Friday, November 14, 2008


I got an email recently mentioning that my latest utilities bill is available online, desperate for attention like a small dog for petting or a pretzel for butter (the analogy is not perfect). "We are happy to inform you..." it begins. I'm sure you are.

I find this kind of thing very amusing (its quality as sarcasm fodder is unsurpassed). I mentioned previously my fondness for the incongruous and this is an excellent example. The rest of the missive is every bit as genially vague, dancing around its true purpose like a landmine. Not once does it use the word 'bill' in the body of the email, preferring instead to speak of 'account information' and 'view the balance'; 'payment' hides at the bottom.

Still, it's that opening line that really gets me. What, exactly, is the rationale here? that I will open the email and the thought-process will be something like this: "Oh...a bill...but wait, they're happy to tell me about it. That takes the sting out. I guess I'm happy too, and will pay this in good cheer and with great haste"? No. No one would think this. No one would think that any one would think this. Bills are not a happy experience. I am not happy. They who tell me about the bill are not, in fact, happy. The computer that actually generated this email and sent it to me is not happy. The threat of legal action would be much more effective at motivating me to pay up on anything in danger of coming due. To act as though this anonymous auto-generated reminder of an ugly duty is something deserving of an attempt at a sunny smile is, frankly, absurd, if not outright insulting.

It is also tragically predictable - we Americans love our euphemisms, as I think I mentioned previously, and this is just a more bizarre example of our unending quest to make displeasing things more palatable. I find euphemisms fascinating (this is true of many things), even when they're insulting my intelligence, in large part because I have never quite understood their function, or at least their efficacy. A euphemism is nothing more than a lousy disguise - if the disguise is too good, meaning is obscured and communication fails, which is problematic. Sure, there are cases where this can be manipulated to a legitimate end (talking over someone's head springs to mind). But there are many examples where everyone sees through the disguise, and yet desires its retention; why?

How about that profanity? The excellent science-fiction show Battlestar Galactica is a good example - pretty much every curse word in the book makes the occasional appearance and is not censored, with the glaring exception of the F-bomb, which is replaced by 'Frak.' Boy, that makes it all better. 'Frak' gets used a lot, and in every context that its real-world counterpart might be found, and I have to point out: it's obvious what word is intended. They're using all these other profanities that we know and, er, know, and then they drop in this slightly-altered version of the King of Kurse, the Sultan of Swear, and somehow this is supposed to make it more acceptable for broadcast. But why? If we're all thinking the real word when they speak its substitute, how is anyone 'helped' or societal standards preserved? What is so dangerously powerful about the sound of the word such that it's okay to plant it in everyone's mind but not okay to apply it to everyone's ears? I don't question that there is a difference, yet I do not understand it. Meanwhile the coherence and believability of the BSG world is actually weakened because the lingo is otherwise the same, and when the exception makes its appearance, it jars.

Making up words is always a hazardous business, especially if you go only halfway and especially if you just make up profanity. It's really hard to do this without the result sounding silly and contrived (several otherwise-decent Star Wars novels have fallen prey to this phenomenon). If you're going to go this route it might as well be with tweaked versions of the usual suspects, these being the safest bet...but do they really accomplish the intended purpose? Frankly this desire to hide something in plain sight, hardly limited to the realms of offensive language and monetary transactions, strikes me as a mild but universal hypocrisy. But what are we even kidding ourselves about?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The weight of St. John's alone...

Among the books I read on assignment in high school was Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. I hated it. I read the book again just recently out of a sense of both decency and morbid curiosity, and while I did not love it - it is not a tale that admits of being loved - I did, and do, respect it. Hatred of any book, especially a work of fiction, is for me a very rare thing, and as I look back now through the haze of too much time passed I am pretty sure I must chalk it up to 'not getting' the book. I think I better understand it now. Introductions that explain what the book is about are very helpful in this regard; sort of like putting who Pip's benefactor is on the dust jacket of Great Expectations. Honestly, does not the very idea of an 'Introduction' suggest supplying the preliminaries, with the intention of allowing intimacy to take its natural course? But I digress. I would've appreciated the book better even had I not reminded myself of all pertinent plot points, and the way to understand them, before turning to page one. I always knew that other people might have to reread books later in their life in order to derive more meaning from their contents, but I never quite believed it must apply to me as well until this moment. It seems unlikely that there is one age after which one may with justice say "Oho, all the mysteries of the universe are now open to me and my understanding is complete." The logical consequence is that, with any work that pretends to be more than a popular taste of the times, one must pay it due attention in each stage of life, if the true value is to be grasped.

Well, that's a relief. And here I was worried because I'd already read all books the first time. Especially after I finished all the videogames.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The tide grows ever more relentless

I have a bone to pick with the release of new videogames of quality, and that is that I'm always too busy playing the old stuff to tackle the new. The classic game of catch-up; of course I play this with all other forms of entertainment too, but those cases don't really bother me. I got into the videogame scene back in the days when the Super Nintendo was already well established; not very long afterward I became attuned to the gaming scene - and to a lesser extent history - and it all went downhill from there.

The reasons have always been two, the first economical - until recently I got videogame systems only several years into their life cycle, when the prices had dropped enough that I (or, more typically, someone else) could buy them without breaking the bank. To be an early adopter is to spend lavishly, often enough with little reward other than the pride of early adoption, on which I place little worth. On the software side of the issue, new games are also costly - fifty bucks is a lot to spend on one piece of entertainment when one is on a budget, especially when that experience may only last six or eight hours. As with my first foray into videogames (albiet less of a timing issue), the hardware starts the job and the software finishes it.

When I made the first exception to my standard behavior and picked up a Nintendo Wii on launch day, there still remained the other downside inherent to keeping abreast of the videogame curve, namely that there wasn't much worth playing. Another benefit of waiting until there is an established shelf life is that when one takes the plunge, there is a lot of quality material to choose from and enjoy, rarely if ever the case on Day One. Of course, on Day One of the Wii's launch there was something well worth playing (and promising to last a while), namely the latest Legend of Zelda title, of which I did buy a copy. There I was with a brand spankin' new Nintendo system, one of the first in the country, and a hot new iteration of one of my favorite franchises, and because I have poor planning and cannot in good conscience play more than one game at a time, I proceeded to leave Zelda in its shrink-wrap for the next couple months while I finished up Okami. Admittedly, it was Okami. This brings me to reason two.

Reason Two: I am one of those unfortunates who wants to play as many great games as he can. As I like many genres and there have been a surprising number of excellent titles over twenty-plus years, this presents a significant challenge. I don't like to move on from one system to its successor until I have exhausted the worthwhile experiences on the outdated model, and the truth is that even if the current were to stop flowing and I had all the time in the rest of my life to play the goods from the past, it still might not be enough. Meanwhile the hits do keep coming. This is why I'm still playing the Playstation 2 and have no plans to upgrade any time soon. A couple of years ago, as the launch of the PS3 solidified, I made the mistake of going out to Best Buy and Wal-Mart with the intention of purchasing all of the Greatest Hits / Player's Choice (budget-priced classic) titles in which I had an interest. The rationale was that the Playstation 2 and Gamecube had seen virtually all their best games, and I'd better snap up the ones I hadn't played yet before they vanished from stores. Whoops. I amassed quite a hefty stack, and the results were predictable - as I worked through the stack its sheer girth paralyzed me psychologically from getting or playing anything else (more recent titles, for instance), and meanwhile additional great game after game continued to be released, such that now, having conquered the stack (or The Stack, as I like to call it) and supposedly thrown off such foolish impulses, I could easily go out and build another of equal or even greater dimensions. It's probably best that I don't have the money for this.

Admittedly it is better to suffer from a deluge of entertainment than a dearth, and yet it does make me slightly sad at times - it is nice to feel current and up-to-date once in a while, having the same experiences everyone else is, and with the very rare exception of games I absolutely cannot wait to play, the only times I've experienced anything New lately has been because that particular title has a cooperative mode that I can share with friends who don't share my constraints and have indulged. When something comes out that I'd really like to experience, something I've looked forward to for a long time, but can't justify splurging on while it's fresh, it's a bit discouraging. Those who are not in the know might argue that I should just give up my hopeless venture, forgo the retro, and wholeheartedly embrace what's current; it is true that this is probably the only way I could ever stay above the tide instead of being swamped by it (this season just makes things worse), and yet to argue this is to miss the point. It is not that I play all these for the sake of satisfying some kind of poorly-thought-out completest urge, although I have those in abundance. Rather I believe that each and every great game has something unique and invigorating to offer, something heartfelt and sincere which is worthy of being experienced, in exactly the same way that a good book or movie or TV show or piece of music does. Life is experience, and in my opinion it is worthwhile to try and have as many of the good ones as possible. This is as legitimate in the virtual realm (a medium as powerful and full of potential as any other) as it is in the 'real world.' I take stories where I can get 'em.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


I mean, I got so caught up talking about F-Zero that I forgot to mention the one single aspect of it that most prompted me to get angry in writing! I'll fix that. This is the diabolical track of the 'Lightning' subset known as 'Half Pipe.' In a game full of spectacular-looking levels this is one of the most striking (the environment is called 'Lightning' for a reason) and for those who are truly prepared it can actually be adrenaline-soaked fun. For those who are not, it's like sadism in a box. It's called 'Half Pipe' for a reason, too. Imagine a tunnel with abundant (and tight) twists and turns, then shear off the top. Physics are in play, ladies and gentlemen. The vehicles make use of hovering units so it's possible to drive along the walls of the half-pipe and this can help navigate those nasty turns, but it also makes it that much easier to slide just a bit too far and pop right off the edge. If you really know your course you can take shortcuts this way, blasting off the lip and over the abyss to land in a section of the pipe later on, and this happened to me once by accident. I would not risk it on purpose. This track is the destroyer of the weak. There's another course in the next cup that looks more dangerous, being nothing but mostly-parallel lines of very thin platform the entire time with no rails except for about two seconds, but that one is at least mostly flat and straight. 'Half Pipe' devours souls. Definitely the track to break out for those who've never played the game before.

I also forgot to mention in the posting to which this is an addendum that I'm going to try restricting the time I allow myself to write these posts. This will force me either to be concise or to end in mid


I am deeply dissatisfied with that last posting (my 'comeback,' if you will), and was so as I was writing it; this much in the same way that I was dissatisfied with many of my previous postings and for much the same reason, which is that they got out of hand.

What tends to happen is this: I sit down with a distinct idea in my head of what I wish to write and - to a less distinct extent - how I want to write it. I also usually entertain some silly ideas about how long it's going to take me to transfer this idea from inside my brain onto the digital page. The moment I begin writing, that little control is lost and the process takes on a life - and a set of rules - of its own. I blame this on a lack of planning and a passion for rhetoric; I get caught up in the flow of semi-free writing and overweighted eloquence, and can only watch helplessly as the lines fill up and the clock ticks down. The longer I write, determined to conclude the thought but unable to bring that end about, the more frustrated I become and the more cohesion and style break down, until at last I'm left with a disappointing treatise and a lot of anger at time and effort wasted. This is not the way it should be.

Look, it's even happening now - the few thoughts I had led naturally to other thoughts and of course I had to fill in the blanks and smooth the transitions. But what I'm writing here is a blog, not a column, and I have neither the desire nor the time for substantial editing. I'll try to cut the flow off at the source.

It's not easy, that's for sure. It feels like there is a broken connection between mind and fingers, such that what is concise and pithy in potentia becomes bloated and overly verbose in actu (yes, no posting is complete without superfluous Aristotle references) I'm beginning to think that I made the mistake of surfing the wave of praise my tutors bestowed on my writing in college, resting on my laurels instead of pushing myself to become even better - this may explain why I never won any actual laurels, as opposed to others whose native writing talent may have been less (or not; how should I know?) but who no doubt were more invested in arcane concepts such as 'revision' and 'rewriting' (and probably 'research,' but that's another matter). Still, it's brevity more than quality with which I am primarily concerned, at least right now.

Writing more than asked for has always been something I do, and how - I remember a short story assignment in high school where the page count was maybe six or seven and my story was fourteen, and this is par for the course. I used to sneer off the very concept of a page limit, asserting (mentally at least) that a good writer wrote until he was done, and that was the right length. I realize now how arrogant this was, and also naive. Page count requirements always seemed to me more to be targeted towards under-performing students who would rather write less, but the truth is it works both ways. The ability to condense writing into a certain length is every bit as important as the ability to fill out what would otherwise be too short; indeed it is probably of even more value, requiring one to hone and trim excess poundage rather than add what might well be unnecessary fat.

Truth be told, my writing needs a personal trainer - someone to whip it into a lean, mean fighting machine that can take on all comers, rather than the merely decent contender it is now. Eloquence and vocabulary I have in spades; syntax and grammar are at my beck and call like good little peons; perhaps there is even a smattering of style, absorbed from the overflow of the truly skilled writers I have been privileged enough to read and then rip off. Brevity remains to be mastered (although not alone). If I can learn to be concise and simultaneously worth reading I'll really feel like I've gotten somewhere. Two things are certain: it won't be with this posting (long in composition once again), and the only way to bring it about is, as with writing generally and everything else, to practice.

I guess I'd better get cracking.

Friday, November 7, 2008

I'm back, baby!

Tuesday's events made me happy (all things considered, it was a pretty great day), but I hope when January 20th rolls around I'll be in personal circumstances more conducive to celebration; it seems like champagne, jazz music and good company should be involved.

I have an interesting relationship with that elite class of videogames that includes titles such as the original Pokemon Pinball, Devil May Cry 3 and (most pertinently) F-Zero GX. On the one hand, I respect their general excellence, and superb delivery of their respective gameplay styles. On the other, they make me angry enough to punch a goat. If, that is, I could just get mine back. It's not just that they are all extremely difficult games...actually, it is just that they are all extremely difficult games, but if they weren't so fun otherwise I probably wouldn't resubmit myself to their punishment.

Pokemon Pinball at least is only infuriatingly brutal if you want it to be - the process of catching 'em all may not appeal to all comers, who would likely find the game an entertaining pinball experience with a superb integration of the Pokemon theme. Just wait until you're going for that second evolution and trying desperately to shoot the ball up one specific lane where the final item remains to be collected, only to watch a) the time run out, b) the ball vanish down the gutter, or c) the time run out and the ball vanish down the gutter. This may not sound all that frustrating, but if you understood the work involved to get even to that point, it might be clearer why the temptation is very great to knock a hole in the wall using the Game Boy. Fortunately the GBA sequel is a lot more forgiving. Devil May Cry 3 needs less discussion, bringing its hammer down only during the ridiculously challenging boss battles.

F-Zero GX is in a class by itself, offering the highest concentration of fury-to-playtime of pretty much any game I have EVER played. It's amazing - as though the title finds a way to tap directly into the primal rage centers of my brain, and then provides incessant stimulus. If it weren't stellar arcade racing, I'd toss it out the window, then drop an anvil on it, and perhaps an elephant if the zoo would go along (if they needed convincing I'd just make them play the game). How does this work, you ask. The thing about F-Zero GX is that it offers no mercy. Ever. Nothing in this game comes easily and - with very few exceptions - nothing in the game comes even with significant effort. It takes absolutely herculean effort to triumph over the basics, and then you make the mistake of trying the same thing on harder difficulties. This is my current dilemma, which I blame on my brother. Motivated by his obnoxiously-heroic example, I have recently gone back to the game with the intention of unlocking various things I never got around to (i.e. lost patience with/doubted ability concerning) back when it came out. This involves defeating monstrous challenges, but also the joy of remastering the challenges I beat before because I've gotten rusty.

This is actually a practical necessity - what makes F-Zero GX so difficult is that, at least in the beginning you are racing against the track as much as the other racers (all 29 of them). F-Zero GX is a very, very fast racing game, which is part of what makes it so exhilarating but also what makes it so exasperating, the tracks being designed to maximize the consequent danger. The futuristic motif makes for lots of interesting and visually-arresting track designs, most of which are a blast to play, but they're also as unforgiving as it gets. Not only is it easy to fail to place, but one must also avoid falling off the course AND depleting the vehicle's energy bar. In Mario Kart there's a Lakitu 'enemy' that will save you and place you back on the track should you fall off, with only time lost. There is no such luxury in F-Zero (except in multiplayer as an option), and when you fall off the track or explode, that's it. You get lives with which to restart that particular track, but a very limited number. Imagine tackling a Grand Prix cup and defeating three (or even four) of the five tracks, only to plunge over a tricky edge on the next...and then to do it again...and again...and again, until all lives are used up and you have to start the whole cup over again. Then you get to the same point again and repeat the experience. Failure over and over and over again, hours lost with no progress - it's very demoralizing. Thank goodness there is a practice mode. This is part of the reason why it's necessary to start with the 'easy' difficulty: that way you receive crushing defeat at the metaphorical hands of the tracks until you master them and can cruise to victory, and THEN receive crushing defeat at the hands of the other racers on the harder difficulties until you best them. Heaven help you if you tried to learn the tracks while battling the brutal expert CPUs. Of course, racing against the harder CPUs it's necessary to learn new strategies and often to remaster the tracks; ditto if you try a new vehicle with significantly different handling. It's hard to win. Really. And that's just the Grand Prix mode.

The Story Mode is what really brings the pain. This is a series of the most sadistic individual challenges the designers could imagine, and they're brutally difficult even on the Easy difficulty I was stubborn enough to finally defeat back in the day; now I'm facing down Hard. There's Very Hard, too. It's the rule rather than the exception for me to spend a whole hour trying one challenge and not beat it, or even feel like I made any progress towards beating it. If that doesn't sound like a lot, consider that these are often sixty-second challenges, with restarts occurring on average every thirty seconds. Do the math. Then I try another hour the next day and don't win. Then I try an hour the next day and still don't win. Then I consider the benefits of a monastic life, but have another half-hour go at the mission instead and, STILL, don't win. How many tries at this point? It's in the multiple-hundreds, for Pete's sake. I'm looking at you, 'Challenge of the' frigging 'Bloody Chain.' It gets to the point where it's not even fun anymore. But I really hate to lose, and so I persist. In this small world where I hold some dominance, there is no way I'm going to accept defeat at the hands of any impertinent game design. People who don't play games probably can't understand this, but I'm sure everyone knows how it feels when something in which one has invested oneself goes sour. The urge to demonstrate control and superiority is overpowering. Victory will be mine, and then maybe I'll go play a Barbie game or something. Meanwhile I'm glad no one is here to see me blacken the air with vocalized anger. There's one rule of thumb when tackling such a challenge as this: you better hope that in this race, no one can hear you scream. At least if you still want that person's respect.

I long for the quiet tranquility of an RPG, where all the happens is the world ending. Speaking of which...