Sunday, October 28, 2007

Thursday, October 25, 2007

More books

Last week I had a lot of reading to do, in between the pastry making, visiting, cribbage (Rachel kicked my butt), backgammon (I played my brother to 32-32. We kept score on the cribbage board), shopping, etc. I read a very clever book called The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett. This book, first in a 434 part series, is set on a world that is actually a disk, called Discworld. Its sun orbits around it. It sits atop A'Tuin, the great turtle, who sits in turn on top of four elephants (or maybe it's the other way around). It's not just great fantasy parody (the sections on Cthulhu and Pern seemed particularly well-done to me), it's at times thought-provoking. With jokes.

I also read an old classic, Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers. Unless you have a specific need, like the need to read lots and lots of science fiction, I will actually suggest that you avoid this book. There is basically no story, the character arc is unconvincing, and there are endless info-dumps, and endless sermons on the value of serving in the armed forces. It's important to view it in its context, of course, (1959) but it suffers from Heroic Spaceman Syndrome along with a lot a lot of the fiction that was being done then. It won the Hugo, so if you are trying to read the Hugos, that might be another reason to read it.

I didn't have time to get to Ursula K. Le Guin's The Language of the Night, which is a first collection of her essays and articles on science fiction and fantasy. So I stole it from my dad.

I have plugged Le Guin here before, for The Left Hand of Darkness. I should mention that she also wrote (and is still writing) a terrific fantasy series called Earthsea that was recently made into a movie (not very faithful, if I remember the hearsay correctly). The first book is The Wizard of Earthsea. I still remember most of the second book too, The Tombs of Atuan. I tried to read the third book, The Farthest Shore, but I didn't really understand it at the time. She has written a ton of great stuff, though.

I am thinking about doing a 2007 book review Retrospecticus in December.

I have been busily listening to Radiohead's studio catalog. All of it. Amnesiac, yes, is the hardest listen and OK Computer is definitely still the best. It also turns out that there are Radiohead concerts on the internet. The best way to see them is to go to, search for your artist, then pick videos longer than 20 minutes. I tried the Beatles, and it appears to have the entire Yellow Submarine movie, the entire Help!, a 40 minute video from the Shea Stadium concert... ad infinitum. Give it a try with your favorite artist...

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Sorry; wedding; ending; book

Hey Seattle people, the schedule was not permitting outside activities. If I could have called with other than bad news, I would have.

Kefi is married! It now appears that my quick thinking, aided by a peculiar set of circumstances not likely to be repeated, may have saved the wedding video for posterity as we know it.

So first off, kids, videotape your wedding. Test your equipment and your batteries, get a tripod, task one person to do that and only that. My parents have regretted not having good pictures of their wedding, down through the decades (they've been married close to 30 years now!). Until we have 3D television and can view football in the living room tank, that videotape is as close as you're going to get to a record to support your fading memory of the most important single day in your life. So the first strange circumstance was that, as the wedding was heating up, I looked around the room, and there was no camera on a tripod with a bored-looking relative. This made me nervous, but I shrugged it off for a while. Let me repeat one more time: do not let this happen to you.

The second strange circumstance was the strange beeping noise my dad's camera made as it focused. I was a brother of the groom (not in the wedding, but it's ok. Destiny obviously had another heroic feat in mind), so I was seated in the front row. Dad made some lovely remarks during the wedding, so I was tasked to take pictures with his camera. I did so assiduously until I hit some strange button and the camera stopped focusing correctly. Or maybe it was fine, we'll all find out at that great camera debriefing in the sky. Anyway, every time I tried to take a picture with autofocus thereafter, one, the camera wouldn't focus, and two, the autofocus feature would make a strange beeping sound. This sound grated on my ears so much, for so little payoff, as the pictures weren't coming out, that I decided to start flipping through the menus of the camera.

It was getting down to crunch time. Speeches were ending, the rings were coming out. I swept a look over the ballroom (pretty generous word for a multi-purpose at the community center, but there you go) and I still couldn't see a camcorder anywhere. So, after a few nerve-wracking false-starts, centered around the fact that Dad's digital camera's video mode does not use a toggle to start and stop video, but rather requires you to hold down the snap for the entire video period, I got things going and taped the last five minutes of the wedding, with rings, I dos, kiss the bride, and exeunt. And boy were my hands tired. The tape is on Dad's computer, on the camera, on a CD, and hopefully, soon, on YouTube.

One detail does not appear on the tape. About halfway through the recording, I noticed that I was watching the key moments of my sister's wedding through a tiny viewfinder in the back of a Pentax Optio camera, when the real thing was happening in living color just behind the camera. This seemed like a bit of a 21st century moment to me, and I took five seconds to think about whether I cared. Eventually, I went back to the viewfinder so they would have a good tape. The day wasn't really about me, after all... and there my tale is done.

I would like to write more about the wedding, but the whole week was so action packed that I might as well just start at the beginning. Later. Long ending short, it snowed in Denver today, and Sarah, Alex and I got to the car at about 8:30. It was close to freezing, if not freezing, and there was wind chill too.

The car wouldn't start.

I started freaking out, and Sarah started calling people. I told her to call my dad, who, fortunately, knew that we should call the jumpstarting service at the airport. I flagged down a truck, and a nice man got out and gave me the numbers to call. Then we called the service, and exactly the same truck, only with different people, came out and jumped the car. It turns out that somehow I left the lights on, even though the car boos at me when I open the car door with the lights on... I still don't know quite what happened. Sarah passed on at the last minute that I needed to tip the dudes, so I gave them the money I could find in my wallet with my frozen fingers. And we made it home, and there the end of the end of the other tale is done. The balance of the tale, TBA.

Lastly, today, for the first time, I finished Till We Have Faces by CS Lewis, his last novel. I waited a long time to read A Grief Observed, and I waited just about longest for this one. I've read them all, folks (except That Hideous Strength). It's a brilliant catalog of fiction. Narnia. Perelandra. The Great Divorce. The Pilgrim's Regress. The Screwtape Letters. Not necessarily in that order. So believe me when I tell you, this is the best CS Lewis novel in existence, except perhaps in the Sandman's library, or in heaven. It is a perfect fricking masterpiece from beginning to end. Do not hold back any longer, like I did. Buy this book tomorrow. It is tremendous, in the sense of fear and trembling. I was shaking as I read the end, tears streaming down my face.

I won't spoil it, except to say that if you look at the back of the book, carefully ignoring the ending, you will find a note explaining the myth that Till We Have Faces is a retelling of. I strongly recommend that you read this note before you read the novel, and have the background that any undergraduate reader of mythology would bring to this amazing book. That way, you will be able to see, perhaps, why Lewis wanted to tell this story and go at it a little differently.


Friday, October 12, 2007

Seattle tomorrow

I'm heading to Seattle tomorrow with Sarah and Alex for my sister Kefalari's wedding. I'll be seeing my North Carolina relatives for the first time in years. I'm also hoping to see friends, so call my parents' house if you want to see me, or email me at the gmail address.

I'm looking forward to the trip, but I feel less prepared than I ever have to fly.

I bought a suit jacket for the first time in a long time. Dressing up is fun!

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

In Rainbows

If you've already heard the Radiohead story, the short version is "Buy this album. First rate." For the rest of you,

Just a few days ago, a PR storm, or the holy grail of internet media, depending on your politics, hit the world. Experimental rock band Radiohead announced on their website that their first album in four years would be available in ten days. This alone was a bit surprising. Albums are promoted. They are talked up on Total Request Live. Songs come out early. They get stuck in heavy rotation on appropriate radio stations. Advance copies are sent to reviewers. Come in here dear boy, have a cigar, you're gonna go far. The A&R man said "I don't hear a single".

It's not just common practice, it's a complex system where a lot of middlemen take a cut along the way to a $16 CD in Target. But Radiohead has a dedicated fan base and doesn't have a recording contract, so they just decided to bugger the whole thing, at least initially.

But what happened next was even more surprising. The online store where one could pre-order this album showed only two options for acquisition. Option A, an online download, available October 10. Option B, a massive boxset with an extra album of B-sides, both albums in vinyl format, extra artwork and goodies, shipping in early December in time for Christmas, for 40 pounds sterling. The only way you can get this album right now is to download.

Oh, and I left out something. But before I get to that, let me back up for a second and give you some valuable background.

In 1999, Napster was born. A dude wanted to be able to find music on the internet, so he wrote a program that allowed people to easily share their music by registering with a central server. Not quite ten years later, the top 90% of the music in the known universe is available for free if you know where to look. Older people, as a rule, do not know, or their scruples prevent them. Younger people, as a rule, do, and it turns out they feel less scruples about doing so.

Given these facts, a debate has raged about the cause of the collapse of CD sales. In other words, how much money has the file-sharing phenomenon lost for all the middlemen? (Aside. For the record, CD sales never made much money for the artists. They get pennies on the dollar for every one sold. The iTunes music store cut out the packaging, lowering prices by about 20-30% for an album, but left all the middlemen in the loop.)

It's hard to say for sure. There is some evidence that file-sharers are music consumers and more likely to buy CDs. There is even some evidence that CD sales were trending downward prior to Napster. And there is an obvious viewpoint that CDs are just PR for the band's performance and touring, where they actually make their money. (I read somewhere that Radiohead was paid a million dollars to headline Bonnaroo in 2006. On the fair side, they played a lot of new stuff for 2.5 hours. As one reviewer put it, Radiohead is the soundtrack of the exquisite, uplifting agony that is truth in the midst of a world gone mad. The music was so flawless that I barely felt worthy to be there.)

And there is one last question, which is whether it is possible to provoke the file-sharers to come in from the cold by offering them a legal way to download music that is just as convenient as file-sharing and still makes a little money. The iTunes music store was a first draft of this. You might see Rhapsody, a monthly subscription service, as another approach to this idea. Recently, Amazon started a music store selling mp3s without copying restrictions... the trend continues.

Anyway, back to Radiohead, the missing piece of information. If you want to experience this for yourself, stop reading and click the following link to the store where Radiohead is selling the new album. Well, I guess you have to pre-order the download and look in your basket to really see it. You won't be forced to spend any money by doing this. When you see something verrry strange, click the question mark.

I'll wait, if you want.

It's up to you. The price is blank. You, the consumer, fill it in and pay what you want for this album.

I've heard of people putting full price in this barely-organized tipjar. I've heard of people downloading the album for a British penny. There is a nominal transaction fee, but that's it.

Remember how I said that bands don't make much off of album sales because so many middlemen touch it? This is what you get when you cut out the middlemen. Naturally, the middlemen are a bit nervous about what just happened. I think they'll be even more nervous if Radiohead ever release the price distribution they got, pocketing the profit after paying the hosting service and the online store. My guess is that this deal is a bit better than the iTunes deal or the brick-and-mortar deal.

Remember how I said file-sharers might need a means to come in from the cold? Well, this might just be it. Radiohead managed to force questions of price, integrity, and the value of music into a wild free market. My feeling is that in a sense they didn't try to beat the file sharers, they just became the head file-sharer, and did it in such a way that you have to consider in your heart how much money you think is fair.

I looked at it as a way to not only purchase music, whatever that means (some record company executives are saying you can't legally rip your own CDs to mp3s, you have to buy it over and over again in different formats), but to compensate the artist for their work.

At the heart of this issue is a conflict between two great institutions: copyright and the public library. Copyright and patents were conceived as ways to encourage the useful arts and sciences, by ensuring that creators were allowed to manage their creations and not just get ripped off all the time. The library was conceived as a way to set those creations free in the community to spawn further creations and enrich life. Somewhere in there, copyright became a license for megacorporations to protect their IP by suing people left and right for absurd damage amounts (in the latest trial, $200000 for sharing 30 songs online, when the actual lost sales from this file-sharing amount to, at most, a traffic ticket).

My heart has been with the library on this issue. You guys get to hear about Radiohead and Beck and the new Andrew Bird album on this blog because I borrow CDs from the library without paying anyone a dime. That is valuable, a no-brainer. Are you cheating authors when you borrow their books?

PS Oh, the music? I downloaded it today, release day. It was not hard to get through. This morning, the servers were getting hammered by downloaders, but it seems to have cleared up.

It's actually rather accessible, for Radiohead. I think it's quite moving and beautiful, actually. Less experimental than epic, like OK Computer. I'm not going to stop listening to this thing for quite a while.

If there was ever a time to pick up a band's album for less than a pound ($2 US), now was it. Here's that link again:

I hope you like it.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Me and video games

I've gone a little overboard with the Nintendo Wii. Sarah beat her first video game ever on it: MySims, a somewhat juvenile and linear version of a much more significant, quirky, funny, and emotionally engaging game, Animal Crossing. We've been trying out things at Hollywood Video to see if there's anything great out there. I have high hopes for our next one, Trauma Center, which turns the Wii remote into a variety of medical tools, with which you perform surgery in the anime version of ER. Operation, eat your heart out.

We are also fond of Rayman Raving Rabbids, where you do a variety of crazy things with and to cartoony, psychotic, screaming, hilarious bunnies. I don't know if I would buy it before it really gets to the bargain bin (it's down to $30 from $50 now) because all that's left now that we've beaten story mode is to play the mini-games repeatedly, like Olympic trials, beating records, trying to throw that cow one last meter farther or keep the teeth of the bunny clean for a fraction of a second longer. There are associated Easter eggs and rewards, but I don't think I'd pay $30 to master the game...

I've been playing the sports game that comes packaged with the system, too. The game that seems to have the greatest staying power is, surprisingly, bowling. I enjoy tennis, too, but I have it pretty well in hand by now. Baseball is too easy, boxing is pretty difficult, and golf is going the way of tennis. But bowling is fickle and realistic, curving the ball and making incredible splits, chasing that immortal 300, knocking down pins. And best, everybody already knows how to do it, even your mom and dad.

My friends at work also got me to try World of Warcraft, which is supposed to be addictive. I could see that, as it's a large system to learn and world to explore, but it's also, in the long run, ridiculously boring. One of my friends says this routinely: "As a game, it's not a very good game." As for paying $15 per month to play it as a glorified chat program, with orcs, I'll pass.

I am somewhat more interested in a sci-fi trading and piracy game called EVE Online, which has a staff economist on retainer, functional markets, and of course, spaceships. Anyone who played Drug War on their calculators in calculus class, you know what I'm talking about.

So Dan, it sounds like you've been playing lots of video games. You don't talk about this much. In fact, I've never seen this side of you before. Care to elaborate?

The story goes like this. In the beginning, there was The Legend of Zelda. And it was very good. Actually, I think the first Nintendo game I ever saw was Kid Icarus, at a birthday party. I remember very early experiences with the light gun, shooting cans up in the air in Hogan's Alley, and of course Duck Hunt. But we didn't get our Nintendo for a while. Finally, our neighbor Jimbo, who played it too much, sold us his Nintendo with 7 games. I don't remember the titles really. I probably could, with a list of NES games and a few hours to puzzle it out. I think we got Tetris then, which is still a mind-blowing game, basically perfect, to this day. I had insomnia with Tetris pieces for a while, carefully sorting them as they fell for hours into lines 9 blocks wide. I still remember playing multiplayer Gameboy Tetris in the back of the bus with Joe Pham (at some math tournament? I think?) when I was a young man (I've known Joe since the fourth grade, I think). Then there was Dragon Warrior, our first RPG, and still a soft spot (they continue on the next-gen systems as the Dragon Quest games). My first diary entry (in history!) is about beating Double Dragon II.

I beat the Legend of Zelda (first quest) more than 20 times. I called my character DANMAN__, where __ equals the number of times I beat the first quest. I still have it pretty memorized, I think. It would all come back quickly.

Eventually, the Super Nintendo came along and I stayed up all night playing SimCity and F-Zero and (of course!) Street Fighter 2 with Paul, Adrian, Ian, and who knows. Then there was Oregon Trail in school. Somewhere in there is Scorched Earth with Brian Koepke. Final Fantasy with Matt Hughes, then with my brother Aaron. Tribes 2. Tekken 3. GTA. The list just goes on and on.

It's been a lifelong love affair, and a lot of you must be thinking, how much time have you wasted with this stuff? How many chances to live an amazing human life have fallen by the wayside?

Rather than indoctrinating you all in the ways of The Next Plastic Art, Interactive Media, I'd just say that there are a lot of reasons games are fun. They are variously challenging, creative, social, exploratory, thought-provoking, emotionally engaging, and so on. Like Bruce Lee says, "Boards... don't hit back." But video games do hit back, and as time goes on, chances are that they will more and more.

A lot of interesting stuff is being done with persistent, systematic worlds that operate realistically even though they are fantasies. They serve as interesting commentary on our world and, at their best, allow us interesting choices that fold into massive systems; they allow us to pretend, not just be ourselves. There can be a power fantasy in jumping on Goombas or saving the princess, but there is also a fantasy of discovery and imagination that we may not be able to exercise otherwise. And it's all connected to the oldest profession, storytelling. Super Noah's Ark 3D, ok, that was pretty dumb (for one thing, it was just a thinly-disguised skin of a game about killing mutant Nazis), but one can imagine games that place you in the role of different people and allow you to experience the world through their eyes, even closer than reading novels...

Also, some people really need to learn how to play again.

One blog covering the ongoing saga of Video Games qua Art is called Grand Text Auto. Another one I find interesting is by Raph Koster, the guy who wrote A Theory of Fun for Game Design and worked on Ultima Online. His blog is not strictly about video games, but it's still interesting.

I also have a PDF version of a book called Game Design: Theory and Practice by Richard Rouse III that was meant to be shared, if you're interested, which takes a trip through some of the greatest games and what made them so special, along with other geeky computer game stuff.