Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Candy Tangent: Blow Pop Minis

You know I'm an open-minded man. An appreciator of novelties. A neophile. A dude who loves candy, despite the annoying insistence of his diabetes. But even with all those things being as they are, I found a product -- a candy product, no less, and one that I'm naturally disposed to liking -- in the bottom-floor food vendor in my building recently. And contrary to my every nature, this is a candy product that makes me uncomfortable.

They're called Blow Pop Minis.

Now, I used to love Blow Pops. I liked the gum, and I liked penetrating the protective hard candy shell. It was the right formula of fruit and sugar and tartness... a personal favorite, though I realize I'm no qualified critic. But surely you see the issue with these mini Blow-Pop things.

Once you get through the outer shell, whether by chewing or dissolution, what the hell do you do with the gum?

Maybe if you haven't seen the things, and haven't thought through this process, you'll jump to the most obvious answer: you chew it, like you do with gum. But this isn't a monolithic comestible perched atop a stick... it's a single entry in a bag of hard candy. You're supposed to keep eating them. And when you've got gum in your mouth, it's very inconvenient to chew and swallow something else... especially something sticky, that requires some attention to deconstruct.

And though you may call me impatient, I assure you: it makes no sense to just wait until you're done the first bit of gum before you start on a second piece of candy. First of all, the gum inside is barely the size of half a Chicklet. It's so small, it can practically disappear between your teeth. And besides, when was the last time you opened a bag of Mike & Ike's, or even Milk Duds, and just spend a whole 15 minutes on each one? It's a total breach of protocol.

I even considered swallowing the gum each time, but couldn't bring myself to do it. The aversion to swallowing chewing gum, conditioned into me when I was a child, is still too strong for me to openly defy it.

So what these dangerous little objects prompted me to do was to hold some sort of gymnastics yoga session inside my mouth. Here's how it goes: when you get through the first candy shell and end up with a wad of chewing gum, you shift it off to the side, under your lip or in your cheek, and if you're agile, you can free up enough of your mouth to get a second one in there. When you get through that one, you can add another tiny bit of gum to the first little piece, and you have something a little bigger... it's like eating Big League Chew, but only adding one strand at a time, and with a good deal of effort between them.

Keep working, like you're grinding away in an RPG, picking up experience points. Think of each little piece of gum as a gold coin, once you've defeated that candy shell. Once you get to the end of the bag, you'll have something around the size of a block of Bubblicious. Maybe a little bigger. Not huge, but gratifying, after all you've gone through to get to it.

This doesn't sound so bad, if you really need something to do. But let me tell you -- halfway through the bag, you'll definitely be asking yourself if it was worth it.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Takashi Miike's 13 Assassins, with some parallels to Libya and Gaddafi

Watched Takashi Miike's 13 Assassins the other day (trailer here). Here is a film that takes the heroic crusade story, strips it of any sanitation, and presents it in a raw, relentlessly pure form. The protagonists represent moral outrage in pursuit of a shogunate advisor; this advisor, the antagonist, represents pure authoritarian cruelty. This is one of those defining stories of Western culture, mostly manifested as tales of revenge: Medea (no, not the Tyler Perry creation), The Searchers, the films of Park Chan-Wook, right on up to Die Hard. In all of these films, and thousands of others, there's a crossing-over from the role of "protector" to the role of punitive crusader... from "we need to stop him from hurting people" to "it's time the bastard got what's coming to him."

Takashi Miike purifies this narrative by reducing each side to a 180-proof distillation of itself. I'll try not to give too much away, but in a harrowing scene early on (not the first scene! So don't let your guard down!) the film provides the necessary evidence that Lord Naritsugu isn't just a bad leader – he's a monster, an absolutely deserving target for the audience's hatred and the protagonists' retribution. Here, Takashi Miike does the things that have made him famous in other movies, like Audition and Ichi the Killer: he provokes absolute revulsion, creating one of those rare situations where voyeurism is actually kind of painful for the audience.

So Niragitsu is painted as unabashedly sadistic and cruelly authoritarian. Throughout the film, he's also portrayed as totally indifferent to the world, morally and politically and socially, a blasé despot whose fascism comes less from ambition than from lethal boredom. In nature, even "animal instinct” has a sort of rationality, usually springing from a sense of self-preservation or a vested interest in dominance. Niragitsu doesn't even have this virtue. He embodies the tyranny of sadistic irrationality, and indeed, comes the closest of any villain I've seen to pure nihilism. By the end of the film, he's willfully defied human nature and the ethics of war by wantonly murdering families; he's broken the mandate of brotherhood and military loyalty by disrespecting the remains of his most loyal subordinate; he's even flaunted self-preservation, walking willfully into traps and thanking his assailants for making his life more interesting. Niragitsu is a force of chaos

This makes the thirteen ronin tasked with murdering Niragitsu a de facto force of order and rational retaliation. Interestingly, their motivations are actually split at the top of their hierarchy. On one hand, there is Sir Doi, who hires the assassins, and whose motivation is very political. He sees the threat that Niragitsu poses to the legitimacy of the shogunate, and he is acting to neutralize it. On the other hand, there is Shinzaemon, leader of the assassins, whose motivation is moral outrage. The pivotal scene of the film, referred to above as causing "revulsion," has Sir Doi trigger Shinzaemon's retaliatory instinct, and the rest of the film follows through the brutal, precision-targeted punitive act that results.
So the opposition -- our protagonists -- are embodying both sides of the rational-response position: they are there to protect the political system from breakdown, and they're there to punish a cruel and chaotic criminal maniac.
The desire to inflict punishment sets the stage for some of the most compelling, cathartic moments in the film -- in particular, the presentation of a scroll reading "Total Massacre," and the withering gaze of a master swordsman within a chamber of loose swords. This is male posturing at its finest, obligatory in a movie of showdowns and stand-offs -- those pivotal moments that join the samurai film with its cousin, the Western.

As I was just beginning to forget this vicious slice of filmmaking, I got around to reading Barack Obama's speech about our approach to Libya, and it reminded me that this sort of posturing and aggression and retaliatory instinct appear on the world stage, as well. Whether in the case of Iraq or Libya, it seems that the US has lately been spending a good deal of its military capital on protective/punitive tasks in global politics. This is because, according to the Commander in Chief, "Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different."

Like Miike's moral schema, whose violent moral indignation is underwritten by a political mandate, Obama sort of had a situation with two competing motivations: to restore order and allow the country to stabilize, and to aggressively depose Colonel Gaddafi. The parallel isn't too exact, I admit, but there's still an analogue between the two sets of cases. Obama spent a good portion of his speech speaking to that tension -- the tension between acting cautiously, in support of political stability, versus bringing down the vengeful might of a powerful nation upon a ruler who has proven cruel and unpredictable.

In referencing Iraq, Obama was drawing attention to a situation where we acted upon our deeper moral instinct -- the morality that comes from emotion, rather than calculation. When we went into Iraq, we were taking a sort of 13 Assassins approach to the problem: our political aims (protect ourselves from supposed WMD's) and our moral aims (punish a relentless enemy of America and of democratic values) appeared to coincide, although in retrospect, the political aims seem like they might have been a bit of a pretext for the moral righteousness. Anyway, after that conflict, America got to have its own little drama of catharsis, when the public got its hands on those cell phone videos of Saddam's hanging.

But Obama's speech was largely about point out that though the situation in Libya is dictated by a broader sense of ethics and protecting just causes (his answer to the true isolationists), it can't be about the need for retaliation and punishment. It can't be about creating an enemy for the United States to crusade against; rather than an emotional morality of retribution and closure, this conflict has to be built upon a rational morality, a calculation of responsibility and a flexibility of approach. And I think that if Gaddafi got executed by the opposition tomorrow, and we got to see it, very few Americans would feel a sense of self-indulgent pride.

After all, we haven't made that kind of an enemy out of Gaddafi. Because as much as it makes good entertainment, it makes for terrible politics. America has no business instituting a policy of Total Massacre.

But anyway, to end on a shamelessly editorial note: luckily, we have a principled, calculating leader at the helm of the armed forces in this country. We have a commander in chief who believes in the importance of the international community, and who believes that the best way to serve American ideals is to create international partnerships. Only in this way will the United States succeed in fighting despots, rather than becoming one.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Cyclic versus Literary Fantasy: Fritz Leiber and Monster Hunter Tri versus Tolkien and Final Fantasy

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser faced each other across the two thieves sprawled senseless. They were poised for attack, yet for the moment neither moved.

Each discerned something inexplicably familiar in the other.

This text marks the first official meeting of the two iconic characters in Fritz Leiber's Swords and Deviltry, a book that unmistakably fits the descriptions "hack-and-slash" and "swords-and-sorcery." It's part of a whole Swords and --- series, all concerned with the partnership between these two characters, one a brawny defector from a society of snow-barbarians, the other a spritely thief and corrupted student of a white wizard. This particular novel teems with classic literary mechanisms straight from the adventure story guidebook: first loves, betrayals, deaths, buddy-film comraderie, quests for spoils and fame turning into quests for revenge. This book alone has at least three different revenge-quests, between its four most important protagonists.

Reading Leiber's work, you're liable to feel a vast gulf between this style of storytelling and, say the literary approach of Tolkien, who basically set the bar for the high fantasy epic. You may be tempted, initially, to see the difference as one of quality. I don't think it is, though.

Last April, Capcom released Monster Hunter Tri for the Wii here in the states. It's a striking gameplay experience -- the aliased edges aren't smoothed over, and the 3D physics aren't neatly polished. The collision detection is... kind of primitive. Also, there's no attempt to give the game an intuitive gestural interface. Nay, in many cases, you'll be three or four layers deep in menus, browsing items packed together in dense menus, marked by the simplest 8-bit icons I've seen in a long time. It's as close as you can get to a turn-based RPG while still fighting in real time.

Sometimes there are uncanny parallels between very different experiences. Playing Monster Hunter Tri and reading Swords and Deviltry may create just such a juxtaposition. These are both unapologetic throwback experiences, willing to throw away all sorts of artful pretense in order to create a direct, unmediated experience of adventuring. The best way to describe this experience, at its core, may be that it's a Dungeons and Dragons experience, the feeling of being immersed in a world of particular rules and rehearsed beats and well-articulated types, an aggregate of simple elements so numerous that once combined, they create their own sort of complexity.

This may be rather a stretch, but I'd say that there's a qualitative difference between something like Swords of Lankhmar, and something like The Lord of the Rings. I'd call the latter a piece of "literary fantasy," and the former a piece of... what's the best way to describe it?... "cyclic fantasy" is really the best I can do, I suppose.

The basic difference is this: in literary fantasy, there's a sense that the world is continuous, built on a deep history that runs entirely independent of our own. Tolkien was a master of this type of world-creation: from The Silmarillion, a sort of nebulous creation-story, to the vast and complex languages and cultures that populate Lord of the Rings, Tolkien writes living worlds, and we always have the sense that we're only seeing a tiny glimpse of them. These worlds are filled with stories, including the story we're reading, that represent subtle and sweeping paradigm shifts, not only for the characters, but for the worlds themselves.

However, in cyclic fantasy, there's a sense that the world is static, only temporarily deviating from its baseline position, and in conjunction with this, there's a sense that the world only consists of whatever we've seen of it so far. In Swords and Deviltry, the first third of the novel takes place entirely in the Cold Wastes, and though the city of Lankhmar is discussed, it's only described in the most generic possible terms as the quintessential fantasy city. It's really rather disembodied, at least until part of the story takes place there, and the place is described a little more directly.

This sense, the sense that you're creating the fantasy world as you explore it, is very different from the feeling you get in The Fellowship of the Ring, where the remote "outside world" beyond the Shire seems to live by its own inscrutable rules, and thus seems hostile and unwelcoming to the hapless explorers. Indeed, both The Swords of Lankhmar and Monster Hunter Tri are very encouraging to the explorer, who can travel through successive landscapes and towns that are static variations on a range of accepted themes.

Of course, the reason I called this "cyclic fantasy" is that there seems to be an unchanging "way things are," and the fantasy world of these tales always eventually returns to this state. Indeed, in cyclic fantasy stories, the main characters are often tasked with averting some cosmic disaster or destroying some villain that's getting too powerful, whether for rewards or for vengeance; thus, they are often tasked with maintaining the status quo. The "quest" is a job, assigned by some guardian or authority in the world, that leads to the restoration of the given order. This cycle repeats forever, throughout the myriad adventures of the story's protagonists.

Indeed, one of the distinctive aspects of Swords and Deviltry is that the two main characters' lives before meeting -- their lives at their ancestral homes -- are barely sketched out, only given enough detail that we can look forward to their dissolution. In effect, it seems like these "normal lives" -- the Gray Mouser's life of tutelage under a good wizard, and Farfhad's life within the community of northerners -- are already deviations from the true way things should be. By escaping and defying their mundane backgrounds, these characters bring into effect the status quo of their world. One of the essential components of this status quo is that these two adventurers are united in friendship and purpose, and that they're free of their histories and obligations, at liberty to explore and undertake quests.

If there's a video game equivalent to the "literary fantasy" paradigm I mentioned earlier, I think it's the Final Fantasy series (I'm thinking of Final Fantasy VI and VII in particular). Like Tolkien's work, these games take place in worlds that seem to be neck-deep in their own history. Exploring and understanding these worlds is remarkable, largely because they're so unpredictable and full of personality and narrative power. However, the feeling of being in a living, historical world is remarkably different from Monster Hunter Tri's sense that the world is waiting there for you to occupy and defend it.

And though I'd never try to make Fritz Leiber (or anyone, really) compete with Tokien for some sort of literary merit award, it does seem like there will always be a place in fantasy for the cyclical, the alchemical and archetypal, the world created as a static structure to frame the adventures of the characters who enter it. This is the setting we enter, not as strangers, but as avatars, harnessing our power to create the world as we experience it.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

To the Void: User-driven content creation, and the need for an artificial audience

A friend's band just released their first album, via Kickstarter. They're called Hurrah! A Bolt of Light! They play pretty rad alt-rock with a teeny bit of folksyness to it. You should check them out.

Today, in More Intelligent Life, Joe Morgan blogged about how Berlin is the new hotness for emerging musicians and music technology, and for a whole segment of culture connected to it. He ended the write-up with this observation:

"While the average music-obsessed teenager is unlikely to be able to emulate the sounds produced by Richie Hawtin on his or her iPad, tapping into this ubiquitous urge to create could become big business in the next stage of the music industry’s development."

These two things, taken together, put my mind on an unexpected track, as follows: does it seem to anybody else that the opportunities for creative production are growing much faster than the interest in consumption of its products? Like, there are currently a LOT of blogs out there. There's an explosion of DIY film and video production, with video-blogs, web series, fan-made music videos, short films, feature films, etc etc etc. There's a burst of music production opportunities, too, as Joe Morgan suggests, above. We're at a point in history when the tools are available to do pretty much anything, and to find pretty much any talent, or develop any personal passion, that might be latent in your personality.

Now, I unequivocally think this is a good thing. Access to communication technology can only enrich our cultural environment, and whatever it takes to make it work, I'm confident we'll adapt.

That said, I am a little nervous about the way access to tools is amplifying the universal love for attention. There really is a broad, universal desire to create something, and a parallel desire to find and captivate an audience. So there are more and more content-creators, an explosion of amateurs both talented and otherwise, some slipping into niches, some desperately searching for big breaks or back-doors to fame and fortune. But for all the rise in people expressing themselves, is there a corresponding rise in people willing to listen to these new voices, willing to help parse them out, give them a few minutes, and offer a fair shake to unproven work?

The ideal solution, of course, is that citizens of the media-scape learn to be mindful. To whatever degree a person creates things, he or she should also be willing to seek out, critique, and reward new work from others, both in the same platform, and in other areas. Blogs are helping with this phenomenon quite a lot, I think, creating bridges between niche communities and mainstream trendsetters, and linking small personal communities with larger communicative spaces.

However, I'm not sure this will ever happen to a degree that will take care of the asymmetry between new creators and new audiences. After all, technologies are enabling people who are both extremely prolific and unfortunately self-centered, and it will always take some extra work and open-mindedness to go out and discover the work of new artists. It's a question of economy, you know?

For this reason, I think there's an emergent market here, for whatever programmer wants to jump in: the market of artificial audiences.

You really just have to supply one app... call it "appreciative critic"... and sell it to anyone who's tired of releasing their blog posts and photographs and installation art into the void. It could look like a robot, like those uncanny-valley things, or it could just be a voice over your phone... or something that used the camera on your mobile device to scan something, and then gave feedback in a pop-up window. The first generation can just randomly generate some responses: "Oh, this is your best work yet!" and "I'd look it over again before posting it anywhere."

Down the line, though, AC (that's my shorthand for Appreciative Critic) should learn to scan for patterns, make constructive comments, and generate praise based on actual characteristics of the work. And after a few more releases, maybe it can actually provide meaningful critiques of new work! I think we'd end up creating artificial intelligence without even realizing we were doing it.

Engineers, semioticians, linguistics programmers, Ray Kurzweil? Somebody wanna get on this? If we can't all become highly responsive and open-minded consumers, we'll have to go ahead and create them, won't we?