Saturday, December 30, 2006

User-Defined Realities

Time Magazine just named me Person of the Year, Nick is sitting on chairs, we're starting a radio show... and Borges is attempting a "Refutation of Time."

Granted, only three of these things are happening in the present and future. As a special advance notification to readers of Isoceleria, be on the lookout for two fresh and wonderful Web 2.0 new-new-economy user-created-contents. The first is "Palatial Beachfront Property," a podcast radio show dedicated to talking about the most important issues of our time. And if you're reading Isoceleria, you know what sort of things are considered "the most important issues of our time." The second, the ILSOC project, is a bit further from my personal sphere of influence, so I'll reserve commentary on it until more work is complete. Know that if nothing else, it's going to embody the ideals of the user-created content paradigm.

(I'm terribly sorry for having used the word "fresh" in that misguided context.)

Time Magazine wasn't faced with a particularly good slate of candidates this year for Person of the Year. George Bush? Oh, you mean the President of the United States is an important guy? I never would have come up with that one on my own. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? Kim Jong-il? Both slightly crazy leaders of countries with powerful armies that threatened to develop nuclear weapons but couldn't quite back themselves up on it. I think their votes cancel. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Al Gore, and any other number of prominent politicians? The Democrats taking Congress was significant, no argument there. Let's wait and see what that means for the country before we start handing out Person of the Year like it's candy.

Except, wait, that's exactly what Time did.

As everyone has probably heard, you are Time's person of the year. Yep, you. Look on the cover of one of the magazines, and you'll magically see yourself! And if you don't know why you were selected, it's because you make content on the Internet. ("Wait, I've been making crappy websites for ten years now! Shouldn't that make me Person of the Year ten times over?" Yes, yes, it should.) That's what makes the Internet great in the first place: dynamic and interactive content generation. Ever posted to a message board or forum? Done something as simple as voted in a poll? Engaged in such foolish behavior as making a blog? Congratulations, sir or madam, you have helped make yourself person of the year.

But more than fora, polls, and blogs, the Time Person of the Year and the conventional wisdom behind it is enamored with YouTube. YouTube has its place; don't get me wrong. But I'm scared of it. A couple of years ago (and still to some extent today), the Internet rage was the Flash cartoon: the sort of garbage you could find on Albino Black Sheep or Ebaum's World. If you've seen Badger Badger Badger, then you're familiar with this sort of thing. (If not, you're probably better off for it.) It seemed like there was an almost weekly rush of "Look at this awesome Flash cartoon I found!" Except, of course, it wasn't really awesome. It was comedic drivel, the sort of junk that violates a central precept of comedy: in order for something to be funny, it must be funny for a reason. "Random" does not cut it. Back in the Flash Cartoon Age, we only had to deal with these sorts of abominations from a subset of Internet users: the ones with enough specialized technical knowledge to make a Flash animation and the time and willingness to sit down and do it.

That's not so for YouTube. It requires exactly two things: a video camera and a connection to the Internet, neither of which is exactly a rarity these days. And it's going to let an even bigger "Look at this awesome video I found" phenomenon flourish uncontested.

In A Personal Anthology, a book that includes many short stories by Jorge Luis Borges, and which after a year and a third of hostage status from Samantha I am finally getting around to reading, Borges attempts a "New Refutation of Time." And before you start thinking "Wait a second, he's using a temporal idea to refute time," he defends that in this prologue. Borges bases his central argument on Idealism, which he interprets to hold that the perception of an object is all that really exists, and adding a physical quantity called an object is superfluous. In other words, pretend you're looking at a leaf. The leaf's existence is then defined by your observation of it: what the leaf smells like, looks like, sounds like, feels like becomes the leaf to you. Then, because in your world, the leaf already has a definition and state of being, considering an actual "leaf" to exist in the universe is redundant because its existence has already been defined.

Borges extends this reasoning to deal with time. He argues that time is supposed to be a sequence of all events that have happened and will happen, but if the perception of an object is in effect the criterion for making an object real, why shouldn't the perception of an event be the criterion for making an event real? Frankly, that's a tough argument to buy, both the idealist basis and Borges's extension of it. It's difficult to know whether Borges's ideas about time were outgrowths of (or at least influenced by) his pre-relativity lifetime. Did Borges, through this "Refutation," reflect a prevailing philosophical opinion of that era, one that was less informed than current civilization about the nature of space-time? Or was his argument not scientific at all, and would he have made the same argument today given the nature of physical evidence that suggests the opposite?

The most interesting thing about Borges's essay is that it highlights the impact of temporal influence on modern thought. In discussing Borges's essay, for instance, I used the words "pre-," "lifetime," "era," "current," and "today." So this essay is valuable not exactly in proving that time doesn't exist but instead in that modern culture has a lot of preconceptions about time, most of which we've never actually examined.

And to make things even more interesting, quantum physics would argue that Borges, or at least his Idealist basis, is actually correct. After all, if you're not directly observing something, how can you empirically prove its existence? That tree crashing in the middle of the woods with nobody watching? Not only might it not make a sound, but it may not even exist.

Currently listening: Light Grenades, Incubus

Friday, December 15, 2006


Warning: parts of this article contain Sushi Evangelism. Reader discretion is advised for sensitive groups.

It's becoming very easy to find places to eat sushi. It's even easy to find places to eat good sushi. There are lots of little restaurants where you can get some and think "yep, that's pretty good raw fish." But when does sushi transcend "pretty good raw fish" and become an excellent meal? Here's the part where I think every sushi eater has a completely different opinion: that their preferred sushi house/bar/restaurant is the very best there is, and that you needn't waste your time at any other locales.

Yeah, I'm no different.

And so when I volunteered my dad's lunch hour to buy me some free food yesterday, my obvious choice of restaurant was Wasabi House. There's really nothing obviously distinctive about Wasabi House: it's neither super-commercial nor "hole in the wall," there are appropriately Japanese people working and appropriately Japanese decorations on the walls, and the front of the place has a large cutting board, several large knives, and lots of rice and dead fish.

The thing that stands out about Wasabi House is the quality of their most basic types of sushi. Sure, they've got their house specials (one of which is something delicious called "dragon roll" that is certainly worth trying), and it's not hard to pour effort into one or two rolls and make them outstanding. Where Wasabi House becomes wonderful is in things like spicy tuna and spider roll. Every self-respecting sushi place has these... and yet, at Wasabi House, they're just better than anywhere else I've tried. Again, I believe that any sushi fan probably has the same opinion of their favorite place, and that brings me to a question. How do you differentiate high-quality sushi? If it's amazingly good at everywhere you try (and I'll be the first to admit that there probably are places as awesome as Wasabi House), how do you determine what's truly the best?

Following the Asian food theme, after a particularly difficult Problem 3 on a diff eq exam earlier this week, a few friends and I went to a place called Spoon. "Wait... that doesn't sound Asian!" No, it really doesn't, which is why this really is a paradox of a restaurant. It's clear that this restaurant is torn between wanting to cater to some sort of trendy urban crowd and wanting to sell high-quality Thai food. I'm not exactly trendy, so I can't comment on the former, but the latter is a resounding success.

First, a bit about the atmosphere. We've got a nonsensical English name, a full bar featuring American alcohol, and decor and background music that appear to have been inspired from Sprockets. And for all that, the quality of Thai food for the money is excellent. The menu is simple, serving Thai dishes for eleven dollars each (Pad Thai is cheaper, and there are a few more expensive seafood options) and all of the ones that I tasted were delicious. I had chicken Panang, which was basically chicken and vegetables in some chili-coconut sauce (granted, that's an accurate description of about half the Thai dishes out there), and there's no question that I'd order it again.

Now let's talk about "authenticity." A lot of snobs would probably complain that I wasn't eating "authentic" Thai cuisine. The same people would likely argue that my favorite Chinese place, Big Joy, isn't really Chinese. So my question here is define authenticity. One common criterion is "you know a Chinese restaurant is 'authentic' when you see Chinese people eating there." Or for particular dishes: a dish isn't "authentic" unless it originated in China. So look at Maggiano's, a popular (and delicious) Italian restaurant. I've seen Chinese people eating there, but I'm not sure if I've ever seen any actual Italians there... does this mean Maggiano's isn't authentic? Italian people don't really eat lasagna and chicken parmesan?

If you've been looking at what I've been listening to the past few weeks, it's been Christmas music. 'Tis the season, after all. Here are three of my favorites:

What's It Gonna Be, Santa? is probably the best contemporary Christmas CD out there. It has a mix of secular and religious, mostly well-known music but a few originals, too. Of course I'm biased toward Chicago being a trumpet player: most music can be greatly improved with a little brass added. Surprisingly, I've heard some of this music on the radio lately, where it is a refreshing alternative to hip-hop Christmas and 40's crooning. One note in particular: "Child's Prayer" from this CD is one of the only situations I can think of in which I don't mind children singing.

If you're looking for traditional Christmas music, there's really no place to go better than the ASO under the direction of Robert Shaw. Both The Many Moods of Christmas and Christmas with the ASO are among the best in this subgenre, with Many Moods featuring more well-known music and Christmas with the ASO showcasing orchestral music befitting the season. The ASO's renditions of "O Come, O Come Emanuel" and "Adeste Fideles" are both particularly worth listening to.

And if you ever have the chance to hear the ASO do it live, the Morehouse Glee Club's "Betelehemu" is absolutely not to be missed.

Currently listening: "Three Doors," VAST

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Reading... for fun?

I like to read. It's just that going to Tech does not afford one much time to read much of anything. So when my literate friends ask me what I've been reading lately, I'm usually forced to respond with Physics for Scientists and Engineers or suchlike trash. Dead week being what it is, though, I've finally found time to read a book that's not describing the wonders of electromagnetic induction and how to calculate Faraday's Law integrals. My friend Nick gave me Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer ("a most ingenious Jew") as a Christmas gift last year... and I'm just now getting around to reading it. This book so far is one of the more entertaining books I've read recently, and Alex is becoming one of my favorite book characters ever, ranking right up there with such notables as Jaime from Song of Ice and Fire and Mr. Lockwood from Wuthering Heights.

I currently have Everything is Illuminated on my desk. Last week, one of my residents comes into the room and sees that I have the book. He points to it and says "You could have asked. I have the book." I have no idea what he's talking about, but I take the bait. "Why would I have asked you if I had that book?" "So you wouldn't have to buy it." "Actually, I didn't buy it, it was given to me as a gift... but why would I want to know if you had it?" At this point, I'm more confused than I'd been since 11 am, when Physics II lecture let out that day. And another resident comes into my room.

"Oh, you're reading that for English class," he says, more presumption than question. "No, I'm not." "Why are you reading it then?" "Well, because my friend gave it to me... and he thought I'd enjoy it?" Now the first guy explains his unorthodox line of questioning: "Yeah, I thought you were reading it for English, too. That's why I said you could have borrowed it for me." "No, I'm reading it on my own," I reply, a bit more emphatically. "A good friend of mine said I'd enjoy it, and it's supposed to be a good book."

Shouldn't that be enough?

Currently listening: What's it Gonna Be, Santa?, Chicago

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

A Rainy Night in Midlands

The other week, Shreya and I figured out how rain works, on a particularly bleak rainy day walking out of Woody's. So there's air with some amount of moisture dissolved in it. That moisture is measured in terms of "relative humidity," i.e., how much of the saturation value of water there currently is. Saturation is dependent on one thing only: vapor pressure of water at a given temperature, such that when the partial pressure of water in the gas phase in the air equals that vapor pressure, the air is saturated.

So that's all fine and good, but how does it explain rain? The answer owes to the psychrometric chart, a hideous monstrosity of curves and grids that can probably tell you the answer to the life, the universe, and everything if you say the magic incantation and find the intersection of any one of about twelve tie lines. One especially useful property (only involving about four lines at a time) is if you cool the air enough, you hit a saturation curve and begin condensing water as you cool further. Everyone knows from their friendly 6 o'clock weatherman that a cold front brings precipitation... and now I know why.

Another interesting property is red dye fading at a rate disproportional to other colors of dye. Emily attempted some relativist INTA explanation that "our society has a limited definition of red compared to other colors." I countered with a (help me, God) physics answer of red being close to the end of the visible spectrum. Of course, violet does not experience the same dye as would be expected from also being at the end of the visible spectrum, so there goes my theory. Eventually we settled on the fact that red is the least abundant of naturally occurring colors, so there is most likely an atmospheric reason that our environment is unkind to redness. Anyone know what this is?

Emily has a point, though. As much as I despise thinking in terms of "society," colors are completely subjective. We've got green and blue next to each other on the spectrum. Those are definitionally different colors. But there are (infinitely many) colors between the two of them. Who decides that "forest green" gets called "green," "sky blue" is "blue," and "turquoise" is somewhere in a chromatic no-man's land, neither green nor blue?

Finally, I bought a copy of the Baghavad Gita from some guy on Skiles who was doing yoga and fundraising for something or another. Theology is a wonderful thing, and it pains me to realize that this book is probably number six or so on my List of Books to Read. Maybe I can make some progress over Christmas?

Currently listening: The Many Moods of Christmas, Robert Shaw

Monday, October 30, 2006

Your Layout Sucks Almost As Much As Halloween

Interestingly enough, this problem tends to be less prevalent on Blogger (or any other web journal system) than on Myspace. Notice that, upon trying to go to someone's profile, the first thing you see is an obnoxious-colored background. Then the awesome background photo loads at the same time the text shows up... too bad the background photo is mostly black and white, and the text on the page is one or the other. Before we get to the "links you can never click on because someone decided it would be an excellent idea to make them turn to bold when you mouse over them," though, you have to get through "rendition of how to make a frame that makes half your text go off the page and create a God-awful horizontal scroll bar at the bottom."

This dovetails nicely into skinnable apps. To paraphrase (or maybe quote directly) Jick from the Kingdom of Loathing, "I hate skinnable apps." There is just nothing that gets me less excited about programs than the fact that you can change what the scroll bars and menus look like. Aesthetics are important, undoubtedly, but infinite customizability is simply unnecessary. When we're paying more attention to what color the title bar is than to what the program actually does, priorities have become a little misplaced.

Take Windows, for example. Windows looks perfectly nice as is. If you don't like the colors, Windows has taken the time to include ways to change them. But if I tried to estimate the sheer number of desktop themes that are out there... I'd be estimating for more than a little while. I don't even care about my background, to tell you the truth; it's usually something amusing, or if I'm not amused by that anymore, it's probably just some neutral image. And yet, there are a preponderance of people out there who find it absolutely necessary to change not only colors and desktop images, but icons, folder backgrounds, and icon fonts. (Don't even get me started on multiple user accounts.)

I don't like Halloween. I haven't since I was about thirteen, when I discovered that I kind of looked dumb dressing up as some random video game character and begging for candy, and I probably won't again until maybe I have kids of my own who are into it. Ask me for my opinion of Halloween in fifteen years, and I may have a handful more insights and thoughts. As of now, if I really want candy, there's a handy Publix a few blocks down from the bookstore which I have on good faith sells a fair bit of the stuff. I have never been one for dressing up (though I've grown to accept the tie as of late) and seriously, even if I wanted to dress up, what do guys dress up as? Something scary? Not a fan. A superhero? Also not a fan. Girls evidently take Halloween as an excuse to dress up sluttily, especially into college age. Whatever.

All in all, Halloween is a holiday on which people do ridiculous things based off even more ridiculous superstitions. (The cynical atheist will probably say that same thing regarding Christmas or Hanukkah.) And yet... it's got a great deal of cultural gravity associated with it, as much as say Thanksgiving, which is based off something real.

Currently listening: The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, Ben Folds Five

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Petty Annoyances

You know those little things that just irritate you? There's not necessarily a good, solid reason for any of them; you just know that if all of them stopped, you'd be okay with it. I'm not talking major obstacles like Physics II or Being a Poor College Student; I mean actions, behaviors, and patterns that you find obnoxious. A handful of these have begun to grate on my nerves as of late.

That annoying leg-bounce thing that mostly guys do (but some girls do as well). You're sitting in Differential Equations (granted, a setting that does need a bit of livening up), you notice that there seems to be an overabundance of movement in the room... and you realize that it's because the six guys seated near you are all bouncing their legs up and down really fast. Sometimes it's both legs, sometimes one or the other. Sometimes it's keeping the heel on the ground and bouncing the toe, but more often it's a heel bounce. Okay, guys. There's absolutely no reason to do this. If you're really that antsy, head to the CRC after class. Drink one less cup of coffee before you come. Take this as an opportunity to kick that cocaine habit... something.

Darfur is a geopolitical issue that I think everyone feels similarly regarding, but that activists feel the need to carry on about anyway. "Genocide? That's no good! How do I show the world that I'm an opponent of genocide?" Conveniently, there have been a large number of feel-good "student solidarity" groups that have popped up on Facebook lately. One of the most prominent is one that promises a monetary donation for every so many people to join. Hate to break it to you, but you're no Lech Walesa. Really, I don't think there are any proponents of genocide, except probably the guys doing the genocide. And what does it mean to "donate [money] to Darfur"? Are you going to put some dollars in an envelope, write "Darfur" on it, and hope the area of the country accepts its gift? If you're donating to people, what exactly are they going to do with your money? Bribe a couple of warlords not to keep genociding? It's great that people are informed about world events, don't get me wrong. But what exactly is hanging signs that say "Gee, there seems to be a bit of a genocide issue in Sudan!" going to do? By stating your mere awareness of an armed conflict there... where are you going? What do you reasonably expect anyone in power to actually do?

Possibly going hand in hand with the "lack of intellectualism" that I always complain about, negativity seems to be prevalent at Tech. It's one thing to joke about "the Shaft" but another entirely to lament how much everything sucks, all the time. If something doesn't go your way, here's a little heuristic that generally works. "Can I really do anything about this?" If yes, stop complaining and do it. If no, get over it. It's as simple as that. It gets old when you're trying to maintain a positive attitude, and others are complaining how much of an "idiot" everyone else is. A sort of corollary to this is use of "retarded" to mean "undesirable." As in "Do we really have to have this done by Friday?" "Yes." "That's so retarded!" Well, no, it isn't. It's unfortunate, it's irritating, it's annoying, but it isn't slowed by a hindered andvancement. (Also, as you probably can't change the deadline, there's nothing you can do about it anyway, so stop complaining.)

In the event that I think of more things that annoy me, I'll post them. Comments on these, or examples of what annoys you, are encouraged.

Currently listening: "Chicken Head," Project Pat

Friday, October 06, 2006

Why Labels Do Not Matter

Mr. Morford is being a little antagonistic and egging me on to post. Truth is, he's right; I do have something to talk about. So I'm by and large a big Decemberists fan. I like their music, and so I was very excited by their new release The Crane Wife. Of course, the big news wasn't that one of the most inventive and original bands of the decade had a new release; no, it was that this release was on a *major label*. The Decemberists were abandoning Kill Rock Stars! Soon the Second Angel would pour forth his vial upon the sea, right?

As it turns out, no, not so much. The Decemberists, though their new album falls a bit short of true brilliance, aptly debunk one of the great principles of the Indie Music school of thought: any given collection of music is automatically better when released on anything but a major label. Because except for a few missteps, The Crane Wife is probably their best album to date. So guess what? The transition to Columbia didn't make them suddenly suck.

This CD starts with "The Crane Wife Part 3," which is actually the last third of the musical adaptation of the Japanese folk tale of the same name. You're probably familiar with it, so listen carefully to the lyrics so you can catch the story. This first song is moving and emotional, and it's musically satisfying. About three minutes into it, I started thinking "If this whole album is this good, then we've got something amazing on our hands."

Then I heard "The Island."

I'm not going to lie, I'm surprised I didn't start breathing heavily when I heard this one for the first time. As a huge fan of "The Tain," of course I was ecstatic to find what basically amounts to "The Tain's Little Brother" in the middle of a full length album. I'm not going to talk much about this track, but suffice it to say that it's almost twelve minutes of pure brilliance from start to finish. And any band who can incorporate a Tempest allusion and a "Whiskey in the Jar" tribute within a few minutes of each other is something special indeed.

"Yankee Bayonet" is very good, taking us to the Civil War via a folky male-female duet. "O Valencia!" is unfortunately less good. There's nothing wrong with it musically, and it's put together very well, but it just toes the line of "not interesting." How many modern-day retellings of Romeo and Juliet do we really need? And how many stories of lost love can the Decemberists churn out? "The Crane Wife" and "Yankee Bayonet" are both love-lost stories, but more sincere and inventive than "O Valencia!" It's not a bad song per se, but there are about four tracks I would have picked ahead of this one to make the first single out of.

Then we really get into the doldrums of the album. "The Perfect Crime #2" is sadly the inevitable track that's going to give Mr. I'm-Better-Than-You-Because-I-Discovered-This-Band-Before-You-Even-
Knew-Indie-Music-Existed a little ammunition to cry out his "Holy crap, the Decemberists suck now just because they're on a major label" lament. There are a handful of people who will defend this song; I fail to see its musical merit. I feel like half the song is Colin repeating the words "The perfect, the perfect, the perfect, the perfect crime" over and freaking over again. Even if that's not the exact proportion, the fact that it seems like that makes it a bad piece of music. It's frustratingly repetitive and not at all imaginative, which is not something I ever thought I would say about a Decemberists song.

Next, we hear "When the War Came," which nobody but me seems to have any issue with. Maybe I'm biased against the horrendously bad trumpet lick in the chorus, but that combined with the insistent banging of the guitar riff just results in a musically jarring song. Luckily, now, the album begins its ascent back into good musical quality. I have to say that I'm not a huge fan of "Shankill Butchers" either, but it's certainly better than the two tracks preceeding it. The fact that it's based off real events is cool, and the musical atmosphere created by the song--a sort of unsettling and creepy bedtime tune--definitely works given the subject matter. But this song, more than any other on the album, just lacks energy. It doesn't go much of anywhere.

After all this, we're refreshed with the brilliance of "Summersong." This is an absolutely delightful song, as imagistic and lyrically deep as any of the Decemberists' best work. It works on a variety of levels, too: are these happy times that necessarily will end eventually? Or sad ones, in reminiscence of the better ones? What's getting swallowed by a wave: the summer itself, or some ideal that it represents? This is probably the best (non-twelve minute) track on the album: it's beautiful and catchy, and as deep as you want it to be.

"The Crane Wife 1 and 2" provides the first two thirds of the already-finished fable, and delivers well. Finally, "Sons and Daughters" is a light, hopeful, and optimistic song to end the album; it has the happy effect of leaving the message that there's always something to look forward to.

This album does add an interesting dynamic to the Decemberists fanbase. In the past, we had never seen a truly bad song from them. There were boring songs, and un-brilliant ones, certainly; never an awful one. So in the past we could tolerate an "Of Angels and Angles" in return for a "The Infanta." How many "The Perfect Crime #2"s are we willing to accept if we're going to get a "The Island" and a "Summersong" out of the deal?

All in all, with the notable exception of the middle two tracks, this album is definitely worth listening to. To remind everyone (Zach and Enrique, I know you're interested in going), Decemberists concert on the 27th, 9 pm, at the Tabernacle. It should be great.

Currently listening: Sam's Town, the Killers (review soon to follow)

Sunday, September 17, 2006

If 100,000 people comment on this post...

then I'll be surprised by the volume of commentary that Isoceleria has achieved. A bit honored, but overwhelmingly surprised. So here's the deal. If you're a member of the college Facebook-conscious crowd, you probably witnessed the phenomenon of Threesome Dude, aka Brody Ruckus, in the last couple of weeks. If not, here's a quick rundown.

Early September 2006, a Facebook group appears advertising "If this group reaches 100,000 members, my girlfriend will have a threesome." Your personal ethics and mores nonwithstanding, that's a pretty ambitious goal. And one that the Facebook community was perfectly eager to support. The literal hockey-stick growth of this group was nothing less than astounding. A couple thousand members one day, tens of thousands the next, and over 100,000 in a mere few days. Then the landmark was changed: 300,000 members, and he gets to take pictures. Then he got that. The next watershed was supposed to be "Largest group on Facebook lets me shoot videos!" And then, the group pulled a Roanoake.

Next day, it was gone. No more Threesome Guy, no more Universal Goal of Happiness and Unity for Facebook to shoot for, and not even a scrawled Croatoan in its place. Now, its fractious remains stand: "I didn't need a facebook group to get a threesome," "I will blow up my car if this group reaches 500,000 members," etc. So what happened to Mr. Ruckus and his "red-blooded college male" aspirations? Apparently they were not real. And neither was Brody himself.

The whole thing was a put-on, an act, sponsored by Ruckus music. This group, weighing in at nearly 500,000 members at last count, certainly put a strain on the servers. And when Facebook realized that "Brody Ruckus" was not, in fact, a Georgia Tech student, they pulled the plug (more to free resources than out of any spite). So how does Ruckus itself tie into anything? Ruckus gives you free music, legally. Except... wait, you can't burn CDs of what you download, and you can't put their music on an iPod or other sort of mp3 player, and you have to use Ruckus's crappy media player to be able to listen to what you download. Ah, but if you pay a certain rate per song, you have the liberty to do that. Free indeed. Evidently Ruckus has a contract with Georgia Tech that permits this enlightened era of free (except in certain circumstances) music downloading (but not burning or transferring to an iPod). It was supposed to be a big deal. But. judging from popular opinion, most everyone realized how much it sucks and has not used it. Thus the need for Threesome Guy.

So Ruckus has a less-than-accepted music service, and a wildly popular fake Facebook group. How to connect the two? Obviously, with the effort and foresight that Ruckus put into Brody, there's no real "exit strategy." We're not going to have Brody reach the ultimate goal of largest Facebook group, then say "Thanks, guys," and leave with everyone feeling good about themselves. There's still no connection between the product and the advertisement. On the other side of the spectrum, we're not going to have a "Haha, suckers! This has been an advertisment all along!" because that would leave a whole lot of people thinking not such good thoughts about Ruckus. Hardly the desired effect of an advertisement.

The question, then, is what was the real plan? My theory is that it lies in a tenuous, but still existing, thread between the group and Ruckus music. Let's assume for a moment that Brody, if he hadn't been shut down, would have eventually reached his largest group status. So now, time for the videos to get posted to Facebook! These videos, of course, don't exist, but that's okay. Uploading them, of course, would have caused a violation of the Facebook Terms of Service, but that's better than okay. That's the whole point. Brody tells us, "Wow, guys, you are amazing, and so was the sex. Unfortunately, these prudes at Facebook won't let me post the pictures and video." Aww... how sad! People are generally down on Facebook at this point, not seeming to care that they agreed to this silly thing called a "contract" when they joined, and they demand reparations. Facebook won't give them any. (Note that Brody and Facebook would not have had to have any contact at all. This whole "fight" is another part of the ruse.) So enter Ruckus.

The great and magnanimous Ruckus, sensitive to the sexually-frustrated plight of the college student, then tells everyone in the group "We can't give you free porn... but here's some free music." Now, Ruckus is a hero, and everyone in the group goes from being Brody Ruckus fans to simply Ruckus fans. Adbertising mission accomplished.

Currently listening: Quiet is the New Loud, Kings of Convenience

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Initiation and Triumphal Return

Saturday, August 26, 2006: I tell my friend Matt, also a staff member in Glenn, that he probably couldn't guess the strange place where I was the night before. Interestingly, he guessed Beta, which is probably the frattiest fraternity on the Tech campus. While this was an imaginative guess, and in fact in some respects stranger than where I ended up, it was in fact not correct.

Where I was, it turns out, was the Masquerade. The Masquerade is a concert venue in Atlanta that has a part-merited but mostly undeserving reputation for utter degeneracy. (Broken windows and decades-unpainted walls don't exactly help its case.) Concert venue? Not at all strange for a college student. Shady concert venue? Not too strange, considering its prime downtown Atlanta location. The truly strange part was the concert that I was actually seeing.

The friend of mine that organized the venture told me "Zao is toward the hardcore end of metal." Toward? "Okay, so they pretty much are the hardcore end of metal." Add them to a headliner band called Throwdown and (without any description of any music that Throwdown plays) you have a decent image of that concert. Though there are many adjectives that could be used to describe me, "hardcore" probably isn't toward the top of that list. And neither is it toward the top of my musical preferences. The truth was, I had nothing better to be doing that Friday night, and as long as I had friends who were being proactive and constructing something to do, why not go along with it? College is about experiencing things that you'd never ordinarily do... or something like that.

My immediate conclusions regarding the concert were 1) "hardcore" still isn't at the top of my musical preferences and 2) I'm not sure that it's worth it to pay twenty bucks to hear some guy go "Gaaaaaah! Wahh rahh rahh rahh!" into a microphone for three hours. However, a chance encounter at the same Masquerade but a few weeks later added a few thoughts about live concerts in general.

This time, I was going as a favor to a friend who (understandably) didn't want to get raped in downtown Atlanta. Add the facts that this time, the ticket is twelve dollars, not twenty, and I get to spend Friday night with three girls (in a welcomed inversion of the typical Georgia Tech ratio), and I'm there. This one featured a handful of bands that were listenable but unremarkable (see? I don't even remember their names), and headlined by Red Jumpsuit Apparatus. Now, I had heard the name Red Jumpsuit Apparatus, but I'd never heard their music, and I was far from being able to actually recognize any of their songs. Oh well.

My first impression was a lot better than the one I had at the first concert, because more than one in twenty people were wearing something other than black. In fact, the people here actually looked... dare I say normal? Contrast this to Green Mohawk Guy at the first one. And despite the apparent normalcy at this one, the two were remarkably similar.

Okay, so straight off the bat, mosh pits don't make any sense. Various descriptions of these collected over the past couple of weeks have included "barbarian ritual," "emo kids practicing karate kicks," and by a member of some band or another, "dance moves." I remarked how strange it was that "dance moves" translates into "run into each other as fast as you can." Closely related is crowdsurfing, which basically appears to be "get alternately manhandled and groped while not even being able to stand on your own two feet." The strangest part of these pheonmena is the fact that you can't watch the band while you're doing them. Isn't the point of going to a live concert being able to see the band that's performing? Sure, you can give the "a live show is so much higher energy" argument. But how do you notice that "energy" if you're not paying attention in the first place, instead choosing to change the venue into a gladiatorial arena-sumo wrestling ring hybrid.

With that said, let's examine the "energy" assertion a bit more. Live performances are supposed to be more energetic, closer to a "pure" performance than a recorded one. Is this suggesting that during private practices and shows where the band is not out to prove anything or impress anyone, the guitarists jump around and spin on the stage? I've got a tough time believing that. And I'm forced to conclude that guitar-dancing adds virtually nothing to a live show.

My final and biggest complaint is that people in bands take themselves way too seriously. Is it necessary to swear at the audience between every song? I might be encouraged to jump or nod my head in time with the music if you suggest that... but I'm rather inclined not to when I'm instructed to "nod my [insert expletive here]-ing head!" The lead singer of Red Jumpsuit Apparatus seemed rather put off by the fact that not everyone in the world had been listening to them for the last two years. Apparently some interviewer made the grave mistake of asking him what it felt to be an overnight sensation. His (private) response to us was "We've been around for years. Do your [expletive]ing homework." And a huge cheer from the crowd!

That said... Decemberists concert October 27. Probably no mosh pit there. Anyone interested in going?

Currently listening: "Fantasy," Earth Wind and Fire

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Three Reasons

That Georgia Tech lost to Notre Dame. It had nothing to do with the Irish being a substantially better team; rather a mere few points of contention brought about our loss.

First, Tech’s return coverage sucks. I mean, you get a kickoff that lands nicely on the 15-yard line, or a punt that goes farther than you have any right to expect it to, and suddenly the Irish (or the Bulldogs, the Hokies, the Cavaliers, or any other team that Tech makes a general practice of losing to) are on your 48. Huh? Tech must get better at making sure the other team isn’t handed thirty free yards every time the ball gets kicked.

Second, we had some questionable calls. I’m not one to blame my football misfortunes on the refs… unless there was a call so egregiously bad that it may have cost the game. In this game, we had two. The personal foul call during Notre Dame’s second touchdown drive? I’ve heard two explanations for that one: late hit, and hit to the head. From my vantage point (and bias as a Tech fan) it looked like an in-bound, clean hit to me. Even if there was some incidental contact to the head, it was just that: incidental. Five-yard penalty, not ten. Second was Calvin Johnson’s reception late in the game. This was the only reviewed play in the entire game to be reversed on review… and I’d really like to see what they called “indisputable video evidence.”

Finally... Darius Walker. Need I say more? And to think he was on the verge of going to Tech.

Currently listening: "Brand New Colony," the Postal Service

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Supporting Documents to the Agenda

Firstly, I apologize for lack of posts and generally being unavailable lately. Training will soon be over, and then things will proceed to a more regular and intuitive schedule.

Now, I have two documents. The first is a throwback to the days of middle and early high school, when email/journal quizzes were something of a phenomenon. I, at one time, took the liberty of compiling as many of these as I could find into one huge quiz. An "uber-quiz," if you will. While not intended to provide a complete (or even serious, at times) portrait of the Author, it's got enough truth to surprise and enough lies to amuse. It has been added to the sidebar, as well as being available here.

The second is an essay concerning the nature of morality, good, and evil in the video game Earthbound. If you've never played the game, it may not make a great deal of sense, and if you've got a problem with citing Wikipedia as a legimate resource, then just pretend I found the books that Wikipedia cites rather than have taken the convenient route of getting the same information from the internet. This essay can be found here.

Currently listening: "Soul Meets Body," Death Cab for Cutie

Monday, July 31, 2006

If this one's not good enough

Many readers of this blog know (probably thanks to my speculation post after its season finale) that I'm a fan of the television show Lost. It's well done as a drama in that the characters and their interactions are actually interesting; it's well done as a suspense because the "what's going on on this island?" is genuinely something the viewers want to know. Unfortunately, summer = no Lost, so the producers et al. came up with the "half content, half marketing" gimmick called the Lost Experience.

The Experience is an "alternate reality game" that addresses some of the still-unresolved mysteries of the television show. I've been playing the game with sort of low to moderate involvement; I like to see the content as it comes up, but I'm rarely on the forefront of discovering that content. I just don't have time to scour the appropriate websites to find the clues. But some people do, and I'm grateful toward them so I can leech off their progress. Brief aside concerning that progress: the game is currently in Act 3 of either 3 or 5 (Holy Grail reference nonwithstanding). Right now, the point is to collect video fragments across the internet to form one supervideo that will "tear the Hanso foundation apart." As of now, I think Bearded Dude is Alvar Hanso, and that this Orientation video is concerning the Valenzetti equation. Mittlewerk is showing that same video to his savants, who are working with some unknown but urgent stimulus to solve the equation. Finally, the Numbers are either solutions or critical components of that same equation; that's why they keep showing up.

Anyway, one of those people who does a lot of everyone's work for them is a guy who calls himself Matt the Pale. Mr. Pale recently posted a long, scathing, and controversial rant saying how TLE was "not an alternate reality game" because too much was spoon-fed to the players, there were too many missed opportunities to impress the fanbase, etc. He said that his only motivation for continuing to play is a morbid curiosity. I think that's a load of crap, because if he really didn't care, then he'd sit back and watch the game from afar rather than continue to be its most prominent player. On the other hand, though, if anyone is entitled to make such a complaint, it would be him.

The point here is that he listed Perplex City as an example of what an alternate reality game is really supposed to be like. I checked it out... and I'm stunned. Puzzles, ranging from "match these dinosaur names to their skeletons" to "give a proof of the Riemann zeta function" lead the players to clues of who stole the Receda cube. There's a ton of backstory, characters, podcasts, and real-world events to back it all up. I'm really excited about playing this game, and I only wish that I could have discovered it before a year after it was released.

Currently listening: How to Save a Life, the Fray

Monday, July 24, 2006

Vast Improvements

Once you disregard that they both have cute girls in leading roles and that sailing is central to both, Wedding Crashers and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest really have nothing to do with each other, at least cinematically. I saw Pirates within a week of its release in theaters, and Wedding Crashers for the first time about a year after its release, and after seeing both, the one commonality between the two films is that they were both a lot better than I thought they would have been.

Review: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

I did not see the first Pirates movie until the end of 2005, after it had been on DVD for quite a while. I associated the girly "Omigod, it's Johnny Depp! And Orlando Bloom!" mentality with that movie, and I expected it be sophomoric comedy. Turns out, I was wrong. It was actually a pretty decent movie. I wasn't blown away by it (though I should probably watch it again; a tiny screen and a DVD player with an identity crisis didn't help that movie's case) and I had no real drive to go see the second one in theaters. I figured I probably would see it, because many of my friends are inexplicably into the "let's go see everything in the theater as soon as it comes out" mentality. That's exactly what happened.

I was expecting something halfway between "decent" and "good" and I ended up with "excellent." This is seriously a great movie. Don't believe what you might hear about it being "incomprehensible." There are multiple plotlines. Deal with it. Just because there happens to be more than one thing going on at once in this movie does not make it hard to follow. It makes it interesting.

It probably helps that I'm a big fan of the historical/seafaring/colonial age genre. I mean, listening to the Decemberists, reading Neal Stephenson, and eating dinner at Dante's Down the Hatch is one thing (okay, three things) but to me, Pirates is the defining movie of that genre. Swashbuckling action, which might look cool but usually doesn't impress me cinematically, here has an actual purpose of defining the setting. A three-way sword fight? Pretty cool; I doubt that's ever been done before. The water wheel, the pendulum cage... these are what special effects ought to be; things that you can't see in everyday life but actually could exist and that you've never thought of.

The acting in this movie is noteworthy as well. For all the crap I heap on Johnny Depp's fanatical cult of "every teenage girl ever," the man knows how to act. He's taken Jack Sparrow from a simple pirate captain in an entertaining series of movies into a cultural icon. (Jack is an example of how a character is supposed to work, like I talked about a few months ago, with both a competent director to define the role and a competent actor to execute it.) He's charismatic and he possesses a humorously large vocabulary. Depp plays this character with just enough quirks to be entertaining, but not such antics that he's in Anchorman territory. His accent and personality are both flawless, never dropping either, greatly enhancing the credibility and enjoyment of the character.

Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom do very well in their respective roles as well. As one article I read put it, Knightles does well playing the "damsel doing just fine, thank you" as opposed to the damsel in distress. If this character type seems cliched at this point, it's only because Knightley herself made it so. If anything, Knightley seems less attractive than she used to, not quite sure why. I think she's a bit too skinny. And, though his role takes less finesse than Depp's, Bloom does a fine job as well. He's a great foil to Depp, courageous and serious to the self-interested and flippant Sparrow.

Now, a lot of people thought Gollum from Lord of the Rings was the coolest special effect achievement ever. I might be the only one who didn't much care about Gollum, and in that case I'm probably alone in not much caring about Davy Jones either. The character was good, and I guess the tentacles were cool if you're into that sort of thing, but it just didn't impress me. That said, Davy Jones is an excellent villain, a worthy followup to Barbossa, and I'm looking forward to seeing him again in the third installment.

As is easy to do in a pirate flick, Dead Man's Chest features great cinematography. How could those lovely, sweeping shots of a bustling port and majestic eighteenth century warships and vast open ocean really be omitted from this film? The cinematography reminded me of that from Master and Commander, which won an Oscar for its brilliant camera work. The music was awesome as well, enhancing the overall epic feel of the movie. This is actually the sort of movie that might entice one to become a "movie person" and randomly go to movies, expecting to get a great deal of entertainment value out of it. Unfortunately, Dead Man's Chest is so entertaining that you'd be sorely disappointed with virtually everything else out there.

Review: Wedding Crashers

Yep, I'm a year late on this review. This is one of those spur of the moment, "Hmm, I heard this was funny, so why not throw it in the Netflix queue?" ideas. Again, expectation pointed to "typical frat pack comedy, probably going to be a lot of gaggy humor" but whatever. As it turns out, the balance of "frat pack" comedy to romatic comedy was more stilted toward the "romantic comedy" direction. Usually, given two alternative styles, "romantic comedy" is not the direction you necessarily want to go. Compared to the sort of humor I was expecting, though, that was probably a pleasant surprise.

More of the pleasant surprise came from how witty Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn really were as the titular wedding crashers. One scene where Vaughn's character Jeremy provides Wilson's John with a copy of the Secretary of the Treasury's position paper on Micronesian economics, and the followup where John actually has a pseudo-intellectual discussion with the Secretary about Micronesian economics... genius. Some of the backstories they use to get into weddings are downright inspired, a far cry from the kind of stupidity I thought would surface.

But the best part of this movie is that is actually has a soul. At one wedding, John bumps into a girl who does not exist in real life. This girl combines "extremely attractive without being sleazy" with "playful and witty" with "sweet and charming" with "sophisticated but not arrogant." Now, if any male were to encounter a girl this incredibly ideal in the real world, he'd drop everything to pursue her. As it turns out, instead of pull some sort of eye-rolling immature stunt, this is exactly what John does. Thus, the movie has a real sort of likability that goes way beyond sophomoric jokes.

Likability, of course, doesn't imply perfection. We don't need to see what breasts look like. Nude scenes do not add to the cinematic value of a movie. They may get some single-minded guys in the door (and I of anyone realize that movie making is a business) but they simply are never cinematically justified. Also, the entire movie was extremely predictable. Of course Perfect But Nonexistent In The Real World Claire Cleary (a stunning Rachel McAdams) ends up dumping her loser boyfriend (and I wish the movie had been a bit less explicit as to his cheating on Claire, so it would have make John's achievement seem more impressive) so the Heroine and Hero can Reunite at the Triumphant Climax of the Film. Of course the Hero's Sidekick with No Moral Code but who has a Girl Proclaim Her Love to Him ends up actually loving her and another Happy Couple is born. We didn't need to watch past half of the movie to know what was going to happen at the end. But Vaughn and Wilson play such funny and compelling characters, and Rachel McAdams is so darn cute (and her character so darn amazing), that we want to watch it.

Currently listening: "To Zanarkand," Final Fantasy X, Nobuo Uematsu

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Evil Monkeys Abound

Review: Lady in the Water

First off, M. Night Shyamalan is a genius, because he recognizes that monkeys are evil.

Now that that's taken care of... almost every time you watch a movie, you know what you're getting yourself into. You thrust Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn into starring roles and you immediately know what kind of movie Wedding Crashers (see a future post) is going to be. Dead Man's Chest (also see that future post) is going to be exactly like Curse of the Black Pearl except later. With Lady in the Water, you're probably thinking "Okay, Shyamalan flick, a bit of creepiness, massive twist at the end." As it turns out, Lady in the Water has none of that. The movie is much less classic Shyamalan and much more Neil Gaiman.

If you haven't read anything by Gaiman, pick up American Gods right now and read it. Lady in the Water was less evocative of American Gods and more of Neverwhere, but either book will give you a much better idea what to expect out of Lady in the Water than any of Shyamalan's earlier films. In fact, I was thinking "holy crap, this is Neverwhere" through the entire movie. The comparison isn't entirely fair, especially since the book's mythology focuses on its setting, and the movie's mythology has much more to do with a sequence of events than where they take place. But once you take into account the "regular world guy" who gets visited in the regular world by the "magical mystical girl with special powers but who needs regular world guy to survive," which in turn slowly reveals the "fantastic subculture that affects humans but humans have no idea it exists"... the movie gets Gaiman-esque very quickly.

So that's the first caveat of Lady in the Water. If the premise of fantasy bothers or annoys you, don't bother seeing this movie. A corollary to the first caveat: Lady in the Water is indeed a fantasy movie; it is not scary in the least. (The movie does, however, make the same mistake that The Omen and so many other contemporary "horror" films do. That is, it confuses "startling" with "scary." A loud, unexpected noise that makes you jump is not scary.) But fantasy doesn't mean George RR Martin style sword and sorcery, in either Lady in the Water or Neil Gaiman's books' case. It means affinity toward the supernatural and a creative sense of mythology. And Lady in the Water certainly has both.

And really, that's the mark of a good fantasy setting: the permeability of the mtyhos into the setting. It's easy to say "I have set my story in quasi-medieval times, and there is magic." It's not much more difficult to add "My characters believe in this supernatural force that sometimes actually aids them." But to craft your characters and story so well that its gods seem like actual beings, its legends serve as actual sources of inspiration, and its included ethical debates are ones actually worth having in the real world, you've created something magnificent. This is why Final Fantasy X was such a powerful game: the Yevon mythos gave rise to a much deeper sense of realism to the setting. The mythology was so thorough that it became believable, and the player actually felt as if he were doing something important, sacred even, when he arrived at Zanarkand. And to bring things full circle, the Shyamalan-magnitude twist when the player finally reached Zanarkand was all the more incredible because the mythology was so ingrained. (Inversely, this is why Final Fantasy IX was such a dismal game, because you were playing through a story with no overarching mythology to lend it credence.) George RR Martin does this differently than Final Fantasy X, with central conflicts coming over the authenticity of some of the myths (which integrates nicely with his vague and blurry magic system), but he also does it well. And while not as masterfully as Final Fantasy X, as thoroughly as American Gods, or as intriguingly as something from Song of Ice and Fire, Lady in the Water holds its own when it comes to internal mythology.

This mythology starts simple, then grows more complex as the movie progresses. The audience is on a sort of "need to know" basis, which works just fine. We see pictographs at the start of the movie, giving a general outline of the legend, then a few specifics, then more precise details as they become important to the storyline. This works well because it's more the audience learning concepts than having a shovelful of mythology stuffed in its face at the beginning and being mandated to learn it all. Shyamalan uses the "story" device throughout the movie to acheive this effect. One of the recurring themes of the movie--painfully obvious by the fact that the titular Lady in the Water is a magical being named Story--is that there are a few universal "stories" that you have to learn to believe in. These may seem fantastic at first, but they have their validity. Shyamalan's characters aren't necessarily aware that they're in a movie, but there are plenty of self-aware references to plots and characterization (see below) that result in a sort of "translucent" fourth wall. As such, the mythology is able to be revealed gradually rather than with a shovel in the form of a few of the main characters discussing a bedtime story. I'm not sure if this is cheesy or clever--in truth, it's a little of both.

As the movie's best part comes from its mythology, its worst part comes from its attempts at commentary on the theater. I think Shyamalan speaks a bit too loudly as would befit his level of influence. Shakespeare, the greatest playwright of the last millennium, didn't venture to delve this deep into the murky water (my apologies for the bad pun) of "criticizing a genre from within a work of that genre" until Hamlet, about eleven years into his career as a playwright. After writing a couple of dozen plays, he's entitled to make those witticisms about "pastorical-comical, historical-pastoral" actors and how the art of the theater is not in the state it should be. After one movie with huge critical and commercial achievement, and a few further releases with dubious success, Shyamalan is not entitled to the same. While critics' viewpoints can diverge wildly from popular opinion of a film, the truth is that many moviegoers are going to listen to what the critics have to say before deciding to see a film. Therefore, it's important as a director to make a film that appeals to critics, not because you necessarily care what the critical opinion is, but because there are potential audience members that do care what that opinion is.

So is it not intuitively obvious that making a film critic the least immediately likable character in the entire movie is shooting yourself in the cinematic foot? Let me say that I actually like this guy, because his deadpan reviews of vapid artiness are grounded in a strong dose of realism. The movie's best line comes when Cleveland (the main character) is discussing a romance film the local paper had him see. The Critic complains that the climactic moment of the movie, when the characters finally profess their love for each other, was during an unnecessarily cliched rainfall. Cleveland suggests that maybe this was a metaphor for cleansing and rebirth, and the Critic answers simply, "No. It's not." After this clever attack on critics who think themselves wonderfully insightful for pointing overused metaphors to the filmgoing proletariat, it's no wonder that critics hate Lady in the Water: they all got their feelings hurt. The movie's weakest scene, still furthering the negative sentiment many critics have toward this film, when both the fourth wall and the credibility of the entire story are at their most fragile, is when the Critic makes a few predictions regarding the plot of the story he realizes he is in immediately before his death. At this point, the rest of the theater laughed the most--because hey! This is obviously meant to be funny, and I'm clever enough to have picked up on that intention, so I'm going to laugh! A bit of pointless comic relief, coupled with the decidedly negative portrayal of a film critic, accomplish nothing for the complex mythology that Shyamalan has built to this point in the movie, and probably in fact weaken his message.

What was that message? Now comes the third caveat about Lady in the Water (the second being, if you're a critic, this movie will probably feel like a personal attack). The movie, while doing a lot to criticize other movies for using tired out devices (like the rainbound kiss), doesn't have that much to say when it comes down to originality of theme. "Find yourself," it urges, "be open to all sources of inspiration." Guess what? Hamlet beat Lady in the Water to the punch there too.

Other elements of what make a movie either good or bad didn't really stand out in this one, as Lady in the Water is a concept- and plot-centric film. The acting didn't strike me as particularly excellent or horrible: Paul Giamatti as Cleveland was believable and sympathetic but not revolutionary; Bryce Dallas Howard carried a character that even the most self-absorbed high school drama kid could have pulled off. The cinematography and special effects were present and neither good nor bad. I have strong praise for the music, which was on the whole melodic and a welcome departure from the atonal "mood music" that seems to plague suspense movies.

In the end, Lady in the Water is a movie I don't feel all that strongly about either way. I certainly don't think that the film merits the scathing reviews that critics have delighted in saddling it with. On the other hand, with such an extraordinary creation of a setting and an urban-fantasy set of legends to color that setting, more attention could have been paid to what all of that mythology actually means, what the statement behind the concept actually says. Ultimately, King Kong hid a complete lack of meaning behind a sense of epic scale, huge special effects, and an over-the-top aesthetic-heavy visual experience... no matter how good those visuals may have been. If Lady in the Water hides a complete lack of meaning behind a complex mythology, no matter how good that mythology is, is there really a difference? The movie is undoubtedly entertaining, and not at all bad, but with a little extra thought could have been actually good. In other words, it's probably worth seeing, as long as you understand the caveats, but don't expect either The Sixth Sense (what you might think this movie should be like) or Final Fantasy X (what this movie really should have been).

Currently listening: "Jupiter, Bringer of Jollity," Gustav Holst (from The Planets)

Monday, July 10, 2006

It Never Seemed So Strange

These are the days, this is the time, where $20 an hour is to be made by watching some Korean students play 20 Questions. It is a good time to have a summer job.

Something I realized the other day: my generation does not care about Communism. We do not see communists as a threat, we think McCarthy and Nixon were somewhere between paranoid and lunatic. (Okay, so older people see Nixon as paranoid too.) We see communist ideology as more laughable than dangerous. We do not understand why the Vietnam War was fought, nor why "containment" was such a laudable goal. There was a time where "card-carrying member of the Communist Party" was a phrase that portended doom for whomever it was attached to. No longer; now the Red Menace merely seems like an empty threat.

I discovered this when a radio talk show host took a call who was virulently condemning a few members of Congress as those same "card-carrying members of the Communist Party." How would you have responded to this? My personal response would have been along the lines of "Who cares? So that member of Congress happens to believe differently than you and me." This host, however, decided to return with "Communism? That's a serious and dangerous charge." Misguided, certainly; even dead wrong, sure. Serious? Not really. And dangerous? Not at all.

I don't doubt that during the Cold War, the Soviet Union would have rather the United States been a communist nation. I also don't doubt that there were those in America that would have rather the United States been a communist nation. But would the American people have stood for that? And I recognize the superiority of the free market to the command economy. But does that mean the United States as we know it would have been shot to hell if a few more satellite countries had "fallen" to communism for a few decades?

The threat of communism, as the current generation sees it, does not exist. But radio demagogues and others continue to preach it as if the country once--and still does--lived or died based on the presence of a handful of communists in the government. And that threat just is not relevant anymore.

Stick another tack into the world map. I have now eaten Persian food, and I am impressed. This was the simplest of all ethnic meals I've eaten in my world tour of eating exotic stuff, and it was every bit as good as anything else. Main course: chunks of lamb, kabob-style; rice. Exactly two ingredients (plus whatever spices and seasonings made their way into the dish). Then there were some appetizers: Pita-like bread, and herbs, cheese, and nuts to eat with the bread. More rice (crispy this time) and some beef and bean stew. Nothing to it.

Currently listening: "Suddenly I See," KT Tunstall

Monday, June 26, 2006

You're a Fickle Little Twister

(are you sweet on your sister?)

Quick: the master of modern epic fantasy. Robert Jordan? Not anymore. Maybe back when his books were still interesting. David Farland? An excellent author, who tells a great story, but who still needs to prove he can write something beyond a fairy tale. Terry Goodkind? Hovers between amazement and tedium.

George R.R. Martin? Ah, yes, of course. A Song of Ice and Fire is a brilliant work. (A note here: I will avoid using names to attempt to avoid spoilers, at least for the time being.)

Other fantasy authors try to convey some sort of superficial disbelief in and disapproval of magic among the inhabitants of the world, while the reader has already seen magic raze cities and restore the dead to life. In A Song of Ice and Fire, Martin actually makes the reader think about what's magic and what's not. A character who claims to practice magic, then is revealed merely to be practicing medicine. A character who really should have no supernatural significance or powers who gives his breath of life to a dying woman. The same woman, who probably should be dead, returns as a vengeful wraith--or is she simply a living shell of what she once was? A red priestess who sends an assassin to kill a usurper king--or was that "assassin" really a spirit; a shade?

Take this, and add the most complex but consistent feudal political system ever written of. A powerful noble raises in the North and is murdered at his own wedding by his presumedly loyal sworn house, who had conspired with a slighted family because the noble refused an offer of marriage. An ambitious queen mother who supplants her son's entire council to win the realm for herself--and to hide the shameful secret of that son's birth. A scheming lord, removed from his station on that same royal council, installs himself at his lord son's protector, and arranges a marriage for his ward, a young girl who through a system of ancient birthrights and alliances will eventually claim that fortress. This girl happens to be the sister of that same murdered noble from the north, anxious to reclaim her birthright. Martin does all of this and more, flawlessly.

Having just finished the fourth book in A Song of Ice and Fire, A Feast for Crows, I feel the need to comment on it. Spoiler warning, in full force. If you haven't read A Feast for Crows but someday plan to, do not read ahead. (Samantha, this means you.)

The action in this book was a little slower than in A Storm of Swords. Then again, I can't name a book with faster events than A Storm of Swords. Some fair-weather fans are criticizing the book, saying that Martin had "Robert Jordan" syndrome. At least plotlines were advanced in Martin's "necessary-plot-advancement" book, in contrast to Jordan's Crossroads of Twilight, in which nothing at all happened. And most of Martin's characters are so darn good that I can't really begrudge an occasional "get all the characters up to speed, so a future book will be really amazing" episode.

Now, about those characters. The book was awfully Jaime and Cersei heavy, so we'll start with them.

Cersei got what she had coming to her all along. She's going to kick the bucket, but I think not until the very last book. She's evil, villainous, and hated by practically every fan of the series. Martin can't dispose of her too quickly; where would we be for antagonists if she were to die too soon? Her arrest for treason, etc. at the end of the book was a way of placating fans who desperately wanted to see something bad happen to her. And we got that. We got even more when we saw Jaime's reaction to her desperate plea for help...

Tommen Baratheon, King on the Iron Throne, is probably doomed. Grand Maester Pycelle is too old to run the kingdom, and Tommen is too young. We can assume that Margaery Tyrell has some designs on the throne, but as of now she's got the same trial to look forward to that Cersei does.

Jaime has become my favorite character in the series (as well as the inspiration for this otherwise-cryptic Decemberists reference as a title). He's certainly the best-developed. We've seen him go from traitorous to nasty and self-centered to actually having a soul. Jaime's denial of Cersei's "please help me! I love you!" was, without a doubt, the best moment of the book. I enjoyed following his storyline a great deal.

Brienne may or may not be dead. Kind of like how a lot of characters end up. I kind of like the theory that she's going to end up in Catelyn Stark "I'm not quite dead yet" mode, even though there's not much to support that. And of course there's the matter of what that word she yelled before she may of may not have died. I suspect we'll find that out, but not until book 6.

Sansa now looks poised to gain a whole lot of political power in not too much time. I think she underwent some pretty interesting changes in this book as well, a whole lot more subtle than Jaime. I only wonder how her interactions with her husband Tyrion are going to change if and when she reclaims her birthright.

I don't really care what happens to any of the Greyjoys, to tell the truth. They're far from compelling characters. Asha is especially annoying (proclaiming "my queensmoot" and then not being able to back up her boasts). Really, I haven't gotten past seeing any of them as minor annoyances, just there for their own weird goals and to screw over the rest of Westeros. These guys are the only weak link in A Song of Ice and Fire and the only set of characters who I don't especially want to hear a PoV from ever again in the future.

The Martells are an interesting addition to the series. I'm a bit surprised that Myrcella didn't die in Arianne's little coup, and the fact that she's still alive when she could just as easily and reasonably be dead suggests that she's going to have a bigger part to play in the future. Also, there are some possibly intriguing ramifications of Prince Doran's desire to unite Martell and Targaryen. I think Arianne's a dangerous character, and should some disaster (or just the gout) befall Doran, she's not going to be content merely to sit in the desert and let someone else take over Westeros.

Arya of House Stark, or should I say Cat, continues to develop into someone truly dangerous. Cersei and the rest of Arya's list had better look out. When she comes back from Braavos with her secret ninja moves from the government, it's going down. Then again, suspicious temple dude didn't seem too happy with her murder of Dareon, evidently blinding her for retaining some of her identity... so maybe getting back from Braavos won't be so easy after all.

I don't really think that the Samwell chapters were necessary in the book, but the plot point that now he's going to be a maester is important. While he's down in Oldtown, he's probably going to find out some archaic piece of information that will help whoever's left defend the kingdom from winter when it comes.

And now, as I've seen on some discussion websites, my Sacred Cows/Marked for Death list.

Sacred Cows:
--Daenerys. It seems intuitive, even obvious, that once everyone in Westeros is done killing each other, Daenerys and her dragons are going to show up and save everyone's ass from whatever in the hell is lurking beyond the wall. Then she reclaims her dynasty's Iron Throne, and everyone lives happily (?) ever after.
--Jon Snow. He will be just as instrumental as Dany in defeating the threat from beyond the wall. Ice and Fire, right? He'll end up marrying Dany; if the speculation that Jon is actually half Targaryen, and seeing as how the Targaryens often marry each other, this prediction makes even more sense.
--Tyrion Lannister. The Imp is one of Martin's favorite characters, which Martin admitted himself. Tyrion is going to continue bouncing around the kingdom, making and foiling plots for quite a while.
--Arya, at least for a little while. She's not going to die before she comes back to Westeros and exacts some revenge on her hit list.
--Sam Tarly. He's got an importance to the final epic struggle, even though we don't know what it is yet.
--Davos Seaworth, at least for now. He's not really dead. I don't think a confirmed PoV character would die that far removed from the action.
--Bran Stark. He still has to become the fated creepy mystical little kid!

Marked for Death
--Stannis Baratheon. We've already seen Robert and Renly die, and I think that Stannis is not far behind. House Baratheon started this war by rebelling against the Targaryens, and I think that the war won't end until the house is completely broken. Besides, by following Melisandre, what does he expect? Symbolically, relating to the overall theme of the series, his "fire" is not going to be the right one to save the kingdom; Dany's will.
--Cersei Lannister. But not for a while, as mentioned earlier. The little brother that kills her is going to be Jaime (who, if I remember correctly, is a few minutes younger than Cersei?), not Tyrion. The irony of Cersei, the most false and money-hungry character in the series, being killed with a fake golden hand that her former incestuous lover wears? Too much to pass up.
--Jaime Lannister. But not before he kills his sister. Just when he gets dangerously close to becoming good, he's going down. Maybe at the hands of Catelyn's little zombie band?
--Walder Frey. So much attention was paid to his line of succession in A Feast for Crows that would be completely irrelevant if the Lord of the Crossing stayed alive the whole time.
--Robert Arryn. Being sickly and weak in this series does not lend itself to living a long time (see Hoster Tully and Maester Aemon). The question is, will it really by his weakness that kills him, or an unfortunate "accident" brought on by Littlefinger?
--Roose Bolton. This guy already made enemies of the Starks and the Greyjoys; no telling when he's going to turn on the Lannisters too.
--Euron Greyjoy. He doesn't even have his entire house behind him, not to mention making enemies of the Lannisters and Tyrells and Hightowers.

So there. Can't wait to find out how much of this ends up being true... A Dance with Dragons, early 2007.

EDIT: Jon Snow's parentage consipracy theory. After talking to my friend Patrick about the matter, I have even stronger evidence to that theory. The general theory, which I cannot take credit for, is that Jon is not Eddard Stark's bastard at all, but the product of a union between Lyanna Stark (Ned's sister) and Rhaegar Targaryen. I can only claim credit for some of the following supportive details.

First, parentage matters. People in Westeros are willing to go to great lengths when it comes to the parentage of a child. Take Roose Bolton's betrayal of Robb Stark, which was (at least partially) motivated by wanting to legitimize his bastard son and get an heir. Additionally, even though it's "metagaming," Martin himself has said that it matters who Jon Snow's parents are. So we're not wasting time by theorizing. "It matters" in A Song of Ice and Fire talk means we're not dealing with a commoner; it has to be someone of noble blood.

Second, people in Westeros die. Who would know the truth of Jon's birth? Under this theory, Lyanna Stark certainly would. She's dead. Ned Stark would, too. Dead. Catelyn might know, but in her zombified condition, it's not like she's striking up conversation with passersby about her family secrets. All of the Stark kids would be too young to know anything about what happened. Brandon Stark (Ned's brother) and Rickard Stark (Ned's father), both dead. The only person who would know and be in any condition to tell, at least on the Stark side, would be Benjen.

Benjen Stark is still alive, no doubt about it. He's been listed as "presumed dead" since the prologue of the first book in the series. In A Song of Ice and Fire, you've either got the curly braces around your name, or you're still kicking somewhere. So Benjen Stark is the only one on the Stark side that potentially knows about, and of any main character, Jon Snow is the only one with any chance at all of interacting with him.

So what? So one person on the Stark side might know about Jon's parents. How about the "other" side? If Rhaegar is really Jon's father, he's dead. So is every other Targaryen except Dany, who's too young to know anything. The reason this is evidence is that if Jon's other parent were some random noblewoman, the secret of his birth would be a lot less secret than if it lay with a dead family. Somebody would have come forth with that information, probably to extort money or land out of Ned, if that random noblewoman really existed.

Third, and most importantly, Rhaegar and Lyanna had something going on. After winning the Harrenhal Tourney (year 282), Rhaegar Targaryen takes Lyanna Stark to a tower (year 283). Ned Stark and company go to the tower, kill a few Kingsguard, and find Lyanna in a pool of blood. Lyanna forces Ned to make a promise to her, then she dies. A pool of blood could mean that Rhaegar killed her... but is it possible this was from childbirth? That would explain her death, too, as a lot of people in A Song of Ice and Fire seem to die during childbirth. Looking at the timeline, it's most likely that Lyanna's child by Rhaegar was conceived during or immediately following the Tourney. We know this is when Jon Snow was conceived; Jon is of age with Robb Stark. Robb was 16 at the Red Wedding in 299, meaning he was born in 283 and probably conceived in 282. So Jon Snow's birth coincides almost exactly with the time Lyanna was at the tower.

Robert Baratheon supposed that Rhaegar raped Lyanna (Robert's betrothed) and took her to the tower against her will. Maybe that's true; maybe Jon is the product of Rhaegar's rape of Lyanna. Then, Rhaegar took Lyanna to the tower against her will to protect his own secret. Or, looking at it from another angle, maybe Rhaegar's union with Lyanna was consentual. And Rhaegar took Lyanna to the tower for her protection, not against her will at all. Either way, it would be awfully convenient for nobody to be able to see Lyanna during the months she was pregnant.

And this promise that Lyanna made Ned make? To take care of Jon. Agreeing to raise and care for his sister's baseborn son is exactly the kind of thing that the morally upstanding Ned Stark would do.

While we're at it, fourth, Ned Stark's a really good guy. Does he strike you as the kind of guy who would have a bastard son? Moreover, when Jon was born, Ned and Catelyn were already together (as evidenced by Robb Stark). So not only would Eddard have had to have given birth to a bastard child, it would have had to have been while he was with Catelyn. I just can't see one of the only righteous and honorable people in all of Westeros doing that.

And finally, it would fit the series theme. Ice and fire, right? Jon would have been born from a noble of the north (ice) and a Targaryen (fire). Now, look ahead to when Daenerys comes back to fight the enemy beyond the wall. Jon's going to be right there by her side. Jon (with the Night's Watch; ice) and Dany (with her dragons; fire) are going to defeat that unknown enemy. Then--how's this--they get married. Ice and fire. Under this theory, Dany would be Jon's aunt, and among a family known for marrying brother to sister, that would probably actually be accepted.

If that's not conspiracy theory, what is?

Currently listening: Symphony No. 7, Antonin Dvorak

Friday, June 23, 2006

Primacy and Recency

Two bands to whom I have been introduced over the last year have recently released new CDs. Here follows the reviews of both of them.

First, a bit about steak.

I ate dinner at a restaurant called Stoney River yesterday. A steakhouse, kind of a hunting lodge style atmosphere, with standard fare. Lots and lots of wine, probably very good, which I will be more qualified to comment on in a year and a half. Salads and appetizers, from which I chose the lobster bisque. Wonderful, and along with the bread, a great first course to the meal. A page of "entrees" including chicken, fish, etc. dishes, which might be decent, but I'll never know because eating anything but steak at a steakhouse is heretical.

The steak I ended up with was advertised as the house special. (No, it wasn't cojones, for those familiar with one of my favorite jokes. If you've not heard the cojones joke, ask me to tell it to you sometime.) This steak, a filet, was very good. Stoney River apparently has a Secret Blend of Seasonings they put on all their steaks, and it was delicious. But eating this filet just served to confirm for me that I like the ribeye a lot better. A filet is probably a better cut if you want a single piece of ultra-high quality meat. It's probably healthier, as a large portion of the ribeye's flavor comes from the marbelization (ie, the fat). But as long as I'm going to order three quarters of a pound of meat anyway, I'll take the ribeye and six dollars over the filet any day.

Now, a bit about quasi-coffee.

Starbucks, contrary to popular opinion, is only halfway a coffeehouse. The other half is "purveyor of all drinks wonderful, warm, and cold, that may or may not tangentially involve coffee as one of their ingredients." One of these (that can either be ordered with or without a coffee base), new for and limited to the summer, is the banana coconut frappucino. I've had both the coffee-based and the creme-based, and it's hard to say which is better. But it doesn't matter, because both are amazingly good. It's refreshing, perfect for 96-degree summer days. This is the sort of thing that probably actually exists in the Caribbean, except it's probably half rum and half all that other stuff. Despite its lack of rum, the Starbucks version is certainly worth a drink, with the caveat that if you don't like coconut, you may want to request the drink without it, and if you don't like banana, stick with something else. All in all, though, this (in addition to the Blackberry Green Tea frappucino) makes summer second only to Christmas as Starbucks' best season.

Review: Ganging Up on the Sun

Guster's latest release was sadly underreported. I looked in a Best Buy ad, and saw that the CD was now for sale. I thought this was probably a recent development, and headed to iTunes to buy it. As it turns out, it had been out for like two weeks already, with no iTunes coverage at all. (And yet, we see Nelly Furtado's mug all over that enterprise. That "Promiscuous" song really, really grates on my nerves. It needs to go away. And is it just me, or does she look positively mentally retarded on the cover of her new album? I digress.) Some of the user comments said that this was a slight departure from old Guster, but most everyone gave it a really great rating.

Deservedly so. Ganging Up on the Sun a worthy followup to Guster's other great albums. My biggest (and really only) complaint is that it lacks the band's trademark bongos in most of the songs. But aside from that, nothing to complain about at all. "Manifest Destiny" is the mosy readily listenable song on the album, with a pleasantly pop-ish piano line in the background for almost the entire song. Think Ben Folds, or maybe the Decemberists at their most bright and happy. Interestingly, the parallels to other songs does not stop there. "The Captain" is a Western fantasy, and would be as easily in place on a Rilo Kiley CD as where it is. We even get a female vocalist (but she's probably not as good as Jenny Lewis). Subsequent songs evoke Coldplay and Muse in places and Sufjan Stevens in others.

Remarkably, all of the songs have a stylistic element in common. They all sound like Guster. The band's sound is there on all of the tracks (minus the bongos), the vocals are still solid, and the styles are more varied than they've ever been. Fans of the band, assuming they're not stuck-up "purist" fans of the band, as in "they don't sound exactly like they used to so I don't like them anymore" will love this release.

Review: Under the Iron Sea

Keane's second release has been lauded as being more adventurous than the band's first. That's probably true, if only marginally so. The album has a different collective "feel" about it, but the actual sound of what's going on it largely the same as it ever was. For the unfamiliar with Keane, think Coldplay minus a guitar, and you've got it. There are people out there who would decry that estimation as ignoring certain nuances of sound, and they might be right. But that's the parallel that I drew upon hearing the band, and that's the one that makes the most sense to the most people.

Some of the tracks on this CD fail to deliver. The first, "Atlantic," is steeped in tritonic dissonance and gave me serious doubts about the ultimate quality of this album. Most of the middle of the album--after "Is It Any Wonder?" and before "Crystal Ball," is okay but rather uninteresting. But there is a lot of good to hear as well. The aforementioned "Is It Any Wonder?", which will probably become the best-known and most-played track on the CD, is a fun one to listen to. And the album gets really good toward the last few tracks. "Crystal Ball" all the way up through "Let it Slide" (which apparently is an iTunes exclusive?) is awesome. My favorite track is "The Frog Prince" which is musically superb and tells a fascinating story at the same time.

I suppose this entire album can appeal to certain people, though probably not all at once. There are tracks that I find boring and unmusical, but that others can probably draw a parallel to Radiohead (which I also find boring and unmusical) and immensely enjoy. The ones I like, certain fans are probably going to denounce as being too "mainstream" and easily musical. The point is, any given listener is going to like at least half this album.

Currently listening: Under the Iron Sea, Keane

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Suddenly, Everything Has Changed

"And it's root, root, root, for the home team..."

I have just watched the Atlanta Braves lose their tenth straight game. The announcers tell me this is a feat not accomplished since the mid 1980s. The Braves are not playing "bad baseball." They are not in a "slump." They stink, plain and simple. This is America's Team, right? The Team of the 1990s... but not of the 2000s. To fans like today's children, Skip Caray correctly points out, this is not supposed to happen. It is a nightmare, a terrible perversion of the Way Things Are. To me, it's a window into the years of my birth and infancy. I knew this sort of disaster used to happen. Potential for it existed, but never made it into this catastrophic kinesis.

The inevitable question: how does a team go from 14 straight division championships to last place in the division? From winning nearly every series at home to a winless homestand? (As my dad adroitly pointed out, we do not need to see "First to Worst" on the front page of AJC Sports.)

The bullpen is really bad, unquestionably. 15 blown saves to 15 converted saves is not an acceptable ratio. The Braves are, what, 15 games out of first place? And 15 blown saves? How interesting. (Of course, a team cannot convert every save opportunity. But being, say, 3 or 4 games out of first is a lot better than 15 back.) It's almost like the team cannot possibly hope to win unless it has an insurmountable lead coming into the 7th inning. And with the Braves' hitting being lackluster at best lately, that insurmountability isn't showing up too well. Abysmal batting averages with runners in scoring position. No average from the first two hitters, and no home runs from numbers 3-6 in the lineup.

And so the trade rumors start.

Trade Andruw Jones and Chipper Jones, some rumors say. Or John Smoltz, maybe. Jeff Francoeur? Brian McCann? I don't know enough about that to say. I'm not a manager. And then some say that Bobby Cox has outlasted his ability, some say the same about John Schuerholtz. Regarding that, though, I certainly have something to say. Bobby Cox, in particular, has shown time and time again that he can make a team great. Consider 1990, the last time the Braves were not champions. Then consider 1991: the Braves go to the World Series. Both of these managers have deftly handled the team year after year. Let's give them the chance to do so again in the future.

Finally, a massive trade for a single big-name player is probably not the way to go either. The Jim Thomes, Ichiros, and Albert Pujolses of the world? Of course they're talented baseball players. Of course they can guide their teams to victory. But can even they singlehandedly turn a miserable team's fortunes around? I doubt it. A solid hitter, even an All-Star caliber one, cannot erase 15 of 30 blown saves.

Two weeks ago, I would have said that something needs to be done soon, but I think it's already too late for this season. Braves fans, bow your heads, and acknowledge that all things must pass. It's been a good run. But something does need to be done. And we need to trust Cox and Schuerholtz to do their jobs.

Oh, World Cup Fever. The United States lost to Ghana. Oh well.

Currently listening: Ganging up on the Sun, Guster