Civil War", as well as being at least a figurehead on the various sequels, as he rakes in the cash.

But Civ, currently up to version 4, is the most interesting to me because it's a very, very rough civilization simulation. I mean, it's the "climate model" of civilization simulation, only it sometimes comes out right by sheer luck. It's not uncommon to enter the 20th century and suddenly have massive world wars break out, for example, especially in Civ II and Civ 3.

You research techs which make researching other techs, and accomplishing certain tasks, available to you in historically interesting ways. The wheel leads to you being able to make roads, while you must invent the Printing Press to discover Democracy. (There's a slippery distinction between inventions and discoveries.) And so on.

One of the challenges of the game, however, is picking your government style. In Civ 1 and Civ 2, you wanted to beeline to Democracy. Civ 3 tried to balance the types of gov't a bit more, by making Fascism a very good warmongering style at the cost of reducing your population (as you weeded out undesirables), and Communism just a flat out good warmongering style that was good for running a super-large empire (at the cost of, I think scientific research, happiness, commercial success and/or some other penalties).

In other words, the first three iterations of the game sought to represent historically that certain modes of government were bad unless you had evil design.

Version 4, however, is supremely balanced. (Ugh. There's that word again.) Instead of selecting a government, you have five civics representing your religious attitude (theocracy versus free religion, say), your commercial attitude (mercantilism versus free market, e.g.) and so on.

So, there's no communism per se. (No atheism option either.) There is a "state property" option, and it reduces the maintenance cost of your cities. It's a good option for someone with a large empire.

A fair number of gamers will not use that option. It is, in a small way, like packing Jews into gas chambers--something that repulses even in an abstract, theoretical reduction, without any of the real world consequences that "state property" actually had. "Police state" is a viable option as well.

What the designers did makes perfect sense from a gameplay standpoint. I may have played one game of Civ 3 where I used fascism. (I was Genghis Khan and planning to do nothing but fight from there on out.) Communism I played with a couple of times but it wasn't very fun.

Civ 3 was edgy that way. It also modeled slavery in a very distinct fashion. The Civ games (at least from version 2 on) always had the option for you to "whip" your city's population in order to speed the building of something. Version 3 had it that, in some circumstances, when you defeated enemy troops, the result would not be dead enemies but enslaved ones. Civ 4 goes back to the original model but allows for slave revolts as a cost.

These decisions are entirely amoral, of course. One doesn't concern one's self with the fate of a pawn in a chess game, which is all these things are, only with window dressing. In the same way one doesn't really think about using a monopoly to drive everyone else to bankruptcy (unless one is Bill Gates). Most of us would find it repulsive to actually deeply ponder what games meant.

That said, it's sort of funny to me how many people will avoid using "Communism" or "State Property" in a Civ game.

There are still some taboos, mild though they may be.

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