Sunday, April 26, 2015

For Shame

I just finished Jon Ronson's So You've Been Publicly Shamed, a book detailing how public shaming works in today's social media landscape.

The book itself, I believe, is both interesting and important; he goes through several people's lives as they go through the aftermath of having the entire world publicly call them out for some sort of behavior, whether it be getting caught in a prostitution ring or a single tasteless tweet. The book itself is fascinating as it goes into this detail and seeing how people live through something rather unique in history--a world where one word or sentence is now available for (literally) the entire world to react and judge.

Sadly, the book doesn't do two things I wish it would have: one is to delve more into the history of public shaming (he does devote some time to it, but not nearly enough to provide a lot of context). Second is dealing less with the individual examples and more navel-gazing introspection as to what that means for our society at large.

Megan McArdle's take on this roughly corresponds with my own thoughts, but I read her article before the book. Now that I've had the time to read the book I can sort of reconcile my opinions.

We're really talking about a few different things, which I believe is the core of people who might disagree. There was the old-school public shaming, which literally meant dragging souls out to the town square, placed in stocks, and judged by the community. This sort of thing was (rightly) removed from modern society, although it does exist in some forms; it's not unheard of for a judge to incorporate shaming as part of a sentence. (Ronson is surprisingly sympathetic to this; a lot of the people he spoke with that went through such a shaming felt that this was by far the only way they could change their behavior.)  If done judiciously and not via malice, I am also sympathetic to this, although my big fear is that there is a thin line between genuine, behavior-changing shaming to outright hostility and revenge.

The second is more intimate: one may not care how the community feels about them, but they may be concerned about how their close friends and family feel about them. This is most likely the shaming that has the greatest effect, but pretty much by definition is impossible to "officially" endorse. A judge can make your dad be disappointed in you. The only way to making this sort of shaming effective is via a shift in the culture, and it's difficult to steer that in any effective manner by choice. It was popular in the 80's (and espoused by social scientists like Charles Murray) that many of the social ills we suffer in modern society is due to a lack of this intimate shame. When our families, churches, schools, and other institutions lose influence, there's less of a reason to care if you are ashamed of what you've done--we didn't need a government program to force people to do X when a disapproving look from our parents worked just as well. This is tricky, since it's difficult to separate these relationships into discrete patterns, but it's a compelling, if imperfect, theory.

The third is new, and that is the public shaming of the world via the internet. One tweet, or Facebook status, or blog post can literally be shared to everyone on the planet, and they can immediately respond within seconds. This is unprecedented and, one has to admit, a little scary.

The previous two forms of shaming involved people and institutions who were invested in the target. Judges want people to reform and family members want you to succeed, so shaming had a perfectly legitimate application as a deterrent to bad behavior. For institutional shaming, a solid list of rules and laws existed so--if one was found guilty--most are comfortable with the shame because it's been through a legitimate process to determine this. After all, some people do deserve to feel ashamed of what they have done, and the social pressure and institutions had evolved where there was a back-and-forth between the shamers and shamees, as it were. It was constructive because there were incentives on both parties to assist.

Not so with this new form of shaming. People who get publicly shamed have thousands, if not millions, of people who actively put forth an effort to judge someone else, often with little by way of context or justice. There are no rules; once the judgement of the public has been determined, there is literally no way to stop it. And there are no consequences for the shamers--a brief, ten-second email with which a person has no stake still causes immense grief to the target. The constructive portion of the act of shaming is destroyed; it's a million anonymous fingers, pointed accusingly at a person whose transgression are often mild and certainly haven't been vetted through any sort of vehicle for review or justice. 

It's frustrating, to say the least. I've seen companies and politicians make extraordinarily minor missteps only to see their entire future crumble. Regardless of whether it is fair or not, the verdict is enacted and there's very little anyone can do about it. Books like Ronson's trigger a small amount of self-reflection regarding the act of public shaming, but one suspects that it's a difficult trend to counter.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Mad Men Predictions

This Sunday starts the final season of Mad Men, the critically-acclaimed drama that looks at the advertising industry in the 1960s, following the requisite changes in morals, politics, and sideburns.

The show is well-known for its sharp writing and thoughtful, cryptic symbolism, leading many to speculate on how the series will end. Nearly all of the theories center around the fate of Don Draper and whether he lives or dies or if his secrets are revealed or if he just turned into an old, jaded man. Well, jadier.

But what will happen? Here are a few predictions:

  • Don Draper, tired of his reckless drinking, meaningless sex, and barely-concealed disgust at his coworkers, decides to straighten up his act by only drinking after noon and only having six girls on the side.
  • Peggy has a successful string of successes, landing nine of the top ten corporations in America and locks each of them into at least a four-year commitment. For her efforts, she is given a forty dollar raise and a new desk.
  • Lou dies and nobody cares.
  • Ironically, though, Stan takes up Scout's Honor in his memory and it becomes a lucrative Sunday comic strip. He spends the rest of his life worried someone will find out he stole it, until he realizes that no one cares because it's Lou.
  • Megan wins the Kentucky Derby.
  • For some strange reason, Bob Benson decides he doesn't want to visit a client in Indiana.
  • Sally gets drafted and moves to Canada, where she becomes an astronomer-lifeguard.
  • Pete eats a Snickers Bar and subsequently breaks down in tears telling a story about his childhood and when he was ostracized for only being immensely rich and not incredibly rich. Mars is not impressed.
  • Roger, high on mescalin and crystal THC, votes for Humphrey sixteen times. In 1970.
  • 9 Bobbys in 7 episodes!
  • In a moment of weakness for both of them, Don and Joan have sex and everybody in a five mile radius has their head explode and perfect babies fly everywhere and I think a new religion gets started and Roger finds a way to put it all in a pill and becomes fantastically wealthy. 
  • Roger's daughter ends up joining the cast of Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, where she is fired after being impregnated by a clearly intoxicated Ruth Buzzi. Roger disowns her, since, in his words, "She didn't even have the class to get knocked up on the set of The Smothers Brothers."
  • In an angry letter found after his death, Lou is outraged that he doesn't get to do an elaborate song-and-dance routine after he dies, because that's the sort of stupid shit that Lou does.
  • Betty's fluency in Italian turns out to be a pivotal skill in acquiring a new client for the firm. LOL just kidding, she's still a useless cold heartless shrew. 
  • Paul Kinsey moves to Jonestown. Everybody sees this as a positive move.
  • In a dramatic twist, Harry finally reveals that he has been stealing Pete's hair and attaching it to his sideburns. Strangely, Pete is OK with this.
  • Glen does a bunch of weird shit.
  • Peggy is traumatized as various bits of Ginsburg are sent to her in a package every week from the institution, from toes and earlobes to small squares of tongue. When she complains they threaten to throw her in the cell next to his for being "hysterical". 
  • Ken Cosgrove, after years of hard work, finally finds success as a sci-fi author. He then reveals to the world that he is, in fact, an actual robot, which surprises no one.
  • Seriously, Lou is the worst.
  • Sal and Chauncey come back and both make partner.
  • Don Draper doesn't die, or grow old, or kill someone. He just ends the series, sitting despondently at his desk, and wishing that he had been the one who cemented himself in history as the person who came up with the WE BUY ANY CAR commercials.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Candy Review: New Peeps Flavors


It's that time of year again: it's time when every store had a boatload of Easter candy. This year, we have some new things to try, so might as well crack them open just in time for the Easter Bunny to figure out what he's going to do this year. Lazy rabbit.


We've got three on tap this time: Blue Raspberry, Party Cake, and MYSTERY CHICKS.

I'm a sucker for Blue Raspberries. (Well, blue raspberry flavored things. I don't think I've ever had an actual blue raspberry.) So while I'm not a fan of Peeps, I figured this would at least balance things out. Thankfully, it did--this is one of the first flavors of Peeps I've ever had and not immediately regretted it afterwards. I actually voluntarily ate a second one! So, thumbs up for me.

Next up was the Party Cake. I'm lukewarm on cake-flavored things; they're almost always too sweet and it's almost always better to just have a cake. But in this case, I thought maybe things were different. Sadly, not so much. While I appreciate the effort to put little sprinkles on the Peeps (well, coloring, anyway), the smell was actually not very good. Not bad, but just so strong and so overpowering it wasn't appetizing. And while it tasted OK (not great, but not overpowering like most are) the smell was a bit too much for me. Pass, but if you like this sort of thing (and probably don't mind the smell as much as I did) it's probably worth a try.

Okay, let's get to the showstopper here: the MYSTERY CHICKS. The label says it all: who knows what flavor is inside of the package? The wrapper helpfully gives you some clues (Savory? Sweet? Fruity? Salty? Tangy?) and they are snow white and relatively odorless, so you have no idea what you're getting into. Oddly, I ate two of them, and it truly is a mystery: aside from a vague fruity taste, they were actually pretty weak and I have no idea what it was supposed to be. Zero idea. So the MYSTERY CHICKS will remain a mystery, at least to me.

Now, I have no idea if different packages are different flavors--I don't think so, because you're supposed to submit what you think the flavor is to their web site. I'm not gonna cause I have no clue, and I'm not buying another package to test if they are different flavors or not. If y'all want to give it  try, be my guest.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Guest Post: Burgh Man

Today’s post comes from Michael Pellas of Downtown Pittsburgh Living, and is part of a special day of shenanigans from other Pittsburgh bloggers. You can see my post over on Sean's Ramblings, where I talk about introducing a new Pittsburgh currency. It makes sense when you read it. Sort of.



(above image courtesy of Burghman.com)
While thinking about this guest post, I kept trying to think of something different to do. I'm not very good at writing "general lifestyle" posts so I tried to think of something about Pittsburgh that needed some love.
We've all seen Burghman during the warmer months in town...
He appears at Pirate games or festivals in downtown. He's dressed in a cape and is always juggling something or making people laugh and smile. I've always wanted to have more of a direct conversation with him and this guest post gave me the opportunity...I hope this is ok!
A HUGE thank you to Alex, Steve (from this blog) and Burghman for the opportunity to talk about something and someone that is an inspiration to me...even my ripe old age of 40!
(above image courtesy of Burghman.com)
How did Burgh Man evolve into the Burgh Family?
My career has been spent involved in the Social Services. I have a Master’s Degree from Duquesne University in Counseling. Somehow, I have always had the ability to help hurting people. Subsequently, I used my gifts and talents to try and reach people who needed encouragement and to believe in themselves. Additionally, I grieved for families that have lost loved ones too many types of tragedies. Somehow, consoling people has always given me purpose in life and made me feel good about myself.
I’ve worked in numerous capacities over the years from Therapist, Youth and Family Specialist, Director of a Psychiatric inpatient clinic, Director of 130 bed homeless inpatient shelter, therapist in the Western Penitentiary and numerous other positions over the years.
Burgh Man started with an emphasis on promoting healthy lifestyles and telling the world about the Great City of Pittsburgh and the many firsts accomplished here. I have enjoyed showcasing the amazing personalities that have made Pittsburgh what it is today. It has been my goal t to be the best I can be physically, emotionally and mentally and to carry these positive messages to others. Burgh Man believes that everyone is a Super Hero and that some people just have not discovered it yet. J
The Burgh Man family has evolved due to my intense desire to help people whatever age they may be. Lady Burgh was my second creation and Baby Burgh followed. JIt is important for me to carry healthy messages to children so that they can grow up to be productive citizens and to contribute in positive ways to humanity. All people deserve to be the best they can be and to appreciate the beauty within themselves and all around them. Subsequently, the Burgh Family keeps evolving. Maybe one day I will create Grandma and Grand Pa Burgh. J Somehow love keeps me hoping for the best for myself and others.
Did super heroes play an important role for you in your youth?
That is a great question. I guess I grew up on Super Man, Batman, Westerns and all the shows that portrayed that good does conquer evil in the end. It seems that I have always been for the underdog and it makes me feel good to see people overcome seemingly insurmountable odds. Super Heroes have had a major impact on my life. Most of my life I have been a dreamer. I’m always dreaming of creating new things and seeking ways to live a more meaningful life. I think everyone should have a cape and a mask and use their own creativity to see what good they can develop. A cape and mask somehow perpetuate a fun fantasy world where good always triumphs. I’ve found that money has its place in life, but it’s a purpose in life that resonates with me more than anything else.
How awesome is it to see the reaction you get?
You cannot imagine the way I have felt over the years watching young and old, men and women, Americans and Cultures from all over the world interact with Burgh Man. I have taken more photos with people from around the world than I can even recollect. To watch the awe and wonder of and infant or a toddler is magical. To watch people laugh and smile and get a kick out of Burgh Man gives me the positive energy and desire to keep doing what I do. Burgh Man and Family will always hope to bring smiles and laughter wherever they go.
Burgh Man was on America’s Got Talent twice and was voted off both times. It was truly a great experience to have been asked to appear on that show. The memories that I have obtained from those experiences are beyond priceless.
If you could talk to all the children of Pittsburgh at once, what would you say?
I would tell every child to seek people who would encourage them and that treat them with dignity and respect. To always learn as much as they can and to be the very best that they can be. Once that have become successful in life to pass it on and help others to gain the awareness and enlightenment that allows people to reach their maximum potential. Finally, I would tell them that if they practice and teach Love that they will find a life of meaning far beyond what they could have ever imagined.
How awesome is it to see the message of Burgh Man spread throughout the city?  
Please look on BurghMan.com/About and you will see a Proclamation that the City of Pittsburgh gave Burgh Man honoring his work in 2002. This might be the greatest gift I have ever received!
I have wept in silence many times over the years to think that other people have found my work worthy of notice. Contemplative moments always bring me peace and a hope that something profound is still waiting for my discovery. I wish I could compare these feeling to something tangible, but unless you experience them words cannot adequately describe them. To even think that Burgh Man’s message would be part of my legacy brings enormous gratitude to me. What greater honor could there be than to know you left the world a little better than where you found it. It is certainty my greatest wish that people will extract all of the positivity that Burgh Man tries to disseminate.
Where are your favorite places in Pittsburgh to spread positivity?
The entire greater Pittsburgh area is my playground. I’m at home in every neighborhood that I visit. Pittsburgh is truly the home of Burgh Man. I grew up in The Burgh and it takes everyone to make us what we are and what we are to become. I’m excited about the way Pittsburgh is moving with technology, education, medicine, the arts, sports and every other area.
I suspect I will always have a soft spot for the North Shore. I love entertaining on the streets and interacting with the people. Skating down by the river and watching the responses of the people when Burgh Man comes skating by in his lighted costume, juggling lighted Clubs is a high all of its own. Burgh Man keeps me high on life. Burgh Man really got his start in Market Square and the North Shore nearly 15 years ago. I’m Burgh Man and the Burgh is my home J
Thank you for thinking about Burgh Man and allowing me this wonderful opportunity.
A Hero is someone who brings out the best in others ~~ Burgh man
---
I think someone like Burghman is very important in today's society - with what we see in the news every day. Being able to take your family out knowing your children will be able to see someone real and true like Burghman  adds some extra awesomeness to events around town. When I saw him in front of the Toonseum last year, people would stop what they were doing and stop to chat or take a picture. They always walk away with a smile.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Book Review: 101 Hamburger Jokes

Today, we're going to review a book: 101 Hamburger Jokes, by Phil Hirsch.

At first glance, thing are looking up. The gag on the cover is pretty solid: a medium burger! Ha! The tag line ("meaty jokes to be devoured with relish!") is corny enough but at least gives us an idea of what we're in for.

Sadly, it all goes downhill from there.

First, off, it's notable that this was written by one person. This was back before the internet, so there wasn't someone who was scraping internet sites looking for jokes about hamburgers. There was literally one guy who sat down one day at the typewriter and pounded out exactly 101 jokes about hamburgers. What can we say? It was the late 70s. That sort of shit happened.

To be fair, the illustrations were done by Don Orehek, so that meant that ol' Phil could concentrate on burger jokes and didn't have to dither around with ink and paper.

Things start off strong:

What is the hamburgers' most familiar song? "Home on the Range"!

Not bad. Next one is about the same:

When do hamburgers most enjoy watching TV? During prime time!

OK. A little awkward--that's a punchline looking for a joke--and I could do without that condescending underlining, as if only slack-jawed morons would be enjoying a hambuger joke book. Yeah, "prime" is a word used to grade meat, we get it. You don't have to be a slaughterhouse jockey to understand jargon like that. But otherwise it's not a bad joke.

But check out the third joke:

How do you make a hamburger green? Find a yellow cheeseburger and mix it with a blue one!

Now, stop the train, here. What? That joke doesn't even make sense. Why would 1) anyone ever want to make a hamburger green, and 2) is there really such a thing as a blue hamburger? They made a saving throw with the yellow cheese on the burger, but...what sort of setup is that? It's not even a hamburger joke, that's a "what happens when you mix primary colors" joke. Why would you ask how to make something that doesn't exist, and the punchline be something that also doesn't exist? Madness!

It just gets worse. I'm not going to run through all 101 jokes, but let's take a random sample:

Can you use the word "tenderloin" in a sentence? Burgers "tenderloin" faster than pizzas or hot dogs!

Why do burgers laugh when you surround them with pickles? Who knows--maybe they're picklish!

Who is a hamburger's favorite comedian? Milton Broil! (Berle)

THANKS FOR EXPLAINING THAT, PHIL! I thought there was an actual comedian out there named Milton Broil. Also, is there a pun with "tenderloin" that I'm missing? I mean, I get that they're trying to say "Burgers tend to do [something] faster than pizzas or hot dogs." But what is the something? Lie around? Loiter? Lean? I don't know, and all of the answers are equally unfunny.

Most of the jokes (I'm not going to be an asshole and put that in quotes) rely on puns, and that's OK--I'm appreciative of a good session of wordplay. But there's only about a half dozen terms he uses, and just re-uses them in different ways. It can be quite tiring. There's only so many ways you can re-word "Well done," "hot dog," "bun," "meat," and "loin."

There's also a lot of jokes that aren't really jokes at all, even in the lame-pun category. Take a look at this classic:

Why does Farrah Fawcett-Majors love hamburgers? Who knows--but we just wanted to mention her name!

Just remember, folks: there was a time in America in which it was culturally acceptable that simply name-dropping Farrah Fawcett was the minimum threshold required to quality as a joke. This is why ISIS exists.

There's also a section called "Rare Vampire Jokes" (get it?) which include these gems:

Which singer's records do they play at hamburger joints in Transylvania? Fang Sinatra's!

What did the Big Mac say when the Vampire attacked him? "You're a pain in the neck!"

How many burgers do you feed a ferocious, 14-foot-tall vampire? All it wants!

What the hell? These aren't even hamburger jokes! They're lame vampire jokes with an unsubtle hamburger reference thrown in. Did Phil run out of steam around joke 80 and just say "Screw it, the kids won't figure it out?" That's hardly professional. I was promised "101 Hamburger Jokes," not "A Modest Amount Of Hamburger Jokes Plus Some Other Stuff That Ultimately Add Up To 101."

But it's not all bad, of course. Here are some halfway decent jokes that stood the test of time:

Who can you always rely on in Burger Land during an emergency? Hamburger Helpers!

What kind of girl does a hamburger like? Any girl named Patty!

Which burger is famous for his long nose? Cyrano de Burgerac!

That last one was thrown in for all the classy intellectuals browsing the meat-based joke section of the local library. 

But that's not enough to save this book. Everything can be encapsulated by the back cover: there's a drawing of a snooty-looking hamburger, complete with top hat, cane, and monocle, sticking his nose up in the air. The joke?

How does a Burger acquire good taste? With a little seasoning!

That's it? That's the showstopper? That's what you're putting on the back cover of your book to move copies off the shelf? It even just barely makes sense--even back in the 70s, using the phrase "seasoning" for refined upper-class snobbery was already a bit of a stretch. There's some decent jokes in there, but they chose something devoid of sense and humor as the marquee knee-slapper.

Still, I can't be too hard on the book. It was a product of its time, I suppose. I'd like to say I'm not its target audience, but that's an excuse. And yet I still recommend it for one fact and one fact only, and that is due to this joke along with the accompanying illustration:

What do hamburger say on Monday morning? "Well, it's back to the old grind!"

It makes structural sense, it's a decent pun, and it actually has something to do with hamburgers. More importantly, it shows a cheerfully-sketched hamburger willingly trotting off to what will be the certain death of fellow hamburgers, gleefully grinding them to a pulp for a paycheck.  It's a sad commentary of the malaise of the Carter administration, as well as a proper dose of reality subtext in a tome peppered with frankfurter jokes.

Puns, perspective, and pathos? Now, that's a joke we can all laugh at.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

A Million Little Inconveniences


I had a very rough morning.

Not in like a Michael Douglas Falling Down type of morning, but one that’s just irritating enough as to make the rest of your day obnoxiously bad. You hate to complain about it, because you can look around and see other people in worse situations, but…c’mon.

So my task for the morning was to buy a bottle of Diet Pepsi for breakfast. Yes, I often drink pop for breakfast because nutritionally balanced breakfasts are for suckers.

Well, my place of employment has a few options: a few vending machines scattered about on the first floor, a cafeteria, and then a sort of coffee shop.

Well, since I have no sense of perspective or priority in my life, my preference is to buy from the vending machine. Why? Because the bottle is $1.50 in the vending machine and $1.59 at the cafeteria due to sales tax, and that nine cents is that important.

So I went through my pockets and found two quarters and pulled a greasy bill out of my wallet. I went to the vending machine and slid the dollar into the slot and plunked in my quarters. I press the button and—nothing. Sometimes in the morning the machines are out of stock, and sure enough, the machine blinked back at me with an ominous “OUT…OF…PRODUCT” message in scary blue letters. Of course, in return, I get nothing but quarters, so I get to walk around jingling like a Christmas elf for the rest of the morning.

So I go to the nearby cafeteria instead and grab a bottle. Then I look at the line, which is at least ten people deep, all with hilariously complicated breakfast meals in Styrofoam containers whose cost have to apparently be added up on a broken abacus. While waiting in line, for what was clearly a few hours, I glance over and see that the vending machine guy is talking with the clerk at the coffee shop; clearly, he’s done stocking at least the other machines in the building and working his way down. Huzzah! I’ll go there!

So I hoofed it down to one of the other vending machines. It’s not a long walk, by any means, but it’s about a minute or two. I get there, and I press the button first—it should tell you if it’s in stock or not before you put your money in, and it’s done this correctly 100% of the time that I’ve ever done it in my life. It says it’s in stock. Yay! I put my quarters in, press the button, and…OUT OF PRODUCT! What the hell, technology? I specifically asked you a very specific question and you lied! Are you one of those assholes in those logic puzzles where one vending machine always lies and one vending machine tells the truth, and you can only get your pop by giving money to the right one? And what was the vending machine guy doing? He’s supposed to be the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus rolled into one, and instead he’s just a soda tease!

So I hoof it back down to the coffee shop, where at least the line is only a few people deep, and I finally get my drink. No problems, either, except for that pesky nine cents.

And that’s how I spent my stupid morning taking fifteen minutes to get a stupid bottle of Diet Pepsi.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Why the Internet Has Ruined Everything For Everyone Ever

The internet is a wonderful place. People are better connected, business can provide personal service in an efficient manner, and the increase of total knowledge is at the fingertips of nearly everyone. What's not to love about the internet?

And yet there's something unfortunate about how we've taken the greatest invention of modern times and ruined everything.

Okay, "ruined everything" is probably a bit of an overstatement, but not by much. While you can easily find the awesome on the internet, it's also easy to stumble upon its seedy underbelly. I mean, have you ever read a newspaper article and accidentally scrolled down to see the comment section? It's like a cesspool of ignorance and bad judgement, except that would probably be unfair to cesspools.

Let's take a look at some of the things that the internet ruins on a regular basis. First, let's look at perfectly acceptable pop culture icons. I've already written about my annoyance that the internet has taken one of our icons of innocence and joyfulness, Kermit The Frog, and turned him into a passive-aggressive asshole. But tomorrow it will be something else, some other beloved character that should be nothing but kind and decent and will be turned into the modern-day equivalent of Calvin pissing all over a Ford logo. Even today, Facebook feeds are full of blurry pictures of Minions--you know, the incredibly cute creatures from the Despicable Me movies--and turned them into horrible, petty jerks who spout off bumper-sticker insults.

I've long maintained that the internet--rather than bringing us all together--actually does the opposite. The literal worldwide connection that everybody has with everyone else is overwhelming, and thus, instead of expanding our horizons, we retreat to our comfort zones and surround ourselves with those who already think and feel and believe exactly like we do, which is incredibly easy.

In previous generations, you were more or less forced to engage your ideas with other people. Your ability to bounce ideas off of individuals was limited to who you knew, and chances are you knew a relatively wide range of personalities; moreso if you went to college or the armed forces. If you had a stupid opinion, you were probably going to have it challenged by someone at some point, and while you may not change your mind you were at least exposed to different viewpoints. No, not everyone was like that--it's very easy, especially in small towns and in certain regions, to be surrounded by like-minded people, but it was far more common to normalized your opinions.

Today if you have a stupid opinion, you can easily go online and find hundreds, if not thousands, of people who will back you up, and you can easily isolate yourself so you only ever engage with people who agree with what you already have. Thus you will never critically question your own beliefs. If hundreds of people in the internet agree with you, how could you possibly be wrong?

And the internet, in its quest to be efficient (and rightfully so), also has the effect of exacerbating this isolation. When you search for things on Google or shop for things on Amazon or bid on things on eBay, your computer tracks you, finds out what you like, and tries to refine your searches and behavior to match what you want. At first glance, this is awesome--the internet is going all the hard work. And yet that also means you'll never be exposed to new things or stumble upon something different yet awesome, which has the exact opposite effect of what the internet should be doing. (This is especially true when dealing with political issues--you often get caught in a circular feedback loop, since your search results will respond with things you already believe, giving you the perception that everything everywhere agrees with you.)

I'm a decidedly enthusiastic consumer of the internet age and social media; the far does, in fact, outweigh the bad. But let's all not pretend that the bad doesn't exist, and in fact the trends may be adversely affecting the younger generations who have not been exposed to any other system. There's a certain value in stepping away from the isolated world.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Blurred Copyright Violations

So apparently, Blurred Lines, the creepy summer anthem from a few years ago, was found to be suspiciously similar to a Marvin Gaye song from a few decades ago.

I've listened to both (sadly in the former, noncommittally on the latter) and, well, I just don't see it. Well, hear it, anyway.

Now, the normal caveats apply: I wasn't in the courtroom with the people who deal with the actual laws and listen to the actual technical parts of the songs. I'm sure there's a lot of information that I'm not getting. And yet, from an outsider's perspective, it's extraordinarily difficult to listen to both songs and think they have anything more than the most fundamental basics of music theory. At the very least, if this is copyright infringement, so is every single song in the Top 40 for the past half of a century.*

Copyright is a funny thing. In our guts, we understand why mechanisms get patents, but it's a little more difficult to understand the legal protection of intangible things like ideas--which, in the end, is what novels, music, and artwork ultimately is. It's more difficult given the longevity of creative work; a thing will only last a certain amount of time, but an idea is forever, for better or worse. And so the western world has sort of teased out this more-or-less arbitrary set of rules as to how long an owner can control something before it belongs to the ages.

It's not a perfect system, but it's a necessary one, and one I more or less agree with--people should be rewarded for their work, ideas or not. The current laws seem a little out of whack--Disney keeps strongarming the copyright law writers into extending it to the point of absurdity, and eventually we'll have to come to the slow realization that the world will have to accept Steamboat Willie fanfic as legal. I'd rather reform it rather than extend it--say, characters who are still having active material being produce continue to be protected, but the works themselves fall into public domain sooner. So, for example, the movie Star Wars itself might fall into public domain, but as long as they keep making Star Wars movies Darth Vader is still protected. That might get sloppy, but I think it's worth exploring.

Anyway, the point of this is that copyright cases like the Marvin Gaye/Robin Thicke one are difficult to defend, because creativity can be...nuanced in how it is derived from other works. In this case, the contribution from one to the other (and for such a short period of time) makes the case almost laughable. Still, the answer isn't to toss out all the old copyright laws, but to reform them.

And thus ends my incredibly sexy post about copyright law.


*Or, more accurately, anyone who isn't an African-American blues singer from the Depression Era.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Player One Joins The Game



I am, in nearly every sense of the word, a nerd. Sure, there are some gaps in my interests—I really have close to zero interest in comic books, for example, and I find nearly all anime to be lame—but by and large I have subscribed to nearly the entire list of acceptable facets of nerd culture. 

That said, I like to at least pretend that I’m reasonably moderate with my interests. Sure, I’m a fanatic about certain things--like Team Fortress 2, Sid Meier’s Civilization, board games, geocaching, or the old INWO CCG—but I like to pretend that I’m not obsessed with any of them. Relatively speaking, of course.

That said, I just don’t get video game culture.

I’m not talking about someone who simply likes video games. Video games are a big business; they generate more revenue than the movie industry, for starters. Everyone is a video gamer now, as anyone who plays Candy Crush can tell you. (And they have, because they beg me to give them lives on Facebook every single day. Every. Day.)

What I’m talking about are people who loooove video games. They can’t wait for each new release. They complain bitterly when a button on a controller is moved when the new generation is announced. They voluntarily watch videos of other people playing video games. Writers who mess with a character are heaped upon with scorn. If you don’t make a sequel the exact same thing as the original players complain that it was ruined and if you do make the sequel the exact same thing players complain they were ripped off. The perfect video game is whatever came out when they turned 11. So help you if you get into an argument about who makes the best console game system.

And it is a culture. A generation, maybe two of people feel the same about video games and older generations felt about books and movies. It was like that one video game was made just for you, just like every preteen is the very first person to ever understand the lyrics of a Led Zeppelin song and now they are a combination of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and the Oracle of Delphi at the ripe young age of thirteen.

Hey, I get it. Everyone has their thing, and if it ain’t hurting anyone else, why should I care? And there’s a certain level of validity to that. I got things that I obsess disproportionately about, too. (Just ask my poor wife. Hopefully you have some time.) Still, I feel like the video game industry is hostile to people like me; I wouldn’t consider myself a “casual” gamer, yet I couldn’t fathom actually paying cash money for a PC specifically built for gaming. I do like certain titles that come out but if I have to wait three months for the price to drop in half I am perfectly happy with that.

But, you may ask, how is this different than people who love movies, or cars, or sports, or television? People get stupid about those things, too, and spend too much money on them. In many ways, it’s not all that different, really. But there are a few things that seem to set it apart. Time invested tends to be higher for video games, especially given the large number of formats, systems, and titles that get released. (Movies can be watched in two hours; most video games can be replayed for weeks, months, and years.) Second is the demographic: the enthusiasts in this hobby tend to be frustrated, angry teenage boys with little ability to translate context into reality or have any frame of reference to compare anything to.* (I should know because I used to be, and some would stay still am, in this demographic.) There’s also a permeating attitude that the normal rules of media consumption no longer apply to video games; I’m willing to chalk this up to the fact that a lot of video gamers are…shall we say, less experienced in how society works and how businesses operate. Finally, there is a horrid streak of elitism (casuals vs. hardcore) that reinforces every bad stereotype of the video gamer. There is always some sort of elitism in any hobby, naturally, but video games haven’t had quite the cultural longevity to let the snobs get away with it for very long without coming across as tantrum-struck fanboys.

There is still debate about exactly what video games are. Roger Ebert famously declared that they were not art, while most video game enthusiasts obviously feel otherwise. (I am mostly in the middle; I think there’s a spectrum between “simple coding” and “near-movie experience” that is not easy to define, but I think a line delineating art from non-art does exist.) I generally view games as “interactive content,” where the user has the freedom to “create” the minutia of a plot, while the creator/programmer restricts the range of options available to force the story they have written. This narrative would be much different from, say, Tomb Raider or Bioshock than it would be for Angry Birds, but generally speaking that is the experience for most gamers.

All this said, I can’t feel but left out. I read video game articles or browse the magazines and I am constantly astounded at the amount of moral outrage people are able to produce for things that matter so very little. I see petitions being raised to make Character X do something. People don’t like the ending to Mass Effect 3 and the internet is flooded with outrage and scorn, and then feel vindicated when the company does, in fact, change it. I hear people say a video game "changed their life," and upon playing it the writing seems to be at best on par with a C-grade straight-to-video rental.

I suppose, in the end, it’s not so horribly different than anything else. Sports fanatics can be pretty obnoxious; gearheads can be elitist and argue endlessly about shit that doesn’t matter, and movie snobs often make me want to punch them in the face (metaphorically, of course). It’s just that video games haven’t quite built up the cultural cache to get away with a lot of the obnoxiousness. Sports, cars, movie theaters—they’ve all been around for nearly a century, and the mass market versions of these have spanned many generations. Those facets of culture have elders, they have a rich history, and they have built a diverse library of perspectives. Video games, on the other hand, have really only been a mainstream hobby for one, maybe two generations at most (and only in the last five years or so would it be considered anything close to mainstream.)  Video games haven’t gotten to the point where the user base is diffuse enough, and its history isn’t diverse enough to support all of the baggage of being an elitist, mouth-breathing train wreck of a support system. It certainly won’t take long—maybe in the next 20 years or so, when the people who played the first Pokemon game become grandparents—but it’s not quite there yet.

The Pledge: Video game fans are kinda dicks. Sports fans, car enthusiasts, and movie buffs are also dicks, but at least that stuff has been around for a while that they can get away with it. Video games need to grow up.

*I know the actual demographic for video games is much different: the average video game player is in early- to mid-thirties and is no longer simply a male audience. But I'm specifically talking about the enthusiasts who, by force of their fanaticism, are the face of video game culture. 

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Prosper

I, like a lot of nerds, enjoy Star Trek. So the passing of one of Star Trek's icons, Leonard Nimoy, is sad, if not exactly unexpected.

As far as Star Trek goes, though, I'm more of a Next Generation guy--it debuted when I was around 11, which is the sweet spot for watching dorky things in the 1980's. Unfortunately, DS9 bored me and by the time Voyager and Enterprise came around I just didn't have time to get into them, so my spectrum of Star Trek consumption is alarmingly limited.


That leaves, of course, the original series (TOS). I've always had mixed feelings about that series: on the one hand, it's an enjoyable series that does a pretty good job of producing entertaining, thoughtful plotlines centered in a sci fi universe, all while utilizing a fantastic set of characters and actors and establishing a rich foundation of backstory. On the other hand, the scripts were wildly uneven, the production values iffy at best, and it screams "60's" right in your face. Watching it can sometimes be a chore.

And yet, Star Trek is important. It is sometimes easy to forget the impact it had on our culture. It wasn't just a weekly hour-long nerd-wank session on a major network. Star Trek deliberately aimed at breaking barriers and pushing culture forward, all under the aegis of being sci-fi. You had one of the first African-American females as part of a main cast; you had an Asian who wasn't a martial arts expert or a coolie or Mickey Rooney; and even the inclusion of a Russian in the almost-hot Cold War of the late 60's was fairly important. (Thankfully, we had Klingons to act as stand-ins for the Russkies.) Add to that the fairly easy allegories that could be made using alien races as proxies for whatever social issue needed to be addressed, and stir in some decent writing and you can see why it had such an impact.

Well, maybe not so much. Expensive to make and with ratings that were modest at best (although it did exceptionally well in the lucrative young male demographic, a science that was just then gaining traction), it barely stayed on the air for three years before unceremoniously cancelled.And while Star Trek was innovative, it certainly wasn't the first to push boundaries by transplanting hot-button issues into science fiction; The Twilight Zone and other similar anthology programs were doing it a decade earlier.

But let's stop beating around the bush, here. Star Trek has stayed in our consciousness for a number of reasons, but one of them was the trio of characters (and their actors) that headed the show. William Shatner took James T. Kirk and made him into the able archetype of the action-oriented, aggressive captain and took exploring new galaxies to their logical conclusion. In addition, the logically-minded Spock, portrayed by Leonard Nimoy, and the cranky but diplomatic McCoy (DeForest Kelley), in combination with Kirk became an almost perfect triumvirate of personalities that many other television shows and movies copied.

It's easy to oversell it, of course. Star Trek took the brunt of a lot of jokes in its time, laughing all the way to the bank but never really being able to shake the whole reputation of being a nerdy, unpopular genre. It took decades of Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and a few generations of video games and role-playing acceptance before converting into an acceptable, mainstream cultural phenomenon.