Saturday, December 31, 2011

An Open Letter to the United States Congress

It's time to exercise your privilege and responsibility as a citizen of the United States of America. I encourage you to take a few minutes out of your (understandably) busy schedule to protect your Constitutional rights to freedom of speech and freedom of the presses, by opposing SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act:

- You can write your own letter, or copy and paste the one I wrote if you like it (see below), but make sure to say something to your representatives in the Senate and the House of Representatives. Remember that in politics, silence is consent!

- You can find out who your representatives are by going to

- If you've got the time, you can read the full text of the bill.

- If you don't have the time, you can watch Hank Green's video, "Top 5 Reasons ████ ██ ██████" which explains exactly why SOPA would be so bad for the internet and freedom of speech. (He talks about the movie "Akira" for the first 28 seconds, but rest assured, it's not irrelevant to the point he's making about SOPA).

Dear Congressman/Congresswoman/Senator,

I’ve been hearing a lot about the Stop Online Piracy Act (a.k.a. “SOPA”, or “H.R. 3261”), and most of what I’m hearing is very negative.

I may not work with the film or music industries, but I do work for Google (through a third-party vendor named Genpact), and I speak with small advertisers and online business-owners every day. I see firsthand how many Americans depend on the internet for their income; whether they have brick-and-mortar stores or are entirely online, the internet is the great equalizer of American commerce, and one of our only economic engines that’s doing well in the current economy.

I feel strongly that the powers which would be granted to large entertainment corporations by the provisions within SOPA are unfair to the aforementioned small businesses, as well as freedom of speech and freedom of the presses. Essentially, SOPA will allow a small group of persons not elected by the people to make themselves a de facto internet censorship bureau, with no forms of oversight, redress, or recall. It would be possible for large companies and entertainment giants to wage legal war on one another for the right to distribute content, but small advertisers (such as the ones I work with every day through Google AdWords™) simply don’t have the resources or the time to do that. They would be forced to allow large corporations to shut them down, and would have no effective means to challenge such decisions. Any content which media giants found offensive or inconvenient, they would be able to remove instantly from public view, without any need for a warrant, and without any form of government oversight.

Over the last few years, acts of so-called piracy have increased dramatically. I myself must admit to occasionally watching movies through YouTube and other video sites, but typically only when the film in question is fairly old or rare, and proves difficult to rent or purchase. With ticket prices as high they are, and the economy as it is, there are few Americans who can afford to take their entire family to the newest 3D blockbuster at $15 per person. When one considers that with the advent of user-generated content, one can find almost limitless entertainment online (and all for free), it’s not hard to understand why the market is less and less willing to bear the cost of traditional, “legitimate” means of purchasing entertainment.

I’m not trying to defend internet piracy. What they do is illegal, and involves the distribution of something they do not own and have no right to distribute, even if it is intangible information. But the free market, America’s vox populi, is trying to tell us something. The market no longer views entertainment as the sole province of content-creating professionals, but a collaborative process in which all people may participate. Our views on entertainment, and how much we are willing to pay to be entertained, are changing, and Hollywood needs to change with them.

Napster® and iTunes® are excellent examples of how big business changes (or fails to change) with the times. Napster showed up in the late nineties, ready to change the very nature of the music business, but rather than embracing a new, more efficient and democratic business model, the media giants chose to gang up and crush Napster® before it could mature. A scant few years later, iTunes® showed up on the scene with the backing of a major corporation, fast and reliable service, and prices which reflected how much people were actually willing to pay for their music. The result has been one of the most widely-used and enjoyed music download services in the world. SOPA seeks to undo the progress which has been made in the ten years since Napster® first pointed out that there might be a better way of doing things.

I don’t object to corporations having the power to protect their interests. I don’t even necessarily object to the large salaries given to powerful CEOs, musicians, and movie stars. What I object to is this attempt by Hollywood to dictate not just how people should spend their money, and how much money they should spend, but what people can and cannot put on the internet. The American government was created with a built-in system of checks and balances (as any grade-schooler can tell you), to allow each branch of government to prevent the abuse of power by another branch.

SOPA will grant corporations and CEOs, who are not elected by the American people, powers which are effectively the same as those possessed by certain branches of the U.S. government, but without any form of oversight, transparency, or accountability. This is an irresistible invitation to bad behavior on the part of those being granted these powers. I, for one, will not support this bill, nor will any Representative who supports it receive my vote in future elections. As a matter of fact, I will not cast my vote for any member of a Congress which allows such a bill to pass. I hate to hold your feet to the fire, but the duty of my Representative is to make my voice heard in Congress and the Senate, and if my current Representative is unable to do so, I will be forced to cast my vote for a Representative who is able to do so.

Furthermore, I feel that if America passes this bill, it will seriously damage our credibility in international politics, while we urge countries like China and Iran to stop censoring the internet in their own countries. If we threaten economic sanctions against these rogue states while simultaneously curtailing freedom of the presses and freedom of speech in our own country, we’re not just sending mixed messages; we’re undermining our own credibility, making it look as if the values we attempt to “impose” on the rest of the world are not even cherished and protected in our own country.

I may be only one citizen, but there are many others who feel the same way as I, but lack the time or the inclination to write such long-form letters as I have written you. Perhaps they don’t know about SOPA. Perhaps they don’t care. But I can say for certain that when small businesses start to go bankrupt because large corporations are blocking their attempts to upload new and original content to the internet, their ire will turn on those who signed into law the bill which allows those corporations to thwart their efforts to carve themselves a slice of the American Dream.

David F.K. Wurtsmith

Monday, December 19, 2011

NaNoWriMo: The Aftermath

November was pretty crazy, as you can tell by the fact that we're more than halfway through December before I got around to posting this. I barely had time to see Brianna on a regular basis, let alone anyone else. It was a long slog, and there were more than a few points where I felt like giving up. Most of these moments occurred in the second week, though when I logged in the day after Black Friday and saw the 5,000-word deficit in my word count... well, that was the bleakest moment of my November, let me tell you.

But, against all reason and my own inclination, I persisted. I smashed my own maximum daily output records on two consecutive days. On the November 25th, I more than doubled the largest number of words I'd ever written in a single day. The next day I surpassed even my own newly-set record, and this time without the help of pre-written material in my notebook that I could simply transcribe.

I think that this remarkable increase in productivity would not have been possible without a marvelous pep-talk from Brandon Sanderson. All the other pep-talks this month were by professional writers, but Sanderson I knew by name. He's finishing the Wheel of Time books after the untimely death of their author, Robert Jordan. In his pep talk, Sanderson confided in us that even he, a professional and fairly successful writer, had never completed an attempt at NaNoWriMo, despite doing it for many years. Perversely, it was the knowledge that it would be okay to fall short, and that I would be in good company if I did, that gave me the strength to pull ahead and cross the finish line.

The last days were full of anticipation, and eagerness to regain the alluring jewel known as "Having Free-Time." After a month, its absence was sorely missed from my life.

I at about 10pm EST on November 30th, the final day of NaNoWriMo. My reward was small: an eight-second video of congratulations from the Office of Letters and Light staff, and a full-color printout certificate of victory. I did a little booty-shaking victory dance for Brianna's amusement, printed out two copies of my certificate (one for home and one for work), and promptly went to bed.

The next day, I posted online that I'd won. A few people congratulated me, but otherwise, life went on much as it had before (and during) NaNoWriMo.

Except it wasn't the same. I had become that rarest of rare birds: the Novelist. I had completed NaNoWriMo once before, in 2007, but the draft was utter crap, and it never went anywhere. This year's attempt was different. I wasn't just writing for the sake of overcoming a challenge or winning a wager with myself: I had a story to tell, a story that I believed in, a story that I needed to tell, no matter the cost.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

On the Inevitability of Godwin's Law

It seems that not everyone is aware of the "rules of engagement" for debate and intelligent discourse, so allow me to clarify a point of order which I feel is frequently disregarded in the fields of debate and comparison:

If you compare anything, anything at all, to Hitler or Nazis, then you are a goddamn idiot.

It's not that there aren't valid comparisons to the Third Reich. There absolutely are. Mussolini, Hirohito, and Franco are all great places to start. And there are certainly analogues to the Holocaust in world history: the Spanish Inquisition, of course, but also the reign of the Khmer Rouge, the Rwandan genocide of the early 1990's, and even what's going on right now in Darfur all bear marked similarities to the Holocaust. But bringing up these other genocides would at least be a sign that you'd done your homework. Everyone knows about the Holocaust; the fact that you can make a comparison between some event or practice and the systematic extermination of approximately 14 million human lives is not impressive, and most likely it is a grossly inappropriate comparison.

It makes you look like this.

Comparing something to Hitler or Nazis is such a problem in rhetoric that there's actually a theorem called Godwin's Law which states that "As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one." Eventually, someone is going to make the comparison, and the discussion is essentially over at that point.

Once the subject of a debate has been compared to Nazism, there's no hope for the continuation of cool, rational debate. Nazism is evil, and no one can save face while appearing to defend it, or anything associated with it. The subject so tagged has now gone beyond the field of debate and into metaphysics, perhaps even theology, judging by how fiercely people defend against their pet ideologies being compared with National Socialism. Essentially, the person who proves Godwin right has effectively declared that "viewpoint X is evil, all who espouse it are evil, and any attempt to defend viewpoint X is the equivalent of a hate crime." Once somebody's tossed out an ultimatum like that, it's no wonder that the conversation has nowhere to go but down.

But the most important reason to avoid comparing anything to Hitler or Nazis is that it makes you sound like an idiot. It really does. Even if you're making a totally legitimate comparison between the practices and propaganda of the Third Reich with some equally villainous organization (for example, the Taliban), the act of comparing anything with das Vaterland is so tainted by its association with spluttering, indignant maniacs that even legitimate comparisons suffer for it. Even if the comparison is valid, well-considered, and backed up by data and historical evidence, anyone listening is likely to be on their guard against such comparisons, will assume that such comparison is being made falsely, and will react just as one might predict. Mentioning Nazis chenges the whole tenor of a debate from an attempt to arrive at truth to a desperate struggle to crush the forces of evil under a merciless barrage of logic and namecalling.

In debate as well as in life, just stay away from Nazis. Nothing good can come of inviting them to come in.

Monday, October 17, 2011


As some of you might already know, November is National Novel-Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for short. In this month of dismal weather and nationwide turkey-murdering, crazy people with literary aspirations across the country will allow their lives to be dominated by the pursuit of a goal which is certifiably insane: to draft an entire 50,000-word novel (about 175 pages) in the space of a single 30-day calendar month.

It's insane, yes. Absolutely. Nobody's denying that. But impossible? Not at all: Thousands of people cross that finish-line every year before 11:59:59 on November 30th. I did it myself in 2007, though I've yet to duplicate the feat. This year, things are a little more stable, my wallet is a little fuller, and I expect and intend to make it through again.

And really, there's no other way to approach it. Everyone (and I do mean everyone in the entire world) has a Great Idea for a novel, a movie script, a video game, a poetry collection, a graphic novel, or whatever floats your particular literary boat. And every one of those selfsame people knows that they are far too busy right now to even consider starting another project on the side. Better to wait until you're retired, and have all the wisdom and free time you'll need to accomplish such a Serious Literary Endeavor.

But that's never going to happen. You'll never have free time, and you're never going to feel wise enough for something so serious and weighty. You'll keep putting it off, becoming more and more afraid of screwing up your Great Idea, and it'll never get done. It'll never even get started.

So the solution is to do it now. As in, right now. Like, starting November 1st, 2011, and committing yourself to getting the first rough draft down on paper by midnight on November 30th, 2011. No backsliding, no procrastination, and no weaseling out. Just sit down at your computer, slap on your word-wranglin' boots, and join the other thousands of like-minded whackos who have similarly committed themselves to such a poorly-planned assault on the ivory tower of Serious Literature.

If such a mad assault appeals to you, you can sign up to join us at NaNoWriMo's website. It's free to sign up, and free to participate. You have nothing to loose but your own self-doubt.

Hoping to see you on the other side of the literary finish-line,
D.F.K. Wurtsmith. Esq.

P.S. If you're interested, but don't feel like signing up, then you can to check up on my progress during the month of November at Please, feel free to mock me mercilessly if I fall behind my self-imposed word-count goal.

Friday, September 9, 2011

"Please To Be Removing Your Shoes"

I don't normally blog about work, but for a few years I've had a feeling that we (i.e., Westerners) were doing something wrong, and my time cleaning carpets for Stanley Steemer has only confirmed my initial suspicion.

ATTENTION, ALL OF WESTERN SOCIETY! The multitudinous peoples of Asia have it right: We should be taking our shoes off before coming indoors.


In the four months I've been with Stanley Steemer (which are among the busiest of the whole carpet-cleaning calendar), I have cleaned carpets in probably a thousand homes. Maybe more, maybe slightly less. But in all that time, I can only recall doing one job in an Asian person's house. Maybe two, if you count Indian people as Asian.

I'll admit, part of the reason for the disparity is due to the fact that outside of Ann Arbor, there aren't a great number of Asian-Americans in southeast Michigan. But demographics alone cannot account for a difference so massive. In my professional opinion, I feel that the reason Asian people need their carpets cleaned so rarely is simply because they don't wear their dirty shoes around the house. They either wear slippers or they go barefoot.

Really, there is no good reason to wear your shoes indoors. It's slightly more hassle to take 'em off, but in the long run, you'll have to pay for carpet-cleaning much less often. Asides from being cleaner, your carpets will look better in the meantime, since slippers and bare feet are far less abrasive than rubber soles.

Taking off your shoes before entering a home just makes sense. In fact, it makes sense for entering just about any building. Think back to your days in the public schools (assuming you even need to think back at all, in the case of younger readers). Remember how, in winter, the soundtrack of the entire day was "wet shoes squeaking on tile floors"? Even if you weren't trying to make noise, the simple act of shifting your weight in your chair could set off a loud, grating squeal in an otherwise quiet classroom. Some kids liked to make those noises on purpose, all day long, thinking they were being clever or subversive. For months at a time, the entire floor of the main entrance to your school would be submerged under a shallow lake of cold and dirty water, no matter how much time the janitor spent mopping it up.

But that never happens in Japanese schools. You know why? Because all students stash their gross, wet, smelly, dirty, worn-down, black-rubber-soled, dog-poop-encrusted outdoor shoes in little cubbyholes near the entrance at the beginning of each day, and immediately put on a clean pair of shoes which are only ever worn indoors. The end result is that the floors in Japanese schools are never wet, an no-one has to worry about accidentally setting their books or papers down in a puddle of melting snow, or slipping and falling into dirty foot-water.

Really, there's no reason not to take your shoes off when coming indoors. I'm not suggesting that you should always carry a set of "indoor shoes" with you; if no one else is doing it, your indoor shoes will wind up just as dirty as your outdoor ones. But honestly, we as a society should change this cultural habit. It costs us extra time and money to clean our floors more often, and that's time and money that could be put to better use. The change will be slow, and not many people will go for it right away, but as the saying goes, "Change starts at home."

So make a change, and save yourself a little money!

Trust me on this one. I'm a professional.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Last Battle

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 was, in my opinion, a fitting capstone to one of the greatest book-to-film adaptations of our time. Over the past decade, the Harry Potter movies have been more than a cultural phenomenon: it's a cultural force in its own right. Most often, when popular books make it to the big screen, the film becomes a point of origin for a line that divides the fanbase into "true fans" and those who just saw the movie. But I feel that this isn't the case with Harry Potter. Sure, there are plenty of fans who insist that you're not a true fan if you haven't read the books (and I'll admit that's a position I've taken myself, on days I'm not feeling particularly generous), but I feel that those who truly understand the spirit of the Wizarding World can accept that the movies are not necessarily a lesser experience than the books, simply a different one.

And let's be honest, if you've only seen the movies, then at least that's a step in the right direction. These films are some of the finest big-budget blockbusters crafted in our lifetimes, and they feature the cream of the crop of British actors. Any film series which manages to include the likes of Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Emma Thompson, Robbie Coltrane, Gary Oldman, David Thewlis, Ralph Fiennes, Julie Walters, Brendan Gleeson, and the incomparable Alan Rickman deserves... well... I don't know what. Something big, anyway! Maybe their prize is just the chance to be connected with something so huge, so international, so important to so many people all over the world, both children and adults.

Difference is key. If the movies were exactly like the books in every respect, they wouldn't be nearly as much fun to watch. If I want to see Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone precisely as the author wrote it, then I can just reread the book. I've read that dialogue (and listened to Jim Dale read it) before; I don't need to pay ten bucks a head to see an actor read me a book that's already sitting on my shelf at home.

As always, John Green has interesting thoughts on book-to-movie translations, and the relative merits (and demerits) of remaining slavishly faithful to the source material. And hey, he conveniently agrees with me! What a crazy random happenstance!

We Potterites should be thankful for what we've gotten: eight amazing films, populated by the crème de la crème of British actors, and helmed by some of the best directors in the world, which not only bring our imaginations to the big screen, but allow us that most precious of all gifts: another glimpse, from an excitingly different vantage point, into the the enchanting, alluring, magical world of the Boy Who Lived.

To paraphrase Dumbledore: Don't pity the dead; pity the living. And most especially, pity those who go through life with only a single glimpse of Harry Potter.

Thursday, June 16, 2011 The Single Greatest History Teacher of All Time Ever, much like its namesake, is a highly addictive substance. Though I love the site dearly, and enjoy reading just about everything they produce, I find it necessary to remove it from my bookmarks list if I ever want to get some work done ever again in my life.

Part of their power comes from the site's format: lots of links, articles on intriguing subjects, titles that pique the reader's interest, and a complete and utter lack of pretentiousness. But I think the biggest factors accounting for the site's popularity and effectiveness at spreading information are: 1)the content of the articles themselves, and 2) the irrepressible sense of amazement and wonder that the writers bring to the table.

Every article that graces the "pages" of this digital humor publication is practically bubbling over with enthusiasm. Reading their material, one almost can't help but get excited about... umm... well, whatever the article that you're reading happens to be about! They just make it so much fun to learn about the world!

Wait, did I just use the words "fun" and "learning" in the same sentence? Yes, that's right: doesn't just make it fun to learn about the world as it was, is, and yet might be; it actually makes you want to learn more!!!

If you're like most people (particularly Americans), you probably thought that History was one of the most boring classes you were ever forced to take. It consisted mainly of watching a mustachioed, middle-aged man in a geeky sweater drone on for 45 minutes about stuff that happened way before you were born, when people were stupid and dressed all funny and didn't shower.

But imagine if, instead of starting off the semester with a coma-inducing PowerPoint presentation, your History teacher walked into the room on the first morning of class and announced that you were going to start with a discussion of the The 6 Most Insane Underdog Stories in the History of Battle? Or a lesson about great modern inventions that have their roots in unbelievably gruesome tragedy? Don't you think you and your classmates might have leaned forward a little in your seats? Just a bit?

All of has that effect on people.

Detractors complain about its poor academic standards, its haphazard research, and its noted tendency to exaggerate the "awesome factor" in its stories. And you know what? I don't give a rat's ass. Anything, anything at all, that can convince a kid to go online and willingly read something about the past is, by definition, a good thing!

Even in America (allegedly the "greatest country on Earth"), there are a truly horrifying number of people who graduate high school without even so much as a basic grasp of historical perspective. So what if what they're reading is more fluff than substance? At least it gets them off their asses (so to speak) and makes them hunger for more. It forces people to appreciate just how weird, wild, cool, mixed-up, crazy and friggin' unbelievable the world is. is not content to sit by and say "You should know more about history," or "This is important, kids!" It physically reaches out of your screen, slaps you across the face, and shouts "PAY ATTENTION! THE WORLD IS AN AMAZING PLACE!"

People need to be forced to confront the world they live in. In a democratic system (which I believe the planet is heading towards, albeit slowly), the people generally get what they deserve, in terms of their government. An uninformed populace, one which cannot recognize the repeating patterns of history, will condemn itself to being governed by those who, like so many before them, do not have the best interests of the people at heart.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Movie Review: The Cave of Forgotten Dreams

For several weeks now, I had been hoping to see this film, and I was starting to get a little antsy. I really wanted to see it in theaters; if I couldn't, then there didn't seem to be a point. This is because the 3D nature of the film is so integral to the experience that viewing it in a paltry two dimensions would really just be a waste of your time. Don't get me wrong, you'd still learn a lot, and it's a very thought-provoking film, but the whole reason that Werner Herzog & Co. got a special permit from the French government to film inside the Chauvet caves was so that they could give people all over the world the chance to stand nose-to-nose with primeval history.

First off, it's not a very long film. Only about 90 minutes or so. That's almost equal to the time it actually took to shoot the whole thing! Actually, slightly less, but their time inside was severely limited. The French government is highly wary of letting too many people into the caves; their delicate, perfectly balanced climates are the only reason that these paintings look so fresh. (If not for the thin layers of calcified deposits, you'd think they were painted yesterday.) The French government tried opening another nearby cave to tourists, and the collective moisture from their breath caused mold to grow on the cave walls, so access to the caves is highly restricted, and highly limited on the exceedingly rare occasions when it is granted.

The Chauvet caves were discovered a mere 15 years ago, almost by accident, by a trio of amateur spelunkers. They contain cave-paintings from as far back as 32,000 years ago! That's six times as old as the pyramids, folks! Sixteen times as old as Christianity! Eighty times as old as the freaking concept of gravity! These paintings, made from simple plant dyes and applied by the flickering lights of torches, are considerably older than the human mind could ever really hope to comprehend.

And they're gorgeous! The level of detail that went into these things, despite their apparent simplicity, is really something that can only be achieved by living in close proximity to these animals for your entire life.

In one corner, a pair of woolly rhinoceroses battle one another. One can almost hear the impact, feel the shaking of the earth as these enormous beasts collide. Nearby, a bull bison gallops out of an alcove, seeming to barrel right past the viewer. Elsewhere, running gazelles and horses are drawn with multiple legs, to create an illusion of rapid movement, more than thirty millennia before comic-book artists would rediscover the technique for their own use.

In every case, the placement of the creatures is by no means random or haphazard. Some juxtaposed images were actually painted thousands of years apart! This means that these early humans had generations in which to figure out the perfect placement of each animal, each limb, each subtle nuance of position and composition. Every painting in the cave is carefully placed, in a way that utilizes the natural flow and bulge of the cave wall to accentuate the form of each creature, and even create the illusion of movement.

The summer when I was twelve, my family took a vacation to Mammoth Caves National Park in Kentucky, one of the largest cave systems in the world. At one point during the tour, about halfway through, the guide led us into a large cavern, and she asked us, for just a moment, to be completely silent and still, while she turned out the lights for a moment. My family did a lot of things on that trip, but that moment of absolute darkness and unbroken silence remains, to this day, one of my most vivid memories of that entire trip. The darkness was so complete, I could almost feel it hovering over and around me, pressing itself against the very surface of my eyeballs.

The Cave of Forgotten Dreams was a lot like that moment of darkness, in a way. Watching this film gives one an almost tangible feeling of being in the presence of some enormous, invisible, unknowable thing, which, if you were to reach out your hand to its extremity, your fingertips might just barely brush against something hairy, and warm, and much, much older than you.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Dave's Guidelines for Life

The Dalai Lama recently created a list of 18 "Rules for Living", which he hopes will help people live happier, better, more productive and loving lives. And by "recently", I mean "a decade ago." (That's me: Stayin' on top of recent trends on the Information Superhighway!)

Though I don't think I'm nearly as well-qualified as His Holiness to guide others on the path to right living and happiness, I am a person, and I live on the same planet as all other people, so that's a start, right?

Anyway, I've been thinking about this, and I've come up with a little list of my own Guidelines for Life. I won't call them rules, because if life has taught me anything, it's that everything depends on context, and most rules that don't take that into account can easily be abused by those who seek to impose their own beliefs and judgments on other human beings. I don't want to do that, or have others do that in my name; hence, the important change of word.

I've only made a list of ten guidelines: partly because it's a nice round number, and partly because I simply haven't spent as much time on this Earth as His Holiness, and therefore can offer fewer perspectives on how it works.

So here you go, in no particular order:

1. It's always more complicated than you think.

Nothing happens in a vacuum. Everything, and I do mean everything, affects everything else in creation. "You can't pick a flower without jiggling a star," as the proverb goes. The whole of the universe, particularly the universe of human interaction, is a single undifferentiated whole, and each part affects that whole. Until you know every part of that whole, you can't possibly understand any part of it. Whatever your understanding of the nature of the universe might be, it is very probably wrong, or at the very least, incomplete.

2. Nullum gratuitum prandium.
This Latin proverb means, roughly, that there is no such thing as a free lunch. People don't throw their money away; they expect to get something in return, quid pro quo. Find out why a person is doing what they're doing, before you trust them.

3. Don't let your emotions dictate how you feel.
A lot of people, when they get upset or depressed, seem to wallow in their own misery and despair. Even I do this sometimes, though less than I used to, I like to think. While these are natural reactions to the human condition, and it is important to express them, you shouldn't fixate on them to the point where they control your life and mind. It is possible to choose to be happy, to consciously decide that you're done being stressed out, and just let go. Release your anger, let go of your rage. If it's something worth feeling, then it'll come back to you, and you can deal with it then. But don't let your own little pity-party get in the way of enjoying life.

4. No one wants to hear you complain.
...and I mean nobody! Not even your close friends and family. They might listen to you more than others, because they want you to feel better, but it's possible to wear out their patience. Don't dump all your unhappiness on those closest to you.
It took me a long time to realize that complaining was not the same as commisserating, but I'm glad I figured it out.

5. Revenge will never make you feel better.
I'm sorry to admit that I have, on occasion, taken little acts of revenge on people who I felt had wronged me, or someone I cared about. And let me tell you, it has never, not even once, made me feel even the tiniest bit better. It's only made me feel worse: the damage wasn't undone, and I felt even more upset, because I'd just proved that I wasn't the better man.
...which brings me to my next guideline, which might be called a corollary to this one:

6. Always apologize. Even if you don't mean it.
This one seems a little counter-intuitive, even dishonest, but hear me out. Sometimes, apologizing is the only way to make a situation better, but your pride won't allow it. You were in the right, and you know it, and you think the other person knows it too. You have no reason to apologize. You did what was right, and damn the consequences.
Well, forget about that. It's not important. In a few years, hindsight will probably show that you acted unkindly. In the meantime, you need to prove to the other person, as well as to yourself, that you're willing to let bygones be bygones, and not reopen old wounds. Often you might find that the very act of apologizing is all it takes to break down your own mental defenses and admit wrongdoing. Hearing those words come out of your mouth frequently helps you to believe them yourself.

7. You need to make time for what's important to you.
Your life is always going to be hectic and busy. There's never going to be a quiet time for you to start painting, or take up Tai Chi, or learn how to sail, or write that screenplay you've always wanted to write. Not even when you retire.
If you want to have any hope at all of living your own dreams, then you need to start them RIGHT NOW! Don't wait for a sign, or a break, or a quiet moment. Sit right down and make concrete plans to start them up today.
In the end, we don't have any tomorrows; just a series of todays.

8. The personal is political.
Many people think that what they do in their spare time, or in the privacy of their own homes, is apolitical, because politics involves public attention. Well, sorry to burst your bubble, but that simply isn't true. No man is an island, and so each person's actions affect other people. A senator who works to pass legislation that will defend the rights of domestic abuse survivors, but beats his own wife at home, is not only a hypocrite, but actually undoing all the good he's done in office. Even if she never tells another soul, the damage done to her will inevitably come out in other ways: her work, her friendships, her art, even her relationships with her children. We pass along our scars and injuries to those around us in subtle ways, often unintentionally.
Your personal views reflect, more than anything else, your views of how the world ought to run, and the changes you want to see in it. Make sure you're sending the message you want to send.

9. Suffering builds character.
Once again, Bill Watterson (the celebrated creator of the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes) was right. I think he meant this maxim (which was a favorite of Calvin's dad), to be sort of a joke about his own father. But over the years, I've seen it proven true again and again. To suffer is to understand the human condition. Each of us puts on an emotional suit of armor, each day when we go out the door. It protects us from the daily disappointments, the "thousand natural shocks/ That flesh is heir to," but it also keeps us from empathizing with our fellow human beings, keeps us from understanding the depth of their suffering. It's what makes us change the channel whenever a Feed the Children ad shows up on TV, or makes us navigate away from a page that includes a link to the Smile Train, accompanied by an image of a weeping, harelipped child.
Suffering creates cracks in this armor, and allows us to become a little closer to our fellow human beings.

10. Everything that's important is difficult. No exceptions.
Ask your parents what it was like, raising you as a child. Was it easy? Of course not. Ask a director if making blockbusters was something that came naturally to him from a young age. Do you think that your favorite musician makes albums because it was the easiest way to make money that she could think of? No, no, and no.
They don't do these things because they're easy, or because they're good at them. They do it because they're addicted to challenge, because they can't help but push themselves, because doing anything else would mean to "go tumbling down into that satisfying darkness, the darkness of ease, the darkness of acquiescence, the milk-livered niddering darkness of sweet sweet cowardice."
If it was easy, then everyone else would have already done it by now. Don't despair: the difficulties you're having only prove that you're doing the right thing.


So, there you go. There they are. Take the ones you like, leave the ones you don't, and try to leave the world a better place than it was when you found it.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Everything Must Go

This August, I'll be moving in with my fabulous and amazing girlfriend Brianna. In preparation for this momentous occasion, I have been rooting through my boxes and bookcases, trying to trim the unnecessaries out of my personal library. Some items I won't need because Brianna's already got a copy. Others simply don't interest me anymore.

Whatever the cause, I feel like it's always a good idea to get rid of things you don't plan on using. Better to give them to a friend, who might gain a little more enjoyment out of them. This maxim is especially true, I find, when applied to books and movies.

So, without further ado, I present a complete list of items up-for-grabs from my personal library. More may be added as the Big Day approaches, but for now, there are simply too many to be contained by a simple Facebook post.

Let me know if you want any of them, and I'll do my best to get them to you. Keep in mind that the list may not yet be complete, depending on how merciless I decide to be.

[An asterisk next to a title means that it has already been claimed.]

*The Odyssey, Homer (trans. W.H.D. Rouse)
The Arabian Nights (trans. Richard F. Burton)
Collier's Junior Classics: Myths and Legends
Random House English-Spanish Dictionary
Piers the Plowman, by William Langland
*The Bhagavad-Gita (a central holy text of Hinduism)
Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing (mostly poetry)
Lyra's Oxford, by Phillip Pullman (short sequel to the His Dark Materials trilogy)
The Idea of the Canterbury Tales
Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?
Your Inner Fish: A Journey Into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body, by Neil Shubin
Associated Press Stylebook 2007
The Lonely Planet Travel Guide to Dublin, Ireland

Graphic Novels
You Don't Look 35, Charlie Brown!, by Charles Schulz
*Blankets, by Craig Thompson
*The Best of "The Spirit", by Will Eisner

*Finding Nemo
Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl
The Fellowship of the Ring (fullscreen edition)
The Two Towers (widescreen edition)
The Return of the King (widescreen edition)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (original 1992 movie)
Spider Man
Spider Man 2

*Grave of the Fireflies
The Simpsons: Season 1
Ghost in the Shell
The Animatrix

Friday, May 6, 2011

Gratuity Not Included

It has lately been brought to my attention that a great many people, when they patronize dining establishments (any dining establishment; I'm not talking about any specific restaurants here), make a point of patronizing the staff as well. They speak down to their waitress, flood her with special requests, and after making her work so hard for them, either leave no tip, or an insultingly small one.

Perhaps this is because a large portion of the public are laboring under a set of delusions about waiters' and waitresses' careers. Shockingly, some people reach adulthood without ever having worked in the restaurant business. Herewith, I shall do my own small part to enlighten the general public.

Misconception #1: Servers make an hourly wage, so tipping is just icing on the cake.
While servers do make an hourly wage, it's not enough to pay the bills. Most employers only pay their servers' state and federal taxes, and nothing more. This pay, which is well below minimum wage, is withheld by the government. In effect, most servers work for tips, and tips alone.

Misconception #2: Tipping is optional; it's polite to do, but not ultimately necessary.
Pretend that you're working at your job, whatever that might be. One Friday afternoon, your boss comes to you and asks if you could put in a little extra time this weekend, to help out with a special project: a party for a retiring bigwig in your company. All your other coworkers are doing it, so you'll be the odd man (or woman) out if you don't show. You didn't really have any plans for the weekend anyway, so you say OK, figuring it's better to go and build some credit with the boss. Besides, you can tell that refusal would be unwise.

You show up at your workplace on Saturday, and you give it your all. You really go the extra mile, and do everything the boss asks, with a smile on your face to boot. You figure there's gonna be a nice, juicy bonus in your future, for all the hard work you've done.

Payday rolls around, and you find that there's no overtime pay in your check. There's not even a bonus or anything. You ask your boss what's up, and he says that because you weren't on the clock, he's not legally obliged to pay you anything. Your service was entirely voluntary (even though you knew that refusing might get you in trouble, and possibly lose you your job.)

That's what not getting a tip feels like. She's already given you a service, on the understanding that she will be paid for it. Even if the service was poor, she's still within her rights to be paid for it. If you walk out on the bill for your food because it didn't taste great, the manager is likely to inform you that the transaction doesn't work like that.

When you receive goods, you pay for them. When you receive a service, the same rule applies.

Misconception #3: A 15% tip is a generous reward for exceptional service.
Maybe this was true back in the 90's, but not today. Not in 2011. The dollar has inflated since then, and the costs of living are high. Not to mention the bad economy. People are eating out less, and tipping less, so each dollar earned is vital.

The standard tip for average service is 20%. If you feel that your waitress has gone above and beyond, then her percentage should increase accordingly.

Misconception #6: Waitresses deal with people all day long, and I'm in a hurry. She won't mind if I'm a little curt or rushed with her.
While any waitress worth her salt will maintain her professionalism in the face of fairly harsh treatment, it does tend to wear on one's nerves after a few hours. Most people who come into a restaurant are in a hurry to eat and get out. Though they never intend to be rude to their waitress, they can sometimes come across as uncaring. A simple "please" and "thank you" will work wonders on the kind of service which your waitress will give you. Just because she's working an "unskilled" job does not make her less worthy of your full attention, respect, and common courtesy.

Furthermore, it's in your own interest to treat your waitress with respect, and to tip well. A happy waitress is a productive waitress. Any decent waitress will do her best to serve all her tables equally, but human nature is still human nature. She's bound to show better service to the tables which treat her well, and make her feel good. Even if you can't afford to leave a big tip, and tell her so, she'll often be very understanding. Good manners and empathy can make even a complex order for a large table seem much less of a burden.

A few words of kindness are often all it takes to win your waitress' best service. All she asks for is a little respect; a little dignity.

Isn't that something we all want from our jobs?

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Wrong Side of History

I wonder: In a few generations, when our distant descendants access their history feeds, and take a look back at the 21st century, will they look on the meat-eaters among us with the same horror and embarrassment with which we look back on slave-traders?

I don't think that veganism (or even vegetarianism) will become the dominant mode of nourishment for most people in the developed world anytime soon. Probably not even in this century, if ever. But it is a growing movement. I personally feel that, barring the occasional violent repression, humanity is definitely trending towards increased freedom and equality. As my Dad likes to point out, at the beginning of the 20th century, no country on Earth was a true democracy. Not even the United States. By the end of that same century, democracy was not only the norm, but through the United Nations, democratic nations actually had the power to peacefully impose economic sanctions on states which mistreat their citizens.

So, democracy and freedom are on the rise. People are showing more concern for their fellow humans. But what about their fellow organisms? What about freedom for other types of animals?

Most people, when asked about vegetarianism, will say that they respect it as a lifestyle, but it's not for them. They admire vegetarians' commitment to animal rights, but they don't personally feel the need to change their eating habits. When pressed, most of them will try to deflect criticism with humor: "Animals may be our friends, but they're so delicious!"

This argument doesn't hold much water. Simply because something is easy or pleasurable does not make it morally acceptable. Most people recognize that the meat they buy at the grocery store does not come from animals who have lived a full and happy life on Old MacDonald's Farm (E-I-E-I-O). Even fewer would feel comfortable actually watching a slaughter take place. People feel uncomfortable acknowledging that the meat on their table, until very recently, was a living, breathing animal.

People acknowledge this, but they ignore what they know. I feel it's similar, or at least related to, the tendency to change the channel as soon as a Save the Children ad comes on TV. They feel guilty, and know that they haven't been doing all they could. To open themselves to the suffering of one child means acknowledging the suffering of many more, and facing up to the fact that until that moment, they could have saved lives but chose not to.

Carnivores say that animals aren't human, and hence don't deserve the same rights. We feed and shelter them, and thus it's within our rights to use them as we see fit. They couldn't survive in the wild anyway, and we keep them safe and well fed for their whole lives, which may be short, but hey, they're not missing too much, right? What's more, eating meat is a central part of many cultures, and has existed since the dawn of time. The last time we tried to outlaw something so delicious and fun to consume was during Prohibition, and that didn't go over too well, now did it? Besides, the meat industry built several major American cities (such as Chicago), and many towns still depend heavily upon it for their economic sustenance. In 2009, the U.S. cattle and beef industry alone was valued at $73 billion!

Well, I hate to break it to you, but these arguments all sound suspiciously like the ones that slaveholders used to argue against Abolition. The fact is that vegetarianism is on the rise in the developed world, and those who continue to eat meat may one day find themselves on the wrong side of history.


But what about me? I eat meat all the time! I know the moral implications (as you can see in the blog post above), but I continue to eat it anyway. Even for someone like me, who (more-or-less) knows the science and knows that it would be better to make a change, the process is very difficult. We don't live in a society which encourages vegetarianism. It's tolerated, even accommodated, but it's very difficult to avoid eating animals when even Caesar salad dressing contains pureed anchovies.

Going vegetarian would be better for my health, would help reduce or prevent climate change, would make it easier to end world hunger, and is better for the welfare of my fellow creatures.

So what's stopping me? Am I being too hard on myself? Or am I just lazy?

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

In Which Several Exciting Discoveries Are Made

In the acclaimed 2008 Pixar film WALL-E, there is a scene where one of the residents of the starship Axiom notices, for the first time in his life, that they've got a pool! He's lived there for his whole life; in fact, several generations of his family have lived there for their entire lives, and he never even suspected that they had a pool. No one bothered to tell him, and he never bothered to find out.

I thought that this was meant as a warning from Pixar. "If you don't do something different, your descendants might wind up like this." But now I realize that the warning was actually directed at us.

Case in point: the walk I took today.

After living in Ypsilanti on-and-off for six years, I tend to think of myself as an old hand. I might not know as much about the city as a native townie, but I certainly know a lot more than an incoming freshman, and maybe more than your average graduate. I felt like I knew this city pretty well.

But I've realized how little I truly know. This afternoon I took a walk from my apartment to Michigan Avenue, intending to walk through Riverside Park, and maybe Frog Island Park as well. But once there, I happened to glance across Michigan Avenue, and I realized that although I had walked and driven by this area many times, I had never bothered to see what lay south of Michigan Avenue. I decided on a whim to change my plan; I wanted to see how far south I could walk along the Huron River.

Turns out that's quite a ways, thanks to the B2B (Border-to-Border) Trail, a non-motorized trail that runs along the length of the Huron River, passing completely through almost half a dozen counties in Southeast Michigan. I never even knew that such a long biking and walking trail was even in the works, let alone actually being built!

I can't say for sure how long or how far I walked, but I was gone for quite a while. I saw many strange and secluded places that filled me with a sense of what the Germans call ruinenlust - a love of ruins and abandoned places. I saw broken lamp-posts that had been converted into birds' nests, like some postmodern spin on The Chronicles of Narnia. I discovered a vast desert of gravelly sand; a ring of stumpy, broken stone squares; a rickety, moss-covered old footbridge; an entire park that I'd never even heard about; a disc-golf course; the warren of what appeared to either be a woodchuck or a groundhog; the overgrown remains of a baseball diamond and batting cage, the broken lights watching over all like blind giants; and a swingless swing-set that had been abandoned for so long that trees were growing right up through the structure itself.

I wish I had taken pictures. If I had known what I would be seeing, I would certainly have brought my camera. Maybe I'll make another trip sometime soon, and post the pictures here. Or on Facebook. Who knows? It's an adventure!

My point is: go for a walk. Like, today. Right now. Just put your hands in your pockets, pick a direction, and walk as far as you can. You might be surprised at the things you've never noticed from the window of your car. You might have been living in your neighborhood for years, but have you ever really explored it?

Now seems like as good a time as any to find out.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Animatronics: Not Dead, Just In Storage

When was the last time you saw a film (besides on DVD or through Netflix!) which boasted of using of "the most advanced animatronics available"? Or indeed, any animatronics at all? A long time ago, I'm willing to bet. Ten years? Maybe more?

To look at it from another angle, when was the last time you saw animatronics used in a real-life, face-to-face setting? Chuck E. Cheese's? Some ride at a theme park for a movie that left theaters fifteen or twenty years ago? Okay, I seem to recall encountering one or two robotic puppets at "The Wizarding World of Harry Potter", but they weren't true animatronics, just models of giant spiders attached to robotic arms.

Animatronics just don't seem to get the same amount of love they once did. The reasons for this are threefold:
1) animatronics are expensive, and once you've made one it's set in stone; you can't do a redesign if the creature doesn't test well with audiences;
2) animatronics contain thousands of moving parts, the malfunction of any one of which could cause the whole machine to cease working, leading to costly delays when filming must be halted while repairs are made; and
3) animatronics are subject to many of the same laws of physics which they attempt to overcome. For example, you can't build a three-story tall praying mantis animatronic for the same reason that a real three-story tall praying mantis wouldn't work: an insect that large simply could not support its own weight.

With these fairly major shortcomings in mind, it's no wonder that filmmakers have turned to CGI to satisfy their needs in the special-effects department.

But I feel that animatronic animals and characters have several advantages over CGI. Advantages which suggest that animatronic technology is not yet dead, nor yet completely outdated.

Number One: Animatronics will always look real.
This one gets swept under the rug a lot. When making a film, the director's primary concern is to get the movie finished on-deadline and under-budget. Everything else is secondary. But what director doesn't want their movies to look good for future audiences, when their films are being displayed by historical societies or film-school professors? The temptation to not just do well, but to leave landmarks for those who follow in one's footsteps is a powerful desire in many directors.

For proof, one simply needs to look at Star Wars.

Pop a copy of Episode I into your DVD player, and take a good look at Jar-Jar Binks. (I know it hurts. Just bear with me for a moment.) Look at how he moves, how he interacts with the objects and actors around him. It doesn't quite look right, does it? Kinda... floaty, right? Like he's not really there? Jar-Jar was created just twelve years ago, using the most advanced CGI technology that had ever been assembled at that time. Barely a decade has passed, and he already looks fake.

Okay, now eject the disk, invite a priest over to purify your entertainment system, and pop in your DVD of Star Wars: A New Hope. Take a good hard look at Chewbacca. He looks really solid, doesn't he? He makes fluid motions, casts realistic shadow-effects, and has a palpable stage-presence. That movie is twenty years older than Episode I, yet Chewie still looks more realistic than Jar-Jar ever could. Why is this? It's because Chewbacca was actually there on the set! Which brings me to my next point,

Number Two: Animatronics have superior stage-presence to purely-CGI characters.

When a CGI character interacts with a flesh-and-blood actor, in almost every case the actor was playing to an empty room, or a blank green-screen. As any actor will tell you, playing a part, any part at all, without another human presence to judge by and interact with, is an extremely difficult endeavor. Even if there was a man in a skintight greensuit standing where the monster's going to be in the final version, it's not the same as actually having the monster standing right in front of you, roaring and spitting venom in your face.

Number Three: Animatronic characters have a warmer, more human appearance.
Even if the character in question is not human at all, animatronics often induce much greater feelings of affection in audiences than any CGI character. Because the machines are bound by the same laws of physics as we are, their motions, by definition, look real and natural. While animators are busy trying to figure out how to convey a sense of weight and solidity in their creations, all a puppeteer needs to do is hit the "ON" switch and play around for a few minutes.

Furthermore, the fact that a puppeteer (or team of puppeteers) controls the machine's every motion means that all their motions will be infinitely more human. The animators don't need to search for the key to simulating natural movement; it's sitting right in front of them, waggling its ears and making faces at them.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Gender, On- and Off-Court

I recently heard a coworker comment that women's sports leagues are so very badly under-exposed and under-watched, because:
1) sports are a male-dominated field,
2) men don't watch women's sports, and
3) women who watch sports spend most of their time watching men's leagues anyway.

This got me thinking. Are we being fair to female players by making them compete only with other women? Are we ghettoizing them for having different bodies, for being female?

Now, I know just as well as the next person that women and men have different bodies and different skills. Women, by and large, are simply not as strong as their male counterparts. But not all women are less strong than all men! Women bring a different set of skills to the table, such as a lower center of gravity and better endurance. Aren't these valuable qualities? Couldn't any good coach find a place on his team for a male player who displayed such attributes?

Some people who I've discussed this with (including my girlfriend) say that women should be divided from men in sports, because without a male presence on the field, women will play much more aggressively. In the presence of men, they become weak and ladylike.

But perhaps this is merely a function of the fact that girls are never pushed to compete against men, or alongside them? What if all sports were gender-integrated from elementary on up? Would boys stop being unconsciously domineering towards their female teammates? Would they see them not as girl players, but as fellow players who possess different strengths and weaknesses? Maybe they'd just see 'em as "one of the guys".

One problem with this approach is the spectators who fund these leagues. They want faster, harder, more brutal plays. Plays which female players simply cannot deliver. But as my Political Science professor said to me on my first day of college, "Rules influence outcomes." Sure, maybe games like basketball and football discourage females from playing alongside males, but maybe that's just a function of the rules. Could the rules of these games be changed in such a way that would allow women to compete alongside men? Not just make it possible for them to hold their own, but to actually excel? For female players, playing in an integrated league, to attain fame equal to that of big names like Kobe Bryant or Brett Favre? Not because they're such brave little troopers, carrying on against all odds in a male-controlled sport, but because they're actually the best players in the league.

I don't know if changing the rules will "solve" sexism. Could it usher in a new era, in which men do not view women as weak or deficient, but as equal partners and teammates in life? I don't know, but I doubt that the solution could be as simple as changing a few rules here and there. I just feel that we're sending mixed messages to our daughters, if we tell them that they can do anything a man can do, as long as they don't try to physically stand up to one.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Book Review: "Hyperion," by Dan Simmons

This might be the only book that I've actually risked being late to work for, even though I was only on the second chapter. That's right: I wasn't making risky delays because I wanted to see how it ended; I just wanted to know what happened next!

Hyperion is a masterpiece of science fiction, let me say that right off the bat. I haven't encountered a book that made me think this hard about so many complicated issues in a long, long time. As I listened to the book over the course of no less than 18 CDs, I felt as if my brain was being punched. The sheer weirdness of Simmons' alien flora and fauna is literally awe-inspiring(the Tesla trees and the Motile Isles being among my favorites). His characters are deeply flawed and deeply human, and no brief description of them here could possibly convey their myriad personalities, to say nothing of the incredible ways in which they grow and change in the week or so during which the story unfolds.

I have heard Hyperion described as 'a sci-fi homage to the Canterbury Tales,' and the comparison is fitting. Simmons describes the journey of seven pilgrims to, and across the surface of, the planet Hyperion. It's a backwater hole, not even important enough to have its own farcaster. But it is important as the site of the (literally) anachronistic Time Tombs, and the home-world of the mysterious creature known only as "the Shrike."

The Shrike, a cryptic being that lives backwards in time, appears to be made of living metal, and can teleport itself through space and time with little or no effort, is the object of veneration for a powerful religion known as The Church of the Final Atonement. It's not clear what the Shrike is supposed to represent in this book (War? Death? Violence? Humanity? God? Technology? The Unknown? The Unknowable?); indeed, our opinion of the creature changes radically with each pilgrim's tale.

I could literally go on all day about this book, but I'll spare you. I couldn't possibly do justice to any of these magnificent stories. Instead, I can tell you a bit about the premise of the first tale (the one that I almost missed work for), in order to whet your appetite:

In the first tale, a Catholic priest named Father Lenar Hoyt tells the story of his mentor, Father Paul Duray. Several years ago, Duray was convicted of falsifying archeological findings, making them seem to suggest that intelligent creatures had worshiped Jesus Christ before humanity had left Earth - a desperate attempt on Duray's part to save his dying church and his dying religion.

After being exposed, Duray was exiled to the planet Hyperion, to do missionary work in the southern jungles. According to his recovered journals (which have mysteriously come into Hoyt's possession), it was there that Duray discovered solid, undeniable physical proof that intelligent beings had indeed worshiped before the sign of the cross (and in a manner shockingly similar to our own), millions of years before human life even evolved!

But soon Duray is crushed by the realization that, even if he survives a second trip through the Tesla trees, no one. is ever . going. to believe him.

The story is called "The Priest's Tale, or, The Man Who Cried God."

Happy reading.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Gender Rolls

Last Friday night, I was hanging out with my brother Eric and my friend John, playing some D&D. (Well, actually it was a D&D adaptation of Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time series, but that's beside the point.) Since The Wheel of Time deals a lot with gender, I decided it would be a good opportunity for me to try something I'd never ever done before: play a female character.

Afterward, I was struck by the fact that such a decision should not have been anything unusual. I've played dwarves, monsters, vampires, elves, demigods, and wizards. I've played people from other countries (both real and fictional); I've played as warriors and mages, saints and sinners, the faithful, the faithless, and even the insane. But despite my eagerness to learn about roles and society by playing them out, there was always a slight hesitation, a sense of unease at the thought of playing a woman.

Why should this be? I wondered. Am I afraid of showing any feminine qualities? Am I secretly sexist or something? (I do this to myself all the time. I have no idea why.)

But nobody I know (at least, nobody I play with) has ever, to my knowledge, played any character not of their own gender. In a game where you could play as literally anyone, become virtually anything, why is it that so many players refuse to step outside their own gender, when they would eagerly play a character of a different race, religion, status, socioeconomic background, profession, alignment, age, and even species? This seems like an odd line to be unwilling to cross.

(Maybe they just don't want to deal with
having to actually roleplay the clothes.)

Many players might argue that "I'm a man, and therefore I don't know how a woman would think, so I just won't play as a woman." Well, yeah, but you play as dwarves all the time, and no one knows how they think! They don't even exist!

Hang on, maybe I just hit the nail on the head.

Since no one knows how a dwarf would act, no one can accuse you of getting it wrong, or of being culturally insensitive. You're free to make it up as you go, rather than having to mimic reality.

Then again, maybe players are simply afraid of getting it too right. The players of tabletop RPGs are for the most part male, and dislike showing any side of themselves that might be labeled "feminine", for fear of setting off a wave of all-too-familiar hetero-normative panic.

A fourth option: most tabletop RPGs are created by male designers, with a largely-male audience in mind. As a result, RPGs tend (in both theory and practice) towards a male perspective and a male play-style. From a tween or teenage boy's perspective, a female character lacks the strength for how he wants to play (i.e., hack-and-slash), and her social skills would appear irrelevant and "lame" to him.

But I have noticed an interesting corollary to the above observation: playing a female character is not at all uncommon among the male players of MMOs like "World of Warcraft". Perhaps this is because online play tends to involve very little roleplaying, so boys don't feel like they're required to "act all girly" if they do choose to play a female.

Is this a sign that boys of today are more comfortable with female roles? Or does it suggest that our boys increasingly view women's bodies as objects, as pretty shapes to stare at while they run around an online environment?

Only time will tell.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

"Sorry, but the cure for cancer is in another castle!"

This Jane McGonigal woman (not to be confused with the Hogwarts professor of a very similar name) has been popping up all over the place in the past few days. I want to tell you a little bit about her, because what she has to say is important. It might not be a very popular stance (especially with parents of overweight children), though it's a stance that I feel has been gaining a significant amount of traction in the past few years.

McGonigal's book, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, has at its core a thesis which is both unexpected and infectiously optimistic: that the person you become when you play a game is NOT a separate being, or even a secluded facet of your personality. The hero you become when you play games is an amalgamation of your best, most human qualities, including curiosity, optimism, problem-solving, persistence, imagination, and self-confidence.

McGonigal says, in her NPR Science Friday interview with Ira Flatow, that one of her favorite definitions of a game is "unnecessary obstacles that we choose to overcome" (emphasis added). Children who grow up playing games approach the world differently than those who don't; to them, no problem is insurmountable, with enough patience, cleverness, and teamwork. Their digital (and tabletop) alter egos flourish in the game-world, like plants in a sunny window. They're given permission, no, encouraged to see the world in terms of manageable challenges, missions, and levels. If you can't beat the problem now, just wait a while and come back when you're at a higher level, or when you've learned a new technique or picked up a better gadget.

In that same interview, McGonigal lists several free online games which are actually making measurable contributions to making the world a better place:

foldit - Protein chains are vital to the operation of all living cells; they transmit neural messages, break down nutrients, and teach your cells how to divide. Instead of remaining as long strings of molecules, they tend to clump together in predictable ways, which influences how they perform their various functions. If they fold up wrong, they can cause all sorts of problems, from malformed cells to cancer. Foldit allows you to simulate this process by designing your own proteins. If the protein you design proves itself especially resilient, then the scientists at the University of Washington will actually synthesize you protein in a lab and use it in the fight against cancer! How cool is that?!

EteRNA - Allows you to build and simulate your own RNA molecules, one of the most basic building-blocks of life. The user-interface is extremely intuitive, the "physics" are satisfyingly solid, and the overall mood is "curiosity rewarded by discovery." If my high-school biology class had involved playing a game like this... well, things might have turned out differently. Who can say?

Civ. D. - short for "civil disobedience," this game has not acutally been created. Yet. McGonigal proposed the idea at the D.I.C.E. summit last year; essentially, players would guide a peaceful revolution from start to finish, beginning with protests and sit-ins, right up through installing a new cabinet and drafting a new Constitution. It would be like Sim City meets Oregon Trail meets Tahrir Square. I see a lot of classroom applications for this one, if anyone ever gets around to making it.

But there is a caveat, a point of diminishing returns. Those who play a game they enjoy often do better at tasks they attempt in the following 24 hours, such as making a presentation or closing a business deal. But subjects who averaged more than 20 hours of games in a week received no more benefit than those who stopped before that point. In fact, after 28 hours of gaming per week, researchers found that those players actually performed worse in most social interactions, and were also found to be more depressed and lethargic.

Turns out that moderation is still the key to leading a productive, happy life. Who'd 'a' thunk it?

Addendum: All this talk of games that are good for something more than escapism has caused me to unearth an old gem: flOw, by Jenova Chen. This game was her graduate thesis for her degree in Game Design. It's totally sweet, wordlessly simple, and highly entertaining. I highly recommend it, even if you're not usually a fan of video games. This one might change your mind. So go ahead, give it a click.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Ever Your Faithful Servant

The last five consecutive posts on my blog have been reviews, and almost exclusively of books. There's nothing wring with this per se, but I've noticed that lately, reviews seem to be all I'm writing.

Occasionally, in the past, I would use my blog as a personal soapbox, to proclaim to the world my views on a particular subject or issue. While this is the main reason that most people write blogs in the first place, it seemed after a while to be a little... hollow, I guess? Like Lear roaring at the heavens as the storm carries on, heedless of his cries.

Now, I'm not saying that I want to give up on reviews. Far from it. They're a useful service that I can provide my readers, and they give me an excuse to write regularly. Practice makes perfect, after all. And lethargy makes losers, as the corollary goes.

But I don't want to bore my readers with predictability by posting the same thing every week. I want to spice it up, throw in a little variety. The question is: What sorts of things would my readers like to see me post more of? News stories? Funny videos? Cultural analysis? Literary theory? Ideas for new monsters? Psychology? Philosophy? Dirty limericks?

The choice is yours, dear readers. Please leave your suggestions in the comments below. Remember, you CAN leave comments anonymously, so you are NOT required to have a Blogger account of your own if you want to leave me a message.

I'm open to all suggestions. Please, tell me what I write that would spark your curiosity.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Movie Review: "How To Train Your Dragon" (2010)

At first, I was tempted to review this film as a cynical adult; that's not just my duty, since I'm writing this review (presumably) for other similarly-cynical adults, it's also really the only way I can approach films anymore. I can't go back to the innocent days of yore, when anything with a dragon in it was considered praiseworthy. But I feel that writing this film off simply because it doesn't try anything new in the story department would be giving it short shrift.

How To Train Your Dragon never really attempts anything revolutionary, doesn't throw the audience any curveballs, but what it does, it does well. The animation is top-notch, and numerous times during the flight segments I was struck by an intense desire to see it in either 3D or IMAX. Both, if possible. Alas, the movie is several months old now, and the moment has passed. So it goes.

The story follows Hiccup, a young teen with an American accent in a small island village of Scottish-speaking Viking warriors. For some reason, the difference in accent is never brought up; in fact, all the kids in the village have distinctly American speech patterns. Maybe you need to get a permit for your brogue, to show you can handle the responsibility?

Hiccup is a scrawny, skinny boy, which is a common feature of YA protagonists, but somewhat unusual in a blacksmith's apprentice. His father, Stoic the Vast (voiced, appropriately enough, by Gerard Butler, that bearded Scotsman of 300 fame) is the chief of their village, which is pillaged on a near-nightly basis by marauding dragons.

During one of these raids, Hiccup is trying out a net-launching apparatus of his own design, when he gets off a lucky shot and snags a Night Fury, a mysterious black-scaled subspecies of dragon with incredible speed and firepower. Naturally, no one believes that such a loser kid could catch a dragon that no one's ever seen and lived to tell the tale. So Hiccup sets off into the woods to find his rightful kill.

... Only he finds that, when the dragon is lying helpless before him, he can't bring himself to kill it. He sets it free, but it's been too badly injured by his net to leave the box canyon where it fell. Thus begins a tale of friendship, prejudice, war, personal growth, and teamwork.

The dragon, "Toothless", is an impressive feat of CGI. He's tough and weighty without being bulky, powerful without being scary, and a weird fusion of reptile, bird, and dog. Best of all, he remains a convincing animal throughout the film. By this, I mean that the animators and writers never lose sight of his animal nature; even though he's friendly, he's not all sunshine and roses.

It's a fun story. It's funny. It's touching. It's even a little bit romantic (if you like girls who like punching boys). I'd say that it's worth buying a copy for your kids. Even if you don't have kids, you might want to check it out. You might find that what appeared at first to be distasteful is actually a lot of fun.