Monday, April 29, 2013

Street Fighter's Last Revenge

Now winding down its second season, Revenge was formerly an awesome show that has simply gone on for a season-and-a-half too long. Still, this scene from the most recent episode (Season 2, Episode 19 "Identity"), wherein one of our heroes confronts his hacker nemesis and, with lives hanging in the balance (possibly), challenges her to a match of Street Fighter II, is simply gold:

Click for video (because WordPress really sucks with video embeds)

No better way to settle a deadly rivalry than via a decades-old arcade game that neither person is especially good at, right? (Although I guess we're actually meant to understand that they are good at it.)

The "quarter up" thing that Nolan does at the beginning of the scene at least is pretty authentic. I wonder if the actors did their own "stunts" . . . .

Source: BuddyTV (via EventHubs)

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Should creationism be taught in schools?

You might think that, for anyone even barely just civilized enough to get online—and I don't mean just the Chick-fil-A free Wi-Fi-approved sites—the answer would be an obvious "No." I mean, what is this, the Dark Ages? The scholarly scientific community is overwhelmingly in consensus that creationism is no more than a religiously motivated pseudoscience. Nevertheless, I've met quite a number of intelligent, scientifically minded evangelical Christians who will maintain that, at the very least, classrooms should discuss criticisms of the "theory" of evolution (or "Darwinism," as they call it). These are people, mind you, both young and old, who have careers in the scientific sector, some even in positions of mentorship.

I'd concede that most people, myself included, actually know very little about how evolution works as anything more than just a vague model or theory, and have not nearly investigated the science enough to credibly answer the question. Ironically, most people who hold to evolution as absolute truth take it on faith—faith in the inerrancy of their textbooks and in the authority of the  "scientific community." Of course, while it's true that studying (or even teaching) evolution doesn't automatically make one a scientist, on the other hand, I don't know a single proponent of creationism who isn't religiously motivated.

At the end of the day, I am no scientist, and I am also, by nature, distrustful of any person or group that would presume to speak with authority on any topic, so it would be not only unhelpful but also actually hypocritical for me to take a position. I will instead defer to the humble wisdom of the great modern street philosopher Les Holm, whose assessment neatly puts things in perspective: "Unless and until some flying man come be flying off with my womenfolk, I don't give a damn about evolution vs. creationism."

(But seriously, the answer is "No." I mean, what is this, the Dark Ages?)

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Remember when Dark Souls was almost called "Dark Race"?

(Can't be too hard on Japanese developer From Software; another working title was "Dark Ring," which is apparently also bad for reasons most Americans wouldn't have known either.)

I've never played the first BioShock, so I haven't paid much attention to online coverage of BioShock Infinite either. About all I know is that, on some level, it tackles racism, according to Ice T's Twitter:

The consumer base for the gaming industry doesn't yet seem as segmented as for other media. With TV, even the major networks serve different audiences, and CBS, while being America's most watched, is also the least buzzed about. (I imagine it's huge in the same parts of the country NASCAR is—a world I'll never know or understand.) In film, Tyler Perry is a box-office superstar beloved among large segments of the nation, but Roger Ebert never got it. But, in games, although there are many different types of games for different types of gamers, the very biggest releases remain the very biggest among gamers everywhere in the country, even if they don't really seem designed to appeal to mass audiences. (In any other medium, could Grand Theft Auto's script ever be considered mainstream?). And so I wonder, how does a major game discussing racism go over in those parts of the country where racism is still running strong? I don't mean among white supremacists necessarily, but more among those wide populations of gamers who can be heard constantly spewing thoughtless racist trash talk online. We know they're buying and playing the game, but what do they make of it? Does it give them pause? Are they digging it? Do they get defensive and protest? Is it going over their heads? I actually seriously want to know how that thoughtlessly racist gamer responds when confronted with an in-game moral decision of "to be racist or not."

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Daredevil film rights back to Marvel

From Newsarama:
In August, it was reported that previous rights-holder Fox had a deadline of Oct. 10 to put a Daredevil film into production before the rights returned to Marvel, a deadline that then passed.

I'm shocked that rights-holders ever allow their licenses to expire, even for properties that didn't perform well for them. I used to wonder when Fox and Sony would finally let go of X-Men and Spider-Man, so that those properties could return to Marvel and become part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I supposed that it would only happen if the movies started performing so poorly for Fox and Sony that the studios would just give up on them. But then I realized that, even if the movies stopped being successful, the studios would do whatever it took to hang on to the rights, allowing themselves the opportunity to reboot down the line, or even just taking measures to ensure, for example, not necessarily that Fox itself was making money off these properties, but just that nobody else was making money that Fox could have made off them.

The Roger Corman-produced Fantastic Four (1994) proved that Fox was not above making fake movies specifically to extend its contract deadlines. And the Fox v. WB Watchmen fiasco demonstrated how even almost spiteful they could be, that they would quietly wait for an entire major motion picture production to wrap before filing suit to make sure they got their piece of the pie, as rights-holders for a property they were doing nothing with. Sure enough, it wasn't for lack of trying that Fox failed to rush out another Daredevil movie.

But now that the deadline has passed, what does it mean for the future of Daredevil in film? A Daredevil movie from Marvel Studios could be good. It could be bad. It could be nothing, since Marvel isn't under pressure from itself to start work on a movie by a certain deadline. We definitely still won't get Daredevil crossing paths with Spider-Man and the Punisher, which would be my preferred crossover for each of those characters, ahead of any of them appearing in an Avengers movie. Of course, what suddenly does become possible (albeit improbable) is a film adaptation of my personal favorite Avengers story—not technically an Avengers story at all, but rather the Daredevil story "Born Again," by Frank Miller, wherein the Avengers appear briefly but pivotally and viewed from a perspective that leaves you with a whole different appreciation of everybody's place in the larger Marvel universe.


After six issues of war between Daredevil and the Kingpin—of our humble street-level hero Matt Murdock getting the ever-living crap beat out of him—finally, finally the situation in Hell's Kitchen escalates to the point that it merits the notice of the mighty Avengers, who swoop in and defuse it within seconds. It's a moment that is, at once, equal parts "Where the hell have you been all this time?" and "Thank God(s) they came!"

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Franz Ferdinand – Humphrey’s Concerts by the Bay, April 15, 2013

Franz Ferdinand at Humphreys

During that week in the middle of Coachella, Franz Ferdinand also swung down to San Diego to play a show at Humphrey's Concerts by the Bay.

They played all my favorites—"The Dark of the Matinee," "Walk Away," "Do You Want To," and, of course, "Take Me Out"—as well as a number of newer songs, presumably from a forthcoming album. It felt like the show was mostly older material, but I must confess, I don't know all their songs that well, and a lot of them sound the same to me, so there were likely a number of songs brand new to me but which nevertheless sounded very familiar. Aside from the hits, the highlight of the show was probably when all four members of the band converged on the drum set, each man taking up a pair of sticks to join in on roughly a five-minute drum outro to the night (pre-encore).

The band performed well—the songs sounded almost exactly like the album versions—and Alex Kapranos is probably the most effortlessly cool frontman of any band on the planet. That said, I found myself wishing they had put a little more effort into engaging with the audience. The show felt workmanlike on their part, with not only the songs but also every word spoken between songs written and rehearsed in advance. Kapranos would give a very short speech, for example, along the lines of "I woke up this morning and [blah blah blah]," and then that would inelegantly transition into the opening verse of "Do You Want To." Even the new songs were introduced in similarly cursory fashion (e.g. Kapranos saying, "I feel like I have bullets going through my head," to introduce the song "I'll Never Get Your Bullet Out of My Head").

Sometimes, between songs, Kapranos would only say, "San Diego, I think I like you."

"That's the third time he's said that," I remarked at one point.

And, each time he felt the need to say it, I felt less convinced that he meant it. The only thing I hate more than these disingenuous shout-outs is when they turn the mic to the crowd and ask us to fill in the chorus, which Kapranos did several times. First of all, I don't go to shows to be flattered into thinking myself a part of the band, or pay money to hear myself sing. Furthermore, it always sounds awful and leaves me feeling insecure over how my city compares in the band's estimation against other cities they've played (even though they probably don't think about it at all).

My companion had seen them play at Coachella just the night before and insisted they had been better, more energetic. Of course, I always love hearing that things got worse upon my arrival!

"They're probably tired," she suggested, making excuses for them, as though this platinum-selling band was somehow unprepared for the touring lifestyle.

"Y'know, it's Monday for me too," I said. "But you don't hear me complaining."

"But it's not Monday for them!" she pointed out. "They worked yesterday. And you are complaining."

Fair enough.

I really was in agony, though. I don't think I'll ever attend another standing room, general admission show. At least not on a Monday. My back cannot handle that.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Tegan and Sara - Humphrey's Concerts by the Bay, April 17, 2013

Saw Tegan and Sara performing at Humphrey's Concerts by the Bay in San Diego last week.

Tegan and Sara - Humphreys

I think that may have been the first time in my life I'd ever felt old. To clarify, I've certainly felt physically past my peak and maybe even a tad feeble on many occasions lately, but never before had I ever truly felt socially old until I felt myself sticking out amid the crowd at this show. (And I've been to Chuck E. Cheese as an unmarried, childless adult.) Mind you, I'm not yet 30. But, damn, everybody else just seemed so young, hip, spirited. Maybe they weren't all actually that much younger than me, and maybe age is just a state of mind. But, though the precise moment may vary from individual to individual, I am convinced that everybody who lives long enough does become old someday, and it's not up to them at what point that happens. When you get there, the world will let you know. And while it may be tempting to try to argue your case and live out "proof" that you are still young at heart, truly there can be no dignified protest, once you've aged out of the young people's circle. Any attempt to act younger than your age will only come across as pathetic. A whimsical teenager is romantic. A whimsical middle-aged man who hasn't got his act together is pitiful.

At any rate, although I'm thinking perhaps this was the last "young person's concert" I might ever attend, I did get over my feelings of oldness quickly enough to just enjoy the show. Tegan and Sara put on a good one.

Opening for them was Canadian band Stars. They commented on how, during this week between Coachella weekends, bigger acts (like Tegan and Sara) could divvy up the various Southern California venues for additional shows while in the area. For smaller bands playing at Coachella (like Stars), it mostly depended on which larger band asked them to come along. As an opening act, Stars is a pretty good choice. I enjoy a number of songs off their latest album, The North, and though they may not have the greatest stage presence or be the most photogenic, they are charmingly Canadian. Frequently during their performance, they would smile and wave out to the crowd, at times seeming to actually be waving directly to me (but that was probably just my imagination).

Then Tegan and Sara took the stage and did not disappoint. They brought more of that uniquely Canadian sweetness, casually bantering back and forth between songs, and also playfully engaging with the crowd. And these weren't just some phoned-in, scripted lines; they would converse with the front rows and remark on the bayside venue, which they observed was also attended by freeloaders on rafts and those out on the balconies of the adjoining inn.

And the music was good, of course. I'd written previously of my fondness for Tegan and Sara's latest album, Heartthrob. The production on the album is polished beyond what is possible in a live human performance, so some songs did not sound as great as I knew them. "Love They Say," in particular, doesn't really work live, because, even thematically, it speaks from an idealized view of love and should be matched with perfect otherworldly vocals. My favorite song from Heartthrob, "Now I'm All Messed Up," also seemed to overly tax Tegan's cords on the high notes. It probably didn't help that it was among their last songs (positioned so because it is a fan favorite) on a long night in a busy week, but, even if it wasn't the best I'd ever heard it, I still enjoyed hearing them perform it live. On the bright side, the bass levels seemed way louder than on my home setup, so that enhanced many of the songs. Consequently sounding more than ever like a dance track, "Drove Me Wild" also benefited from an extended 40-second intro—more than double the length of the album version's. A longer intro generally gives the band more time to warm up and the fans a moment to cheer on first recognizing the song, but, in this case, it also encouraged the crowd to groove out in a way I never would to the album version.

In addition to their new songs off Heartthrob, they also played a few of their older hits. From The Con (2007), they played favorites "Back in Your Head" and "The Con." Off If It Was You (2002) was "Living Room." And from So Jealous (2004), they played "Where Does the Good Go." These songs remained more modest compared to their Heartthrob performances—they didn't add a bunch of synth to them—but it was interesting to hear these older tracks sung by a more mature Tegan and Sara. You can always tell the twins apart not only by their hairstyles but also their personalities, which are reflected in their vocal performances. Sara tends to be the sweeter of the two, while Tegan is throatier and more ironic. On the older albums, the differences are harder to make out, I suspect because their voices are naturally more similarly somewhere in the middle, and they have actually put in work over the years to give themselves each a more distinct performing voice. Even so, I find they've become more confident, less affectedly chirpy as vocalists, compared to when they originally recorded those songs. Or maybe they were just really young at the time, and their voices have literally changed. In any case, I found myself newly enjoying the old songs.

They also played "Arrow" and "Alligator" off Sainthood (2009). Not my favorite of their albums, although Sara having to stop in the middle of "Alligator" because the distraction of her untied shoelace had caused her to forget the lyrics yielded a highlight of the night.

For the encore, they played acoustic versions of "Call It Off" and "Nineteen" from The Con. Very nice, especially as Tegan shared the story behind "Nineteen," written about their early years after high school, when they gambled on committing their lives to their music, not knowing if they would ever make it. Finally, they closed out the night with a stripped-down version of "Feel It in My Bones," originally a track they collaborated on with DJ Tiesto for his trance album Kaleidoscope.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Patton Oswalt's Star Wars Filibuster (Parks and Recreation)

Patton Oswalt recently guest starred on Parks and Recreation (Season 5, Episode 19 "Article Two"), playing a Pawnee citizen who launches a filibuster to prevent a city council vote. A hardcore fanboy, he spends it describing in detail his ideas for the upcoming "Star Wars Episode VII." Here's the full 8+ minute improvised scene, before it was edited down for the show:

What's sad is that my mind went to similar places upon first hearing the news of Disney buying Star Wars. I didn't go so far as to draft an elaborate treatment or storyboard complete scenes, but I did immediately and excitedly consider how a Star Wars-Avengers crossover might work, and, unlike Oswalt, I wasn't paid or kidding. On the contrary, I took the geeky "armchair executive" approach of completely seriously speculating on all the crossover possibilities that suddenly became not only possible but even probable. Nothing ridiculous like Clash of the Titans (because that's Warner Bros.), and no X-Men (because Fox has that license). Like I said, I was taking this seriously. But Darth Vader as an optional superboss in Kingdom Hearts III? Tetsuya Nomura just better make sure to get him into the North American release. A Star Wars land in the fairy-tale universe of ABC's Once Upon a Time? Terrible show, but YES.

And as for that Star Wars-Avengers crossover movie (which I consider inevitable)? Well, thinking back to the beginning of Avengers—how useless the mere mortal humans were against Loki—I just imagined a single droideka standing in for the Marvel supervillain in that scene, teleporting in across dimensions and having comparable resilience and firepower to ride roughshod over S.H.I.E.L.D.'s best agents. Nick Fury would probably wet himself to learn just how hopelessly, hilariously outgunned humanity would be against what else awaited on the other side of that portal.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Not Even at the Gates of Hell

Following such a terrible tragedy in the news as the explosions at the Boston Marathon on Monday, it is the natural and appropriate response, for those of us even yet far removed from the scene, to take stock of our own lives and reflect, each of us, on who we are. Am I the person I should be? Were it all to end today, would I have any regrets over how I lived? What was I doing that very moment the news broke? I don't need a keen memory to know the answer to that last one; it's all recorded on Facebook:


I was making some dumb joke. Not even a joke, really, but more just a mock-bitter articulated sigh brought on by "the Mondays," and, in the manner of a diary entry with no context, of no likely use or amusement to anyone other than myself.

In any case, less than an hour after my status update, a friend posted an update expressing their shock and sadness over the Boston Marathon explosions. The next several minutes saw more friends posting about the incident—thoughts to the victims, calls for prayers, worrying about loved ones in the area, broken hearts and frowning emoticons. My news feed that day was a steady stream of solemn status updates from friends about the explosions. And then there was my thing mixed in among it all, which suddenly seemed in poor taste—like wearing flashy colors to a funeral.

Was it unfortunate, regrettable that I had said it on that particular day? Probably. There are at least two possible lessons to take from this:

1) The remark did not become in poor taste by its coinciding with a terrible tragedy. It simply was in poor taste, period. If it took it coinciding with a terrible tragedy to get me to realize that it was bad, then perhaps, in the future, I should simply proceed as though every moment coincided with a terrible tragedy, and take care accordingly to always avoid saying anything that might be in poor taste.


2) Recognize that every day of my life is a dumb joke, and so is Facebook. Also, some terrible tragedy is happening somewhere every day. The only way to avoid saying anything that might be in poor taste is to avoid saying anything at all. But that would not make me a better person but only perhaps a marginally more pleasant one. And any time we compromise out of fear, or desire for comfort, the enemy wins (or, at least, we lose).

So, was my dumb joke poorly timed and regrettable? Maybe. Even so, I take back nothing, and I can pretty well promise you this won't be the last time.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Snake Beaten

No other word for it. This gif of someone playing a game of Snake to completion is, as the Reddit poster says, "mesmerizing."


And makes an unexpected case for video games as art. Kind of.

Of course, watching it in real-time (the player was only able to survive to the end by setting the game to a much slower speed) is far less diverting.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Batman Unbound

This is apparently taken from the Shadows of the Bat: The Cinematic Saga of the Dark Knight documentary included as a special feature in the 2005 Batman: The Motion Picture Anthology, 1989-1997 DVD set.

Mostly, it's the cast and crew apologizing, making excuses, and shifting blame for how Batman & Robin (1997) turned out. A lot of the footage looks not too far removed from the time of the movie's theatrical release (Alicia Silverstone especially looks to be speaking from a different decade of her life from the wife and mother now known as everybody's favorite vegan author), while some of it looks more recent. Clearly, Chris O'Donnell was the only one of the actors who could be bothered to come back to record new interview footage, both because, I mean, what else has he had going on since, and because he seems to have had a lot he wanted to get off his chest about the production. His comments are especially amusing because of how surprisingly frank and openly scathing they are. Meanwhile, director Joel Schumacher comes off as an incredibly sweet guy, who just tried to make a fun movie under studio pressure, but who is sincerely sorry that the end result disappointed some fans.

Watching the movie in theaters as a thirteen-year-old, I certainly counted myself among those disappointed. I had loved the Tim Burton films, of course, but I had come out of Batman Forever thinking it was maybe the most satisfying superhero movie I had ever seen. Batman & Robin, on the other hand—even as a teenage casual moviegoer, I knew I had seen something bad. There was no dramatic tension, no weight to any of the action. It was little more than a bunch of really bad ice-based puns delivered by Arnold Schwarzenegger in a performance that I, as the viewer, was embarrassed just to watch.

When you consider it from the perspective that it was intended to be a kids' movie, it kind of starts to make sense. For a much younger viewer, it probably wouldn't have seemed much dumber than a lot of the action cartoons/toy commercials on TV. Except that, actually, it was significantly dumber than Batman: The Animated Series, which was on the air around the same time (in fact, Mr. Freeze's story in the movie was actually based on the cartoon and not the comics). Also, it seems strange that the studio was so insistent on going in a kiddier direction, considering that this was technically part of the same series as the Tim Burton films. Didn't anybody stop to consider that probably a lot of kids would have seen those movies first, in which case they'd have been, as I was, actually older and ready for even darker stuff? Or I guess they just didn't care about returning fans (we had "aged out" of the target demographic, so to speak), so long as they could get new young ones?

And yet, for all the hate that the movie gets, it occurs to me now that I've probably viewed Batman & Robin more times than all the other Batman movies combined, owing entirely to TNT airing it relentlessly over the years (well, and I suppose to me so often not having anything better to do than watch TNT in the middle of the day). And, y'know, the more times I watched it—sometimes twice in a single day, for some reason—the more strangely endearing it became, as the ice puns, in all their naked stupidity, grew on me, and I also started to appreciate just how lastingly memorable Uma Thurman's scene-chewing line deliveries were, and how consequently quotable some of the dialogue became (well, it probably helped a lot that the movie itself repeated the clip). I suppose I learned to enjoy it partly on its own terms and partly ironically. Meanwhile, Batman Forever—that movie I thought was so great back in the day? I don't think I've seen it more than once more since, and that was probably before Batman & Robin came out. But just what I remember of Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face makes me cringe. Could that really have been any less bad a movie than Batman & Robin, that the latter had to be regarded as such a singular low point?

Source: StandUpComicBooks on YouTube (via (via io9))

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Bystander Effect

I remember, in my junior year of high school, around springtime I think, attending this pep rally in the amphitheater one time during an extended passing period. It was not a special occasion. The school held these pep rallies regularly, about once a season, in order to drum up school spirit.

Every time, the "cool" black security guard would begin by getting on the mic and opening with a few words in a (usually unsuccessful) attempt to get the crowd pumped up. Then various club directors or student council members would make dull announcements about extracurricular activities, school dances, athletics, etc. And finally they would close with performances from the assorted cheer squads. Attendance was not strictly mandatory, as the busier or more cynical students were free to go to the library or study in the open classroom of any teacher who, for whatever reason, also did not care to attend the rally.

Personally, I did not have much enthusiasm for the affairs, nor did I know anyone who did, but I always attended anyway because I never had any legitimate reason not to. Besides, the students and faculty who actually had to take the stage to make announcements or perform obviously felt these pep rallies were worth their time and energy, and my time was certainly no more precious than theirs. While I understood that some people found these events to be boring and unproductive, I felt that, for me personally, it would have been pointlessly disrespectful not to give up those meager thirty minutes that I would otherwise have wasted anyway.

So, on that occasion, as always, I took a seat on one of the benches near the top, furthest away from the stage. It was always uncomfortably sunny no matter where one sat, and sitting up top was certainly not efficient for leaving quickly, since the exits were at the bottom. I suppose I gravitated toward the back just because I didn't like to imagine that some strange person behind me might be staring down at the back of my head, although I'm sure the rational part of me must have realized even then how ridiculous it was to think that anyone would care that much to notice the stranger seated in front of them. All around me indeed were students I did not know and would not remember. It seemed that my own classmates were almost always among those busy and/or cynical students who had other places to be and better things to do with their time.

The pep rally proceeded in typical fashion. The security guard played would-be hype man, beckoning us to "make some noise" and "raise the roof," and his enthusiasm was met mostly with mocking and ridicule from the hecklers around me. It may not have been the school's idea of "pep," but at least the crowd seemed energized. Then the various speakers came on to make their various announcements—nothing that left much of an impression on me. And finally they closed with some performances by the cheerleaders, dance squad, and color guard, not necessarily in that order. I'll admit that I usually enjoyed these parts. Although I didn't have much to judge them against, I always thought the girls worked hard and performed impressively. These were also typically the only segments to excite cheers from the audience, although it was difficult for me to discern whether the people yelling next to me were being genuine or again sarcastic. Well, perhaps things were made clearer by the events of that day.

The one routine that I'll never be able to forget was the color guard's. Less sporty or physical than the cheerleaders but perhaps more technical, these ladies took the floor wielding fake rifles, which they were to twirl around with finesse and toss into the air, catching them on the way down. I had seen it before, and they had always made it look effortless, as though the rifles were extensions of themselves.

On this day, however, one girl missed her toss, and instead of her catching it, the rifle struck the ground, then bounced and fell off the stage altogether. Amid all the hundreds (if not thousands) of flawless routines she had no doubt done before, a single minor mistake of that sort should have been expected sooner or later, just going by the odds, and it should have been perfectly forgivable, especially as it was occurring at a mere meaningless pep rally and not an actual game or more consequential ceremony. Yet it proved to be a terribly unfortunate slip.

A true professional, upon losing her rifle, the young lady continued according to protocol, maintaining position and working her hands through the air as though the rifle were still in them. Of course, I was only informed later that that was indeed what members of the color guard were trained to do in the event of such a conceivable mishap. I don't think anyone outside of the color guard had any idea what protocol was, and I suppose the poor girl must have looked rather silly to the crowd, as she went through the motions with her imaginary rifle. At least, the kids around me seemed greatly amused, as they loudly snickered and jeered her relentlessly through the remainder of the performance.

I couldn't understand how these people could be so mean-spirited as to take pleasure not only in her mistake but in their own attempts to exacerbate her misfortune by taunting her. It was brutal. I wanted somebody to do something to stop it. Why were our authority figures standing idly by while the scene grew uglier by the second?

As those seconds stretched into a slow-motion eternity, a crazy idea crossed my mind. I wanted to run down there, pick up the rifle, and toss it back to her so she could complete her routine the right way. Perhaps the idea was crazy, but I knew it in my bones that it would also have been right, and I was screaming on the inside for someone, anyone, to make it so. But nobody did anything, and neither did I.

The pep rally concluded, classes resumed, and most people simply went on with their day. But I continued to be confounded by my own inaction. Why didn't I do what I knew to be right? There was simply no reason I could find to justify it. Even if it would have been against protocol, which I would not even have known, this was not a formal situation, and she shouldn't have had anything to prove to us. Maybe because I was sitting far from the stage, it would have been a bit of a run to get down to the rifle and to her. But, even in that moment, I was positive that there would have been more than enough time for me to make that distance, which really should have been no obstacle. Was I afraid that, by standing up, I would have attracted the attention of the mob, which would then have directed the same contempt toward me as they had at her? No, not only was fear not a valid excuse, but I actually felt certain that, far from becoming another target of the crowd's scorn, I could have turned the situation around completely. Perhaps it was arrogant of me to think so, but I 100 percent believed that, had I done the right thing before all those people, as much as the girl's public misfortune could excite their cannibalistic cruelty, to the same extent would a genuine good gesture have inspired positive feelings in them, and their jeers would have become cheers, both for me and for her.

Indeed, the more I thought about it afterward, the more convinced I became that she was not the only one that needed a hand that day, but actually everybody present needed that moment to prove to them that the world was not the bad place they perceived it to be, that they too were all capable of being better, or rather acting as good as they actually were, only a few bad experiences having previously kept them from realizing it. Instead, as I let the world slip away into cynicism, I confirmed a different truth about myself that day. I learned that I was not a remarkable person, nor a very nice one, maybe not even a decent human being.

I remember some cynic once trying to convince me that we could only be as good or great as the occasion permitted, and for our spoiled generation living in these easy times, there were few opportunities for anyone to be anything more than mediocre. Yet when the call came that day for me to do the right thing, I simply sat there useless, unable to answer, or even to try.

The girl did not come to school the next day. I didn't know her or any other members of the color guard personally, but the word going around was that she was devastated and now felt too humiliated to show her face on a campus she saw (perhaps rightly) as hostile. I don't know if she ever did come back, but I know that she wasn't there come graduation (we were in the same year). The rumor was that she had dropped out or transferred, all because of the pep rally incident. Although it was, as far as I knew, just a rumor, and it was possible that she had transferred to a different school for unrelated reasons, still I felt terribly ashamed at this, as I'm sure everyone did in the aftermath.

Hopefully she recovered and grew up into a well-adjusted adult, for whom that day is now just a mostly forgotten footnote in an otherwise beautiful life story. As for me, although it all happened more than ten years ago, hardly a day has gone by since that I haven't thought about it. Looking back as the years passed by uneventfully, that scene became ever more a landmark in my memory. It may well have been a turning point in my life, when foolishly I missed the turn and allowed inaction to define me.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Game of Thrones – Know Your Mormonts

When the burn-face guy almost threw down with the midget's friend? Oh man!

– Me discussing HBO's Game of Thrones

Vulture recently posted a list of mnemonics to aid in remembering the names of characters in Game of Thrones. It's a jokey piece, of no real usefulness. Anyway, even if I could get to a point of being able to memorize all the hundreds of weirdo names in the series, what purpose would it serve? It's not likely anybody else would have put in the same amount of study to be able to know that, when I speak of Jorah Mormont, I refer to the bodyguard of the dragon princess and not to his father, Jeor Mormont, commander of the border guard in the icy north.

I'm probably worse than the average person when it comes to names. I've gotten through entire multi-season TV series without knowing even the main characters' names. In such cases, when discussing the shows, I would just refer to characters with short identifying descriptions, and I would always be perfectly understood. So it is with Game of Thrones; when I say "burn-face guy" or "the midget's friend," people know who I mean (provided they remember the characters at all). "Bald eunuch." "Scheming brothel keeper." "Sadistic prince." "Giant female knight." "Fat king." "The fat king's brother's male lover." "Sarah Connor Chronicles." "That Polynesian guy from Stargate: Atlantis, but you probably know him better as 'Conan' or 'Jason Momoa.'" "Sean Bean." "Sean Bean's wife." "Sean Bean's son." "Sean Bean's ward." "Sean Bean's bastard." And so on and so forth. (Okay, so I don't really use that last one. Jon Snow is probably the only character I know by name, for obvious reasons.)

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Rock Band - The Day the Music Died

After 5 years, 3 main games (plus band-specific and spin-off games), 281 consecutive weeks of new downloadable content, and 1,799 official DLC song releases (plus even more Rock Band Network stuff), Harmonix has drawn the curtain on its Rock Band series, closing last week with Don McLean's "American Pie."  They didn't (and wouldn't) say that this is definitely the end, but the announcement was framed with a reverential finality that seems to preclude there being another game in the series as we've known it. If Harmonix were to release another sequel, it would most likely mark a new beginning, and there's no telling what form it would take. It's hard to imagine, though, that there would ever be another $169.99+ bundle with multiple plastic instruments. I think Harmonix and Activision, over the course of two generations of Rock Band and Guitar Hero games, pretty well burned through what consumers are willing to spend on toy guitars.

In some ways, it's really too bad. I got quite a lot of enjoyment out of the series, but there was also always the sense that it was never as good as it could have and should have been. The people who worked on the games have discussed some of the many hurdles that prevented them from getting all the songs and artists that fans might have wanted, and you can't blame them for what tracks didn't make it into the catalog, however disappointing it may be that we couldn't play more Rolling Stones classics in Rock Band.

Song selection aside, there was always something slightly frustrating about the Rock Band experience, and, as it became more and more apparent that the genre's popularity (and, thus, viability) had peaked somewhere around (or even slightly before) the first Rock Band, I couldn't help feeling that Harmonix's continued mishandling of the series was not only spelling Rock Band's own gradual demise but was also dashing the chances for more original music games to emerge that might actually have been better games, as opposed to virtual rock band dress-up packages. Perhaps Activision, with its well-earned reputation for relentlessly milking franchises, deserves a larger share of the blame for oversaturating the market with Guitar Hero games, but Harmonix and MTV Games, for their part, did release 6 retail 360/PS3 Rock Band titles in 4 years, which, it must be said, is quite a lot.

I was actually a fan of Harmonix's pre-Guitar Hero work. In Amplitude, piecing together the electronica and hip hop tracks element-by-element—percussion, synth, bass, vocals—was a rewarding and even revelatory experience. It opened my eyes (or ears, rather) to how layered and intricate a song's production could be, and it trained me on how to hear each different component of a song, that I might then better appreciate the whole. Rock Band offered, conceptually, a similar experience with its different instrument lanes, but its selection of mostly recognizable rock songs simply was not designed to accentuate the "separate elements coming together" feel that Amplitude pulled off so well with its synthy club soundtrack. Instead, it carried on the dress-up experience of pretend-playing an instrument in Guitar Hero and added, on top of that, an attempt to simulate the experience of playing as a touring band.

On the surface, Rock Band offered a much more compelling narrative, tracing the rise of a band from local gigs for petty cash to the endorsement deals and private planes of international superstardom. In practice, the campaign mode, random and repetitive, was a lot less fun to play than the simpler stage-based structure of Guitar Hero. The half-ass execution of Rock Band's campaign—no real story or characters, no conflict, never anything at stake, just a lot of doing the same thing over and over again until you scored enough to unlock the next venue, which wouldn't really offer anything new anyway—stood in the way of it ever becoming immersive or enjoyable as a simulation. As a game, Rock Band further suffered because, in my opinion, not every role in the band actually made for a fun play. Bass was incredibly boring, the keyboard was spottily represented even in the game it debuted with as the major new feature, and the drums were, for me personally, more frustrating than fun.

Once the fantasy aspects of fake band and fake instrument-playing began to peel away, what remained, in both Rock Band and Guitar Hero, were the songs. More than the plastic guitar, I think what truly made Guitar Hero so appealing originally was that, unlike previous music games, it included actual famous songs that resonated with American gamers. Try as you like to break down a song into its bare notes and rhythms to mathematically illustrate how its technical composition translates to mechanically gratifying gameplay, at the end of the day, most people will tell you that it's just more fun playing a song they know and love. Once singing was added, these games became, for me, karaoke games first and foremost, which merely happened to allow three other players to back me up as I belted out my favorite rock classics. This was now a very different experience from Amplitude—almost not even a game anymore, so much as a snazzy karaoke device with a very limited and easily fooled grading system—but fun in a different, maybe less innovative but more universal way. Admittedly, when getting to sing my favorite songs became the hook, it did become much more of a bummer that Rock Band's catalog was not as comprehensive or diverse as I would have liked, whereas song selection was never so much an issue with Amplitude, since I enjoyed it for the overall gameplay experience and not just specific songs. Still, whatever deficiencies in its gameplay and design, where Rock Band outshone any other music game was as a platform, where you could have potentially thousands of songs available for play in Rock Band 3. Allowing you to keep expanding your library without continually buying a new game (and without having to lose the songs from your old games) was absolutely the right way to go.

But what becomes of Rock Band and of all those songs I've amassed now? Well, the music game genre isn't entirely dead. Ubisoft's Rocksmith is still adding recognizable songs on a regular basis to its own DLC catalog (although that game seems to be much more of a hardcore gateway to real instrument-playing, rather than a fun game for ordinary consumers). And dance games are, right now, one of the hottest genres around. When you consider that the last time they were a fad was before Guitar Hero ever came out, it's not so unthinkable that Guitar Hero (and Rock Band) itself could come back around to being huge in cyclical fashion. My dream, of course, is that Harmonix or somebody will engineer a magical algorithm that can integrate with your own music library or subscription service and be able to dynamically process any song for play in either Rock Band or Amplitude modes. I don't know how feasible that would be for the foreseeable future, either from a technological or legal standpoint. I would guess "not very," but, hey, that's the dream. In the meantime, I think I'll take a day and finally get that "Day Tripper" achievement (play through the entire story mode within 24 hours) in The Beatles: Rock Band.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Roger Ebert, R.I.P.

I'll admit, I haven't read a Roger Ebert review in years, and then only when someone else brought it to my attention for some reason or other. I probably should have read more of his writing, since, in many ways, he successfully and effectively lived the life of my dreams, so I might have learned something from his example.

I did grow up a regular viewer of Siskel and Ebert (and, later, Ebert and Roeper), and I think my childhood was ever so slightly more cultured for it. I didn't watch the show for the reviews; I didn't need recommendations on movies that, as a kid, I couldn't even afford the tickets to on my own. I watched it for the clips. Regardless of how the thumbs went, it was always exciting to catch glimpses of movies I was already looking forward to or was curious about. But, over time, what I appreciated most were the looks at all the movies I would otherwise never even have heard of (and that was most of them). Again, I didn't expect I would ever see 90-95 percent of the movies covered. But, in a way, it was as though Ebert and his partners were watching them in my stead, and, through their show, I was able to get a condensed version of their experience. It was enough to provide me with a larger perspective on cinema, to give me a taste of what all was out there.

In a post-YouTube age, such a program is largely obsolete. Still, I sometimes miss having that appointed time during the week, when I would follow along and take mental notes, as Ebert and company ran through the week's new releases.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Do I have to pay California "use tax"?

For those of you filing California state tax returns, the short answer is "probably." If you bought something and didn't pay sales tax on it, then you owe use tax on your tax return.

For the longer answer, consult your tax return form instructions or the State of California's Franchise Tax Board website. Or if you lack the patience for that, here's my rough understanding of it, as a regular California resident filing as an individual (so none of this applies for businesses or crazy high-rollers):

Use tax is all that "missing tax" that you didn't pay during the year on purchases from online retailers that didn't collect sales tax from you. Use tax has actually been obligatory in California for decades, originally imposed on purchases made out of state, but the state didn't emphasize it until started making billions while collecting no sales tax. Since 2003, California tax forms (540/540A) have included a line for you to report your use tax. Of course, quite a lot of people still didn't report what they owed in use tax, because it was basically an "honor system;" the state had no realistic way to track your online shopping, so it couldn't enforce anything (despite its ongoing threats even to go back and collect interest on unreported use tax from the last eight years). Moreover, it actually asked consumers themselves to manually track all their own purchases and calculate the use tax, which was a huge pain.

In 2012, California finally tried to make it a lot easier by devising the "Estimated Use Tax Table," which allowed consumers to simply pay a specified amount determined by their income range. For example, if you made less than $20,000 in 2011, then your estimated use tax would be a mere $7, even if you had actually dodged more than that in sales tax by shopping online. If you legitimately owed less (because you didn't do a lot of online shopping, in which case good for you), you could, of course, still report less. You also still had to manually track and calculate for anything that cost over $1000, but, again, it was the honor system.

This year (2013, filing your 2012 tax return), use tax is reported on line 95 of Form 540/540A, and the Estimated Use Tax Table is back again:


In late 2012, however, the state finally took away Amazon's tax-free advantage in California, which had been the biggest cause of the "missing taxes." So it's actually possible that, moving forward, you'll owe a lot less use tax, or even none at all (unless you can find another online retailer that won't collect sales tax in California).

(In case it's not clear, the above only applies to California, because that's where I reside and file. There are other states that also collect use tax, but I wouldn't know anything about how they handle it.)

Monday, April 1, 2013

Where have all the vampire hunters gone?

Me: And another thing I like about The Vampire Diaries is that the vampire hunters are actually really cool. I mean, I grew up with Castlevania, where the box art was always this hardcore-looking guy with a whip. Now, with Twilight and all that, it's always some romance story between a human girl and a vampire. There's not even a place for vampire hunters in that kind of story, except as minor supporting characters. I mean, that's true in The Vampire Diaries too. But when the hunters do show up, they're the most hardcore characters on the show. There's not enough of that anymore.

Colleague: What about Buffy?

Me: Oh, you talking about Holtz?

Colleague: I'm talking about Buffy!

Me: Oh yeahhh . . . . I guess I think of her more as a "slayer."

(Also, that was like ten years ago.)