Friday, August 29, 2008

Number 4: Bioshock - "Welcome to Rapture" (2k Games, 2007)

The number 4 spot on my list belongs to the opening of last year's critically acclaimed Bioshock. The game takes place in the city of Rapture, an art deco underwater city built as an objectivist utopia by a megalomaniac of a man named Andrew Ryan (a sort of play-on-words/anagram for Ayn Rand). You play as a man simply named 'Jack', who is the sole survivor of a plane crash in the 1940's mid-Atlantic ocean.

Bioshock is a fascinating game because the game tasks you with hunting down and killing 'Big Daddies' - giant 'men' (we never get to glimpse who or what is inside) encased in oversized old-fashioned diving suits. You need to get rid of these Big Daddies because they protect the Little Sisters, small girls who walk around and harvest a material named 'Adam' from the dead bodies strewn around Rapture. You see, upon Jack's arrival you learn that something has gone horrible amiss in Rapture, leaving most of its citizens dead or so drugged-up that they've become ravenous killers. What you learn is that in this "anything goes" objectivist society, a new sort of drug/genetic modification was developed, called 'Plasmids', which gave its users phenomenal powers over the elements, allowing for such things as shooting electricity from one's hands, or the ability to turn water into ice. But something went wrong. It's a bit of a conceit, but is well implemented in the story. Plus it allows for some great old-fashioned advertising, like the old cigarette commercials from the '50's that look so silly and antiquated nowadays.

When you finally get to one of these Little Sisters you are presented with a choice, you can either choose to 'harvest' them, taking all the Adam they've accumulated but killing the Little Sister in the process, or you can choose to save them, removing the leech thing from their backs and returning them to normal, but sacrificing the precious Adam in the process. The first time you are confronted with this option it can be almost terrifying as you see a little girl looking at you in fear with the two options laid out in front of you. It seems that most people are unable to kill the little sister the first time, opting to save her instead.

The game also has one of the greatest twists in modern gaming, and in perhaps all of gaming. I don't want to divulge what it is here, but it's a great example of the reader-response school of literary criticism and really leaves the player to question what their role is in playing a videogame. I honestly felt that my trust hadn't been so much betrayed by the characters in the game, but that it was the actual game makers themselves who had betrayed me. I wish I could say more.

In the "Welcome to Rapture" segment we, as Jack, wake up from the plane crash to find ourselves floating in the water with the ruins of the plane crash around us. Water has never looked so damn good in a game. The fact that you don't have any sort of display at this point leaves a lot of people sitting there for a few minutes not realizing that the game has started. You swim a short way and see some sort of lighthouse protruding from the water nearby. You swim over to it and upon opening the front door are greeted with the statue of a scowling man holding a giant banner that reads: "No Gods or King, only Man". A short trip down the stairs brings you to the bathysphere (a giant diving bell). Upon pulling the lever the bathysphere closes and you are plunged underwater to begin your journey. Giant art-deco statues, straight from the cover of an Ayn Rand novel, appear outside holding signs which say how many fathoms deep you are. A movie screen pops up and a small "Welcome" movie begins to play. You are greeted by the voice of Andrew Ryan, who sounds something like Orson Welles, and he delivers his manifesto for why he built Rapture in one of gaming's great speeches:

"I'm Andrew Ryan, and I'm here to ask you a question:
Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his own brow?
No, says the man in Washington. It belongs to the poor.
No, says the man in the Vatican. It belongs to God.
No, says the man in Moscow. It belongs to everyone.
I rejected those answers. Instead, I chose something different. I chose the impossible. I chose...
A city where the artist would not fear the censor. Where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality. Where the great would not be constrained by the small. And with the sweat of your brow, Rapture can become your city as well."

After this little movie you are greeted with the city of Rapture before you. An art-deco masterpiece entirely underwater, like something out of Jules-Verne. My favorite part is the giant humpback whale slowly swimming between the massive skyscrapers. Soon you enter Rapture and find that something terrible has occured.

There's no specific endpoint to the beginning of the game, but for this piece I'll say it's when you get knocked out and see a Big Daddy/Little Sister slowly trudging past you, with the Big Daddy sounding like some sort of whale. This level is not only a great introduction to the game, but it effectively introduces you to combat, plasmids, and how to use your environment around you. I could go on about this game, but I'll stop for now. I highly recommend watching the intro to the game, you can find it here.

Nice Speech

Here is a transcript of Obama's speech. He emphasized the differences between his positions and McCain's:

"Now, I don't believe that Sen. McCain doesn't care what's going on in the lives of Americans. I just think he doesn't know. Why else would he define middle-class as someone making under $5 million a year? How else could he propose hundreds of billions in tax breaks for big corporations and oil companies but not one penny of tax relief to more than 100 million Americans? How else could he offer a health care plan that would actually tax people's benefits, or an education plan that would do nothing to help families pay for college, or a plan that would privatize Social Security and gamble your retirement?

It's not because John McCain doesn't care. It's because John McCain doesn't get it.

For over two decades, he's subscribed to that old, discredited Republican philosophy -- give more and more to those with the most and hope that prosperity trickles down to everyone else. In Washington, they call this the Ownership Society, but what it really means is that you're on your own. Out of work? Tough luck. You're on your own. No health care? The market will fix it. You're on your own. Born into poverty? Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps -- even if you don't have boots. You are on your own."

Obama also undercut the tired LIBERAL/CONSERVATIVE shouting match by explaining how his proposals are actually very centrist:

"It's a promise that says each of us has the freedom to make of our own lives what we will, but that we also have the obligation to treat each other with dignity and respect.

It's a promise that says the market should reward drive and innovation and generate growth, but that businesses should live up to their responsibilities to create American jobs, to look out for American workers, and play by the rules of the road.

Ours is a promise that says government cannot solve all our problems, but what it should do is that which we cannot do for ourselves -- protect us from harm and provide every child a decent education; keep our water clean and our toys safe; invest in new schools and new roads and science and technology."

That sounds like capitalism with personal and social responsibility as necessary elements. Not an overly LIBERAL position, in the cable talk show sense of the word. It'll be interesting to see McCain's response. Obama had Clinton(s) as the model of successful a centrist Democrat. McCain has...Bush? No, no, I think what he's really asking himself these days is - What would Nixon do?

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Paul, er - Steve Jobs is Dead!

In case you missed it, yesterday someone at Bloomberg news was updating the obituary for Steve Jobs - yes, they keep planned obituaries on file in case big name people die - and accidentaly hit 'publish'. Whoops.
For a brief moment there everyone thought Steve Jobs had died. But we can all rest easy and put our iPod earbuds back in ears as it's just not true. Hit the link to see the rather lengthy pre-obit Bloomberg published.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Number 5: Doom - "Hangar" (id Software, 1993)

Well, looks like Yoggoth was right on this one. For the number 5 spot on my list of best first levels I've chosen the first level of Doom. A lot has been said about Doom. Though Wolfenstein was the first real first-person-shooter (also created by id Software) it was Doom that really grabbed people's attention and introduced them to the genre. Seeing everything from the eyes of the protagonist was a first for many people. But what really made Doom famous was its use of gore and violence. For its time it was an incredibly good looking game, and the blood, well, we thought it looked so damn real!!

I remember the first time I saw Doom I was blow away. Was this real? Could I really just walk around shooting zombies and other creatures, watching them keel over in disgusting death animations uttering a dying moan as I pumped another round into my shotgun?? Would I get in trouble for playing this game??? For it's time it was an extremely violent game. This was back in the era when Bart Simpson uttering "Eat my shorts" was pushing the limits and offending Barbara Bush. No one had seen a game quite like this before.

In terms of the actual level "Hangar" it's a great little introduction to the game. You start out with the wimpy pistol but in no time you get the shotgun, a highly effective weapon which also produced some of the more grisly death animations. Fighting through a small group of gun wielding zombies the player is soon introduced to the fireball-spitting Imps. An experienced Doom player can get through this level in under thirty seconds, but there's a surprising amount of depth if you take your time. There's a couple of secrets to be found, including access to the outside courtyard. This also makes this level the perfect level for the introduction of the "Deathmatch" mode.

Doom popularized Deathmatch mode for thousands of kids across the country. It seemed so revolutionary at the time - instead of shooting the monsters, you connected up two or more computers and shot your friends! The introduction of Deathmatch helped lay the groundwork for the online deathmatches that you can play today in hundreds of games, from Counterstrike to Call of Duty to Halo. In fact in most games today some sort of "multiplayer" mode is practically mandatory. But there was nothing like it at the time. In fact, once you got a taste for fragging your friends it could be hard to go back to the normal game. For all these reasons, this is why "Hangar" from Doom takes number 5. To take a look at actual gameplay footage click here.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Adventures In Rap #7: "The Show"/"La-Di-Da-Di"

So in my effort to tackle the history of rap as thoroughly as possible, to make sure that I'd heard every last droplet of worthwhile early rap ever released, I gave a listen to Street Jams: Hip-Hop From The Top, Vol. 1-4. While I'd already heard many of the tracks elsewhere (Sugarhill Gang, Run-D.M.C., etc.), there were several I had not. And several I may never need to hear again. I probably could have lived without Full Force's "Alice, I Want You Just For Me," The Fat Boys' "All You Can Eat," Fresh Gordon's "Gordy's Groove," Spyder-D's "Buckwheat's Beat" (yes, that Buckwheat), and Word Of Mouth's "King Kut (Featuring D.J. Cheese)," most of which are about on the level of Bobby "Boris" Pickett's "Monster Mash." While from a historical perspective these songs are fascinating, from a musical and lyrical perspective they leave a little to be desired.

At some point rappers must have realized that you can have the greatest lyrics in the world but if your beat stinks it doesn't matter, and that, by the same token, you can have the slightest lyrics on the face of the earth but if your beat rocks, then no one cares. At this stage the discussion probably went about as far as "Hey, let's just put Drum Machine Pattern #16 and some synth riffs on there and let's go to Chuck E. Cheese."

But Street Jams was not a total wash, thanks to the inclusion of what is possibly the most quoted single in the history of hip-hop: Doug E. Fresh & the Get Fresh Crew's "The Show"/"La-Di-Da-Di." Amid the plethora of Saturday morning cartoon rejects, "The Show" and "La-Di-Da-Di"stood out like a sore thumb.

First of all, the music isn't total crap. "The Show" has a slinky, jazzy, spacious beat that grooves along with a rich layer of non-dated echo (as well as a comical keyboard riff which occasionally slips into the Inspector Gadget theme tune!). What really sets Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick apart from their 1985 brethren is the level of playfulness, irony, theatricality, and whimsy that they employ. They know how to be silly and yet not give the impression that they're constantly winking at you. They manage to be goofy without sounding like sell-outs. They're simply just...better.

First of all, you've got Doug E. Fresh, "The Human Beatbox," whose beatboxing isn't just amusing as a novelty but is actually filled with ingenious little details and split-second gags. Still, I don't know just how much human beatboxing I could take by itself. That's where Slick Rick comes in.

Slick Rick is possibly the greatest rapper of all time. Maybe in one sense at least. Not as a profound voice of human expression, perhaps, but just as a pure rapper. Whereas most rappers, before and since, have tried to come off as aggressive, Slick Rick is mellow. Every "mellow" rapper who's followed, from Snoop Dogg to Andre 3000 to Shock G to Das EFX, probably owes a little debt to Slick Rick. Some of the mellowness is probably unintentional: Since he spent a good portion of his childhood in England, he has a slight British accent that makes his phrasing even more distinctive than it already is. He elongates, he exaggerates, he plays around with words to create a surreal effect. He is the shit.

Together, Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick have a rapport that is unstoppable. Doug E. Fresh raps a line while Slick Rick makes a little throwaway joke in the background. Their absurdity is well-structured and logical. It's like the two class clowns, whom everybody knows are way funnier than the rest of the kids, getting up in front of the chalkboard and just goofing around for minutes and nobody minding. Like on the opening of "The Show":

Slick Rick:
Excuse me Doug E. Fresh...

Doug E. Fresh:


Slick Rick:
Have you ever seen a show with fellows on the mic
With one million rhymes that don’t come out right?

Doug E. Fresh:
They bite

Slick Rick:
They’re never right

Doug E. Fresh:
That’s not polite

Slick Rick:
Am I lying?

Doug E. Fresh:
No, you’re quite right

And so on. I also love Slick Rick's only full verse in "The Show":

Slick Rick:
Well, here’s a little something that needs to be heard
Doug, I was walking downtown

Doug E. Fresh:
Word Rick

Slick Rick:
All along, no one to be with
Step on the D-train, 205th
I saw a pretty girl

Doug E. Fresh:

Slick Rick:
So I sat beside her
Then she went rrrr, like she was Tony the Tiger
I said, oh darn, there's been a mistake
Honey, my name’s Slick Rick, not frosty flakes!

Now, although "The Show" was the A-side and the official hit (it peaked at #4 R&B), "La-Di-Da-Di," the B-side, is in some ways even better, and has been even more influential. Here is only a partial list of songs that have sampled "La-Di-Da-Di," just off the top of my head: The Beastie Boys' "Hold It Now, Hit It," Snoop Dogg's "Lodi Dodi," The Notorious B.I.G.'s "Hypnotize," Das EFX's "Jussumen," De La Soul's "My Brother's A Basehead"...and that's only the tip of the iceberg.

Gone are the cheesy keyboard riffs of "The Show." This time around, Doug E. Fresh is the music! Slick Rick takes center stage for a charmingly raunchy tale including the usage of Oil Of Olay, Johnson's Baby Powder, and Polo Cologne for God's sakes. The interplay between Slick Rick as the storyteller and Doug E. Fresh as the sort of Greek Chorus is delightful, like something out of a puppet show or a campfire skit.

At one point an exchange goes like this:

Slick Rick:
Then I dilly

Doug E. Fresh:

Slick Rick:
I ran through a

Doug E. Fresh:

Slick Rick:
I bumped into this homegirl named

Doug E. Fresh:

Slick Rick:
from the

Doug E. Fresh:

I also love:

Slick Rick:
I woke up around ten o’clock in the morning
I gave myself a stretch up, a morning yawn and
Went to the bathroom to wash up
Put some soap on my face and my hand upon a cup, said
Mirror mirror on the wall
Who is the top choice of them all
There was a rumble dumble, five minutes it lasted
The mirror said

Doug E. Fresh:
“You are you conceited bastard!”

And finally, lest anyone mistake this for some sort of crossover rap, the song goes out with an R-rated bang:

Slick Rick:
And on and on and on she kept on
The bitch been around before my mother’s born
I said, “cheer up!” I gave her a kiss
I said, “you can’t have me I’m too young for you miss”
She said, “No you’re not,” then she starts crying
I says, “I’m nineteen”, she says

Doug E. Fresh:
“Stop lying!”

Slick Rick:
I says, “I am — go ask my mother
And with your wrinkled pussy, I can’t be your luverrrrrr!”

The words of a true artist.

Zrbo Presents: Top 5 "First Levels" of Videogames

As you probably know I'm a connoisseur of videogames. There's a certain enjoyment that comes with playing a game that can't be found through film or music. Especially when a game is new, there's nothing like getting home, ripping off the plastic and popping the disc/cartridge/floppy disc in and firing up that game for the first time, taking in the graphics, the music, and, most importantly, the gameplay.

The following posts will highlight those opening moments of videogames. More specifically I'll be looking at those great first levels of videogames. The top 5 "first levels" I've chosen are ones I believe effectively teach the player the basics of gameplay, give the players a taste of what the game is about and what's to come, and in cases where the game has a story to tell, introduce players to the story and leave them wanting more.

This list is not meant as a nostalgia trip, though you may find a whiff of it here and there. Also, my knowledge of videogames is not nearly complete and there would practically be no way for anyone to have played every single game out there, so please excuse me if "your favorite game" didn't make the list. The following list is composed of games that I have played, though that was not necessarily a criteria of mine. I hope you enjoy what's to come, and I'll try to make it as easy to read as I can for the non-gamers out there. Lad-, er, gentlemen, the top 5 first levels of videogames...

Saturday, August 23, 2008

American Politics: Honesty is Catharsis

We've poked fun at John Dickerson and ridiculed Mickey Kaus, but we keep coming back to Slate. What's the draw? The Slate style is easy to read, the stories are kept to 1 or 2 pages, and there seems to be a an effort to offer a narrative, even where no coherent narrative exists, to keep the reader trudging on. These narratives take the form of a mentioned poll or two(replace poll with study for the science writing), an anecdote, and then a novel hypothesis as to why things are the way they are. Of course, these hypotheses aren't always so novel, and Kaus still spends 95% of his blog space covering the John Edwards scandal (Is he smarting from missing out on the fun during the Clinton years? - Ed.), but we get the paid-amateur insight we came for.

That said, there are some good articles in Slate now and then. Jacob Weisberg's column today, "If Obama Loses: Racism is the only reason McCain might beat him" is one of them. These days most political commentary from the big media outlets comes in the form of childish nitpicking and the tortured analysis of each candidate's verbiage and syntax. These remind me of high school political discussions which usually boiled down to something like this-


Shuffle the order of the first six as you will, there's no better rhetorical flourish than calling someone gay at the end of a high school discussion. If that's the level of CNN/Fox commentary, Slate is the round table debate in the college dorm common area after they clean out the human feces that guy who got kicked out smeared all over everything a couple months ago. People are silly and pretentious, but they occasionally site something they read or tell an interesting story, and now and then someone shares a story with a bit more emotional honesty than you're used to. And this is Weisburg's article.

The thrust of it: "If you break the numbers down, the reason Obama isn't ahead right now is that he trails badly among one group, older white voters. He does so for a simple reason: the color of his skin." Skip a few sentances: "You can do the math: 12 percent of the Pennsylvania primary electorate acknowledged that it didn't vote for Barack Obama in part because he is African-American. And that's what Democrats in a Northeastern(ish) state admit openly. The responses in Ohio and even New Jersey were dispiritingly similar."

My own thoughts on the election are similar. I remember telling people during the primary campaign that race shouldn't be a factor in their decision because racially biased votors wouldn't vote for a Democratic candidate anyway. Maybe it will be a bigger issue than I thought. At this point, however, it's become a moral imperative for me, and for the country. If Obama loses because of his race, in an election to determine if the policies threatening an end to American prosperity will be continued, then there was no saving us to begin with. Crisis would then be the only way to bring about balance and change.

As Weisburg ends his column: "You may or may not agree with Obama's policy prescriptions, but they are, by and large, serious attempts to deal with the biggest issues we face: a failing health care system, oil dependency, income stagnation, and climate change. To the rest of the world, a rejection of the promise he represents wouldn't just be an odd choice by the United States. It would be taken for what it would be: sign and symptom of a nation's historical decline."

You may disagree, but at least he's saying something. New mathematical expressions of tired truisms and endless coverage of manufactured scandal--well those aren't saying anything at all.

Friday, August 22, 2008

It's a Post Post Post Post Modern World

Last night I went to Music in the Park in downtown San Jose with my girlfriend to watch a Beatle's cover band (appropriately titled "The White Album Ensemble"). At the park there we met up with a middle-age couple who are friends of my girlfriends parents. They're the sort of baby-boomer generation types who grew up listening to the Beatles. You know - they actually remember when the White Album was new. They are also big Mac users, each one clutching their new iPhones.

Do you ever feel vaguely irked when you see these young kids, say on American Idol, who during a big power ballad sway their cell phones back and forth like they were holding a lighter? Well folks, that's just sooo 2005! During the final encore this middle-age couple whip out their iPhones, fire up an application which shows a video of a burning lighter and proceed to wave them back and forth as if they were real lighters!! Take that hipster kids! Nowadays we don't use cell phones as faux-lighters, we use cell phones projecting pictures of lighters as faux-lighters!!

The post modernism of it all baffled me in the way the definition of "is" baffles a semiologist. I'm not sure where we're going next ladies and gentlemen, but by the time we're middle-age I don't even want to know what kind of symbol-as-symbol-as-symbol we'll be waving around.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Greetings from Dr. Candle

As a Lost fan I can't believe I missed this. Here's a new video featuring everyone's favorite Dr. Marvin Candle which premiered at Comic-Con. I love how it's a transmission from the past. Reminds me a lot of the episode "Blink" from the new Doctor Who, the one where they're sending transmissions to people in the future through DVDs. Anyone, anyone?

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Meesa Not Giving George Lucas My Hard-Earned Money

Raise your hands if you're rushing out to your local multiplex to catch Star Wars: The Clone Wars before it heads straight to the DVD bargain bin. Yeah that's what I thought. I mean, after closing out the prequels on a high note with Revenge Of The Sith (which I enjoyed a great deal), ol' Georgie boy turns right around and releases...the Star Wars movie nobody was waiting for. Yousa thinking yousa people ganna stop encouraging the man by showing up and paying for this crap? Some geeks never learn.

Two favorite reviews. Jeremy Wheeler on the Allmovie Blog:

The Star Wars theatrical experience gets a sloppy kick in the ribs with the arrival of Star Wars: The Clone Wars – a sub-par 3-episode arch from Lucasfilm’s upcoming lackluster animated series of the same name. Undeservedly pushed to the big screen to cash in a quick buck, the computer generated kiddie flick is exactly what fandom has been dreading and the youngest of their kin are sure to eat up – an annoying and utterly boring version of the prequel universe, all presented with an idiot panache that only an 8-year old could appreciate. Make no mistake; this is a far cry from the vibrant and exciting days of Samurai Jack creator Genndy Tartakovsky’s time with the material. This take on The Clone Wars adapts more of a WB Kids attitude as it relays the untold days of Anakin Skywalker’s obnoxious preteen padawan, as bland politics force ridiculous plotlines such as the Jedi’s helping Jabba the Hutt find his farting tadpole kid, Stinky. Yes, it has really come to that.

And Ebert:

This is the first feature-length animated Star Wars movie, but instead of pushing the state of the art, it's retro. You'd think the great animated films of recent years had never been made. The characters have hair that looks molded from Play-Doh, bodies that seem arthritic, and moving lips on half-frozen faces -- all signs that shortcuts were taken in the animation work.

You know you're in trouble when the most interesting new character is Jabba the Hutt's uncle. The big revelation is that Jabba has an infant to be kidnapped. The big discovery is that Hutts look like that when born, only smaller. The question is, who is Jabba's wife? The puzzle is, how do Hutts copulate? Like snails, I speculate. If you don't know how snails do it, let's not even go there. The last thing this movie needs is a Jabba the Hutt sex scene.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

A Song I Heard On The Radio And Actually Liked

I was riding in a car a few days ago, and the radio was tuned to a modern rock station, a genre from which I usually don't expect too much these days, but a song came on and it sounded reasonably good. "Sounds like Arcade Fire, or The Killers," I thought, " sounds too good." Then the vocalist began singing "To the center of the city where all roads meet, waiting for you..." and I realized "Oh! This is a Joy Division cover! That's why it sounds so good." Turns out The Killers covered "Shadowplay," one of my favorite Joy Division songs. Which is sort of like Scarlett Johansson doing an album of Tom Waits covers, but who cares, it was better than anything else I'd heard on modern rock radio in months. It also instantly became my favorite Killers song (which, granted, isn't saying much - I generally find their music overproduced and affected) because it actually had hooks and chord changes. I suppose it's kind of sad that the best modern rock has to offer in 2008 is an inferior cover of a track that's almost thirty years old, but let's just say that any song that comes on the radio these days and doesn't make me immediately want to change the station is a raging success.

If you're looking for a taste of the real deal:

Friday, August 15, 2008

More Parodies

Back now with another round of gaming-related parody videos (I'll forgive you if you never read the original Parodies of Parodies on my blog). Last year in the run-up to the launch of the Halo 3 videogame, a series of award winning ads aired for the Halo 3 "Believe" campaign. This series of ads was played out like a PBS World War II documentary, with "interviews" from "veterans" of the futuristic war between the humans and the alien Covenant depicted in the Halo series. This series of four videos can be seen here, here, here, and my personal favorite here below (the old guy in this last one really brings it home in my opinion):

In addition to these four ads, a huge diorama display was built and used in one additional ad (and was so popular that is subsequently toured the country). This diorama displayed a huge battle between the Covenant and the humans, with the commercial playing a piece from Chopin and containing a little twist at the end. Honestly I think it's an amazing piece. Watch it below:

There's a new Viva Pinata game coming out soon (Viva Pinata being both a game series and kids show on TV). The Viva Pinata ad campaign delighfully parodies the faux-gravitas the "Believe" ads try to achieve, with the cleverly titled "Believa Pinata" diorama parody taking the cake in my opinion. Watch both ads below:

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Bus Snob

There is a rare breed of creature roaming the Muni lines of this city. You know the type. The man who stands ten feet away from the back seat of the bus and won't let anyone pass him, even though twenty people are trying to squeeze into the back. The woman who sits in the aisle seat with her purse resting on the empty window seat next to her because she values her personal space too much. Well if you're so high and mighty that you can't even let strangers sit next to you unless the bus is really, really full, then what the hell are you doing riding the damn bus anyway lady? If you're so all-important that you can't recognize that there are other people in the world who exist besides you, buddy, then get the hell out of my way because I have the decency to scoot all the way to the back of the fucking bus so that I can make some room for other people to get on. Jesus Christ pal. And don't even let me get started on the people who ask you to open the window for them because "Oh my God, I'm dying on this packed bus and it's so traumatizing I can't even breath unless you open the window for me mister." We all have to ride the crowded bus, none of us likes it, but we do it, so just suffocate and die already.

Monday, August 11, 2008

My Team: The Milwaukee Brewers

Everybody has their favorite baseball team. Well, not everybody, but any self-respecting fan of the game. Usually it's the local team. Now, I like the Giants well enough, but I can't say they are necessarily the team whose box scores I immediately rush to read whenever I get home. No, ladies and gentlemen. The team whose every loss and win means life or death to me:

The Milwaukee Brewers.

The Milwaukee Brewers. Just the sound of it can send my fluttering soul into melodious rapture. The sheer sight of a Ryan Braun home run clearing the outfield wall of Miller Park can brighten the drearest of my foggy evenings. The thrill of grumpy Ned Yost sauntering out to the mound to pull a flustered Eric Gagne can warm my cold, lifeless blood. Thoughts of the 6th inning sausage race, or of Bernie Brewer waving his flag and sliding onto his podium after every home run, haunt my dreams.

Then there are the players. Their names almost represent some Midwest, freckle-faced boy's adolescent fantasy of baseball player names: Ryan Braun. Prince Fielder. Corey Hart. J.J. Hardy. Rickie Weeks. Ben Sheets. Russell Branyan. Gabe Kapler. You couldn't make these up if you tried. Their manager's first name is Ned, for crying out loud.

Why the Brewers? Why the Brewers? Because, in a sea of underdogs, they are the underdogs of the underdogs. They are the nothings who have waited for twenty years to finally be somethings. They are the forgotten men, the unsung heroes, the last icons of all that is noble and true. Their dramas are my dramas, their victories, my victories.

For years the Brewers were a joke. Who remembered that Milwaukee even had a baseball franchise? Surely not me. Until last season, that is, when the Brew Crew came storming out of the gate and took an impressive lead in the National League Central. All of a sudden it was like they had a whole slew of young players who'd seemingly come out of nowhere to rescue the team from irrelevance. Of course, with some exceptions, you can't just turn your team around in one season flat, and naturally the Brewers choked it pretty good down the stretch, ultimately finishing second place in the division to the Cubs.

The Cubs. The Cubs. Is there a more pathetic sports franchise in the entire universe than the Chicago Cubs? Oh, how they'd like to think that they are the true underdogs of the NL Central, that they are the most deserving recipients of your undying sympathy in this situation. But the Cubs will only toss your hopes and dreams into the toilet, leaving you soggy and crusty as you sink your way to the bottom of the bowl like so many used tampons. Yes, it's hard to root against the Cubs. But I do.

You see, the Cubs frittered away that playoff berth to the Arizona Diamondbacks in three quick, easy games. They did not deserve that playoff spot last year. They do not deserve it this year.

The Brewers, on the other hand, have gone twenty-six years without even making a playoff appearance (as "Harvey's Wallbangers," they reached the 1982 World Series, but lost in seven games). Cubs fans have no sympathy from me. Brewers fans are the ones who could truly savor a division title or a wild card berth. If the Cubs could win the World Series? Then fine. But otherwise it's a waste. A bloody waste.

Most of all, the Cubs have no personality. As far as I'm concerned, they're a collection of empty rent-a-players. The Brewers are like the gang of eager little youngsters with a serious inferiority complex. They'll go on a five-game winning streak, only to slide right into a five-game losing streak. They'll jump up and down when they're winning, and then pout and sulk when they're losing. They are the very personification of every man who ever wanted to turn his life around but feared he could not.

Even though the Schlubs took the division last year, The Brew Crew did manage (by four games) to claim their first winning season since 1992. No, it wasn't the World Series, but after eons of mediocrity, it was...progress. It was progress, God damn it. You see, in Major League Baseball, a fan does not expect his or her team to win the World Series or even necessarily make the playoffs. What he or she simply asks is that the team, until the end of the season, at the very least, stays in it. And for the first time in years, the Brewers stayed in it.

Now it is 2008, and not only are the Brewers still in it, they're lodging themselves up other teams' asses. They're eating National League squads for breakfast. They're making the other clubs wish they'd never even heard of Ned Yost. Forget the question of a "winning record"; the question now is "by how much?" Oh, they could still blow it, all right. But the point is...they're freaking in it. They swept the Cardinals on the road (incredible) only to be swept by the Cubs at home (embarrassing). Apparently Cubs fans call Miller Park "Wrigley North." Sick. Truly sick. As for the Cardinals, well, as one FoxSports message board poster once put it, "The only thing Tony LaRussa knows how to manage is the clubhouse bar."

Besides, it's not whether or not you win, but how you play. The player who provides at least half the entertainment, as far as I'm concerned, is 24-year-old first baseman Prince Fielder (pictured above). Prince Fielder is...fat. I mean fat. It's amazing the guy can even get out of his car, let alone run to first base. Kirby Puckett could fit inside him.

Fielder's weight has become a favorite source of humor for the Onion, which, having formerly been based in Wisconsin, must hold a special affection for the Brewers. When Fielder hit an inside-the-park home run in Minnesota last year (footage that must be seen to be believed), the Onion published the headline "Prince Fielder dies of inside-the-park home run."

Although one might assume that Fielder pounds it down like a hippopotamus, apparently he is shying away from the steaks these days; he shocked the entire baseball world when he announced at the beginning of the 2008 season that he was becoming a vegetarian. Now, I am no expert in the category, but Prince Fielder has to be the fattest vegetarian I have ever seen. I mean lay off the tofu burgers buddy.

His father, Cecil Fielder, also a rather portly slugger, once hit 51 home runs in a season for the Tigers, and then proceeded to squander all his earnings and accrue massive gambling debts. Prince and Cecil are no longer on speaking terms. When Prince hit his 50th home run last season (becoming the youngest player in Major League Baseball history to ever do so), a reporter asked him if he was pleased. He replied that he'd have been more pleased if he'd hit 52 home runs in a season - one more than his father ever did. Easy there, doughboy!

Fielder's temper once again revealed itself last Monday, when pitcher Manny Parra, after imploding on the mound after six perfect innings, decided to walk into the clubhouse instead of back into the dugout to sit and sulk with the rest of the team. When Parra finally did come back into the dugout, Fielder busted a gasket and flew at him in a rage, eventually having to be restrained by about twelve other players (here's the video). I mean, that's a lot of Brewer coming at you right there. The fans on the FoxSports message boards got quite creative with this one. Some favorites:

That will teach Parra not to eat the last Hostess cake in the dugout.

Yep, too many fresh veggies. Flavinoid rage.

He was just pizzed off cause he lost his bet on the Brat winning the race... it cost him his 7th inning lunch break.

Anger does NOT = passion and intesity. Eat a burger and calm down chubs.

Who knew veggie heads got into fights?Speaking of heads,look at the size of ol prince's noggin. The skull to ear ratio is way outta wack.

Someone said Fielder is a vegetarian, that can't be possible, you don't get that FAT eating carrots, that s got to be a joke. He looks like he puts away a dozen Hot dogs between innings.

Fielder is just Pissed off because the Brewers didn't give him a fat contract in the spring which is what he thought he deserved for playing a couple descent years, He needs more money for food, he probably spends most of his salary on it.

the brewers should go to the doctor. i think they have a yost infection. thank you. i'll be here all week.

sounds like they have the experience it takes to blow another season

Maybe if the fat ---- Fielder dropped 30 pounds he could actually reach a grounder that was more than six inches away. Maybe the pitchers could sprinkle some chocolate chips closer to the second baseman as incentive.

You see, this is why I love this team.

The incredible thing is, though, that as of July, Fielder is possibly no longer the heaviest member of the Brewers; that honor might now go to starting pitcher CC Sabathia. Sabathia, the reigning Cy Young Award winner (read: best pitcher in one of the two leagues), pitched the Cleveland Indians into the playoffs last year, but once the Indians began tanking early in 2008, the club decided to trade CC mid-season while they could still receive some players in return (otherwise he would have left at the end of the year as a free agent). Baseball reporters were gearing up for at least a week's worth of trade rumor banter: will it be the Yankees? Red Sox? Dodgers? Within about a day it was announced that CC had been traded to...the Brewers. The Brewers? Cha-ching! Why? Because the Brewers had the prospects in their farm system and the other teams had squat. Sabathia has now proceeded to post five wins and three complete games. He's like an automatic break for the bullpen. Quite why he is so good, I have no idea. But who cares? There's no way in hell he'll be coming back next year (the Brewers won't be able to afford to sign him), but hey, let's enjoy it while it lasts. And how much do you want to bet that as soon as he's on the Yankees or Red Sox he'll choke under the weight of his own monstrous salary?

At any rate, Fielder and Sabathia have become fast buddies. "I'm like his mini-me," Fielder commented three days ago after another complete game from CC. "When he's out there, I just get excited." The Onion has promptly issued another piece entitled, "CC Sabathia, Prince Fielder Keep Imagining Each Other As Giant Talking Hot Dog, Hamburger." Some choice excerpts:

Team insiders say the problem has become a serious disruption, with numerous incidences of each player tying a bib around his neck, holding a knife and fork in their outstretched hands, and chasing the other around the ballpark.

"I was using the hot tub to ease some soreness the other day with Prince, who had nodded off, when C.C. came in carrying these grocery bags," said third baseman Bill Hall. "I had just noticed that something smelled really good when I realized that C.C. was cutting up vegetables and throwing them in the hot tub with Prince, alongside plenty of noodles and spices, to make some sort of hamburger casserole." Luckily, Fielder woke up before the mixture thickened and retaliated by attempting to trap Sabathia in the steam room along with a bag of mesquite-flavored grilling charcoal.

Oh, but this is more than a two-man team, my friends. You've also got reigning NL Rookie of the Year winner and 2008 All-Star Ryan Braun (a.k.a. the Hebrew Hammer), who hit 34 homers in his rookie season - and he hadn't even started playing until late May! He also has weird creepy bug eyes (and he's currently out with back spasms). Then there's (soon-to-be teen heartthrob) shortstop J.J. Hardy, sporting the classic square-jawed look we haven't seen the likes of since Giants legend Will Clark. He can hit home runs too - and he's a shortstop! You've got Corey Hart in right field, who probably should be playing in an Orange County ska-punk band but is instead batting .284 with 17 home runs and 69 RBIs (and is actually from Kentucky). Journeyman catcher Jason Kendall, surprise closer Salomon Torres, perennially disgruntled veteran Bill Hall...the list goes on.

Oh, and you like home runs? The Brewers can hit some home runs. Already they have eight players who've hit more than 10. To put that in perspective, the Giants currently players who've hit more than 10. The Brew Crew can't field so well, but any runs they give up on errors they gain back just as quickly on offense. In essence.

Maybe they'll come up short. Maybe they'll implode. But God damn it, win or lose, they are my team. Every pudgy pound.

Bonus: A charmingly goofy interview with Sabathia, in which the interviewer brings up the Onion story and asks a nearby J.J. Hardy what the deal is with everybody's abbreviated first names. (Q: When you look at Ryan Braun, what food comes to mind? CC: Food-wise [laughs]. Gosh. Braun, probably, a steak. He's got a lot of ribbies — ribeyes, RBIs [178 in his first 217 career games] — so, I guess, a medium-rare steak.)

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Dear Democrats: Care Less

Considering my place of residence, sometimes it is a tad difficult to attain an accurate picture of the nation's electoral mood. So I appreciated this article I read in Newsweek about political currents in the South, written by Christopher Dickey (son of Deliverance author James Dickey).

Around here, most people are puzzled that the election even seems to be close. Perhaps, in a hideous catch-22, it is this very puzzlement that is making it so. In a response to a Slate article titled, "Why nothing the press throws at Obama sticks," a Fray user replied:

"Slate continues to miss the point. The Dems seem oblivious to the true nature of the American voter who will decide our next president. Here in Minnesota, a traditionally blue state, Obama has only a slim lead over McCain and the once-thought-vulnerable senator Norm Coleman is a likely fall winner over a liberal favorite, Al Franken. How is this possible, especially after eight years of dreck from Bush? Because Democrats love to indulge in self-love of the superiority of their candidate and it turns off many pivotal voters. Not those already committed to the Republican, but those who might switch from election to election. Slate, in particular, seems to talk down to these people. Underestimate them at your peril. America is tired of 'true believers' of either stripe."

Hence the McCain campaign's new line of approach, which seems to be something along the lines of, "Wow, look at those Democrats, aren't they so full of themselves?" I suppose it doesn't matter whether or not the Democrats might have actually better ideas, policies, or principles; they're full of themselves, so they're not gettin' my vote, god damn it.

You ever wanted something so badly you ruined your chance of getting it? Such is the irony here. The more Democrats feel like they should be winning, the harder they'll actually be losing.

Apparently not every voter who is unhappy with Bush is also extending that unhappiness to the Republican party in general. The Democrats might want to acknowledge this, or they may run the risk of screaming their way to the bottom of the polls. It is hard, of course, to pretend you're not right when you honestly think that you are. But jumping up and down shouting, "Why aren't you voting for us?! Why aren't you voting for us?!" doesn't actually persuade the undecided.

So you know what I say? Democrats should start realizing that if Obama loses, life will go on. The world will still turn. Hell, Bush was re-elected for crying out loud, and you know what? People (mostly) survived. In a sense, the left has already won, since the Republicans had to pick a rather moderate Republican candidate in order to even have a shot.

But the Democrats, and the so-called "liberal media," may be overestimating Americans' desire for "change." I don't think most Americans are particularly up for all that much change at this
point. I think they should be, if they seriously would rather be living in a better society, but they're not. And you know why? Because they're not suffering enough. They honestly don't think the state of our country is that bad. I mean, as rough as the Bush years have been, things may truly need to grow worse before Americans get over this whole "full of themselves" business once and for all. And I hope I don't sound full of myself when I say that.

In the meantime, Democrats should stop focusing so desperately on the presidency. It's really just one brief chapter in the larger narrative of society as a whole. It's like the baseball team that spends all its money trying to win the World Series while neglecting its own farm system. Sure, with a nice collection of free agents you could win a title or two. But with a solid farm system, you could make the playoffs for decades.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Margot At The Wedding (Baumbach)

When evaluating Noah Baumbach's Margot At The Wedding, at least one must make this observation: he's sure not concerned about making a hit. After the relative success of The Squid and the Whale, Baumbach could very well have moved a little closer to the mainstream with his follow-up. Instead, Margot At The Wedding is even more uncompromising. There is no obvious plot to speak of. The most likeable character is, at best, not a spoiled, arrogant, egotistical bitch. This is a film with a target audience of about three people. Fortunately for me, I am one of those three people.

Here are review excerpts (courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes) from some of the people who are not one of the three people mentioned above:

"Humourless (though supposedly a comedy) and pretentious, almost a parody of the self-indulgent Sundance festival film, right down to the washed-out colours, droning dialogue and the title in big sans-serif capitals."

"Dramatically and visually, there's no relief to be had in this self-indulgent downer. "

"With few laughs and much whining, Margot takes the fun out of dysfunctional. It’s a damp squib with lots of wail."

"...the characters are so loathsome that you long for a hurricane to sweep away this wedding party."

"This largely po-faced comedy drama has an annoying, self-congratulatory tone. "

I suppose all of these reviewers are correct. You would be perfectly justified in not liking this movie. I would not argue too long. But I enjoyed it. I laughed, I squirmed, I basked in the Schadenfreude. Baumbach is like the new Woody Allen. Maybe not all of his movies are great but even his lesser ones are still interesting (although I've only seen two of his movies so maybe I shouldn't talk yet). I am entertained by neurotic East Coast intellectuals and their family foibles.

Also, Margot at the Wedding just goes to show how different the tastes of Hollywood actors are from the tastes of their fans. It doesn't appear that Nicole Kidman (Margot), at this stage, is much concerned with protecting her vanity. Her character masturbates, vomits, and literally finds herself stuck up a tree. See what a divorce from Tom Cruise can do for your art? Jack Black also does, I think, a more-than-decent job as the slovenly and unrefined fiance of Margot's sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh). As far as I'm concerned he's a better dramatic actor than a lot of actors who supposedly specialize in dramatic acting. Given the right parts he could possibly hang with the best of them.

In sum, I wouldn't recommend viewing Margot At The Wedding unless you happened to

"Film critic" rating: **1/2
"Little Earl" rating: ***1/2