Saturday, July 31, 2010

Herr Zrbo: Game Archivist?

Well folks, it looks like yours truly has found his dream job. Or at least his dream internship. See that bearded guy second from the right? That's professor Henry Lowood, curator for History of Science and Technology Collections at Stanford. And I'm going to be working with him. Yes, somehow I managed to secure an internship with the premier researcher in the field of video game preservation. It's somewhat surreal. I've been citing this guy in a bunch of my school papers and now I'll be working under him. I'll be working on a slew of different projects, but one of them has something to do with archiving Doom. Yes, Doom. Whoever thought "played Doom" would be a valuable thing to have on your resume? Anyways, here's a New York Times article from 2007 featuring Henry Lowood for further reading. Oh yeah, in other developments me and the girl got engaged. It's going to be a wild autumn.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Justin Timberlake - "Rock Your Body"

Justin Timberlake is cooler than you think he is, but not quite as cool as he thinks he is. He's cool enough to name his album FutureSex/ LoveSounds as an homage to OutKast's Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, but maybe not quite cool enough to realize that, as Stephen Thomas Erlewine puts it, "the OutKast album bore that title because it was two records in one." He's cool enough to try beatboxing, but maybe not quite cool enough to pull it off with credibility intact.

I was enjoying a leisurely countryside cruise with my brother a few years ago, listening to tracks on his iPod at random, when a catchy little R&B ditty came on. It sounded like prime late '70s Marvin Gaye or Michael Jackson. "Hey, this is good," I said. "Who is this?" "It's Justin Timberlake, 'Rock Your Body.' " Oh shit me. Did I really just admit that I liked...a Justin Timberlake song? He was in that boy band! Ewwww! But see, it was OK, because later I discovered that Pitchfork Media had chosen "Rock Your Body" as #23 on its year-end Best Songs of 2002 list. Liking a Justin Timberlake song could still be cool - but not too cool. Honestly I might like this song more than their choices for #1-#22.

There's a reason why "Rock Your Body" sounds like a rejected Michael Jackson song: it was a rejected Michael Jackson song. The bridge also reminds me a bit of Earth, Wind and Fire's "Let's Groove" (whoa - talk about a YouTube Clip That Lived Up To My Expectations). Apparently at one point in 2003, The Neptunes, the production team behind "Rock Your Body," were responsible for the production work on 43% of all songs being played on American radio. Encouraging, or disturbing? You decide.

I must also not neglect to mention that this was the indeed the tune that Timberlake and Janet Jackson were performing during Super Bowl XXXVIII when he proceeded to rip off her bodice and supposedly "expose" her right breast to untold millions. And what is cooler than offending millions of Americans en masse?

Friday, July 23, 2010

Charles Guiteau: The Assassin That Time Forgot

We all know John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald, and even some of us may know Leon Czolgosz (the man who assassinated President McKinley), but how many of us are familiar with Charles Guiteau, the man who assassinated President Garfield? That's what I thought. You might have assumed that, since nobody knows a single thing about Charles Guiteau and the Garfield assassination, the story must be really boring. But you would be wrong.

Charles Guiteau is like Emperor Norton, but minus the charm:
He inherited $1,000 from his grandfather (worth about $24,100 in year–2010 dollars) as a young man and went to Ann Arbor, Michigan, in order to attend the University of Michigan. Due to inadequate academic preparation, he failed the entrance examinations. After some time trying to do remedial work in Latin and algebra at Ann Arbor High School, during which time he received numerous letters from his father haranguing him to do so, he quit and joined the utopian religious sect known as the Oneida Community, in Oneida, New York, with which Guiteau's father already had close affiliations. Despite the "group marriage" aspects of that sect, he was generally rejected during his five years there, and was nicknamed "Charles Gitout".
Oh those utopian religious sects, what a bunch of cards.
He left the community twice. The first time he went to Hoboken, New Jersey, and attempted to start a newspaper based on Oneida religion, to be called "The Daily Theocrat". This failed and he returned to Oneida, only to leave again and file lawsuits against the community's founder, John Humphrey Noyes. Guiteau's father, embarrassed, wrote letters in support of Noyes, who had considered Guiteau irresponsible and insane.
And how wrong that man turned out to be.
Guiteau then obtained a law license in Chicago, based on an extremely casual bar exam. He used his money to start a law firm in Chicago based on ludicrously fraudulent recommendations from virtually every prominent American family of the day. He was not successful. He argued only one case in court, the bulk of his business being in bill collecting. Most of his cases resulted in enraged clients and judicial criticism.
I would venture to say that great advances in the legal field have been made since 1880.
He next turned to theology. He published a book on the subject called The Truth which was almost entirely plagiarized from the work of John Humphrey Noyes. He wrote a speech in support of Ulysses S. Grant called "Grant vs. Hancock", which he subsequently revised to "Garfield vs. Hancock" after Garfield won the Republican nomination in the 1880 presidential campaign. Ultimately, he changed little more than the title (hence mixing up Garfield's achievements with those of Grant). Guiteau never even delivered the speech in a public setting, instead printing up several hundred copies, but he believed that this speech along with his other efforts were largely responsible for Garfield's narrow victory over Winfield S. Hancock in the election of 1880. Guiteau believed he should be awarded a diplomatic post for his vital assistance, first asking for Vienna, then settling for Paris. He loitered around Republican headquarters in New York City during the 1880 campaign, expecting rewards for his effort, to no avail. Still believing he would be rewarded, Guiteau arrived in Washington on March 5, the day after Garfield's inauguration, and actually obtained entrance to the White House and saw the President on March 8, dropping off a copy of his speech.
Hmm...the security detail needed a little work in those days.
He proceeded to spend the next two months roaming around Washington, shuffling back and forth between the State Department and the White House, approaching various Cabinet members and other prominent Republicans and seeking support, to no avail. Guiteau was destitute and increasingly slovenly due to wearing the same clothes every day, the only clothes he owned, but he did not give up. On May 13, 1881, he was banned from the White House waiting room. On May 14, 1881, he was finally told personally never to return by Secretary of State James G. Blaine: "Never speak to me again of the Paris consulship as long as you live." He even went to the District of Columbia jail, asking for a tour of the facility to see where he'd be incarcerated. (He was told to come back later).
So let me get this straight: he could have just stood on the Capitol steps, waved his arms around wildly in the air, shouted out at the top of his lungs, "I am going to assassinate the president!" and nobody would have done anything about it?
On one occasion, he trailed Garfield to the railway station as the President was seeing his wife off to a beach resort in Long Branch, New Jersey, but he decided to shoot him later, as Mrs. Garfield was in poor health and he did not want to upset her.
Now that, right there, is some serious crazed gunman logic.
Garfield had no bodyguard or security detail; with the exception of Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, U.S. presidents had never used any guards.
Yeah, I mean what good did bodyguards do ol' Honest Abe, anyway?
Guiteau became something of a media darling during his entire trial for his bizarre behavior, including constantly cursing and badmouthing the judge, witnesses, and even his defense team, formatting his testimony in epic poems which he recited at length, and soliciting legal advice from random spectators in the audience via passed notes. He dictated an autobiography to the New York Herald, ending it with a personal ad for a nice Christian lady under thirty. He was blissfully oblivious to the American public's outrage and hatred of him, even after he was almost assassinated twice himself. He frequently smiled and waved at spectators and reporters in and out of the courtroom, seemingly happy to be the center of attention for once in his life. At one point, Guiteau argued before Judge Cox that President Garfield was killed not by the bullets but by medical malpractice, which was more than a little true ("The doctors killed Garfield, I just shot him").
Well at least somebody was having a good time.
To the end, Guiteau was actively making plans to start a lecture tour after his perceived imminent release and to run for President himself in 1884, while at the same time continuing to delight in the media circus surrounding his trial. He was dismayed when the jury was unconvinced of his divine inspiration, convicting him of the murder. He was found guilty on January 25, 1882. After the guilty verdict was read, Guiteau stepped forward, despite his lawyers' efforts to tell him to be quiet, and yelled at the jury saying "You are all low, consummate jackasses!"
I don't think that was going to help.
On the scaffold as a last request, he recited a poem he had written during his incarceration which he called "I am Going to the Lordy." He had originally requested an orchestra to play as he sang his poem, but this request was denied.
Presumably because an orchestra was not available, I hope?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Ideas that Should Have Been Left on the Drawing Board...

Via Slate:

"Russian Police Hunt for Parasailing Donkey

Police in southern Russia are investigating an advertising stunt that traumatized beachgoers and one very unfortunate donkey at the Sea of Azov last weekend. In an attempt to promote the activity, witnesses say that the donkey was forced to parasail for more than half an hour before he finally landed—and was dragged for a few minutes—in the ocean. Local media reported that "the donkey was braying with fear and children were crying" throughout the incident. Russian police launched a search for the donkey (and his owners) after the story hit the media, and are now debating whether to file animal cruelty charges against the offending company. "We identified the businessman who organized the donkey's flight and questioned him but he claims the donkey's owner had asked him to send the animal on a parasailing ride and said he has no idea why [the owner requested this]," a police spokesman told Russia's RIA Novosti."

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Greenhornes featuring Holly Golightly - "There Is An End"

I'm a sucker for great credit sequences. But a great credit sequence is nothing without a great credit sequence song. Think of Pulp Fiction and "Misirlou." Or Mean Streets and "Be My Baby." Sometimes I come across a great credit sequence where I least expect to find one. For example: Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers. I had never seen a Jim Jarmusch movie before. All I knew when I came into the theater was that everybody considered him some kind of acclaimed "indie" filmmaker. So here's what kind of credit sequence I was expecting to see: a crappy low-fi indie punk song with lots of grainy hand-held out-of-focus shots and text written out in shaky imitation scrawl. Instead, there was this sharp, hypnotic collection of imaginative graphics, all gliding along to a haunting, moody '60s retro garage/R&B number. It would not be the first time I would underestimate Jim Jarmusch.

The song was "There Is An End" by a band called The Greenhornes, with guest vocals by Holly Golightly. As AMG's John Duffy writes, "the Greenhornes so perfectly nail the careening, rough side of 1960s pre-psychedelic rock & roll that they leave almost no room to consider the music in any other context. They even add gimmicky harpsichord to more than one tune, a trend that was dated as soon as the Yardbirds did it." "There Is An End" is like a great unreleased Rolling Stones single, but with vocals by Nancy Sinatra. Aside from this song, I only know Holly Golightly from her cameo on The White Stripes' Elephant. Unlike many female rock singers of today, she sounds mysterious and complicated, but effortlessly so. I get the impression she wouldn't give a rat's ass whether you liked her or not. She seems like she'd be just as comfortable singing in a darkened corner all by herself as she would be at a crowded concert hall. I like it.

The Greenhornes haven't just nailed the style of the mid-60s here; they've nailed the production. Notice the absence of today's requisite hideously overproduced drum sound. And don't tell me those "ooh-ooh" backing vocals aren't straight out of "Heart Of Stone."

So after seeing the movie (which I really liked, but would not recommend to Zrbo as it features the latter-day "serious" Bill Murray that so gets on his nerves and yet thrills Yoggoth to the bone) I downloaded the song, and then I decided to download the full Greenhornes album. Maybe lightning could strike more than once, eh? What a surprise: Jim Jarmusch had picked the best song! Thanks for leading me on, Jim.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Emperor Little Earl, Anyone?

I'd heard of the Gold Rush, the Barbary Coast, and the 1906 Earthquake, but only just now have I finally become acquainted with Emperor Norton, the one and only "Emperor of the United States" and "Protector of Mexico":
Norton emigrated from South Africa to San Francisco in 1849 after receiving a bequest of $40,000 from his father's estate. He enjoyed a good deal of success in the real estate market and by the early 1850s had accumulated a fortune of $250,000. Norton thought he saw a business opportunity when China, facing a severe famine, placed a ban on the export of rice, causing the price of rice in San Francisco to skyrocket from four cents per pound to thirty-six cents per pound (9 cents/kg to 79 cents/kg). When he heard that the Glyde, which was returning from Peru, was carrying 200,000 pounds (91,000 kg) of rice, he bought the entire shipment for $25,000 (or twelve and a half cents per pound), hoping to corner the market.

Shortly after he signed the contract, several other shiploads of rice arrived from Peru causing the price of rice to plummet to three cents a pound. Norton tried to void the contract, stating that the dealer had misled him as to the quality of rice to expect. From 1853 to 1857, Norton and the rice dealers were involved in a protracted litigation. Although Norton prevailed in the lower courts, the case reached the Supreme Court of California, which ruled against Norton. Later on, the Lucas Turner and Company Bank foreclosed on his real estate holdings in North Beach to pay Norton's debt. Norton's mental state was severely affected by these financial setbacks. He declared bankruptcy in 1858 and left the city for a time. There are no known documents noting that Norton had an eccentric personality prior to the loss of his fortune, so it is not known whether his pronounced eccentricity was a permanent aspect of his character or arose as a result of the stressful financial straits he found himself in during the 1850s. Nonetheless, after his sudden loss of financial stability, Norton became (in the absence of a proper diagnosis) somewhat "odd", exhibiting the symptoms often referred to as "delusions of grandeur".
You don't say.
When Norton returned to San Francisco from his self-imposed exile, he had become completely disgruntled with what he considered the vicissitudes and inadequacies of the legal and political structures of the United States. On September 17, 1859, he took matters into his own hands and distributed letters to the various newspapers in the city, proclaiming himself "Emperor of these United States":

At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens of these United States, I, Joshua Norton, formerly of Algoa Bay, Cape of Good Hope, and now for the last 9 years and 10 months past of S. F., Cal., declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these U. S.; and in virtue of the authority thereby in me vested, do hereby order and direct the representatives of the different States of the Union to assemble in Musical Hall, of this city, on the 1st day of Feb. next, then and there to make such alterations in the existing laws of the Union as may ameliorate the evils under which the country is laboring, and thereby cause confidence to exist, both at home and abroad, in our stability and integrity.

NORTON I, Emperor of the United States.
This reminds me of the time our summer camp program director left me in charge for a day, and I declared myself "King" of the entire summer camp. Zrbo can vouch for me on this.
In accordance with his self-appointed role of emperor, Norton issued numerous decrees on matters of the state. After assuming absolute control over the country, he saw no further need for a legislature, and on October 12, 1859, he issued a decree that formally "dissolved" the United States Congress...Norton's orders obviously had no effect on the Army, and the Congress likewise continued in its activities unperturbed. Norton issued further decrees in 1860 that purported to dissolve the republic and to forbid the assembly of any members of the Congress. Norton's battle against the elected leaders of America was to persist throughout what he considered his reign, though it appears that Norton eventually, if somewhat grudgingly, accepted that Congress would continue to exist without his permission, although this did not change his feelings on the matter.

I'm surprised to learn that the much deprecated nickname "Frisco" existed even back in the 1870s, and that it was just as irritating to native San Franciscans then as it is to them now:
The failure to refer to Norton's adopted home city with appropriate respect was the subject of a particularly stern edict in 1872:

Whoever after due and proper warning shall be heard to utter the abominable word "Frisco", which has no linguistic or other warrant, shall be deemed guilty of a High Misdemeanor, and shall pay into the Imperial Treasury as penalty the sum of twenty-five dollars.
I concur!
Norton spent his days as emperor inspecting the streets of San Francisco in an elaborate blue uniform with gold-plated epaulets, given to him by officers of the United States Army post at the Presidio of San Francisco. He also wore a beaver hat decorated with a peacock feather and a rosette. He frequently enhanced this regal posture with a cane or an umbrella. During his inspections, Norton would examine the condition of the sidewalks and cable cars, the state of repair of public property, and the appearance of police officers. Norton would also frequently give lengthy philosophical expositions on a variety of topics to anyone within earshot at the time.
Perhaps we should refer to our current homeless people as "emperors"?
In 1867, a police officer named Armand Barbier arrested Norton for the purpose of committing him to involuntary treatment for a mental disorder. The arrest outraged the citizens of San Francisco and sparked a number of scathing editorials in the newspapers. Police Chief Patrick Crowley speedily rectified matters by ordering Norton released and issuing a formal apology on behalf of the police force. Chief Crowley observed of the self-styled monarch "that he had shed no blood; robbed no one; and despoiled no country; which is more than can be said of his fellows in that line." Norton was magnanimous enough to grant an "Imperial Pardon" to the errant young police officer. Possibly as a result of this scandal, all police officers of San Francisco thereafter saluted Norton as he passed in the street.
What a silly police officer! Some of the items found in Emperor Norton's room upon his death were "fake telegrams purporting to be from Emperor Alexander II of Russia, congratulating Norton on his forthcoming marriage to Queen Victoria, and from the President of France, predicting that such a union would be disastrous to world peace. Also found were his letters to Queen Victoria and 98 shares of stock in a defunct gold mine." Apparently his remains were transferred to Woodlawn Cemetary in Colma. Field trip, anybody?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Glenn Beck Starts Online "University"

Yes, it's true. One of those "too crazy to be an Onion headline" headlines.

Taking Beck's conspiracy theories seriously indicates some sort of personality defect. But if a non-charlatan started an internet lecture serious that could be interesting. "I've got degrees from the Conan O'Brian, Brian Eno, and Bill Clinton universities...I'm thinking of attending Elvis Costello U. next but it might be kind of ponderous...what do you think?"

Crazy Rant #5: Is This What Independence Really Means To People?

The freedom to set off a bunch of annoying little explosives every three God damn minutes, all night long, every night, for a whole fucking week? Maybe I'm sounding like a crotchety old man here, but honestly, how much fun can it really be? Do you think you're some bad ass rebel because, for one lousy week out of the year, you get to blow shit up and not get arrested for it? Are you really that desperate for some kind of excitement in your life? Do you really get that much of a kick out of making your fellow residents feel like they live in a bullet-ridden war zone? Men like Jefferson and Adams put their lives on the line so that you could annoy the shit out of me at three in the morning?

I ask you: Is this what the Founding Fathers would have wanted?

Friday, July 2, 2010

More Thoughts On Games--Yoggoth Helps Roger Ebert

Little Earl informed me that Roger Ebert posted again about video games so I couldn't resist reading it and offering my opinion. And my opinion is: Ebert says video games aren't art but what he really means by this is "video games do not offer the same level of narrative depth that great literature and film do." This statement is correct. But then again, neither do paintings--and I'd still call them art. Video games are similar to paintings, but visually they aren't quite as interesting. So we've got mediocre narratives combined with mediocre paintings. Not too impressive says Ebert. What about the button pushing part? The part that makes it a game? Honestly that's not very impressive in most games because they are just copying the same 5 or so ideas over and over again. One game out of a thousand offers something new on the button pushing front. When they do, however, there's more there than people give them credit for.

My example for this is Super Mario World. I know, if you haven't played this game you stopped taking me seriously right there. But think about it, where did this idea of a strange looking plumber traveling through neo-art deco flat worlds hoping on things come from? It's damn creative I'd say. And fun! The art is the combination of captivatingly odd graphics, dream-like narrative, and button pushing by the audience. Art in the sense of Andy Warhol not Tolstoy.

Unfortunately modern games often are too complicated to be enjoyable for a layperson. Playing most of them is like listening to trance music. In order to enjoy it you have to really like the genre already, or just use it as sometthing to do with friends.

So where's this heading in the future? Let's just say you don't spend much time worrying about art hopped up on hallucinogens and strapped into a sex-murder simulator.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Air - "Don't Be Light"

Air clearly put a lot of effort into 10,000 Hz Legend, their follow-up to Moon Safari, which is bad if you're Air, because you probably want your music to sound completely effortless. What were they supposed to do, make Moon Safari Part II? Not exactly. But "different" doesn't necessarily mean "better." So 10,000 Hz Legend is a hit-or-miss album from a great band - which means that if you're grading on the "curve of the 2000s," it's terrific. As John Bush puts it in his AMG review, "Air are still tremendously effective producers, and have actually expanded their palate with a surprising array of pop instrumentation" and "Fans and involved listeners are definitely rewarded with increased dividends after multiple listens." That's not how you talk about an album you really love. "Increased dividends"? What, are we trading stocks here?

There is one track, however, that to me is the epitome of pure, effortless Air, and that is "Don't Be Light." What does "Don't Be Light" have that the rest of the album does not? It has that hypnotic, relaxing quality to it. I can space out and relax to "Don't Be Light." I can't space out and relax to "Wonder Milky Bitch." The chord pattern is more than a little similar to "La Femme D'argent," but hey, you're allowed to rip yourself off now and then, are you not? Besides, surrounded as it is by decidedly "Un-Air-like" material, it's a soothing blast of the familiar. Like Moon Safari's immortal lead-off track, "Don't Be Light" makes me think of the sublime terror of the vast galaxy that we inhabit. And what does "Don't Be Light" mean anyway? How can I not be light? Maybe they're talking to a black hole, in which case the black hole would say "OK, I won't be light." Or maybe they mean, "Don't be thin, don't be skinny." Maybe it's the first Anti-Anorexia pop song.

It's certainly got a terrific video. Which I am not allowed to post here because embedding has been disabled. Thanks EMI. Instead I've posted an edited version from their hilariously named Everybody Hertz remix album. Unfortunately, nowhere to be found on YouTube is the actual 6:19 version that I know and love, which features, among other things, an odd soliloquy from Beck (!). You'll have to seek it out on your own, I'm afraid.