Monday, April 7, 2014

Also, I'm not showering regularly. That's a playoffs thing, right?

In honor of the tradition in hockey where members of a team in the playoffs stop shaving, I've decided to do the same until I'm done all the marking for the course I'm teaching. That is all.

Later Days.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Friday Link Thinks: Go Rub a Monkey's Tummy with Your Head

All right, so the luster has gone off the Friday Quotations. So it goes. But let's try a new weekly feature out for a spin .Welcome to Friday Link Thinks, in which I choose five links that have come my way, and briefly talk about them. Yes, it's yet another "list of things" type post.

A bit of background: back way back, I realized that the largest collection of information on new online articles I had was what people were tweeting on my twitter feed. The downside, though, is that the people who tweet the most useful links also tend to be the people who tweet a few dozen times a day, and sorting through the riveting stories of how their breakfast is going and baffling in-jokes for what I actually wanted was becoming more a time-commitment than I was willing to make. So I counted my self quite lucky to stumble onto, an online ... service, I guess... which lets you plug your feeds into it, and strips those feeds for links. You could, for example, set it for facebook feeds and blog feeds, but I set it to my twitter. (Since it's a free service, I imagine that means it's mining all the data I submit to it. With Facebook, that brings up an interesting question--do I have a moral obligation not to provide the information my friends post? They're posting on Facebook, which means that some level of privacy is intended, and yet, they're already opening themselves up to Facebook data mining. But do I have any right to give that information to yet another party? Complicated.) And now, I have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to information. My bookmark pages are flooded, and so, I'm dealing with that flood a bit by posting some of them here. So without further ado, here's what's interesting yesterday (there's a day lag on creating the feed):

Gawker Bans Internet Slang by Andrew Beaujon. This piece grabbed my attention because, in the class I taught this term, the concept of internet linguistics, the words that we've created to communicate online, really got a lot of the students interested. And I've been on the look-out for articles with similar slants ever since. The issue here is obvious--by imposing strict grammar rules on the Gawker staff, editor Max Reed is drawing a firm line between his writers and the general internet public. Gawker-type sites get a lot of their readership from their projected persona, which is less a professional who keeps themselves separate, and more an enthused hobbyist of cool that the readership can relate to, so a memo like this is probably bad press, to say the least. It also points to the tension that exists between "proper" English and common netspeak.

The Guilt of Video-game Millionaires. by Simon Parkin. Obviously, the highest profile example of the indie "video-game millionaire" recently has been Dong Nguyen, the creator of Flappy Birds, which has been particularly interesting because he not only made a lot of money and ultimately removed the game from circulation, but also the subject of a lot of critiques that were basically centered around the idea that his game didn't deserve what it got, that it was derivative and deliberately addictive.  But I imagine Parkin would also be aware of this heartfelt post by Stanley Parable creator. Before I read this post, I'll admit I was a little callous to this issue; it feels a little "poor little rich boy." But Wreden does a great job in humanizing his position. All of this suggests that people are still very enthusiastic of the indie scene, but there's also a blowback against those some feel haven't "earned" their success. That the creators feel the same way maybe isn't surprising. As the original tweeter noted, one of the issues here is that they are all uneasy about attaching great monetary value to their labor. There's also a general awareness for some, I think, that their success is based a bit on luck, on their app trending at just the right moment. It must be a very uncomfortable position; if you're an established artist, you can rest on the idea that your skill has been affirmed. If you win the lottery, you can be grateful to whatever deity of choice that your chance came up. But the uncertainty under which held in your case--that must be very unsettling.

Selling Candy to Babies by Richard Stanton, Polygon. In-app purchases are "as of December 2013, responsible for 92% of App Store revenue." That's insane. More importantly, that means it's in Apple's own interest NOT to crunch down on unfair or unethical IAP practices. It's not just a kids-game issue, obviously, but it's interesting to see an article focus on that side. Granted, it's a bit of "youth culture panic" when you look at an issue from that perspective, but kids games in general don't get enough attention in mainstream game press (both because children games are generally on app-related stuff, which gets less coverage--at least, in the places I look--and because the game industry in general is focused on an older market these days). Issues like games that are deliberately avoiding being categorized as children's games to avoid following IAP children's games rules but still clearly marketed towards children are clearly exploitative. From one children's developer invested in IAP: "If IAP isn't allowed for kids' products then the economics are such that very few developers will... be able to make amazing entertainment for kids on mobile devices. That's a very sad scenario for all concerned." Oh, go rub a monkey's tummy with your head. As if developers are suddenly going to give up on the children's market as a profit maker if IAPs are more strictly enforced. Another case where internet law is lagging behind what's needed. I can't remember exactly where, but I think I read recently that the F2P industry is financed largely by 0.01% of its players--I wonder if that's a sustainable model?

THIS ARTIST IS PLAYING ‘CIVILIZATION’ OUTSIDE OF THE WHITNEY EVERY DAY by Rhett Jones, Animal. I was recently reading Grant Tavinor's The Art of Videogames, and one of the things he discusses near the end of the book is the claim that the avant-garde has gone too far, that art has moved too far from mass appeal, or anything relateable. I push back against that theory, because I don't think art should have to be popular to justify its existence. But something like this... I'll admit, it sets my teeth on edge. Granted, the point is that context defines art; if Diego Leclery was playing Civilization at home instead of on the street outside of a museum, it wouldn't be art at all. But that point was made very nicely by Duchamp 97 years ago, and it's going to take more than that to impress me in the here and now. Jones essentially acknowledges as much with his use of Ricard, but... eh. In a lot of ways, I'd accept this more easily if it was framed as philosophy instead of art, although I realize that on a certain level, that's hairsplitting. And there is a point to be made about the nature of videogames and creation too--when Jones notes that Ricard criticized artists getting too rich too fast, it's hard not to think back to that earlier Parkin piece. Who decides what activity with games should be valued? At the same time, though, the article's opening really rubs me the wrong way: "Art is easy." Again, rub the monkey's tummy. If art is easy, you're doing it wrong.

Is the Oculus Rift sexist? (plus response to criticism). by dana boyd. boyd is making some very complicated claims about sex and technology here. Of course, there's a clear sense of striking while iron's hot--the obvious reason to publish this article now is that news of the Rift's sale to Facebook is very much in the public eye at the moment (and boyd's profile isn't too low either, given the recent release of her book "It's Complicated."). I'll admit, I haven't been paying attention to the Rift. There's a part of me that's not quite of the "if it ain't broke don't fix it" mindset, but it's certainly of the mindset that I don't want to do anything new until I've exhausted what I've already got. Which in media terms, translates into "why build something new when we're not using what we've got to its full potential?". Which is a silly way of looking at things, since we're never going to develop anything to its full potential, since "full potential" is an abstract ideal and we live in a real world. But if there's a device that works poorly with women on a physiological level that's getting a lot of attention, then, yeah, that's an issue that needs more attention in itself. And I'll wager Facebook is going to be very concerned if the big toy it just bought turns out to alienate a large percentage of its user base.

Well, that's a lot of words, so I'll call this an end, even though it is no longer Friday.

Later Days!

Monday, March 31, 2014

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Sundays of the Soul

Has it really been a whole week since the last post? Well, we're here now. Let's make the most of it.

I know several colleagues of mine who use Sunday either as a day for catching up on all the socializing they had to put to one side during the week, or to catch up on the writing they couldn't do because of all the other work that the week demanded. For me, the best approach is something more mellow; I like to use my Sundays to recharge the batteries, so to speak. Here, then, in best point form, is how I've spent the day thus far:
--woke up at 1ish. I am a lazy bones on the weekend.

--Did a bit of creative writing--833 words, to be precise--and man, it's been a long time since I've tried any of that. The page is essentially a bit of dialogue between one of the main characters of my Twin Powers series, probably from the third book. In true crazy person writing style, as I may have mentioned before, I wrote a novel in 2007, and, unable to find any publisher or agent willing to read it, occasionally plot out sequels to it in my head. I figured it was about time I got some of that out of my head onto paper. We'll see if anything ever comes of it.

--Went for a run. I've been jogging since... let's see... started University in 2001. Started jogging after my third year of university--that's 2004, then. That makes nine years in total, which means pretty much the only things in my life I've done more constantly is the schooling itself and vegetarianism. Of late, though, it's been more thinking about jogging than actually jogging, and sadly, it's starting to show. My lungs have gotten much worse since 2004, which limits my top speeds considerably, and my sags have sags. But the weather may finally be on an upswing, so there may be more jogging in the near future.

--read the first six or so essays in the essay collection "What Is a Superhero?", edited by Robin S. Rosenberg and Peter Coogan. It's a strange book, in that the essays are very, very short. There's essentially time to establish the basic case, a bit of context, then that essay's over, and it's time for the next one. So far, the ideas that seem the most interesting to me is Clare Pitkethly's essay looking at the superhero as an articulation of difference, and Alex Boney's claim that the originary, 1930s superheroes speak to the same modernist anxieties that the modernist writers addressed.

--watched an episode of Banshee. I'm not sure if it's because I wasn't paying attention, or the show's getting sloppier, but a plot twist at the end (it's episode six of season two) really confused me. Banshee's always been a weird show. It bends over backwards to convince you that the protagonist is a Very Sympathetic Character, by always making him right in pretty much every situation, even as the town's sheriff/master criminal. I think a Shield approach would have been more effective, where your sympathies aren't always 100% with Vic. Then again, it is a show that depicts more breasts than an episode of Game of Thrones, so there are a lot of problems going on here beyond just an unlikeable by virtue of being too likeable protagonist.

It's a good, low-key day, in other words. Just what I needed, after the onslaught of guest speakers and teaching. Why, tomorrow, I may even feel revitalized enough to work on the dissertation.

Later Days.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Academics writing fiction: yea or nay?

I feel like taking a blog day--a day where I just write a bunch of posts, and feel like I achieved something creatively. Or something. At this point of the day, it's probably going to turn into just one post, so I'll shout out the idea for the others and hope I get back to them some day: A series of Book Triads to catch up on my book review backlog! A description of what I thought about Uncharted! A post on modular story telling in Dragon Age, vs. the more linear JRPG!

To get to this post,  I've noticed that when I get really into a book, my writing actually takes on a bit of the author's style; I start thinking of weird puns when I'm reading Spider Robinson, and really depressing fantasy situations when I read Stephen Donaldson, for example. Back when I was doing creative writing on a regular basis, that bothered me--how much of what I was writing was my own ideas, and how much was just me aping someone else's style. I imagine I go so far as to start thinking in that writing style, just a bit. In that sense, the whole thing can be explained away in terms of technics and epiphylogenesis, that we are changed by the tools we're using, and books are just another possible tool through which that change occurs. You could even push that idea further, and argue that

The reason I bring all that up is that I certainly feel as if, for the moment, I'm writing not another author's voice, but in a character's voice, the lead of Jo Walton's "Among Others"--very reserved, formal, and matter-of-fact, but with a clear passion for what she's (I'm?) talking about. I was certain going into the book that Walton was an academic sci/fi fantasy writer, and I had a whole section lined up where I'd discuss the role of the academic who writes fiction on the side, which it turns out is not the case at all. Well, I'm going to do that anyway, since that's what I want to talk about today. It's been in my mind for a while, going at least as far back to a recent announcement that a professor in my English department, has released her own fantasy book, The Stone Boatmen, by Sarah Tolmie. I haven't read it yet, to be honest, but from what I know about Tolmie's work, it'll certainly be a book full of ideas worth reading.

The English academic turned writer fits with a larger category of critics who try their hands at whatever thing they are criticizing. It happens often enough that it's a bit of a trope, and it leads to the stereotype that the critic is someone who failed at the art, and so criticizes others. I know of plenty of people who started blogs on comic books, then went on to write their own; plenty of game journalists who went on to write videogames. In fact, regarding games in particular, there's an enormous pressure for academics to not just write about games but to make their own--I should know, because I usually feel like I'm under it, being ground away.

The trick behind academics writing fiction is that it's a shift in audience. It's hard to go from writing to a select, jargon-heavy, elite (and we have gone to great lengths to make ourselves appear elite) specialization to writing for the mass market. There's a push to be innovative, to craft something that reflects our theories and revitalizes the genre, and sometimes, the big ideas get in the way of the story at hand. The best example I can think of is a YA fantasy book that I can't remember the title of, but remember it was written by a professor of linguistics, and showed it too, as the syntax was very different from the usual subject-predicate that English abides by. It was a neat idea, but since the thoughts and action were written in more straight forward English, I found myself skipping past the dialogue, which almost never happens under my particular reading style.

There's plenty of examples of doing it right as well, of course.The obvious Canadian example is Margaret Atwood, who has made quite a name and reputation of herself writing a brand of Canadian lit theory as well as sci-fi and other genres.My favorite example is China Mieville, though his PhD is in political studies (specifically, International Relations, with a dissertation on Marxism and international law); his fantasy writing is chock full of ideas that aren't really found anywhere else in fantasy (especially when he started writing), but are still good fantasy stories. And of course, there's a whole branch of English studies devoted to teaching writing, to mass market and otherwise. We call it "creative writing." That's not quite what I'm talking about though--rather than people who have spent their lives training themselves and others to write for any audience, I'm thinking of the professor who spent their life studying something like gender in the romance fiction genre, then woke up one day and thought "you know, I could do that."

I wish I could think of more examples of what I'm talking about. I know Umberto Eco's "Foucault's Pendulum" is highly acclaimed, but I could never finish it; a parody of conspiracy theory thrillers turns into everything I hate about conspiracy theory thrillers very quickly, and I never had the time or patience to stick around and see if turned into anything else. I know Julia Kristeva has written detective fiction, and I occasionally search for a translated copy with a sort of fascinated terror. I know a lot of drama professors have written plays and star in other performances (I think it's much more of a requirement for them, and it might help my game-phobia to think of the pressure in game studies in the same light) and people like Tomson Highway have done a lot of great work in that regard, but that's again drifting from target.

The point I'm trying to make, and I'm less sure of now, since I don't really have a lot of evidence to back it up, is that fantasy and sci-fi academic authors have a bit of an easier time spinning out fiction that actually works as a story than other academic writers. I think it's because both genres are about the ideas over the characters a bit more than fiction traditionally tends to be, and lend themselves to weird expression in that regard. I also think that the traditional denigration of fantasy and sci-fi as lower forms of fiction work in their favor, in that there's less pressure to do something that's "high literature," and the respective writers feel more free to just tell a story of their liking.

Long time readers are free to call BS on that theory, given my own self-interest, that I've written my own fantasy novel that lingers on the digital shelf, to be revisited and starred at longingly once a year, then routinely rejected by agents and publishers alike without a reading. My own story isn't particularly academic or high concept fantasy--in fact, magic is barely involved at all, to the point where it's more a character study than anything else (much like Walton's book, come to think of it, albeit with a much more traditionally fantasy scope in turns of story progression). I like to think there's room, then, for the fantasy-based academic writer. In a way, the connection makes my relative failure in each seem somehow more acceptable.

My rationalizations are legion.

Later Days.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.

If you're new to the segment, this is me, a man relatively unfamiliar with all music that exists, choosing a random song form youtube, commenting on it, then following whatever song by a different artist that youtube suggests to listen to next. This time round, our musical journey begins with the piece suggested at Rock Paper Shotgun's round-up of videogame news.

Architecture in Helsinki -- I Might Survive.  Oh, this is entirely too chipper for me at the moment. And a little too discoteque. You know that montage at the beginning of Season Two of Venture Bros where Doc Venture is at a rave? (Of course you do.) This could be playing at that rave. And yet... it's kind of catchy. "I'd rather be with you than alive." Yeesh. That's a depressing sort of sentiment for such an upbeat song. It's a contrast that works, though. And damned if I wasn't tapping my toe with a stupid grin on my face by the end of it.

Chvrches covers Artic Monkey's "Do I Want to Know?" for Like a Version, a cover channel, I guess. This would probably have more impact if I knew Chvrches or Arctic Monkeys, besides vaguely recognizing then name. I like the female singer. Otherwise... it feels like a pretty typical love song duet thing. I get a sense I should have a stronger opinion of this song than I do, but all I can muster is polite "that was nice." And the firm opinion that the phrase "tomorrow day" is silly.

Of course, now we are trapped in a cover loop, with San Cisco's cover of Daft Punk's "Get Lucky." They sound New Zealand-ish.  But they are Australian. The one thing I got out of Flight of the Concords was a smug feeling that's inevitably wrong that I could tell the difference between Australian and New Zealand accents. Anyway, this song was everywhere about a year ago; I had no idea it was Daft Punk who played it, so that's a point in the musical education chart right there. I kind of like the use of bongo drums here. And I like the song. It's most distinct from the original in its non-chorus parts. Oh, but the "isk isk isk" at the end is... weird.

Next, Chvrches covers Arctic Monkeys' "Do I Wanna Know?".   I can't say I like the heavy percussion beat here. Very distracting. I'm vaguely familiar with the original song, and while this band seems likable enough, I think I prefer that version. It's very early twenties "dating is scary" and as an early thirties, it's embarrassing how much I can relate. Actually, most things are vaguely embarrassing re: relationships in the early thirties. I can vaguely see off in the distance the age where I'm old enough not to give a damn and not be embarrassed about anything, and I look forward to it with unguarded desire.

The Jezabels covers Journey's "Don't Stop Believing." My rule is that I can only select bands that I haven't already selected in a particular musical journey (journey being the term I use to describe these musical posts, not the band Journey, which have, in somewhat bad timing, just shown up). But with covers, that eliminates two sets of bands. So by my own rules, after the last song, for example, I couldn't select anything Chvrches has done, OR anything Arctic Monkey has done--or any other Arctic Monkeys songs. That limits my choices a fair bit.  Hence being stuck in cover town. I guess this particular feature, Like A Version, features a lot of local talent, which means Australian talent in this case. So this is "Don't Stop Believing"? Huh. I thought the song was called "Midnight Train." Don't laugh at me.

Next cover: HAIM's cover of Sheryl Crow's "Strong Enough."  The pre-song discussion is very endearing. I also cannot twirl a drumstick (or pencil, my equivalent) like Tommy Lee. The last few bands have blurred together a bit, but they stand out a bit. I like it. The electric organ is a little heavy in places, but the rest of it is good. The song itself is an interesting thing, gender conception-wise. But it takes on cool new shades when performed by an all girl band. I'm going to have to remember to come back to some of these folk in a non-cover capacity.

Miley Cyrus -- Jolene.  I thought I was out of the cover depths, but this is a cover too, isn't it? Because of my general musical ignorance, Cyrus is someone I know of more than than know, music-wise, wrecking-ball and twerking sessions aside. Her performance is... fine. This song is so clearly Parton's, though--it's like I can feel her lurking under Cyrus' performance, occasionally bursting to the surface. It's funny that this song actually crossed my path recently--there was an episode of Dan Harman's podcast a few weeks ago where they discuss it at great length, and how there's no real male equivalent, a song where a dude asks another dude to please not sleep with his girlfriend.

Avicii --Hey Brother.   It's a country-pop sort of thing. Is that a sort of thing? The vocals are by a bluegrass singer Dan Tyminski (uncredited) and the song is from Avicii, who is a Swedish DJ and producer. The image association keeps sliding between inspirational and weird: lots of basketball moves, a kid facing the rain, a guy getting hit in slow motion by a snowball. A guy in a suit breaking a pencil. Popcorn popping. A woman eats an olive. It's fine, but it strikes me as one of those things that's been produced to look like there's more depth to it than there is. Wikipedia tells me that the official music video version (as opposed to the lyric version I'm seeing) has a Vietnam War video, which is at least trying to say something, I guess.

OneRepublic -- Counting Stars. That is the fakest alligator ever. The plot seems to be a religious meeting of some sort, with the singers elsewhere in a run-down alligator infested building. (The basement?) The preacher riles up the crowd, seems to do a "release this woman, Stan" kind of thing. The croc gets its exploration on. The unpossessed are inspired to breakdance, as you do. And the dance does damage on the floor below. A man falls through, the band looks up. Seems like they've got a Chekov's Gator violation.

And rounding up this installment of A Musical Journey, we have Capital Cities -- Safe and Sound. Oh, that's this song. It's got a "history of media/music" thing going on, with black and white bits, ball room costumes, flapper dressed, disco, and such. It looks like one of those videos that would be a lot of fun to make, actually. There's not really much connection between the lyrics and the video, but both are light, simple things. The song is big in Germany, apparently. I could see that. Apparently, the whole thing was meant to be a reflection of the history of the Los Angeles Theatre, which I did not recognize at all.

We are at an end. We voyaged through the valley of the cover song, and came out the other end, in a land of alt pop. I have learned nothing from this experience.

Later Days.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Movie Buff--Clockwise (1986)

I would have called it "Clockwork," although I suppose that's too close to Clockwork Orange. John Cleese plays Brian Stimpson, a school headmaster who wants nothing more than to make it to Norwich on time to deliver his speech as chair of the annual Headmasters' Conference. But he gets on the left train instead of the right train, and it's all down hill (and through dirt roads, fields, and monasteries) from there.

I imagine that if I pored through TVTropes a bit, I could find one that directly names what's going on in this film, and it'd be called "one misplaced marble" or something like that; in a variation of the "for the lack of a horseshoe, the war was lost" saying, a minor misunderstanding spirals out of control, and such stuff is bread and butter for the comedy genre of the period. (Found it--they call it "The Wrong Turn at Albuquerque.") The plot sets this mistake up to its largest possible dramatic effect by making Stimpson a man who orders his life around punctuality, to the point where everyone--his students, his co-workers, his wife--thinks he's taking himself a bit too seriously, and he never stops ticking long enough to hear them. If the film was done today, there would have to be a Moment where Stimpson realizes the error of his tightly-wound ways, and vows to let life happen a bit more. Because this is an 80s movie, and British, no such moment needs to happen, and the film is the better for it. What we get instead is a wonderful moment where Stimpson holds off all comers just by being a blustery headmaster, then collapses when he looks at his wife, looks at the school girl on stage with him, and finally realizes what he's done.

Sorry, that line sounded more ominous/inappropriate relationship-ish than it was. To back things up a bit, after missing his train, losing his speech, and failing to catch up with his wife, Stimpson stumbles onto one of his students, 18 year old Laura Wisely (Sharon Maiden), and, in a decision that in retrospect was perhaps not his best, commandeers her and her car to drive him to Norwich. Unbeknownst to him, she's eager for the excuse, as she just had a row with the teacher she's secretly been seeing, and run off with her parents' car without asking, and no license. So of course, in short order, Stimpson is suspected of auto theft, and running away with a minor. (Also stealing a man's clothes and fleeing a crime scene, but he actually does those things.)

Maiden does fine as Wisely, and, again, it's a sign of the times that there's no real push to create any sort of relationship between them. She's a kid who's confused about her relationship and worried about her parents' car; he is a man struggling against the universe to reach an appointment. Their goals temporarily align, and Wisely eventually becomes invested in getting him to the appointment too, but never out of anything than minor respect and admiration. While the other characters perform their roles--the music teacher/Laura's lover wanders around wondering if he's been replaced in a vaguely comical (yet also kind of gross) way, and there's three old women that get pulled in and wander around after Stimpson's wife sees him with Laura while she's driving them to an appointment from the old folk's home--the movie is pretty much all Cleese. And to the surprise of no one, he does a good job. Unlike the last film I watched, the mainly meh Arthur, I actually laughed a few times at this one, which is probably a good sign for a comedy. He's comically authoritarian when he needs to be, and blunderingly oblivious when he needs to be that. There's a point in the script where he basically needs to be comatose with despair in order to allow Laura to make some very questionable choices on his behalf, and it should be a ridiculously stupid moment, but Cleese sells that too. It's a great performance.

If you want to go the high-falutin' route, this is a film about the deconstruction of authority. For much of the film, Stimpson's faith is so certain in the system and his role as administrator within it that he assumes he can justify any decision towards his goal and that system will carry him through it. It's important, then, in the understated, British way, that the low point in his fortunes is followed by Laura taking control and putting things on track (well, sort of).  And I know I mentioned this above, but man, does Cleese nail that reaction to Stimpson's wife. At this point, (spoilers) Stimpson has made it to the speech, and people have started to show up to derail him: the conference organizers, Laura's parents, the police. And he stands up to each of them, going full-headmaster, complaining about tardiness and browbeating them into taking a seat. But as soon as the wife enters--and this is only the third scene they've shared in the entire film, with the second being where she sees him without him seeing her--you can see him falter, and realize all the implications of what he's done in the last few hours, and how there's more at stake than a speech.

So yeah--it's not a great film, but it's a good comedy, and it avoids the sentimentality that some comedies *cough* Arthur *cough* can't seem to get around.

Later Days.