Even when I watch TV, I’m not watching TV

August 7, 2009

tvFROM JASON’S DESK, NOT HIS COUCH — I don’t watch television anymore, although I do watch an awful lot of television shows.

Apparently, television has never been more popular. Nielsen Media Research said in February that the average American watches 151 hours each month — up from 145 hours during the same span last year.

And as electronics become cheaper and the technology curve continues its exponential spike, televisions continue to fly off the shelves. There are an estimated two billion sets worldwide. In the United States, more than half of all homes now have three or more, with the average of all homes at 2.86, Nielsen’s Television Audience Report concluded. Two decades ago (1990), the average was just two television sets per home.

Now, Nielsen says as of July, there are actually more televisions in the States than there are people. (The nation’s population is estimated at 304 million.)

sets_per_homeI certainly have contributed to the jump. Not only do I have the 42-inch plasma in my living room, but I’ve got the 36-inch set in my bedroom, the 38-inch box in my den, and a 19-incher on the kitchen counter.

The truth is that I watch none of them. My television viewing is done online these days — and so by all rights it should be called webivision viewing. Corporate sites like Hulu, YouTube, and [AdultSwim], combined with the greymarket of TV Links and QuickSilverScreen, have supplanted the need for a crude television set.

The results have been disastrous, serving only to further erode my limited attention span. I used to slump in front of the tube and keep my eyes glued to it… now I can hardly watch five minutes without opening new tabs, checking mail, catching up on a forum argument, catching a quick webcomic, or browsing my Google Reader subscriptions. It makes for a much more franetic, less-informed, even cheapened viewing experience.

Widespread availability of show content doesn’t help, either. It used to be that I had to wait from week to week to get the next episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Boston Legal, Arrested Development, or what have you. That built in the element of delayed gratification: distance makes the heart grow fonder, and all that. Now I can hit Hulu and be watching any or all episodes of Dead Like Me or Sliders inside 20 seconds. It’s like celebrating Christmas everyday; it sounds great, but after a while, the presents just aren’t special anymore.

And that means I’m less likely to watch and appreciate all of any given show. There is far more Grade-A content out there to watch now than I can ever consume, which means I’m not obligated to stick with the cream of the crop through to completion and I can float on to the next pilot or premise that catches my wafting interest. That’s why I’ve only made it through the first three episodes of Spaced since Hulu posted the first and second seasons last week.

There’s no pressure to get those episodes while the getting’s good.

Meanwhile, my big plasma upstairs is being slowly tortured. It’s stuck by wifely command on HGTV for hours at a time, with breaks for Live with Regis and Kelly, The Bonnie Hunt Show, or any fashion/cooking reality show aired by Bravo. That poor television must be begging for the sweet release of death.

I honestly can’t remember the last movie I watched on that blessed set. It was probably Transformers: The Movie from 1984 (the animated one). If it weren’t for the wife, the plasma would be hooked up to my computer. Were I a betting man, I’d say it’s only a matter of time before all televisions are just Net receptors, and that traditional, passive cable or satellite are going the way of the dinosaur.

That is, if the companies that control media can get their noses out of their proverbial asses and get in touch with the inevitable realities of our shifting culture.


My Lovely Games #1: Lovely Squares

August 5, 2009

FROM ANDREW’S LAPTOP–I’ve taken my first steps into learning lua, proper game programming, and the love2d game engine. Love2d is a lightweight game engine that allows you to create games in lua. I’ve decided to take on a project in which I create some sort of game/tech project every two weeks. The goal is not to make these games perfect or polished by any means, but to just get them created and published (which means they may be buggy). I decided to take this approach because it will allow me to get as much content out as possible without being a perfectionist.

The first game I made took me about two evenings. It’s called Lovely Squares. The object is to navigate your cursor (a blue box) to other blue boxes to score points. Hitting pink boxes will reset your score and your position. There were a couple things that I wish I could have got working (a growable box and increasing speed of the squares), but I wanted to get the game out as quick as possible before I had to pack things up to go to university.
Lovely Squares
Download the game here.

All you have to do to run it is unzip the file and run LovelySquares.exe


No exaggeration — Transmorphers is movie diarrhea

August 5, 2009

morph01

FROM JASON’S ETERNAL DISMAY — I have seen the face of evil, and it is Transmorphers.

God damn you to hell, Netflix. I finally decide to sign up, and this is what you give me? Sure, I asked for it. Sure, I sat and watched it. Sure, I’m a sucker for a terrible movie. But even my ironic and self-flagellating love of horrible C-list films didn’t prepare me for this.

Let’s start with metrics. Netflix users give Transmorphers a 1.9 stars out of five. More discriminating users of IMDB give it a 1.9 out of 10 — making the 2007 film from The Asylum the single worst-rated movie I have ever indulged in, worse even than Going Overboard starring Adam Sandler, heretofore believed to be the single most despicable film in circulation.

The Asylum, of course, is the direct-to-video “mockbuster” filmhouse behind other such gems as The Terminators, Street Racer, Universal Soldiers, Snakes on a Train, and The Da Vinci Treasure. They even drew very direct legal ire from Fox not too long ago for… wait for it… a release called The Day the Earth Stopped.

From the jacket: A race of alien robots has conquered the Earth and forced humanity underground. After three hundred years of domination, a small group of humans develop a plan to defeat the mechanical invaders in the ultimate battle between man and machine.

morph03

Not only does Transmorphers (originally titled Robot Wars) prey on its obvious titular counterpart (it was released a week prior to Michael Bay’s Transformers), but it also cannibalizes conventions from The Matrix and The Terminator. There are lots of sunglasses at night. There’s a hidden city full of human resistance fighters (that might as well be Zion). There’s lots of faux leather. The robots have plunged Earth into eternal darkness. There’s EMP. There are machines that think they are human. There are armies of bipedal robuts and what amounts to Skynet controlling them all.

Thank god there’s no time travel.

There’s also an awkward lesbian subplot, an implied sex-bot, effects that look like Ray Harryhausen crammed them onto a mid-90s CD-ROM game, long and preachy expository scenes filled with the worst kind of dialog, even lousier delivery, and what I can honestly say is the most “amazing” green screen speeder bike chase ever captured on film.

morph02

I’m trying not to embellish here. There’s very little praise I can conjure though for a film where the same person shouts that the attacking robots have “breached all perimeters” not once, not twice, but three times — about 15 minutes apart each time. You can only breach all perimeters once. After that, they’re all breached.

In short, Transmorphers has all the style and substance of Cleopatra 2525, all the originality of a knock-knock joke, and all the sophistication of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. And it seems to be made completely in earnest.

I guess writer/director Leigh Scott understands at least that this isn’t Lawrence of Arabia. On his blog, he wrote:

The idea of trying to make a futuristic period piece with giant robots with the budget of the average AFI short film was a challenge that I couldn’t resist. While most people in Hollywood marvel at their own excess, I have often been obsessed with the exact opposite; doing the impossible for absolutely no money. Was it a disaster? Sure. Was it fun? Absolutely.

Later on the same blog:

Look, genre movies are a mathematical equation. 50% visuals. 50% sound. So, there was a sync issue on Transmorphers…there goes 50%. Then we couldn’t afford a dolly so take away 10% of the visuals. Dock it 10% because we didn’t discover the awesome set that is featured in the first ten minutes until months after principal photography. Then take away 20% because the film is called Transmorphers and the robots are lame and don’t really Transmorph that much. So, you have 10% of a movie there.

There are some films that are so bad you groan, and it’s fun. This one, though, transcends that feeling. It’s the kind of movie you inflict on unsuspecting friends as revenge for dating your little sister. It’s the kind of movie you pop in to clear the room when unwanted guests are camping out at your house. It’s the kind of movie that you use to pry information out of terrorists in a ticking time-bomb scenario. It’s the kind of movie you use to punish small children for wetting the bed.

Don’t watch it. I already watched it for you, and the scars aren’t likely to heal anytime soon. To my dear friend Richard Smith, I’d be willing to pit Transmorphers against APEX any day.


Wallpaper of the Week: Kurt Vonnegut, or Slaughterhouse-4scrape

August 1, 2009

vonnegut02

FROM JASON’S IMMEASURABLE GRIEF — It’s true. That fool’s paradise of visual filth, flamboyance, and foolery known as 4scrape is no more. It’s just another 404 now.

So it goes.

When it comes to image boards, as we’ve said before, 4scrape was the best way to scan for new desktop art. It not only cut out everything but the wallpapers themselves, but it also reduced the need to click through hundreds of links and page loads.

On July 27, the creator’s blog said the site is down and he/she won’t cast rez on it. The source code and SQL were posted, though, so the entire engine is open to the public for any willing to continue the good fight. There might even be a torrent release of the 150GB of image data cached by 4scrape (though that kind of a download is impractical at best and retarded at worst).

It didn’t take Ice-9, a prison riot, a Martian invasion force, a timequake, or nuclear holocaust to bring down 4scrape. Apparently, there were too many problems with the code to put more blood, sweat, and tears into it:

  • Cache for searches (potentially just post searches) is broken.
  • Threads need to be cached as a whole unit — assembling them from a 500,000-row table is too slow.
  • General consistency errors — there’s a bunch of images missing (???)
  • The scraper likes to shit itself to keep things lively.
  • The backend would occasionally crash/spinlock (???)
  • The JavaScript shit is a horrible mess.

So it goes.

Right before the site folded, I had been searching almost in vain for Kurt Vonnegut wallpapers to share. The top-most one was easy to find; but when I went looking for others — well, that’s when the 404 struck.

vonnegut03

The subsequent announcement that the site will be abandoned put me in a particularly grouchy and very Vonnegut-story-defeatest mood. I stomped around a bit, and then figured the universe will manage to realign this mistake somehow.

Truth is, even with 4scrape’s help, Vonnegut ‘papers are awfully rare. I turned to customized Google Images searches. They turned up very little. The best I could find, aside from a few badly-patched-together and quite ugly photo mosaics were oversized scans of some of book book illustrations and one fairly large but grainly photo that didn’t make Kurt’s face look like a catcher’s mit.

Some Photoshop filters, sharpening, and color-tweaking later and here are some (moderately) presentable pieces of Vonnegut-icana to ease us all through the rough patches.

vonnegut05

As always, I’ve put the images in 1024×768 — which despite some protests is still the most widely used m0nitor resolution (and 4:3 is still the most widespread aspect ratio). Enjoy.


Those darned kids are smarter than we are — from 4-bit to 128-bit in three decades

July 31, 2009

2600FROM JASON’S HOPE FOR THE FUTURE — Humans are a bunch of idiots. We’re barely even smart monkeys. Want some proof?

Pork sales dropped by almost half when the “swine flu” made headlines. George Lucas cast both Jake LLoyd and Hayden Christensen as Anakin Skywalker. The McCain-Palin ticket got 59.9 million votes in November 2008. Decca Records refused to sign The Beatles to the label in 1962. People choose to sky-dive.

Tom Hanks turned down the lead roles in Field of Dreams, The Shawshank Redemption, and Jerry Maguire. A man who in 2007 robbed a Kansas City Family Dollar tried to make his getaway from police via a city bus. Ross Perot had a chance in 1979 to buy Microsoft for mere millions of dollars and passed it up.

The good news is that we’re getting smarter. I recently stumbled across the Wikipedia article on the Flynn Effect, named after James Flynn, Emeritus Professor of Political Studies at the University of Otago in New Zealand. His research shows intelligence quotients in much of the civilized world continue to rise year over year by three points per decade.

I thank Pac-Man.

Now, I’m not suggesting that the l’il yellow guy take all the credit for the big jump in human progress. But let’s just think about the evolution of games of the past three decades.

Do you remember the Atari 2600? That glorious hunk of wood-paneled junk was my go-to machine for much of my happy childhood — back when a color television was still considered a luxury and you could rent a VCR from your corner video store. The game titles were not zeniths of strategy. You bounced a four-bit block between two paddles in Pong. In Space Invaders, you had two directions to move and one direction to fire. Pole Position had you negotiating gentle turns… once in a while.

The 2600 had one button.

Let’s explore, by way of contrast, some modern games:

In Left 4 Dead, my game of the year, you have to coordinate with four other players to strategically clear hordes of zombies using multiple firearms and incendiary devices in a dynamic 3D playing area, securing certain strongholds and using classical war techniques such as bottle-necking, construction of kill-zones, triage, fire walls, safe rooms, and sniper nests to stay alive in a destructible environment, often overcoming attacks by unpredictable hordes and special-class zombies.

Oblivion lets players loose in a 16-square-mile fantasy sandbox game world with dynamic time and weather events, with more than 1000 characters to interact with, and just as many monsters. Players choose to become one of 10 races and 21 classes, each with customizable skillsets, weapons, armor, statistics, and backstories. In addition to the world-spanning and epic main plot, there are 220 side quests, making for hundreds of hours of exploration, goals, and rewards.

Age of Empires III pits eight competing European colonial powers against each other in a real-time strategy rush to conquer the New World circa 1492 to 1850. Players control up to 200 combined military and domestic units each and can build 20 different building types, each granting various abilities, resources, upgrades, and tactical advantages as opponents square off in huge melees with competing objectives for victory.

That’s a little more complex than jumping over Donkey Kong’s falling barrels, isn’t it? And kids today have no problem running roughshod through these games, barely stopping for breath before moving on to the next new release.

I mean, these kids with their new-fangled games and their mad skillz make me feel like a frickin’ retard. And I’m part of the Information Age generation, despite my white hairs. I hate to think how much like dinosaurs my grandparents feel; my wife’s grandmother didn’t even have a telephone until she was a teenager.

No wonder kids are getting smarter. Look how much more demanding their entertainment is — today’s video games challenge them to think more laterally and do far more in-depth problem solving than freeze tag, passive TV-watching, baseball, or checkers ever did.

Gamers think differently than non-gamers, a July article in Neuropsychologia says (according to some guy on the Internet. I didn’t actually read it). Video games change how players allocate their attention, testing proved, forcing them to set priorities, discard irrelevant information fed to them in the game, respond more quickly to targets, and pick up better on in-game cues.

ABC News reported in 2005 that a University of Rochester study showed gamers scored 13 percent higher than non-gamers when asked to count the number of squares that flashed on a screen for a 20th of a second.

A now-famous 2003 study in Nature quoted the same university’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, saying video games improve visual skills. Four experiments, including the one mentioned above, showed habitual gamers outperformed their non-gaming counterparts. A fifth showed that non-gamers improved after sitting down in front of the screen to play.

Hell, my mom can’t even figure out Tetris, and Guitar Hero (on easy) destroyed my dad. Yet I’ve seen perfectly average six-year-olds pick up Pokemon Platinum and start kicking ass. I think the correlation is perfectly clear.

I’m not saying I’m going to deprive my kids of a good game of basketball in the driveway to force them to play, say, NBA Jam. But in the face of the evidence, I’m not going to lie to them and say the vidjagames will rot their brains.


Mary… Poppins? Musical theater isn’t my thing.

July 25, 2009

poppinsFROM JASON’S LONG, SAD AFTERNOON — Andrew and I have often discussed our very different opinions on musical theater. I am not fond of it, while he tends to be a fan.

Two-and-a-half hours trapped today in a balcony seat affirmed why I eschew this particular medium. It’s the singing. And the dancing.

Please don’t misunderstand; both in small doses can be just fine. But the live version of Disney’s Mary Poppins can’t stand against the 1964 film starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. On stage, the actors put so much weight into the song-and-dance routines that they miss out on what I love best about stories — the  characterization.

It was the wife’s idea — or maybe her revenge after I forced her to sit through Star Trek — to hit the State Theater on Playhouse Square in downtown Cleveland. She’s a huge fan of children’s media as long as it’s ripped from a book and in no way contains transforming robots, laser-wielding terrorists, cat-men with magic swords, any manifestation of ninja (mutant or otherwise), or is any way related to either DC or Marvel. Also, science fiction in her eyes is bad, whilst magic is just peachy.

She loves the singing. And the dancing. Sigh.

She must also love being too far away from the action to see any facial acting. And she must love that the actors rush through spoken lines too quickly to get to sing-song ones. She must hate dramatic pauses, establishing shots, and all the dynamism that comes with camera-work. Film editing must be anathema.

But she sure liked the disturbing narcissism and cold shoulder-ing that Poppins embraced in her live role, which if IMDB is to believed is actually much closer to how the character acted in the source material by novelist P.L. Travers. In addition, there were homoerotic living statues, a scene where toys come to life (which was cut from the Disney film), and not a dancing penguin to be seen.

But that’s just the method of delivery. Make no bones about it, I’ve always loved the film version of Poppins, and couldn’t stop whistling the catchy Sherman Brothers songs all the way home. Chim-chim-char-oo indeed! Look, I’m just a guy who likes to drink beer and play video games. Musical theater crosses a line that can sometimes be masked on film. That’s all I’m saying.

Not everything about the theater performance was unbearable. The sets were amazing works of both engineering and art, with some very clever built-in special effects that made the production just as much a magic show as a story. Sometimes the wires were visible, but other times the ingenuity of the builders had me scratching my head and wondering where the trap doors and puppet actors could possibly be hidden, or whether they were using radio controls and servos to accomplish certain effects.

Matter of fact, I spent more time wondering trying to reverse engineer the set than I did paying attention to the actors. Or the singing. And the dancing.

My mind also wandered thematically as Bert mused about the self-reflexive nature of Mary Poppins’ appearance. Cyclism is a time-honored philosophical device… the Norse had their Ouroboros, the snake eating its own tail, and Battlestar Galactica had its refrain of,  “All of this has happened before and will happen again.” Bert suggests in both the stage and screen versions that Poppins works in much the same way, and that this story is just one of many in which she’s involved herself.

Bert’s authority on that matter has always intrigued me. There’s never an explanation for how Poppins knows Bert, or from whence comes his narrative omniscience. I posit that either A) Mary was summoned as Bert’s nanny when he was a child or B) he’s a kindred magical spirit.

I’m glad the writers left the matter ambiguous. Can you imagine the same movie written today? The producers would insist, of course, of sapping the power out of the enigma by creating a concrete backstory for who Mary is, where she comes from, where she returns to. There would be an elaborate scene showing her origin. There might even be a montage showing her popping up in conspicuous places throughout history.

Also left unabashedly unexplained is the subtle romance between Mary and Bert… which Travers allegedly hated. The story goes that she made Walt Disney promise not to slip it into the script (yet there it is, underplayed and remaining a loose string to this day).

Word is that Travers didn’t like anything about the Disney version — hating it to the point of storming out of the premier. She had script approval on the film, but Walt laughed last by clinching final draft approval and giving a firm rejection to her attempted rewrites.

She also didn’t like the singing. And the dancing.

It didn’t matter. It was Disney’s most expensive film to date, but it was also the highest-grossing of the lot from 1965 to 1985. It raked in $102.5 million at the box office and won five Academy Awards.


Greater Than Gods – A Short Story

July 17, 2009

FROM SAIL’S WRITING PORTFOLIO — Martin turned the key and opened the door to his new office. The day before had been spent furnishing his large new executive workspace beyond the standard fixtures that were moved from his previous office downstairs. The tall-backed wooden guest chairs that he had purchased sat ridged and uninviting on the opposite side of his desk. Gracing the walls were paintings of the countryside, of such a generic and bland quality to make any dentist office’s interior designer proud. Bookshelves sat on either side of the room, both stuffed with volumes upon volumes of unopened reference books and unread Modern Library Collection editions of great literature. An Egyptian marble cat sculpture sat coldly beside one of these bookshelves and stared at the door jamb with a piercing glare. In the corner, upon a stout glass table, an orange plastic bowl of assorted candies sat, waiting for the day his niece and nephew might visit.

He paced quickly across the room, as if some very judgmental person was watching and would think him indulgent if he were to admire his new office for too long. Martin crossed over to the back of his desk and sank into the office chair, spinning to face the large window behind him. He was perched atop the nineteenth floor of a twenty story building. It was his hard work that had brought him to this nest, and it was his hard work that he had to thank for everything he possessed. Martin saw a reflection of himself in the rising sun that was being slightly obscured by the clouds on the horizon. He saw the symbolism in how, no matter how the cloud tried, it could not fully black out the massive and bright sun. He knew that he was the same way, a rising star that would never fail to triumph over those who wished to snuff him out.

Martin looked below at the already bustling business district and was reminded of how far he had come. He had made himself at age eighteen when he was accepted into Harvard University. His very low-income family could definitely not afford to pay for the school, even with scholarship grants he received, but agreed to carry the student loan debts for him. He worked tirelessly through every class on every subject, especially his Team Management and Development class that he begged his roommate to tutor him in so that he would able to graduate. He steadily and confidently climbed the corporate ladder as the executives he made friends with recommended him for promotions.

And now he was here. Here, sitting atop his mountain of toil. Only the four-and-a-half foot layer of steel and drywall above his head kept him from rocketing toward the zenith. The glass window before him disappeared and he felt the urge to leap toward the blue heavens where no human could bind him.

Martin heard a rap on his door and a click as someone entered the room. He spun around to see a small, somewhat plump woman moving towards him.

“Martin, we have business matter to discuss.” The woman pulled up one of the tall-backed wooden chairs to the desk and sat. She continued to speak as she uncomfortably shifted her weight about the hardwood seat.

“Under normal circumstances I would have simply emailed the documentation to you so that you may make a decision, but this is a special case. Our laboratory and research team has stumbled upon a breakthrough.” She paused a moment to allow for a reaction to shatter across Martin’s stony face. When none showed, she reiterated, “I came down here personally because I feel that this a matter that we needed to discuss in depth before you and the others make a decision.”

Martin was annoyed. Had he not rightfully been given this position? He was more than capable of making any decision that needed to be made. He had gotten here under his sole manpower and did not deserve the condescending attitude that this woman was giving him. But this irritation with his boss did not show on his face.

“What is this breakthrough?” Martin asked.

“Well,” the woman began excitedly, “they have found a new material that can be used in solar cells that has the potential to convert sunlight to electricity at eighty-percent efficiency.” The cool calmness that Martin had maintained up to this point in the conversation finally broke. His mind instantly went wild with images of his success: The scientists that he hired winning the Nobel Prize and all the publicity that would bring him, the build team that he hired developing this technology for use in the product and all the profits that it would bring him, the success of the corporation he works in and the promotion it would bring him. This was what the product was of all his hard work throughout his life. Through thankless years of his own toil, this was what his backbreaking autonomy had brought finally him. This was what would take him straight to the zenith.

“This is incredible!” he exclaimed, “This is absolutely incredible.” The woman appeared satisfied at finally having made an impact on Martin’s emotions.

“Do you realize,” he continued in his raving, “what this will mean for us, this corporation? We are immortal, Henrietta! God himself will elevate us to the status of Archangels!”

“God?” The woman chuckled hesitantly. “We’re talking about people, here. Think about what this could mean for not just you and the company, but humanity as a whole. This means a revolutionary line of cars that cause zero emissions but still can be driven long distances and even tow trailers. This means we have a technology that will solve humanity’s dependence on coal for electricity generation. That’s why I came to your office personally, because I think it would be wrong to simply patent this and exploit it for profits when it could be shared with the entire scientific community for development and improvement. To do this would make you a savior! What we have stumbled across here is the thing that every human on this planet has been waiting for.”

“Humans?” Martin asked perplexedly, “I’m not sure what people have ever done for me.”