Webcomics, Video Games, Books, Geek Toys, and Life in General

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

If you link to the comic to the right of this column you will find the jumping-off point for this post. I highly recommend reading it before continuing through this post.

All set? Then let's proceed.

First of all, I entirely agree with the premise that limitations play an important role in art form--why else would we categorize artists? The term "expressionist" does not apply to every artist; it can't. Expressionist artists apply a different set of rules to their creative process. Likewise, impressionists, realists, imagists, cubists, surrealists, and dadaists--whether they subscribe to the definitions imposed by these terms or not--recognize that their work differs fundamentally from expressionists.

That a time limit or a page limit or a word limit can be said to be a "feature" of written expression is just as valid. Take haiku, for example: seventeen syllables of imagery, specifically limited in order to distill that image--and distinguish the poetic form from all of the wandering devices of the lyric and free verse genres of poetry.

What of the time limitation on movies? Some would argue that a few directors ignoring this rule means that the rule is meaningless--if millions of fans will sit through a three-hour film, then there is no set time-limit on films. I disagree; rather the fact that even die-hard fans of these directors notice the extreme length of epic films SUPPORTS the argument that a recognized limitation exists.

In other artisitic forms, the limitations are heralded: sixty-second films; single-panel comics or three-panel comics; pencil carving, which would be easier and far more profitable if performed in a larger and more visible medium, but would then no longer BE pencil carving; thirty-minute and sixty-minute television shows--and the fact that longer versions of these shows are forecasted well in advance ("Be sure to tune in for the special two-hour event!") is once again a SUPPORT for the importance of the time-limit rather than a refute.

I'm not trying to say that limitation is everything. Sculpture in a single medium (marble, clay, wood, etc.) is somehow more impressive to me than mixed-media. On the other hand, cartooning involves layer after layer of application, and each layer is a different tool, a different effect.

However, the limitations are what force the creative expression. For those of you who feel you cannot relate to all this talk of creative expression just because you don't doodle or play with play-dough, think about the last time you stayed up late writing a term paper or a proposal against a deadline. The limitation forced the creativity then, didn't it?

Another example that I LOVE is board games. When you play a board game, the rules ARE the game. One could cheat and win--switching cards or deliberately miscounting spaces, etc.--but one might just as well move their playing piece to the finish line right at the start of the game and declare "victory", since the entire object of the game is subverted anyway: to win within the limitations imposed by the rules.

Any sport makes a good analogy, too. How easy would it be to win basketball if you stopped dribbling and just ran over people like in football? How about football involving kung fu and small weapons? Why not allow chainsaws in Ultimate Fighting--what's the point of calling it "Ultimate" if both guys walk away from it anyway, right?

Unfortunately, the creator of Cat and Girl (that comic up at the top of this post) has a little angst and cynicism--don't we all--or maybe she was poking fun at angsty comics, and the punchline left me a little deflated. Why?

I happen to believe that the shortness of life (no, I am not having my midlife crisis yet) demands that we be creative participants rather than bland viewers or spectators. We live eighty years--oh, wait, maybe only fifty--oh, wait, maybe only thirty--oh, wait, maybe only a few years, and not only do we have (as limitations) our frail physical bodies, our touchy psyches, and the obligations we take upon ourselves for every relationship we form, but we also have this instinctive (and I mean instinctive, innate, not-learned) desire to produce something that shows our influence, our powers, our personality remains imprinted in the world.

I know: some people create children, some create art, some create business solutions, and some create weapons of mass destruction. I can't judge what people choose to create--and by that I mean both that I should not judge and that I am not qualified to judge--in the sense that I may criticize a comic like this one for failing to see its premise through (Sorry, Dorothy!) but I am forced to qualify that criticism with the remark, "But she sure does have a style and a wit to her art, doesn't she?"

I would welcome the comments of anyone who has catalogued this effect in another form: maybe you've seen someone like MacGyver take the few items at his disposal and, in the few seconds remaining, has created something that--under other circumstances--no one ever would have invented. (MacGyver, of course, falls under that sitcom time-limit rule, too, but who's counting?) Maybe you've witnessed true genius in a card game--where there are only so many cards, so many hands, and so many mistakes to be made.

I believe, as I've said before, that when something like this is true, it can be universally observed. In fact, as I sit here in my little (7' by 7') cubicle, I observe it in myself: although I have demands on my time, I find time to write; and although I am shut in like a cricket in a box, my cricket-y clicking (on my little SP keyboard) surpasses my cubicle and sounds in your ears! My limitations are stimulating my creativity! Take that, corporate bigwigs! Aha!

Sound off, people.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

GEEK TOYS--a few things that make me act geeky...

Let’s face it people: geeks need toys. A nerd like me just doesn’t feel like a man unless he’s wired to several devices simultaneously. I need the phone, the camera, the iPod, the palm pilot and the GPS just to go to the bathroom—you never know what might happen in there, right? And what if I need to print something—I’d better ask for Bluetooth for my birthday!

Sure, my wife will say, “You don’t NEED that.” But if that’s true then we NEED to redefine the word NEED here, people! Remember that book about how girls are from Jupiter and guys are from Uranus? Well, I’m no PhD, but here’s a little psychology for those women out there scoffing at their nerdy significant other just because he’s wearing more electronics than RoboCop!

What He Wants:

8 Megapixel Super-zoom Wi-Fi digital camera with RXR, special Blu-reduction lens, IR remote, and a cool cranking tripod

What She Sees:

Camera—what’s wrong with your 35mm box camera again?

What He Sees:

The camera that will make him look like a yuppie billionaire on a yacht; a combination of “Money is no object” meets “Mine is bigger than yours”—oh, the sweet sweet envy.
What He Wants:

Garmin GPS for both cars with self-updating map software and walkie talkie

What She Sees:

Noisy map/TV—just get the fold-y one out of the glove compartment, honey.

What He Sees:

Okay, first of all: never have to ask someone for directions again—the daddy-driving nightmare of emasculation.
Second: a radar-like device that turns his car into a cross between Knight Rider and the USS Dallas from Hunt for Red October.
What He Wants:

Motorola RAZR phone with camera, internet, voice-activation, text-messaging and a wild array of ringtones that will annoy everyone but him…including you

What She Sees:

Cell phone—we’ve got one, we share it, we don’t need two, and that’s the end of the “discussion”.

What He Sees:

This phone does everything that 007’s gadgets did except allow him to breathe underwater—and it disappears in his pocket like a business card—plus, he’ll get a tiny rush answering it—even if it’s just you calling with a grocery list.
What He Wants:

Tungsten/Treo/Blackberry or some other high-profile palm pilot device, preferably with several other devices integrated into it—such as the aforementioned GPS or digital camera

What She Sees:

Pocket calendar—for two bucks, you can get one with bunnies on it at WalMart. Come on, honey, everyone knows you like bunnies.

What He Sees:

A device that will remind him (weeks in advance) of things like your birthday and anniversary; chirp precociously in his pocket like a personal secretary; give him an excuse to walk away from boring conversations; and amuse him in the line at the bank.
What He Wants:

60-gigabyte video iPod with laser-engraved cartoon character on the back

What She Sees:

Walkman—what the heck did we buy all those CDs for?

What He Sees:

This will make up for high school. (Now people can wish they were him instead of vice versa.)

Alright, I’m kidding—but only a little! Technology is really convenience; that’s the bottom line. If we were all more frugal with our time, if we all devoted the energy instead of the money, if we just tried a little harder, we wouldn’t need the geeky gadgets. Right? I mean, what does any gadget (or home appliance, ladies) do but trade money for time? Why should I give up my two-hundred-dollar palm pilot if "we" get to keep the six-hundred dollar clothes dryer and the four-hundred-dollar dishwasher? (I'm not even going to broach the subject of the electrical appliances in the bathroom--we reached detente on that subject years ago, and far be it from me to jeopardize the peace.)

I kid. It's what I do.

So I bought a palm pilot a few years ago (a hundred bucks), and then a year later I upgraded (another two hundred bucks). Why? Because it worked! A palm pilot is like a little fanboy running around keeping track of your stuff for you.

“Mr. M, your meeting’s in five minutes!” “Mr. M, your anniversary is in two weeks!” “Mr. M, your daughter’s dance class is in one hour!” “Mr. M, your shopping list!” “Mr. M, here’s your brother-in-law’s mailing address!” “Mr. M, you’ve got the rest of the day free!” “Mr. M, let’s go over your Christmas shopping—here’s what you got for your nephew, your mother-in-law, your best friend, and your dog; here’s a list of people you still need to shop for; here’s your budget; and here’s the wishlist of stuff you’ve been making all year for yourself!”

There's a reason people call them 'personal assistants'--mine even has a name. Allan.

For me, the most useful thing about Allan is the ability to convert forty thousand little slips of paper into one sleek digital filing system/persona that reminds me when and where to do, send, buy or find all those appointments, purchases, events, and people. I write down “Take out the garbage!” one time, and Allan reminds me every Monday night for the rest of it’s tiny life—one less thing for my wife to do, eh, honey? I write down “Give the baby his medicine!” and every morning and night Allan reminds me; and at the end of two weeks, it stops, right when I’m supposed to stop giving the baby the prescription.

Can I remember to do these things myself? Yes. Oh, wait--NO! Get real, people. If you don’t have any trouble remembering everything YOU have to do every day, then you’re either A) single or B) dead. In fact, if you're single and you can still remember everything you have to do every day, you must sleep a lot. (Hey, my blog, my opinion; get your own.)

When your brain reaches the “watershed” point—where every time you are asked to remember one more thing, something has to be deleted to make room—then you will either buy a palm pilot or create your own complicated system for remembering to do “stuff”, but I recommend the palm pilot. Just spend the money and get it over with.

Don’t get me started on the iPod—portable storage alone has made it easier for me to carry 80 megabytes worth of work materials back and forth from one job to the next and then home if I want. So, instead of a jumpdrive, I wanted something that would play music, too. [Here's where I thank my family for my iPod, which does all that and then some! Woo-hoo!] I could spend all day talking about podcasting—and maybe someday I will. But today I will just tell you one cool story.

A month back, I was sitting at home and watching cartoons (you know, using my time wisely, Allan wasn't calling me for any important meetings) when without any warning the power went out. Did the cartoons turn off? No.

I was watching them on my iPod. (Keentoons in my pocket, hallelujah! Can I get an "amen", geeks?!)

Monday, February 06, 2006

Book Borrowing: The Blind Date

Ever feel like you know a really good book that everyone should read, but nobody takes you up on it? And yet, if you hear about a good book on the radio or TV, everyone has already bought it and read it, haven’t they? Why is that? Is it just that your friends would rather take the word of a perfect stranger over yours? Is the media hype really a good indicator of public appeal? (Everyone readily believes the conspiracy theory about the book that’s complete crap but everyone bought it and read it just because it was on Oprah—oh, wait, that really happened.)

Well, I have a theory about books, and it goes something like this: books are like blind dates. (Don’t hang up yet.)

There are basically three kinds of readers out there:

1. There’s the FORWARD READER—very socially outgoing: will pick up any book once, may go all the way even if the book is not that good, but has no trouble dumping the book halfway through or right afterward because there are a million more out there. Any of you readers who have ever taken more than one book to bed “just in case” know who I’m talking about. Don’t waste your time on a book that’s a crime to read, right honey?

2. There’s the WE-NEED-TO-TALK READER—incredibly invested in every book, loves to over-analyze it, needs a best friend to call right afterward, and hesitant to move on until every ounce of mystery has been exhausted. Why read another book until you’re just nauseated at the sight of the last one? The “We Need To Talk” reader is a true monogamist, but makes everyone else sick.

3. Then there is the SWINGER READER—polyamorous, experimental, wants to read your book while you read theirs, very sharing. This reader hangs on to some books for a while, but in the meantime reads several others. Better expect to hear about it afterward, too—the SWINGER loves to talk about a good book, or two, especially when they are reading two, or more, at once.

Does it matter what kind of reader you are? No. So, what’s the point then?

The point is that taking on a new book is like going on a blind date. You may know the last person who read this book really well, and you may agree with them on a lot of points, but the first time you pick up this book you will realize that it is a dud, a real loser, a comb-over in plaid pants. Did they mean it as a joke? Were they just seeing if you would go all the way with this book, or do they really enjoy this stuff? Your opinion of the book they recommended may change your opinion about your friends in the long run.

But should it?

We don’t really know what other people like, even our closest friends. We might see them as ultra-conservative in public, never knowing that they are closet-freaks with a stack of Egyptian archaeology texts in the bedroom or airline catalogues stuffed between the mattresses. How do you deal with something like that?

Easy: treat every book like a blind date.

1. Have an “out” planned. Obviously, you can’t have someone call you on a cell phone partway through the read and pull you away on an “emergency”—but you could say, “I left it in a cab—can I give you one of mine?” (Also works for getting rid of the losers hanging around in YOUR closet.)

2. Give it a chance. Try to prepare yourself mentally for the possibility that this may be NOTHING like anything you’ve ever read before. Sometimes we are sabotaged by our own expectations—you want to enjoy yourself at all costs, even if you know five minutes into the book that you are never going to call back.

3. Be polite to the last. There’s no excuse for rudely dumping any book; after all, someone wrote it and someone else published it, so there are two people out there you’re likely to offend. In addition, this poor book came highly recommended by a close friend, and they’re going to ask how the date went. What are you going to say when you hand back the ashes of their best friend? (“Smokin’!” is NOT an option.)

4. If all else fails, plan your revenge. If you put up with this loud, trashy book all night, and you just can’t help taking it personally, find the absolute most obnoxious volume in your library (oh, we hang on to the really bad ones sometimes, don’t we?) and send it back to your match-making ex-friend with the carefully scrawled message, “One good turn deserves another! Hope you two are as happy together as we are!” Don’t answer your phone for a day or two, just in case.

If love is complicated, so is loving books. After all, there are more books out there than people—and with prolific authors turning out forty or fifty novels each, the field is getting bigger all the time. What are the odds that the perfect reader (you, of course) and the perfect novel are ever going to find each other?

(Don’t get me started on how writing your own novel is like self-gratification; suffice it to say that I think people should try reading a great deal more before they abandon the game completely.)

That’s just my opinion.