Friday, December 31, 2010

Friday Quotations: Fat Fridays

"It is possibly worth mentioning that in Fat Charlie's world, women did not simply turn up. You needed to be introduced to them; you needed to pluck up the courage to talk to talk to them; you needed to find a subject to talk about when you did, and then, once you had achieved those heights, there were further peaks to scale. You needed to dare to ask them if they were doing anything on Saturday night, and then when you did, mostly they had hair that needed washing that night, or diaries to update, or cockatiels to groom, or they simply needed to wait by the phone for some other man to call.

But Spider lived in a different world."

"Stories are like spiders, with all they long legs, and stories are like spiderwebs, which man gets himself all tangled up in but which look so pretty when you see them under a leaf in the morning dew, and in the elegant way that they connect to one another, each to each."

--From Ananasi Boys, by Neil Gaiman

I was at a bookstore the other day, blissfully spending my X-Mas gift cards, and I had to choose between this book and Guy Gavriel Kay's A Song for Arbonne. I've read them both before, but never owned either. I think Kay's may be the superior novel, but for light, winter break reading, Ananasi Boys just felt right. (Plus, it's miles above its predecessor book, American Gods, which has a more epic plot, but a main character so cardboard that you can hear paper rubbing together when he moves too quickly.)

Oh, and if you're into that sort of thing, Happy New Year.

Later Days.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Friday Quotations: Ho, ho, ho.

"Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St Nicholas soon would be there.

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads.
And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap.

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below.
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tinny reindeer.

With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name!

"Now Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! On, Cupid! on, on Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!"

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky.
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of Toys, and St Nicholas too.

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St Nicholas came with a bound.

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.
A bundle of Toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler, just opening his pack.

His eyes-how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow.

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly!

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself!
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings, then turned with a jerk.
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose!

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ‘ere he drove out of sight,
"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!"

Not so much a quotation as full-out posting someone else's poem. Regardless, the sentiment stands. Due credit to Mr. Clement Clarke Moore.

Later Days.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Friday Quotations: Oh Canada?

"It's a herd of feral hamsters, a major herd, thundering across the yellow plains of the southern reaches of the Great Concavity in what used to be Vermont, raising dust that forms a uremic-hued cloud with somatic shapes interpretable from as far away as Boston and Montreal. The herd is descended from two domestic hamsters set free by a Watertown NY boy at the beginning of the Experialist migration in the subsidized Year of the Whopper. The boy now attends college in Champaign IL and has forgotten that his hamsters were named Ward and June.

The noise of the herd is tornadic, locomotival. The expression on the hamsters' whiskered faces is businesslike and implacable--it's that implacable-herd expression. They thunder eastward across pedalferrous terrain that today is fallow, denuded. To the east, dimmed by the fulvous cloud the hamsters send up, is the vivid verdant outline of the annularly overfertilized forests of what used to be central Maine.

All these territories are now property of Canada."

* * *

"John Wayne, as do most Canadians, lifts one leg slightly to fart, like the fart was some kind of task, standing at his locker, waiting for his feet to get dry enough to put on socks."

--Both excerpts from David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest.

Later Days.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Book List

Books I brought with me to Saskatchewan, in no particular order:

Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism by Ian Bogost
Tom Jones by Henry Fielding
Twilight by Stephanie Myers
Of Grammatology by Jacques Derrida
The Knight by Gene Wolfe
Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice by Sonja K. Foss

I was gonna bring copies of Pynchon's Gravity Rainbow, and Foster's Infinite Jest, but I didn't want to appear eclectic.

Later Days.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Fringe: The Creepy Edition

Remember that Aesthetics course I was sitting in on and for which I went to that Shoppers? Well, today was the day each student taking the class had to present their final paper. I had the option of doing the paper as well, but opted out because... because doing no paper is easier than doing a paper, essentially. (And I wanted to focus on my dissertation and course syllabus, but that's a boring explanation.) And to be honest, I kind of regretted it, after seeing the high quality of papers presented today. (In particular, the panel on masculine aesthetics got me thinking how interesting a paper on the appearance of Barney Stinson from How I Met Your Mother could be. This song alone could take up the whole essay.)

Besides the masculinity papers, there were papers on pretty wide variety of topics. Highlights included papers on the aesthetics of the video game Fable, a not-for-the-squeamish discussion on the self-mutilation in Dans ma Peur, and one enterprising gentleman gave a pretty good performance of the Joker ala Dark Knight, and talked on the aesthetics of chaos and supervillainry.

All the presentations were good, but what really got me thinking was a comment the professor made, on how doctors, those operating on the body, get to decide to decide sometimes get to decide what makes that body beautiful--or just normal. That brought to mind another performance on the body I've seen recently, on the last episode of Fringe. I'll say this just once: Spoilers ahead. (I'm going to analyze the episode in some detail here; if you just want to skip to the video clip at the end, I understand.)
Fringe is the middle of a fairly complicated multiple-season alternate universe plot at the moment, but the 22-episode per season format means that you get a few filler episodes every season. This episode, technically, was a filler episode, but it deviated from most in that it wasn't mind-numbingly dull. The A plot is a story straight out of the Twilight Zone. A ballerina commits suicide, and her body parts are distributed after death according to her organ donor status. But one of the members of her old depression support group is also a specialist in tissue regeneration, and happens to be in love with her as well. So he steals the body, and then goes around stealing back her organs, and lovingly sews them back into place. It should be noted that he tries to be as merciful as possible with these thefts, using his tissue technology to stabilize the organs' new owners--not much comfort when your new eyes have been gouged out, but it's something.

Anyway, once our cadaver-inclined Casanova gathers back all the body parts, he plans to use his technology to jump-start her brain, but before he does that, he dresses her up in a tutu, hooks her up to a series of pulleys and levers, and mechanically makes the dead body perform a dance. The scene is quite possibly the creepiest thing I've ever seen on prime-time network television. (And if you want to skip to the movie clip at the end NOW, I understand.) Still here? Really? All right. The scene is also really interesting for how the manhas imposed himself on the artistic scene. The girl has been reduced to a collection of limbs, devoid of volition. Is ballet any more than music and mechanical precision? There's also a heavy gender relation, one that also gets exploited in the B plot. This girl's last choice was to end her life; the scientist is, in a sense, violating her will by assuming she "made a mistake" and that he, as the representative of science, has both the means and the moral right to bring her back.

After this scene, the actual ending of case is almost a denouement. He performs the revival, and the show's protagonists finally arrive on the scene shortly later. They find him upstairs, and the girl in the basement, dead again. He won't say anything beyond "I couldn't bring her back. I brought back something, but it wasn't her. It... didn't have her spark." In other words, he could recreate the mechanics of her performance and the flesh of the body, but her inner essence couldn't be duplicated.

And this is where the B plot comes in. You may have wondered exactly what was going on when the protagonists of a show don't come in until the final act. Well, they were busy--trying to find the scientist, yes, but also dealing with the emotional fallout from the last episode. And this is where things get complicated. If the A plot was classic horror film stuff, then the B plot is pretty hardcore sci-fi. (If I lose you, just scroll down to the end, and... well, you know.) Okay: the main plot of Fringe is that FBI agent Olivia Dunham and associate Peter Bishop investigate paranormal phenomena, mostly those created years ago by Peter's father and cast member, Walter Bishop. (Essentially, it's the X-Files, but with more plot and less pointless bafflement.) The last season ended with a harrowing escape from an alternate universe. However, there was a shocking twist where Olivia was captured by the enemy and replaced by her alternate reality self, without her teammates being the wiser.

The captured Olivia was brainwashed into thinking she was the alternate reality Olivia. A voice in her head--physically embodied by hallucinations of Peter--keep telling her that she is not who she thinks she is; there is, in other words, some core part of herself that they couldn't brainwash away. She fully regains her memory, and escapes narrowly back into our universe.

At the same time, the alternate reality Olivia has been pretending to be the original. She gets physical in the original Olivia's budding romantic relationship with Peter, and takes it to the next level. And she generally skulks around and gathers info until the original Olivia returns and the faux one hightails it back to her own reality.

This leaves the original Olivia feeling pretty violated, especially when Peter confesses that he was sleeping with the alternate reality version of her. (And yes, I recognize the ridiculousness of that sentence.) She has a breakdown in her apartment, throwing the clothes out of her closet, ripping the sheets off the bed. Finally, after the scientist-ballerina case has played out, she lashes out at Peter. Even the scientist could tell that the body in front of him wasn't the woman he loved; why couldn't Peter tell the same?

Okay, on the surface, it's a ridiculous thing to hold against someone: "Why can't you love me like the necrophiliac organ thief?" But it speaks to the same underlying question: "What makes a person's identity?" Olivia saved herself because she found some core that was more than what she was told she was. The scientist recreated the form of the girl, but not what he truly loved about her. And Olivia lashes out at Peter and her possessions because she's forced to confront the notion that they weren't sufficient to identify her: someone who could copy her face and body could swoop in and take her life, and no one knew the difference. Whatever core essence she has beyond her physical appearance didn't make any difference.

This all ties back to aesthetics, for me, because modern individuality is tied so much on expression and appearance. If we express ourselves through the products we buy and the clothes we wear, is there any element of us that isn't reproducible? Is there any core to us that extends beyond the surface? And if there is, is there any way we can prove its existence to anyone else? Or see their inner self? Can you prove that it's me, your beloved blogger, writing this? Or could I be someone who was just sufficiently schooled in his rhetoric and cadence?

And to leave everyone with the really important question:

Is that just the creepiest thing ever?

Later Days.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

What Have I Done? What Am I Doing? What Will I Do?

I think it's been a while since I've done a large scope sort of post, but with the upcoming trip, now seems like a good time for one of those.

What upcoming trip, you ask? I'm making the annual pilgrimage back to Saskatchewan--actually annual this time, as I haven't been back West since last X-Mas. I've waited about a week longer than usual for return trip, for a few reasons. First, most of the people I knew from my university days have traveled on themselves, and have no family in the area to necessitate their own return pilgrimage. (Even my little brother is only back for four days, which makes my own twenty days seem like gross overkill.) Second, my brother has (vocally) pointed out that this is the first time the family house in Someplace Else is already pretty full. Considering that those other people are paying rent and not just greasy freeloaders, (my words, not his) I feel like I should put some limits on my dwelling time. I actually considered waiting another week, but then you get into X-Mas time flight prices, which... no. No thank you. I just hope the family doesn't get sick of having me around.

...I've gone from "this trip is going to be shorter" to "I hope I'm not there long enough for everyone to want me to leave." Best flip-flop ever.

It's not a bad time for me to be going. Work wise, I've just finished my dissertation proposal. Without giving too much away, I'll be researching video games in terms of some of W. J. T. Mitchell's work, and using Bolter and Grusin's remediation to a fair extent. I've also finished my course syllabus for the course I'm teaching next term. Again, I don't want to give too much away, but I have put The Social Network on the course, and I am going to talk about zombies a lot. The point is, the dissertation and the class are my two big projects, and while I might do some small work on them over the break--the course especially, since I teach the day after I get back--I've reached the necessary December milestones for both of them and can afford to sit back a bit.

Which, in classic rambling style, brings me to the actual point of today's post. I'm going to have pretty limited computer access while in Saskatchewan this time around. And while there are actually quite a few topics I've been meaning to post on, this limitation combined with the usual December lethargy means that posting is going to get rather sporadic. I'll post when I can, but expect a drop in service. But hey, quality over quantity, am I right?

In the mean time, in the spirit of the holidays, here's one of the musical numbers from the Muppet Family X-Mas. Because you can't have too much of the Muppets during the holidays (or at any other time, for that matter).

Later Days.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Friday Quotations: Why Should Videogames Be the Only Maligned Media?

"Rube Goldberg told me that what I was saying was bullshit. He said, 'Shit, boy, you're a vaudevillian. Don't forget this is vaudeville.'"
--Will Eisner, on his attempts to argue that comics could be more sophisticated and artistic.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Welcome toThe Daily---: A Story of Delayed Gratification

Well, that was weird.

I was embarking on my usual daily anaerobic exercises--200 push-ups, 200 sit-ups, and some light weightlifting (yes, I'm trying to brag in an overly affected modest manner, just ignore politely and move on)--and, also as usual, my background noise per choice was an episode of the Daily Show, as streamed through the Comedy Network's website. (Look at that! A legal use of the Internet to watch television. How quaint.) But due to a crossed wire of some sort, the show kept stopping every fifteen seconds or so in order to load. So I'd get a few seconds of some joke, then a weird pause. I endured this process for approximately 20 minutes of work-out time, during which I received about 9 minutes of actual show. (BTW, the original title of this post was "Welcome to the Daily Sh---," which was more faithful to the actual pause in my viewing, but provided a sort of mixed message in terms of signaling today's content.) This stilted method of viewing drew a number of things to mind:
1) It was the first time I finished the my exercises before the interview segment, making it my fastest workout ever. (I know this isn't actually the case, but please, be quiet; I really need a win right now.)
2) I'm reminded of how big a role immediacy plays in the modern media culture. I want what I want, and I want it now. Internet lags, television commercials, video game loading time, waiting for book releases, listening to an entire song (I've got a friend with a record player) --they're all anathema to culture of NOW, dammit. I had to actively resist an urge to turn off the stream, because a large part of me would rather listen to nothing than be forced to wait.
3) The pauses really drew attention to the structure of the show. The Daily Show is very formulaic in this regard; there's the opening run-through of the news, a consultation with one of the reporters/comedy people, and a commercial. Followed by a a more in-depth look at some more news items (or a feature on-location piece by one of the reporters), another commercial, and then a closing interview. The formulaic approach comes in part from the news format the show is satirizing, and in part from the late night talk show format that it actually is. But another big reason for the formula is that, once people are used to it, they ignore it, and that's what the show wants you to do--to focus on the content rather than their format.

The constant breaks drew attention to the format. Not at the broad level I've been describing, but at the micro-level of the individual joke. There's the framing, from Jon Stewart, the set-up (some kind of news clip, usually), the punchline, and the laughter. With the show slowed down to a crawl, I found myself looking for each element more and more. And because the cut-off happened at various places, I got to see how each element blended into and anticipated the next, particularly the set-up and laughter. You could often predict exactly what Stewart was going to do for the punchline, just from the news clip used. And despite what you might think, the joke doesn't end with the punchline, but with the laughter, the reaction to the punchline. I think both of these elements draw attention to how much of comedy and humor is in its communal component; to follow Kenneth Burke a bit, you identify with the group by anticipating Jon's joke and reacting with them. Of course, that's the main function of a studio audience to begin with.
(There's been a lot of noise in the press this year comparing Jon Stewart to Glenn Beck. It would be interesting to see if his show, while not a comedy, follows the same pattern of formula and community creation/enforcement. If only I could figure out a way of doing it without actually watching the show...)

4) It reminded me a lot of my own research habits. Particularly, it mirrored the painstaking efforts I once went through to map out the conversation tree of a scene in the video game Mass Effect (in case aficionados are wondering, it was the scene with Wrex on Virmire. Flowchart of the conversation is available upon request). There would be a few seconds of speech, then I'd push pause, and frantically rush over to my computer to type out what had just been said. It was significantly worse than transcribing an actual video, because there's no rewind button; if I missed something, I had to reload the entire scene and try again.

More generally, it reminded me of my close-reading method, which is basically to read a passage, stop reading, spend a few seconds jotting notes and reflecting, then return to the text. Watching the Daily Show in this broken manner reminded me of the pros and cons of this approach--you get a very good reading on the micro-level, but at the cost of missing the bigger picture. I might have to rethink my approach a little in the future.

To recap: muscle building, entertainment, and scholarly reflection, all in one 20 minute work-out. Truly, I am the modern Renaissance man. Ladies, get in line.

Later Days.

Monday, December 6, 2010

And another thing: why don't THE BOOKS come to ME?

I went down to campus today to retrieve the text I'm using for my course next term (but more on that another time). As long as I was on campus, I figured, I might as well go to the library and take out a book I've been meaning to get. ETA of side-trip: five minutes. Actual time expended: 30-40 minutes. Effort level: orange. Patience: 0.

Clearly, something has gone wrong here. To determine what, let's discuss the event not in chronological sequence, but in order of whom I blame most for the mishap. And if you have half as much fun piecing it all together as I did writing it, then I had twice as much fun writing it as you did piecing it together. And that's just one of the tautologies we'll discuss today!

--Myself. First, for naively not obtaining the appropriate Library of Congress listing before even heading into the library. Second, for being equally naive in assuming that this listing would be easy to obtain while in the library. Third, for making an error in eventually writing said listing, forcing me to repeat the whole process over again. And finally, for choosing today of all days to put the winter liner into my coat, transforming a climb of high tedium and low discomfort and effort to high tedium, high discomfort and middling effort.

--Whoever designed the elevators at this library. There's an indicator of which floor the library is on for the main floor, and only the man floor. That means that waiting for the elevator on any other floor is less a matter of patience and more a matter of faith that the doors will, at some point, open. Having little faith in elevator gods, my own lack of patience (which means this perhaps should be under the previous entry) meant a few extra stairs were walked on top of the number called for by the following two entries.

--The students. All I wanted was to use a computer for a thirty second search. But every computer was occupied, on floor after floor, forcing me to go up five flights looking in vain for that one unoccupied terminal. Now, I wouldn't have been so upset if the students were legitimately working. But for every student doing actual work, there were two checking their facebook, or surfing youtube, or sleeping at the computer, or ignoring the screen in front of them entirely while they worked on their laptops. And the students in the actual study carrells weren't any better--a given sample of half a dozen had two working, one gone to get snacks, one texting, one surfing the net, and one sleeping again. Kids today, I tell you.

--The way this library's computer system is set up. But even that, as annoying as it was, wasn't the real target of my ire. I actually like that the computers in the library are open to all at this university; it makes a far more egalitarian statement than, say, the University of Toronto library, which not only requires you to be a student to use the computers, but to enter the library in the first place. And I'll admit it, if I'm working on a computer for a prolonged period, I have my own tendency to check my email, go to a favorite site, or, type up a blogpost. (Today's work is going great, btw. Just.... just great. Stellar.) What really bugs me is that there's no computers reserved solely for catalog searches in addition to the other computers. Even most public libraries have managed to get one of each by this point; it's somewhat ridiculous that my university's main library can't even reach that standard. And because of this, above all the other reasons, I had to walk ten flights of stairs and spend half an hour to get a chance to do a thirty-second search and 5 minute retrieval. (And another thirty minutes to type it all up. It never ends, I tell you!)

And that's how you turn a one-sentence complaint into a 600+ word blog post.

Later Days.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Friday Quotations: Randomizer

The search for this week's quotation has caught me a little off guard, so I'm going to select a random book of the shelf, and go with the first sentence. I'm sure it will be as inspiring as it is serendipitous.

Ah, here we go: "In 1848, a review of Mary Barton published in the Athenaeum observed: 'How far it may be kind, or wise, or right to make Fiction the vehicle for a plain and matter-of-fact exposition of social evils, is a question of limitations which will not be unanimously settled in our times.'"
Introduction to Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton, by Jennifer Foster.

Hey, that turned out better than I thought. We got a quotation within a quotation, some 19th century class, and an issue I've always found fascinating: the didactic nature of literature. As the entertainment industry rose and the public speech went into decline, you might say that in our current state, fiction is the primary vehicle for exposition on social evils these days--sad as that is. For my two cents, I think all fiction contains a discourse on, if not exactly social evil, some sort of didactic message. Even the absence of any redeeming message can be interpreted as a statement on the purpose of fiction. And from what I remember, Gaskell's Mary Barton was fairly direct in tackling the issue of class inequality. And while I felt the mix between characters and broad social commentary was a little heavy-handed in places, the clear intent definitely made it stand out in mind compared to other 19th century works of the time that I've read.

And as everyone knows, Elizabeth Gaskell was a great believer in the proper celebration of birthdays.

Later Days.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Book Review: The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis

"In fact, it's becoming increasingly clear to me that the same laws and principles that govern science and engineerin' also preside over politics. ...Newton's first law says that an object at rest or in motion will remain in that tstate unles acted upon by another force. In politics, if a party is at rest--stalled in the polls, as it were--it will remain there unless it, or some other force, does somethin' to change its fortunes. Newton's third law says that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Well, this plays itself out daily in the Commons. The Government makes an announcement, the Opposition responds, as the name suggests, in an opposin' fashion." --Angus McLintock, in Terry Fallis' The Best Laid Plans

Short review: The Best Laid Plains is a well-written, light-toned political satire, and I didn't really care for it at all.

The longer version will, as you may expect, be somewhat longer. First, let's talk about one of the most interesting aspects of the book: its distribution. Fallis originally wrote the book, but was unable to find a publisher for it. So he broke it into pieces, and released the pieces as a podcast. (A podcast which, incidentally, is still available; the first chapter can be found here.) It proved successful enough that he felt encouraged to self-publish the novel in book form, and that gained enough attention to garner him the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour and a sequel, The High Road. Though my main reading was through the book, I listened to a bit of the podcast as well; Fallis has a good voice for such readings, and I think I prefer that form to the book, simply because it conveys a little more of the author's intention when Fallis is on hand to provide the emphasis and tone he meant the book to convey. It's an interesting comment on the commercial/cultural mindset of the reading public that we're willing to pay for a book copy of a product that existed previously (and concurrently) on the Internet for free.

And what about the plot? Well, it all revolves around Daniel Addison, speech writer for the Canadian Liberals, and owner of a PhD in Canadian Literature. After realizing that politics was making him somewhat jaded--and coming across his financee engaged in a, um, different sort of congress with the Party Leader--Addison decides to turn towards a career in academia. The political body lets him go without hard feelings--providing he can find someone to run on the Liberal ballot for the university's constituency, one that is counted as a sure-win for the Conservatives. He eventually strikes a deal with his landlord, the 61 year old Scottish engineering professor, Angus McLintock. The deal is this: Daniel will teach Angus' English for Engineers course, and McLintock will run on the ballot, provided he doesn't have to campaign and has no chance of winning. I think anyone with a passing familiarity of comedy knows what happens next: through a series of unfortunate events, the outspoken, no-nonsense Scotsman is suddenly a member of Parliament. And--surprise--his nonpartisan, direct and honest approach to politics turns out to be just what the country needs.

The novel has a lot to recommend it. It's light, but no so light that there's no substance to it. It's a fairly critical and fairly accurate depiction of business in Ottawa. And yet... it rubbed me the wrong way, for two big different reasons.

First, there was a plot. From the description above, you may gather that it's reasonably predictable, and perhaps a bit too much of a stock story. But I don't have any problem with that; one of my favorite genres is 18th century comedy plays, and those follow such a stock formula that you can often predict exactly how the story will unfold just from the list of character names. (If there's a character named Colonel Cuckold, he's probably not going to have a happy ending.) In my book, innovation is great, but it's secondary compared to execution. And that's where the book, in my opinion, falls short. There's a number of characters in the book: Angus' immediate opposition and his head tactician; the two Petes, punker Engineers supporting Angus' campaign; various reporters and Liberal politicians who range from slightly more jaded than Daniel to out and out villains; and the tough-as-nails, aged former Liberal candidate, Muriel Parkinson and her granddaughter Lindsay, also Daniel's love interest. Or perhaps a better phrase would "love vague inclination," since the relationship seems to unfold and settle without any particular effort on the part of any of the characters involved. Most of the characters, in fact, are fairly ancillary and paper-thin; for the most part, the only two who receive any fleshing out are Angus and Daniel.

Again, I don't have a particular problem with this. Stock characters are part and parcel of the stock comedy; you don't need them to be much more than placeholders, as long as the main cast is strong. In this case, the main two characters we're left with are Daniel and Angus. Daniel, following the traditional model, is cast as the straight man to Angus' performance. That means that quite a lot of his actions involve telling Angus that he can't do something, then being secretly glad that he did it. His other major defining characteristic is an obsession (one shared, and taken to greater extremes by Angus) with correct English grammar. I too am following the English studies career path, and even I find grammar obsessions to be incredibly pretentious and annoying. (That doesn't mean I don't correct people's grammar all the time; I do, I just recognize that I'm being pretentious and annoying when I do it. It's the self-awareness that's important.)

And that leaves Angus. Angus is something of a modern day Renaissance Man. He is a full-fledged engineer, and one of the book's running subplots is his work on his homemade hovercraft. He is a romantic, as evidenced by the daily journal entries dedicated to his dead wife. He is an intellect, as demonstrated by his constant games of chess and attention to English language. In politics, he refuses any level of compromise for his principles, and waits on no man. In fact, Angus is a saint, a comparison Daniel himself makes, albeit half jokingly, when Angus receives an award for his engineering efforts in a Papa New Guinea village. Wikipedia, ever the forefront source for accuracy, contains this entry: "A Mary Sue (sometimes just Sue) in literary criticism is a fictional character with overly idealized and hackneyed mannerisms, lacking noteworthy flaws, and primarily functioning as a wish-fulfillment fantasy for the author or reader." Angus, thus, is a fully fledged Mary Sue, and the book's insistence on this point is its major detraction point, in my mind. His only personal flaw is the occasional bout of flatulence and the only mistake he makes in the entire story comes near the end, where he holds a town meeting and tries to convince the townspeople that voting against tax cuts is a good thing, and gets booed off the stage. In other words, his one mistake is believing that he can reason with the masses.

My other problem with the book is on a political level, or rather, an ideological one. I've already gone over my political views in a previous post; granted, it was a few years ago, but it still stands. I'm not going to condemn Fallis for promoting the Liberals over my own group of preference; on a federal level, there's not really much reason to support the NDP at the moment anyway. But what I will object to is the alternative Angus represents. One of the pervading themes of the book is that politics, left unchecked, are a corrupting influence, transforming the optimistic into the pragmatic, and the pragmatic into the opportunistic and self-interested. I'm not going to oppose that; I think, like most people, I feel a little jaded towards politics in general, and a reason to bring in some optimism is a good thing.

But according to the principles the book espouses, the proper way to do that is, first of all, abandon the party line system in effect in Ottawa, and ignore your party's stance on an issue in favor of your own interpretation of what that stance should be. (Which, come to think of it, is an endorsement of the American style of congress and representation, a connection that is somehow never fully explicated in a book very conscious about its appeal as Canadian literature.) And at the same time, Angus doesn't believe in voting in terms of what's good for his individual constituency, and certainly, after the booing, doesn't believe in doing what his constituents want, as they are driven by self-interest. Rather, he votes to his own conscience, and for what he believes is best for his country.

The irony is, that's not too far off from what my own beliefs of what a representative should do. He or she can't afford to take a poll every time a vote comes out; rather, he/she needs to trust that the constituents knew who they were electing, and know the conscience and values of that individual (although that doesn't quite work in this case since Angus deliberately refused all campaigning, so no one knew really what he was like). My problem is with presentation. Because Angus is a Mary Sue sort of character, he can be counted on to always, always see the truth of the matter, and to be right in all situations. The political system Fallis is espousing, then, has a similarity to Plato's old claim that the ideal government is the one ruled by the perfect philosopher god-king; as the genius engineer/political activist/saint, Angus comes close.

In this regard, the book reminded me of another politically-oriented work, L. Neil Smith's The Probability Broach. Its politics couldn't be more different; while The Best Laid Plans ostensibly is about a liberal view of politics, The Probability Broach is ceaseless and almost aggressive in his portrayal of libertarianism. (Also, Smith's book is science fiction, not comedy, and features alternate realities, dolphin scientists, and monkey police officers.) The similarity, though, is that both books present a fictional world in which their respective philosophies form the ideal; neither, in their utopias, can do any wrong, not because the ideas are perfect, but because the author is stacking the deck so that no flaw is ever shown. And even that isn't a make or break element of a book for me; Terry Pratchett's Nation is, arguably, a humanist screed, but because its characters demonstrate some nuance, and are willing to entertain other points of view, I enjoyed it, and a lot more than I did Fallis' or Smith's works.

And if you want to see really pretentious behavior, I could go on a rant here about the quotation I started with the post with, and the danger of overapplying scientific rationalism to humanist institutions, but I'll settle for just saying that, as someone who's taught English for Engineers for decades, Angus should really know the difference between a scientific theory and a metaphor.

Final word: I would have probably liked this novel a lot more if either my political affiliations or my support for individualism was slightly increased. As it is, though I didn't like it, it did generate a lot of thought on my part, which is part of what literature should do. And I'd probably sit through the sequel--especially if it came in podcast form.

Later Days.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Friday Quotations: Hell Hath No Fury Like a Wolverine Scorned

"Wolverine's soul has been sent to hell by the Red Right Hand, and his body possessed with a demon bent on killing Logan's friends and loved ones. ...While Logan's friends and family are attacked on Earth, back in Hell the Devil continues to test Logan, still searching for a scream from its latest plaything. It finally comes with the help of Mariko Yashida, Logan's old fiancee. However, even Wolverine has friends in hell, as the north-of-the-border dwarf Puck resolves to help his fellow countryman. Can hell handle two Canadians?" (Recap page of Wolverine vol 4, issue 3, emphasis added.)

I have to say, quotations like that last sentence encompass a large part of the reason I read comic books.

Later Days.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


I dunno if this will turn into a regular thing or not, but this post is one that I've been meaning to do for a long time. I think everyone has a few words that, for one reason or another, become the equivalent of fingernails down their lexiographic spine.

--The phrase "fair enough." First, it offends my sense of the word "fair." To me, fair is a binary state. Either something is fair or it is not--in which case, the word "unfair" can be brought out. "Fair enough" introduces a level of gradation to this issue that I am not comfortable with. If that sort of nuance needs to be brought in, why can't we just leave the "fair" part out of it? Second, I know that a lot of people, when they're using the phrase, just mean it to act as a synonym phrase for "that's fair." But I've also heard it used in a very passive-aggressive manner. Under that usage, the "fair enough" is shorthand for "I don't think that's fair at all; at the very least, I think it could be more fair. But I don't have the time or inclination for outright disagreeing with you, and I want to appear as if I'm rising above the argument, so I'll reply in such a manner that preserves the chance for my later disagreement and indicates my disapproval, but in a way that makes it impossible for you to challenge me on it without sounding small and petty yourself."

It's a pretty complicated shorthand.

--This one isn't so much a word that annoys me as it is a word that may grow to annoy me if its frequency persists. Have you ever noticed that when your attention is drawn to an unusual word or phrase, you suddenly start seeing it everywhere? And then you can't tell whether people have just started using it, or they always have and you're finally paying attention to it? Well, for me, the most recent incarnation of "that word" is wheelhouse. As in the phrase " is in my wheelhouse," to indicate that you're an expert on said . And I'll admit it: I have only the vaguest idea on what a wheelhouse actually is, besides the obvious connotation that it is a house full of wheels, and perhaps has something to do with carriages. A quick search of the Oxford English Dictionary tells me that it refers both to that, and to the enclosure surrounding the steering wheel of a steamship. (It doesn't actually include the "in my wheelhouse," because the OED is above that sort of gutter talk, thank you very much.) So essentially, it's one of those phrases whose original meaning has been largely antiquated, like "book on tape" or "buribunkist" (all right, that last one isn't technically antiquated, but it is sufficiently obscure).

--The word "similarly." Don't like it. Never liked it. Never will like it. If there comes a point in some academic article I'm writing where the word is appropriate, I will perform whatever acrobatics are necessary to avoid it. "In a similar manner," "In a similar fashion," even "likewise." In this case, my distaste for the word is purely because of the way it sounds. I don't like the combination of the "lar" and "ly" syllables. I don't know why, I just know I don't.

And that's it, for now at least. And if you think that I've gone into far too much detail over such minor things, that I'm making mountains out of molehills, that I've become the cyberspace equivalent of an old man telling kids to get off his verbal lawn, well then...
Fair enough.

Later Days.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Movie Buff: Chick Flicks & Testosterone

All right. Here it is at long last, because someone actually demanded it: the Movie Buff feature. (And yes, I'm surprised as anyone that someone actually made a tangible, audible request. I know you're out there, lurkers. I can see your IP addresses.) Three of the following movies were viewed as part of the primary material for the class on Cosmetics and Aesthetics that I'm auditing, and one was for my own amusement. Try to determine which one; I'm sure you'll be pleasantly surprised.

. The first time I ever saw Ben Stiller was his guest appearance on Friends, waaaay back in 1997, season 3, episode 22, "The One With the Screamer." He played a crazy boyfriend of Rachel, who acted insane only when Ross was the only person in the room. And when your job is to make Ross seem like the preferable, sane alternative, you know your character is a little beyond the pale. Anyway, I don't know if it was the character he was playing, or just the association with Friends in general, but ever since, he's been a very hit and miss actor for me. In There's Something About Mary, he proved that a woman's choice is between either crazy men or bland, in Night at the Museum, he proved you don't have to be funny to carry a film, and in the Meet the Fockers series he proved that the funniest thing about a movie can be its title. On the other hand, I quite enjoyed his performances in Tropic Thunder, Arrested Development, and the Royal Tenenbaums.

In Zoolander, he plays a fashion model brainwashed to assassinate the Prime Minister of Malaysia, whose non-child labor policies threaten the fashion industry. Also on hand are Owen Wilson, as a model/frenemy; Christine Taylor as the straight man (or woman, as the case may be); Jerry Stiller as the agent; and Will Farrell as the fashion mogul. The movie does a pretty good job of satirizing its target, portraying the models as airheads, the fashion executives as predatory animals dressed in clothes, and the fashion world at large as glitzy and ridiculous. That part's done well enough, but mocking the fashion world is like shooting at fish in a barrel, after you've removed all the water and replaced it with more fish. Essentially, how funny you'll find this movie is directly proportional to how much tolerance you have for Ben Stiller playing a role wherein he talks with an odd baby voice and Owen Wilson playing a role wherein he plays the same damn character he plays in every movie. It's light, fluff entertainment, which I guess is what it's meant to be.

Red. Also known as "that other action movie with all those old people in it." Red stars Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) as an ex-black ops agent trying to live out retirement when the same agency that employed him puts out a hit for him, and Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker) as the innocent love-interest swept along for the ride. Also featuring John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, and Morgan Freeman as the team that he puts together to help him get to the bottom of it all. And for the record, let me add that Mary-Louise Parker looks amazing for a 46 year old woman. Or for a woman of any age. Or for the mammalia class. ...Probably didn't need that last bit. The movie itself is a series of amusing quips and death-defying stunts. And while I don't usually find the action genre very entertaining, here, it really works. I understand the movie was based on a graphic novel by Warren Ellis, which I think I've read. I say "I think" because I'm not 100% sure; one of Ellis' favorite subjects is the grizzled agent brought in for one last mission, and they all tend to blend together after a while. On those terms, Red is one of those rare adaptations that surpasses the original. While it'll stick in my head for its great cast of quality actors as much as for the comedic action sequences, it still left a far greater impact on me than the original.

My Fair Lady. BEST THREE HOURS I'VE EVER SPENT ON A MOVIE. You can take your Harry Potters, your Titanics, and your Lord of the Rings, and you can stuff them in a sack, mister. THIS is what truly qualifies as epic cinema. The plot is fairly well trod, even by the film's original 1964 debut: it's based on the 1938 movie Pygmalion, and the 1950s musical, which in turn were based on the original 1912 play by George Bernard Shaw. Philologist Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) makes a bet with Colonel Hugh Pickering (Wilfrid Hyde-White) that he can turn flower-girl Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn, with Marni Nixon singing) into a proper English lady. Eliza's father, Alfred P. Doolittle (Stanley Holloway) tries to cash in on the situation, and succeeds better than his greatest dreams, and nightmares.

I had no idea just how many classic songs are in the movie: "The Rain in Spain," "I Could Have Danced All Night," "On the Street Where You Live," "Get Me To The Church On Time," "Accustomed to Her Face"--it's a broadway karoaker's dream. (Not that I'm saying it's MY dream, because---yeah, let's just move on.) Suffice to say, I can't wait to these all get stolen by Glee, and put into a mash-up with Jennifer Lopez's "My Love Don't Cost a Thing."

But for me, the real winning element of the film is its tight equation of the British class system, presentation, and gender relations. Higgins' basic point, that phonetics and appearance are crucial determiners for rank, is made over and over again. The contrast is neither more evident in the horse race scene, featured below:

Any semiologist worth her salt could spend hours dissecting the scene, but let's consider a few of the most obvious points. First, the clothes. There's a sharp delineation between the male and female, not only in type, but in color, the drab gray suits contrasting with the ostentatious blacks and white dresses. The purpose of the event has been entirely repurposed: rather than come to gamble on horses, everyone we see is there precisely to be seen, to be part of the living tableau. The lyrics reinforce this point: "Ev'ry duke and earl and peer is here// Ev'ryone who should be here is here." "Here" is repeated over and over--the only purpose to the event is to be seen as present at the event. Eliza, when she's finally introduced at some point after the 5 minute mark, has been domesticated to the point where she visually fits right in--except, of course, for the red rose. The one who appears most out of place is actually Henry Higgins, a point of irony that the film makes a few times, but usually in a subtle manner: in many ways, Higgins doesn't fit into the upper society that he is trying to force Eliza into any better than she does. The end of clip, featuring Eliza's eternal embarrassment, comes about as a transgression on multiple levels. In addition to uttering vulgarity, she also brings attention to the materiality of the horse race, and attention away from the upper class's own self-focus. By highlighting the spectacle, she becomes the spectacle.

Besides the class issue, there's a persistent gender concern throughout the film, one that's tied to the class issue in complex ways. From the beginning, Eliza declares over and over again that she has as much right as anyone, that her money is as good as anyone's, and that Higgins has no right to treat her as lesser. (In fact, by the end of the film, everyone gives the impression that, as a person, she's probably a few notches above him.) Higgins, for his part, is constantly trying to define Eliza as his creation, as his investment, and as his achievement. After she has been fully transformed, Eliza quickly comes to assert her independence and self-worth, but given the context (which is admittedly muddled, as it's a 1960s Hollywood re-imagining of early 20th century London), she doesn't have a lot of options. She can stay with Higgins, and suffer through a lifetime of condescension. Or go with Freddy, and spend a lifetime supporting him. Or go back to the gutter and die, or go and teach and wither as a lonely spinster. For a good-natured comedy romp, it's fairly bleak stuff. I understand in the original, she married Freddy, but stayed close friends with Higgins; although I understand why Hollywood would go a different way, that's probably the best course. She gets the intellectual engagement of the one man, and the devotion of the other. (And yes, the best solution is the fish/bicycle option where she's happy alone, but we work with the tools provided.) And this option also gets around another of the film's subtexts, that perhaps Mr. Henry Higgins is... not quite a lady's man, but... more of a... man's man.
Exhibit A:
Exhibit B:

Your honor, the prosecution rests.

Oh, and as a final note, while My Fair Lady is a wonderful film that I fully recommend, make sure you have enough time to watch the entire thing before your roommmates come home, 'cause boys are jerks.

She's the Man. All right, as my above 1000 word mash-note on My Fair Lady demonstrates, and my ownership of My Best Friend's Wedding proves, I am not a man who is above the occasional chick flick/girly movie. But this... this was annoying, on so many levels. Plot: stolen entirely from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. To the show's credit, it at least admits this theft straight out. So: Viola (Amanda Bynes) takes over her brother Sebastian's (James Kirk--note awesome name) life when he ditches it to head to London to be a musician for two weeks. Her intent is to go to the private school he is enrolled in to teach her former school that girls can play soccer as well as boys. And the most obvious way to do that is by pretending to be a boy and joining the rival school's soccer team and beating the original school. Because simply finding enough girls to fill out the roster at her school--which was the reason the girls' soccer team was eliminated in the first place--is plainly ridiculous. And along the way, as per plot regulations, she falls in love with Duke (Channing Tatum) who is in love with Olivia (Laura Ramsey), who, embarrassingly, is in love with Viola as Sebastian. (And the movie goes through some truly impressive convolutions to make sure Olivia's eventual transference of affection to the real Sebastian isn't as insane as it appears.)
There is, on the surface, a lot in the movie that COULD be appealing. There's a gender role subversion current, of course. And there's some interesting reflections on the state of adolescent masculinity, that "Sebastian" becomes automatically cool after Viola rejects some hot girls, and that the boys refuse to talk about things like their gooey emotions. There's some good acting performances, although they mostly come from peripheral characters such as David Cross as the principal, Emily Perkins as the oddball girl, and Vinnie Jones as absolutely terrifying--I mean, as the coach for the new school's soccer team. And there's something interesting about the way that all adults in the film--except Jones--are portrayed as idiotic buffoons. So yeah, there's... all that.

The problem is that the whole thing is so... perfunctory. It goes through the original Shakespeare plot, it adds a few soccer scenes, and... there's the film. Viola makes so many guffaws in the name of comedy that it seems utterly implausible that anyone, anyone, would be fooled by her performance. It's not the utter train wreck of, say, White Girls, but it is only a few steps above Betty and Wilma donning mustaches to sneak into the Water Buffalos. And while there is some passing resemblance, there is absolutely no way anyone would confuse Viola-as-Sebastian and Sebastian as the same person, once you've seen both. Finally, during the intimate heart-to-heart between Duke and a revealed Viola, I was supposed to be feeling for the star-crossed couple, but all I felt was annoyance at the constant stream of "Like, you know, I like you. And stuff."

I don't know. Maybe I'm just too old for this one. Is Bend It Like Beckham any good?

Later Days.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Friday Quotations: Spector, Projector

Warren Spector, creator of Deus Ex, on the future of video games: “I don’t think anyone can say for sure what videogames will be like next week, let alone the future. It’s tempting to say something quotable like ‘the holodeck will be a reality’ or ‘the future is online games.’ But, while those are all nice soundbites—and I think all of them are possible, if not likely—each tells only a bit of the story. The fact is, there is no one Gaming Future, any more than there’s a single literary future or cinematic future. The future of gaming is limited only by the creativity of the men and women making games—which is to say there are no limits.”

Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of Mario and Link, same question: Honestly, I cannot tell. Something which I can explain in words is not going to be a very fun thing!”

--Supercade: a visual history of the video game age 1971-1984

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Jogger's Ettiquete

I've got fifteen minutes till the bus comes, so I thought I'd do a post. Considering most posts are constructed painstakingly over the course of an hour or two, this rigid time constraint should present some interesting challenges.

Or I'll get bored and end after a hundred words or so. Either way.

Anyway, today's subject is running. I know I've sort of given up on the *running update* feature. For once, that's not because I've taken a lazy man's hiatus, but because my current path involves so many footpaths that Google Map is really unhelpful in determining exactly how long the route is. But I'm still getting out at least four times a week, and when the weather dips below five degrees, that's an accomplishment in itself.

More specifically, though, today's subject is my run this Monday. For a while, I've been left with a conundrum whenever I run into (rarely literally) into someone I know while on a jog. If I'm being honest, it really interrupts the flow of the run; if I'm being really honest, I often have a hard time coming up with anything more than idle chitchat if I haven't prepared conversation topics in advance. (At least I've gotten to the point where the topics are just prepared mentally. The cue-cards are getting burdensome.) So, generally, if I see someone I recognize while jogging, I pretend I'm very, very intent on the process at hand.

This policy, understandably, has created some mixed feelings towards yours truly. So on that Monday run, I decided to stop and greet each person I recognized. And of course, that's the day I run into three different people: one fairly good friend, one more distant friend (but still a nice guy) and my supervisor.

This stopping resulted in three of the most awkward conversations of my life. The one with the good friend was fine enough; a little strained since we were both heading in different directions, but okay. The one with my supervisor was... more strained. He very clearly wanted to be somewhere else. And the third conversation was entirely awkward; my earphones got tangled, so my part of the conversation was largely repeating "What?" and "pardon" over and over again, while his part descended into incomplete sentences and random blandishments. To sum up, forget honesty; sometimes feigned mistaken identity and sustained silence is the best policy.

From this experience, I think there are three possible conclusions:

a) People are uncomfortable talking with someone who was clearly in the middle of a non-talking activity. (This statement is, of course, dependent on the activity.)
b) People are uncomfortable talking with someone who is clearly sweating profusely and smells terrible. (Unfortunate non-running behavior confirms this statement.)
c) People are uncomfortable talking to me. (Perhaps the most likely conclusion, but one that requires a more long term solution.)

That's it--bus is imminent.
Later Days.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Sometimes I Don't Want to Do a Real Post

I chose the frames for my new glasses purely on the basis that they better matched the Scott Pilgrim avatar I made last August.

Later Days.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Friday Quotations: Doctors Do Not Recommend the Morrison Breakfast Special

"I'm making these notes on the Boulevard Pomare, downtown Papeete, trade winds rattling the palm leaves, a fresh spray of warm rain, white surf on green water, clouds blurring the jagged volcanic outlines of the island of Moorea off in the background. Slow Sunday in Pardise. Drikning espresso with the left hand, screwdrivers with the right, in an effort to disconnect the hemispheres of my brain. The vodka and orange don't seem to be mixing very well. Tastes funny and smells like something shit in my glass. Only thing to do, I suppose, is keep on drinking until I lose my sense of smell altogether. The best thing about writing is that it can be done anywhere and anywhere is, of course, my favorite place."
--Grant Morrison, The Invisibles vol. 1, issue 1.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Shop Till You Droop

Just so y'all know, there'll be a proper movie buff post in the near future; I need to watch Zoolander in the near future for my audit course, and that will shore up the numbers I need to make the post a proper length. But for now, here's a post on what I did yesterday.

Speaking of my audit course, we took a field trip yesterday to a newly constructed Shopper's Drug Mart, to analyze it in terms of aesthetics and design. Sometimes, when you take some ordinary facet of life and really pay attention to it, you are rewarded with a sense of wonder and delight at the intricacies of humanity. And some times, you realize how incredibly weird people really are. This trip was definitely leaning towards the latter.
Shopper's kept its extreme, high-end beauty products in an area sealed off from the rest of the store by two archways--and you had to go through this area to enter the store proper. The actual merchandise was display case after display case after kiosk of very expensive beauty products, culminating in a massive perfume display with bottles that started around $50 and averaged around $100.

In general, there was a pretty stark gender divide between products. My favorite female-oriented product was L'Occitaine's Immortelle line of "anti-aging skin creams." In a single word, it conveys a sense of foreignness, plant-based healing, and the feminine. Not to mention a claim for out-and-out immortality. When you get right down to it, a lot of aesthetics is marketed towards exploiting a fear of aging, but you almost have to admire a company that is this aggressively forthright about it. The product'swebsite also uses starkly suggestive language: "Immortelle anti-aging skin care reduces signs of aging by multiplying collagen production, improving microcirculation and fighting against free radicals." Note the repetition of "aging," and the focus on improving, which makes old age sound like some sort of disease that you should do your best to get over. Or like a peasant uprising that needs to suppressed--gotta show those free radicals who's boss, doncha know.

And then they go and toss out all that rhetorical clout on the "Read the True Story" link (which in itself is an amazingly weird concept--does that imply the story up to this point was a lie?), when they use the word "extraordinary" twice in two consecutive paragraphs. Extraordinary: fantastic, wonderful, fascinating, unique, special, wondrous, amazing. This is not a topic lacking in synonyms.

As for best male product, I'll spare you the analysis and skip straight to the picture:

Diesel's "Only the Brave." IT IS A PERFUME BOTTLE SHAPED LIKE A FIST. Words fail to describe this glory.

There are pages and pages of other things I could discuss here. One parting shot: the store's staff--while in general very helpful and easy to talk to--were absolutely adamant in refusing to allow us to take any photos. Combine this with the fact that their electronics section was entirely dominated by advertisements pushing their digital camera services, with an emphasis on capturing and cherishing a given moment through its digitization. The store was very intent on presenting ways to control and immortalize images, especially its own image. I guess that's only fitting; controlling the image, after all, is what the cosmetics is all about.

Oh: side note. A friend of mine just launched a blog of his own, and it can be found here. It's good stuff. And by mentioning it on my own blog, I am showing just how supportive I am and how I not at all feeling very, very threatened by its mere existence.

Later Days.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Friday Quotations: Sometimes I am amused by odd things

"The Silver Surfer is one of the most powerful super-heroes in the Marvel Universe. However, in this game, he can be one-hit killed by fish, ducks, and riverbanks." --Brett Weiss, Classic Home Video Games, 1985-1988: A complete Reverence Guide.

Later Days.

*UPDATE: Oct 6 2011--I just realised I committed a Freudian slip and wrote "Reverence" when I meant "reference." Oh, videogames.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Bleh. Just bleh.

I had one thing to do today: turn in my 2010 SSHRC proposal. All I had to do was go to the university, print it off, drop it off, go home. Easy, right? Not so, evidently.

The first thing that went wrong was that I became disastrously aware of my bike's brakes officially downgrading themselves from "poor" to "nonexistent." I emerged unscathed, but the bike is clearly out of commission for the season--or until I get it to a shop for a tune-up, whichever may come first.

With cycling off the table, I thought I'd take advantage of the still-new student bus pass and take public transportation. Of course, by the time I made this decision, the bus had just gone by. So a few minutes of waiting later, I was university bound. Everything went fine, until I tried to print off the files. After waiting some more for an unresponsive printer, I went to the IT guy on duty. After a half hour of work eventually involving another three guys from IT, they determined: a) the printer is really, really jammed, and b) the guy that does printing refunds wasn't there today, so I wouldn't be getting my money back.

That created another problem: I didn't have enough funds on my printing account to do the printing over again. And I didn't have my credit card on me, which meant I couldn't transfer the funds online. So I had to walk to the ATM, withdraw some money, go over to the library to put the money onto my student card, go back to the computer department, transfer electronically the balance on my student card onto my printing account, and finally print off everything on the OTHER printer. I take the results, turn them in, and that's that done.

But there's still the return trip to manage. After the delays, I figure out that I have only a few minutes to get to the departing bus, so I start running. I get about five steps before I trip and sprawl all over the pavement. The damage isn't too bad; I bruise my shoulder, rough up my palms (but nothing breaking skin), and scrape my knee. The worst part is that I tear the knee out of my jeans. It was, unfortunately, the last pair of comfortably fitting jeans I currently own, which necessitates a trip to the mall for clothes shopping tomorrow. Here's a statistic that will convey my feelings on the subject: # of times I went to the dentist since moving to Ontario: 3. # of times I have gone to shop for clothes: 0.

So I'm in a pretty bad mood at this point. But resilient, I get up, brush myself off, and head towards the bus... and make it about another 5 feet before I trip AGAIN. This time: My shoulder is throbbing, both hands have been torn open to grant me my own personal stigmata, and the knee--which got the worst of it, with even the faint protection my jeans previously provided being torn away--was a mess of bloody scratches and open wounds. At this point, I opted to forget the damn bus and hobbled home. And here I am. I got back and cleaned myself up (including pulling threads of the blue jeans OUT of the rapidly scabbing wound--fun!). And now I'm going to watch multiple episodes of The Simpsons while eating pizza pops and skittles, because, dammit, this day owes me.

*UPDATE* Didn't help. Nor did my "let off steam" run. Probably because most of that run was in the rain, and it was 45 minutes into it before I realised I was wearing shoes that didn't match. You know what? It's 6:38 pm, and I'm going to bed. DAY OVER.

*UPDATE 2* And then I watched WALL-E. I know Pixar is part of a multinational corporation that accumulates capital through the manipulation (masterful manipulation, mind you) of emotionally loaded situations, but WALL-E is still the most adorable garbage machine ever. What a nice day.
Later Days.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Short Yet Heartfelt Conclusion

Sorry for the delay, but I've always found the posts that aren't comedy-based or theory-based to be a bit harder to get out. All right, some background here. My aunt passed away a few weeks ago. It was from a brain tumor that had been growing for years now, and her quality of life had been diminished for quite some time. The wake was held on Thanksgiving weekend, and since a flight out to her home province would have cost upwards of $800, I talked it over with my parents and decided that it wouldn't make sense for me to fly out to be there. It wasn't an easy decision, and I struggled with it. I would have liked to be there with the family. By large, my interactions with my aunt had always occurred in that setting: family trips, weddings, birthdays. And that would have been an appropriate circumstances to say goodbye to her.

But, well, I didn't go out, so I needed/need to say goodbye to her in a different way. I was hoping this series of posts would help me work through what she meant to me. There's no single answer; in addition to what she meant with me in the context of our mutual family, there's also the undeniable fact that I associate my aunt with the city she lived in. I doubt I'll ever be able to go there without thinking of her--visiting her house and staying with her there has seeped into my bones from all the times in my childhood to my adulthood. (If you're curious about the city, I'll give you a hint: start in Winnipeg, and travel waaaaay west. If you've hit Victoria, you've gone too far. And you're also very wet.)

It's funny; when I think of a person, I often can't divorce what they mean to me from the time and place that I knew them in. (Or maybe not so funny. We're human beings, and we live in one place at a time, linearly.) Who is my aunt to me, what defines her to me outside of the family position, and her geographical location?

My aunt was a strong person.

Not physically, since her height and frame didn't really lend itself to that sort of thing, but in terms of an strong will, and a strong sense of self. Without getting into a past that I really have no right to divulge, she spent a long period of her life alone. And compared to the family I was used to, she drank more, smoked more, and, um, used saltier language (which, to the mind of a young boy, just made her that much more appealing yet feared). She bore her adversities--brain tumor and all--with a lot of pride and a lot of dignity, and, consequently, a sort of grace. She was a strong person, and for that strength, I'll always admire her and look to her as inspiration.

To connect this more thoroughly to my previous posts, and without diminishing my admiration for my aunt in any way, strength in general is a hallmark of the women in my family. On both sides, the women are no wilting wallflowers; they stand their ground, and if you cross them, believe me, you'll know it. (Unlike the men. We're kind of the strong, silent type.) My family tree is a cornucopia of empowered women, working as teachers (lots of teachers), nurses, concierges, zoo workers, paralegals, and film-makers. (And I'd imagine a few significant positions I've forgotten. Which I'm sure I'll hear about later in great detail.)

To tie back to the first post, one of the reasons I felt so indignant towards the effacing of the Little Mermaid's female family is that I've felt so gifted for my own. And to tie it back to the second post, I don't know why I've been less drawn to women creators in my fiction or research. But I know for certain it's not because I think that women don't have anything to contribute. I've lived with example of example of strong, vibrant women all my life. It never occurred to me that they'd be any other way.

So here's to my aunt, and all the other proud and independent women in my life, family or otherwise. I'd say keep up the good work, but frankly, I'd like you to slow down a bit; you're making the other genders look bad.

Later Days.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Mundane Middle Stretch

All right: we're in post 2 of a three post series. Yesterday covered some of the differences between the Disneyfied Little Mermaid and its original; today, we'll take the final point, the marginalization of women, and run it into the ground. Be warned: this post is definitely the "Empire Strikes Back" of the bunch, as it comes to a fairly negative conclusion. Negative in the way it reflects me, I mean. My only defense is that I hope to be somewhat redeemed with tomorrow's blog equivalent of Return of the Jedi. (I can promise no Ewoks, so that's already an improvement.)

Anyway, while The Little Mermaid rekindled my decision to do a feminism-issue series of posts, the seed was originally planted when I attended a lecture Elaine Showalter gave at my university a few weeks ago. The lecture essentially presented a case for her upcoming book, a history of female writers of North America. This history, especially in the United States' early years, really hadn't been told. She gave a particularly striking contrast. When Walt Whitman first tried to publish his seminal "Leaves of Grass," he absolutely couldn't get anyone to buy it. The single book store that accepted a few copies couldn't move one of them, and no one else was biting. So he actually sent a few fake, raving reviews to literary magazines and suddenly the work no one would read became one of the pillars of American poetry. At the same time, a woman published a book of poems to huge acclaim, but was forced to write under a pen name so her husband wouldn't find out. When he did, he gave her an ultimatum: either she give up public writing forever, or he would divorce her and take the children. So she literally had to choose between her family and her writing. She acquiesces, and becomes virtually forgotten. Showalter's point is that men were allowed to go to extreme measures for self-promotion; women who did the same were vilified.

That I can't even remember the name of the woman she used lends further credence to her argument.

Anyway, the talk got me thinking about influential women creators in my own field. In video games--well, the pickings are rather slim. That isn't to say there's no one. It was a husband and wife team that were behind Sierra, who made some of the best computer games of the 20th century. Another woman was behind Sierra's popular Hero's Quest series. And I know it was actually a female who coded the arcade classic Centipede. But while I'd recognize the names if I saw them, I can't actually name any of them off the top of my head. In contrast, the big historical male names in video game history--Shigeru Moyamoto, Warren Spector, American McGee, John Romero--immediately roll off my tongue. In this case, at least, it can be partly contextualized. Video games are--excuse the gross overgenralization--heavily masculinized. There are exceptions, and I believe there will continue to be more exceptions, that the field will change with the greater expansion of the form, and with the increasingly popularity of, um, pop games and sim games, but for now... well, how many women would WANT to be associated with a character like Duke Nukem?

Maybe some prominent female role-models can be found in the actual games.

...or maybe that's not a productive area of discussion. (Sorry, Samus.)

One area of video games that does have a prominent female presence is its scholarship. There's a lot of women who bring some of the more useful anthropological approaches into game studies: see Suzzane de Castell, Mia Consalvo, and Lisa Nakamura (all right, she's more digital media at large, but there's crossover.). Brenda Laurel and Janet Murray are often cited as the founders of the narratology-side of the video game debate. There's also Karen Collins on game sound design, Katie Salen on game design, and Sheila C. Murphy on the game artifacts, such as cell phones and the Intellivision. So yes, pretty good representation there.

But just as I satisfied my white liberal conscience with the above list, I came upon a new question: what female creators have had a personal influence on me? This one was... harder. I recently did this Facebook thing, where you name 15 authors who influenced you, as quick as you can. And once I was pretty advanced in the list, I realized I didn't have any women on there. I threw Virginia Woolf on near the end, but I couldn't say definitely that she wasn't a token addition. To be honest, my list of high literature doesn't include a lot of female writers. A large part of this is my educational background. My undergrad university split the humanities in such a way that many of the modern female writers were under the purview of the Women and Genders Studies department. Split between a double English and Math major, I didn't have many electives to spend on outside classes, so I just never experienced the modern female writers. And before the 20th century, you start running into the lack of support female writers have faced for centuries. Gaskell and Austen are fine, but really not my bag. I think Elizabeth Heywood is amazing, but I came across her after my scholarly interests turned elsewhere, so her impact too was less on me than it might of been. And so on.

Well, fine. If I'm being honest, I've been influenced at least as much by my pop fiction reads as by my high literature forays. Admittedly, this area skews heavily towards fantasy for me, but I can't be faulted for good taste. And if you turn towards this area, favorite female writers crop up pretty quickly. Fay Weldon's combinations of postmodernism and chick lit are awesome. Diane Duane's Wizardry series always formed a must-read for me, and her Star Trek stuff is good too. Robin Hobbs plays with the fantasy genre itself in ways that need to be read by any fan of the form. Anne McCaffrey's Pern series have been a staple for decades. Marion Zimmer Bradley, likewise, is a cornerstone for her work on Arthurian legend. When you're talking urban fantasy, Charlaine Harris' Vampire books deserve some grudging respect, though for my money, Patricia Briggs' Mercedes Thompson series is infinitely better written. Hell, I did my MA thesis on Tamora Peirce's young adult series. This is just a representative sampling, but yes, my list of influential female fantasy writers is fairly well stocked.

But... can I say that any one of these writers has been personally influential on me? The problem there is that for every writer above, there's one writer, one male writer who fills the same sort of niche for me, but one better. I'll take Italo Calvino over Fay Weldon (which, sadly, probably elevates Weldon in many people's eyes, even to lose by comparison), Peter David over Diane Duane, Stephen Donaldson over Robin Hobbs, David Eddings over McCaffrey, Guy Gavriel Kay over Bradley, Jim Butcher over Briggs and Harris, and Lloyd Alexander over Peirce. I know these comparisons don't map exactly, but my basic point is that, for my personal oeuvre, the top of the list is an overwhelmingly male presence.

So what's the explanation for this imbalance? Is it a reflection of the chauvinism in the various narrative industries that I'm invested in (Good lord, I didn't even get to the machismo-fest that is the comic book industry)? Or a reflection of what I've been exposed to, and narrowly limited myself to? Am I a mysognist? A chauvinistic literary snob? Do I have any female influences in my background at all?

Full story tomorrow, but for the short answers: Wait for it, yes, partly, no, a bit of one, and yes; yes of course.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Mermaid Meanderings

All right. Once again, I, your eminent blogger, have fallen somewhat behind in regular postings. To make amends, I’m going to embark on a daily blog, until… well, until I get distracted by a pretty ribbon or an interesting smell and lapse once again. But we should have enough fodder to keep things going for a while. I’ve got games I want to write about, some TV shows I want to review, various theoretical meanderings, and a new segment-type to try out. For now, though, I’d like to start “the return” with a three-parter on a gender near and dear to my own heart, the female.

Specifically, I’d like to open with a comparison between two different stories featuring a female protagonist: the Disney version of The Little Mermaid, and Hans Christian Andersen’s original. We’re comparing the two in a graduate course on aesthetics that I’m auditing, but before we discuss them there, I wanted to jot some ideas down here. (And if you to brush up on the original Anderson, it can be found here.) One of the more obvious differences between the original and the movie is that the movie adds a lot of musical numbers. However, the addition works really well with the themes of the original, in which the mermaid’s voice was treated as a commodity—just as in the movie version, she traded “her most valuable possession” to be human. And, at the end of the original story, she is left completely formless, so that all she has left is a disembodied voice. (I’d say “spoiler,” but I already included the link. You had your chance.) The same commodification is in the movie: one of the film’s first scenes is a symphony held in Triton’s honor, where Ariel’s voice is literally presented as a gift for her father. (Her absence from the symphony is symbolically an early break from her patriarchal repression.)

But there are big, big differences, and there are three I’d like to flag:
1) Soul Ownership. In the Andersen original, the nameless little mermaid is actually told she has no soul. In fact, no merperson does. They live three hundred years, and then dissolve into sea foam. The only way a merwoman can get a soul is to marry a human male, and then her husband’s soul sloshes around to fit her as well—in other words, a human male has a big enough soul for two people. And all of this information is very disturbing to a modern audience. What gets washed over, however, is that the movie version has its own disturbing equivalent. Where in the short story, the nameless mermaid discusses eternal salvation with her mother, Ariel is discussing the meaning of a fork with a seagull. The little mermaid’s desire for a soul has been replaced with Ariel’s obsession with collecting human artifacts. Disney has, in effect, replaced spirituality with accumulating a bunch of crappy junk with no real purpose.

A little too on the nose, yes?
2) And They All Lived Happily… Oh Wait, They Didn’t. The other obvious big difference is that the nameless mermaid DOES NOT get Prince Eric. Or any other named Prince. Rather, her time on earth ends, and she dissolves into sea foam. There’s a deus ex machina ending where she’s rescued from oblivion by being turned into a “Sister of the Air,” but the last-second salvation doesn’t alter the fact that “true love’s kiss” might swap some saliva, but it doesn’t turn a mute girl from nowhere into a suitable spouse for a prince. And she doesn’t even lose to the sea witch; she loses to a complete stranger that the prince assumes is the person who saved him from drowning. It’s a reminder how things have changed in our Euro-descended society; in Andersen’s time, you could still make the argument that spiritual salvation was more valuable than physical love, but now, Hollywood’s created a situation where the happy ending means the romantic ending.
The real salt in the wound for the nameless mermaid, I imagine, is when the prince declares “I want you to meet my fiancĂ©e! And I know you will love her, because I love her, and you love me!”. That’s cold, man. Even for a prince, that’s cold.

3) Female Shift. Disney’s made a lot of female leads over the years. I bet that, if pressed, you could name a few yourselves: Snow White, Cinderella, Belle, Pocahontas, Mulan… etcetra, so on, ad infinum. Now: name one female friend of any of them. …They don’t exactly roll off the tongue, do they? And Disney’s The Little Mermaid is hardly an exception. As much as it’s a story about a young woman finding her true love, it’s also a father’s story about accepting that his little girl is a young woman—and apparently, in order to tell that story, Disney decided not to tell a large part of the original. In Andersen’s version, the Little Mermaid still had her mother die a long time ago, and still has a father figure, but the father’s role is greatly, greatly reduced. Instead, what we get is a heavy supporting role from her sisters and lots of good advice from her grandmother (who is written out of the movie entirely). Even the seawitch gets a better rap. In the original, she isn’t scheming to cheat the mermaid out of her fair chance, or steal back a kingdom; she takes Ariel’s voice because that’s the way magic works—it always costs the thing most precious to you. Ariel’s sisters comfort her with their presence and song while she’s human, and sacrifice their own dearest possession—their hair—to give her a chance to return to them. And it’s not like their replacements are wonderful role-models for little boys, either: Flounder is a coward, Scuttles is scatterbrained, and Sebastian is fastidious to a fault. Admittedly, each will pitch in when the chips are down, but the message that’s left seems to be is that you can’t count on sisterhood, you can’t count on the boys, it’s up to you to make your dreams come true. I’ll admit, it’s still a better message than “the only options open to a young woman are self-sacrifice and marriage” and “you need a husband to get a soul,” but… it’s still an awfully bleak message to give little girls. (Not to mention it still comes down to “you need a husband.”) In separating itself from the original female bonds, it feels as if Disney really altered a part of the original story for the worse.

And that’s where we’re at. The whole issue got me thinking about another topic that I’ve been meaning to write about for a while: female role models.

Later Days

Friday Quotations: Less Than a Month Till Epic Mickey!

"I don’t think anyone can say for sure what videogames will be like next week, let alone the future. It’s tempting to say something quotable like ‘the holodeck will be a reality’ or ‘the future is online games.’ But, while those are all nice soundbites—and I think all of them are possible, if not likely—each tells only a bit of the story. The fact is, there is no one Gaming Future, any more than there’s a single literary future or cinematic future. The future of gaming is limited only by the creativity of the men and women making games—which is to say there are no limits." --Warren Spector, creator of the video game Deus Ex, when asked to comment on the future of video games.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Urban Landscape of the Blind Men

All right, I know I've been lax again. My excuse is that I've been building up the will to do a big post, and putting it off until I'm ready. So expect that... at some point. For now, I've got... this.

I'm severely nearsighted. And when I say "severely," I'm understating it. In the course of my life, I've met less than five people who are a) under the age of 65, b) not legally blind, and c) more nearsighted than I am. I'm one fit of premature baldness away from being Mr Magoo's understudy. Consequently, I am well versed in the essential three alternatives: laser surgery, glasses, and contacts. I'm largely against people shooting beams of anything into my eyes, so laser is out, which leaves the last two. Both have their pros and cons. What are they? Glad you asked...

Contact Lenses. There's a wide variety of contact lenses available, but I'm familiar with the disposable so we'll talk about that. The Pros: you get to keep that rugged, natural look. You don't have to worry about losing them, because they're in your head. Since they're molded to your eye, you get a lot more "panoramic" vision than with glasses. And you can keep them when you go swimming (although you probably shouldn't). This last point is important, especially if you're as lousy a swimmer as I am, and need every sense working at optimum capacity.

Cons: You have to touch your eye a lot, which some people find Totally Gross. And while they're hard to lose when in your eyes, there is also the dreaded problem of "lenses falling out." Plus, you know those dreams where your teeth start falling out? Well, after wearing contact lenses for an extended time, I started getting dreams where my lenses became these massive, hand-sized objects that I had to cram into my optics. Don't worry, though; there's a good chance that last one is just my own deep seated, worrying psychosis.

Biggest Con: I'm one of those people who get up a few times a night for a glass of water. When I'm sharing a place with roommates, I tend to keep a water bottle by the bed so that my nightly habit doesn't disturb them. One time, I woke up around 3:00 am, groped around for the bottle, and took a big, long swig before I realized I had a mouthful of contact lenses cleaning solution. It's a hell of a way to wake up, I'll tell you that. Again, it's the sort of thing that doesn't come up very often, but when it does, you will never, ever forget it.

And glasses.
Pro: You get that Professorial look. And they make a lovely fashion accessory. And it's one single investment rather than the constant cost represented by contact lenses.

Cons: Glare. The dreaded fog that comes when one moves from a cold outdoors to a warm indoors. (A real problem for Canadian winters, and a large portion of Canadian falls as well.) Peripheral vision is replaced with peripheral blurring, which may sound cool, but is not.

Anyway, the reason I bring all this up is that, last week, I simultaneously destroyed my current set of contact lenses by tearing one, and having the other fall out of my eye. (That's another issue for both forms: they're items that, if lost, are much harder to find than other items because without them you have severely impeded your ability to spot them.) That meant a complete replacement within two weeks of my last replacement; I'm burning through this set of lenses at an alarming rate. Thus, I decided to invest in a new pair of glasses, to save myself some future costs. One phone call later/appointment later, I've arranged for a new pair of glasses. They look pretty good on me (At least, I think they do; they didn't have their lenses in yet, and I'm so nearsighted that looking into a mirror five feet away is a bit of a stretch). So... next time you see me, don't be surprised if I'm bespectacled.

Later Days.