Seven Days

Sometimes you just have to know when to quit.

It’s only been about seven days since I quit smoking, but I haven’t actually wanted a cigarette in years. That’s one of the (many) problems with smoking: it doesn’t take long for it to turn from a vice into a full-blown addiction.

Where I’ve always failed to quit before is by thinking of it as giving something up. Even though I didn’t ever enjoy it any more, I’d gotten convinced that I’d be missing something if I quit. So here’s all the stuff I’ll really be missing:

  • Having every cold last an extra two or three weeks because I can’t stop coughing
  • For that matter: being absolutely miserably sick with a cold, coughing so bad I’m retching, and still feeling the need to go outside for a cigarette every hour or so
  • Walking a few steps behind whatever group I’m with, so the smoke doesn’t blow on them
  • Missing the last minute or so of every conversations because I’m already planning how and where I’m going to have a cigarette as soon as the conversation ends and I can get outside
  • Instinctively reaching for the cigarette pack the moment I step outside, whether I want one or not
  • Making people wait for me in or around smoking areas before we can go inside or keep moving
  • Leaving my new bike in the garage, since I always had a permanent excuse not to exercise
  • Finding stray cigarette buts all around the trash can in my kitchen
  • The big black spot on the heel of my shoe
  • Having to go through security twice on flights where I have a layover, since I have to head outside the moment the first leg of the flight lands
  • Getting rained on
  • Getting rained on in the cold
  • Teeth the color of butterscotch pudding
  • Having a layer of ash that looks like dandruff on the chest of every dark shirt
  • Taking five times as long to write anything, since every time I get stuck I have to go outside and have a cigarette

I can’t get excited about saving money yet, since I’m still on the nicotine patch, and those things are at least as expensive as a half-pack a day. But that’ll be another bonus in a few weeks, once I no longer need to be able to furiously rub the patch every time I have a craving. Not to mention all the other crap that nicotine addiction adds to the mix.

Of course, I won’t look nearly as cool as I used to, sucking down a known carcinogen that gives you bad breath yellow teeth and can cause high blood pressure and impotence, but that’s a sacrifice I’ll just have to make.


My own meager contribution to the idea that life is pretty awesome.

The It Gets Better Project has thousands of entries, and I think it’s frankly wonderful that it’s gotten ubiquitous enough that individual entries don’t stand out all that much. But I haven’t felt like I had anything to contribute. I talk about all kinds of mundane, personal stuff on here, but I’ve never talked about being gay except where it intersects with politics. Partly because it’s not really anyone’s business, partly because I never felt that there was much to tell.

Besides, plenty of people have already covered it more eloquently than I could: there’s the moving address given by Fort Worth city councilman Joel Burns. Employees of Facebook shared their stories in a compilation video. The pastor of a church in my hometown sacrificed his privacy to explain his situation and explain how he reconciles his sexuality with his religion. And there’s the amazing video above from employees of Pixar, taking their personal stories of the difficult times they went through, and turning them into a message of hope.

And that’s when I realized I was missing the point. These individual messages are powerful, but the most powerful thing is the outpouring of support for the cause; the real power is the number of individuals willing to come forward. The thing that strikes me the most about the videos is how much they have in common, how many of the same experiences we’ve all shared — gay, straight, or otherwise. The message is that we’re not alone, we’re not the only one in the world going through this. I can’t help but wonder how my life would’ve changed for the better if I’d seen these videos when I was 13, or 16, or 23, or, in my case, even 32. And when doing something as simple as sharing your story can have such a profound effect, then keeping silent no longer seems like staying private or showing decorum. Keeping quiet just seems irresponsible.

So here’s some of my experience, and some of the stuff I’ve learned over the years. Stuff I would tell myself if I could go back in time to the most miserable points of my life, before I came out. And it starts with the promise that your life can be absolutely amazing, if you let it.

I was relatively lucky: I was bullied in middle school and teased in high school, but more often for being a nerd than for being gay. The worst I got was “sissy.” Other kids had it far worse, and to the kids who’ve had the courage to come out while still in school: you’ve got my respect. My own response was to try desperately to keep it hidden. The most horrifying thing I could imagine was how I’d be abandoned and my life would be ruined if anyone ever found out. I found out later that the people who I genuinely cared about already knew or suspected, and they didn’t care.

You’ll frequently hear people talk about choice when they talk about being gay. And there is a choice: you can choose to accept who you are, or you can choose to build your entire life based on other people’s expectations of you.

For my part, I put being gay into the “unacceptable” category, believing I could compartmentalize it and keep it from ruining everything else. I thought if I denied it long enough, I’d eventually get “better.” I thought if I prayed hard enough, it’d go away. I buried myself under schoolwork or, later, regular work, convincing myself that it was an acceptable substitute for having a personal life. I convinced myself that nobody could ever find me attractive, because it was easier than admitting to myself that I wasn’t attracted to the people I was supposed to be attracted to.

And I got better at convincing myself I was happy, because I was doing The Right Thing. I believed what I’d been taught. Gay people all act and talk a certain way, like they do on TV. They’re all promiscuous and hedonistic, because they lack willpower. All they talk or think about is sex. And they’re so tiresome: they all define their entire lives around being gay. There were all the made-for-TV movies and documentaries about how horrible it was for women when their husbands or boyfriends came out; how selfish could those guys be? I didn’t have anything in common with that! I just wanted — desperately wanted — to be normal, so surely that couldn’t be me. Those people were different. So I could be an ugly social reject with no possibility of ever finding love, but at least I was better than them.

That was my choice, and I lived with it for over fifteen years. I heard my friends talk about who they were attracted to, and I’d duck out of the conversation or become silent and sullen. I’d see them start relationships, get married, have children, and realize that that was never going to be an option for me. I’d see someone I was attracted to and I’d go quiet, because I was embarrassed and ashamed that I hadn’t done a better job of suppressing it. I convinced myself that I was happy and that everything was fine, without realizing that I’d lost all hope.

When I was younger, I would’ve said it was melodramatic to compare it to dying, but I can’t think of a better way to describe it. I’d effectively killed a part of myself. And over time, I got more preoccupied with thoughts of how to finish the job. There wasn’t any one event, but a long, gradual process of just giving up. I’d withdrawn from my friends. I’d lost around 40 pounds because I just didn’t care about eating. And for months I’d spend every night in bed staring at the ceiling, asking myself what was the point of going on like this. What was the point of living when there’s no hope of ever being anything but broken and lonely?

But then, the part that I never, ever would’ve believed: it got better. I met another gay guy and actually got to know him instead of dismissing him as a stereotype, which had always been easier. I realized I didn’t have to talk or behave a certain way, or let it take over my life. I could stay every bit as boring and nerdy as I wanted to be, and I didn’t have to be ashamed of myself for it or anything else.

For years, I’d been afraid of how my friends would react if I ever came out. The reaction from the first friend I told? He said “Really? Good on you!” without skipping a beat, and he bought me a beer. What about the friends I’d had for longer, would they be angry that I’d been lying to them for so long? They said okay and made a joke. But of course my friends in San Francisco would be okay with it; what about my friends from home and college? I got congratulations, and then they returned to treating it as a non-issue. I’d spent so many years withdrawing from my friends for fear of losing them. Not only did I not lose anyone over it, but I’m a better friend now that I can be open and happy.

And now, six years later, I can honestly say that I’m open and happy. On the surface, it doesn’t look like much has changed in the past six years. But there’s a world of difference. I don’t feel the constant need to watch what I say, out of fear. People complain that gay people are always going on about being gay — I used to be one of them — but they just don’t understand what it’s like to be surrounded by people casually talking about their relationships without the fear that they’ll slip up and use the wrong pronoun. And now, even at my lowest points, I can go to bed looking forward to what’s going to happen tomorrow instead of feeling the hopelessness of having to face everything alone.

It’s no epiphany; it’s an ongoing process, and I’m getting better. At first, I was happy that I could still be normal, but I’m getting better at understanding that there’s no such thing. I put so much value into not conforming to a gay stereotype, that I didn’t realize how judgmental I’d gotten. But if normal’s what we value, then we’re always going to be valuing ourselves and others based on how well we conform to other people’s expectations. It may be a while before I stop feeling a little apprehension at the sight of a Folsom Street Fair or pride parade, before I’m able to remember what each of those people had to go through in order to be open. “Be True to Yourself” is such a simple and overused concept, but so difficult to practice. And sometimes, even more difficult to respect in others.

So to the younger me, and to anyone reading who’s been going through similar stuff: believe that it does get better. Nobody can guarantee your problems will all disappear. You’ll still run into bullies. You’ll encounter people who will judge you based not on who you are, but on a part of what you are. You’ll be pressured to conform to what other people expect of you. You’ll be told, either explicitly or more subtly, that you’re sinful, lustful, weak, confused, selfish, mentally ill, or undeserving of love or family.

But I can guarantee that you will also experience moments of such profound joy that you’ll find yourself with tears in your eyes. Moments of inexplicable kindness, or unexpected beauty.

And they’re compounded, as each one builds on the last. You can’t predict them, and you can’t control them. But you have to choose them, and to do that, you have to accept that you deserve them.

The greatest moments of my life have always been simple things: time spent with friends. A message of encouragement that I hadn’t expected. The exhilaration that comes from finishing a project. They’re all better now, because I can be more honest with my friends. I’m getting better at accepting encouragement with grace. I’m better able to appreciate work I’ve done, without immediately looking for faults because I must’ve done something wrong. And now I can add the simple things I’d long thought were unavailable to me: holding someone’s hand in public, or just plain talking to a friend about a guy I like. Add up enough of these simple moments, and you end up with a pretty spectacular life.

Si, so low we can’t hear you

Travel don’ts for the solitary urbanite

Down Main StreetIt seemed reasonable enough: I had to be in Orlando for business, I just left my job and felt like I could use a vacation, and I like Walt Disney World. Love roller coasters, love Aerosmith, hello. I still stand behind my logic leading up to this decision.

Perfect logic or not, I can’t recommend it. It’s not even like I’ve never been to places inappropriate for the Lonely Planet treatment. Paris? Just hit the Louvre, take photos from the top of the Eiffel Tower, and skip the moonlight walks along the Seine. Venice? Just glare at the guys trying to sell you roses and go to the next museum. Disneyland? I can’t really recommend it, but they get enough annual passholders that you can make a go of it solo. But Disney World may be the most inhospitable place for the single guy outside of a Lamaze class.

It’s not as if the parks failed me somehow; the place is just plain designed for families or couples on their way to being families. And the result of going solo is that you end up at the Orlando airport going through what felt like every single side effect listed in ads for Abilify.

But hey, Disney World! I’ve been at least thirty times and I still see something new each time, and this trip was no different. One of the unexpected highlights was the “Gran Fiesta Tour” in the Mexico pavilion at Epcot, formerly “El Rio del Tiempo.” It’s still not an E-Ticket, but it’s got exactly the right touch and tone: still all the charm or the original ride but without feeling embarrassingly dated, and still a tourist promotion for Mexico but without feeling too dry. Plus they brought the characters back, which is something Epcot’s always needed, and they did it the cool way by using the Three Caballeros.

The Main Street Electrical Parade isn’t new, but it’s back, and it still does a great job of making me feel like a six year old again.

I finally got to play through all of the missions in the final version of the Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure, and it’s pretty cool, and it seems to be pretty popular. It also gets you into parts of the pavilion you haven’t seen before. In the Japan pavilion, I found the other new-for-me thing, an exhibit called “Spirited Beasts.” It has a display devoted to different types of Obakemono (creatures of Japanese folklore) with representations from traditional art, toys and anime. And it’s the perfect kind of exhibit for Epcot: it teaches about Japanese folklore by making it relevant to the audience. I was very impressed.

Plus it was the first time I’d ever seen the hotel I stayed at, and they let you take a riverboat to Downtown Disney. And the only advantage to going alone: they’ve got single rider lines all over the place, so I got to ride Expedition Everest like five times in a row. That coaster gets better the more I ride it.

So I still recommend everybody take an extended trip to Disney World, just take a buddy. And deodorant.


One more year until I have to grow up.

There are worse places to be on your birthday than Disneyland. I had to be in LA around this weekend, so I figured that a trip to the parks made perfect sense — I could wear a big “It’s My Birthday” button around San Francisco, but I doubt it’d have the same impact.

I have yet to see the new World of Color thing that all the kids are talking about. I haven’t seen all that much yet, actually, since I got in too late for Fastpasses and I didn’t have enough patience to wait for stuff. But that’s turned out to be a good thing so far, because I’ve seen a lot of the great live entertainment.

At any point, without warning or provocation, I’ll tell you about the differences between Walt Disney World and Disneyland. One of them is that Disneyland feels a lot more “full,” as if there’s always something going on everywhere you look. I’ve only been here half a day and I’ve already seen all manner of parades and other shows break out all around me, plus other stuff I’d never seen before or hadn’t seen in years.

One of the “new” things is the “Captain EO Tribute,” which I’d only seen once before (right before it shut down, if I remember correctly), and which was a billion times better this time. In the line, they have scenes from some kind of making-of documentary showing George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppolla and about a billion dancers who look like they just got finished filming the video to “Warrior” by Scandal featuring Patty Smythe. As for the movie itself: I can’t honestly say that it’s aged well, but it really is just an amazing thing; it’s hard to believe that it even exists. I can’t remember where I saw it the first time (maybe Orlando?) because I definitely didn’t remember all the thumping in the seats and the early 80s 3D that hurts your eyes to even look at it. The funny thing is that I distinctly remember thinking, at several points throughout the 80s, that we were living through a cultural wasteland, and dreading the point at which people got nostalgic for the 80s. But here we are, and I can’t help but love it.

Not long after I saw the College All Star Marching Band playing in front of the train station, and they were terrific. Keeping up the Michael Jackson theme, they did a tribute medley, right down to performing the zombie dance with drum kits, tubas, and saxophones. That was followed by an Earth, Wind and Fire medley that was almost as good.

Over at California Adventure, they’ve got some kind of “Glow Fest” going on that turns the Hollywood Studios section of the park into a big street party/rave. I came into the park while a bunch of dancers were doing faux-Bollywood routines in front of the sun fountain, to several tracks including some from Slumdog Millionaire. And they never stopped, is the weird part — I had to go off and ride something because I was getting winded just watching them. When I came back, they had stands set up all down the street, and each one had one of the dancers still going at it, and a Disneyfied version of Bootsy Collins acting as DJ on the top of a dayglo colored Volkswagen Bus. I could imagine cynics or purists scoffing at it, but I loved every single bit of it. And the crowd did, too — the street was packed with people going nuts, taking the whole “dance like nobody’s watching” thing to heart. (Plus I was totally crushing on one of the dancers, which is completely inappropriate for somebody my age).

So yeah, the inexorable decline towards 40 doesn’t seem so bad, as long as I can keep getting away with not acting my age.

Something Different

Turn and face the strange

One of the problems with having a blog (apart from being pegged as a narcissist who’s easily swayed by internet trends) is that I’ve gotten completely dependent on it. I genuinely need this thing in order to remember when stuff happened. Pretty much everything that occurred between 1971 and last week is a big jumble of barely-connected memories that I’m assuming were spaced out fairly evenly, but as far as I’m concerned might just as well have all happened in 2002.

And because my journal is splayed out on the internet, it makes it seem like everything is an announcement, even when it’s really not. More of a “reminder” or a “notation” or maybe a “fun fact” for the world’s most boring “what happened on this date?” calendar. Today’s entry: my last day at Telltale Games.

Not my last day ever working with those guys, I’m hoping, just my last day as a regular full-timer. I’m extremely proud of the games we made while I was there, and the teams continue to exceed my expectations. And I think Telltale is regularly doing stuff that games desperately need to have — storytelling moments, and concentrated chunks of originality and imagination (and just plain weirdness) — and doing them at a level than no other studio is matching. Even those with multi-million dollar budgets.

It’s absolutely no exaggeration to say that I’ve wanted to work on a Sam & Max game since I was a sophomore in college. First from reading the comics in the back of The Adventurer that came with my Star Wars games, then playing Hit the Road and being amazed that a game like that could even exist. (It always felt kind of like sacrilege to say so, especially when I was working on Monkey 3, but I was always a bigger fan of Sam & Max than anything from Monkey Island or the other LucasArts games). I don’t know if I wanted to work on thirteen Sam & Max games, but maybe that was just a case of getting enough chances to get it right. So thanks to Dave Grossman and Kevin Bruner at Telltale for giving me the chance to work on a Sam & Max game that was actually released. (And to Brendan Ferguson for being an excellent puzzle designer and a pretty tireless lead).

And huge thanks to Steve Purcell for letting me spend so much time messing around with his characters and trusting us enough not to ruin them. Getting to do season three brainstorming with Dave, Mike Stemmle, and Steve was one of the best things that I’ve gotten to do in my career so far. (And that’s saying a good bit, considering how lucky I’ve been at stumbling into great jobs).

But it’s been pretty clear for a while that I wasn’t going to be content unless I could get out and try to do my own thing. A while ago I wrote a bunch of over-long posts about storytelling in videogames, and the more I wrote, the more I came to the obvious conclusion: the people who are really making a statement about videogames aren’t making statements; they’re making games. I need to start trying out ideas and attempting to make something more experimental than even a smaller studio like Telltale could practically take on. Maybe nothing will come of it — it’s entirely possible that I’m ridiculously over-estimating my own abilities — but with all the tools and support for independent games right now, there’s no better time to try it and see.

Plus, I’ve never been one of those people who thrive on an accelerated schedule; I’m more the type of person who ruminates and meanders. Moseys, even. There’s an episode of Star Trek called “Wink of an Eye” about a race of aliens who’d become “hyper-accelerated” so that no one else could see or hear them. I’ve felt like that quite a bit over the past few years — especially driving over the Golden Gate in the morning and seeing all the sight-seers stopping to check out the bay, and finding myself wondering “Where do these people find the time?” It seems like a good time to slow things down a little so I can get productive again.

And in case anybody’s wondering about the rest of season three of Sam & Max, which is still in progress: don’t worry. I think the season has been some of the company’s finest work so far, and what I’ve seen of the rest of the episodes carries on at that level. My work on the final episode is pretty much done, and it couldn’t be in better hands to wrap everything up. I think people are going to be impressed, disgusted, and horrified.

I hope the people who wandered on here as a result of my work with Telltale will keep stopping by, and will check out whatever game I happen to come up with, assuming this whole scheme works. (And if you know of any game contracting gigs to help pay the bills, let me know).

But for now, I’m planning to get reacquainted with being bored; it feels like it’s been a long time since I have been. Enough time with that, and I’ll be even more motivated to get off my ass and try something different.

Our Bastard Tongue

We don’t have a lot of snow where I live, so we’ve got hundreds of words for something else. Warning: contains profanity.

Last night I caught myself calling a cartoon character a douchebag, and it suddenly occurred to me I could be over-using the word. I’ve been using it an awful lot lately, and I don’t remember even hearing it before a few years ago. It got me a little worried I was slipping into another Internet meme: I might as well be one of those faux hipsters shouting “the cake is a lie” and “I like me some…”

But then I realized, “Oh hell to the no, this is just how I roll.” Douchebag is just a great word. It perfectly describes a certain type of person, and none of the other options quite come close:

Asshole is just too broad, and it doesn’t have the same sense of permanence. The guy who’s been making racist comments non-stop for the past ten years is an asshole, but so’s the guy who just cut me off in traffic.

Prick is too soft; a prick is just a minor irritant, not the prolongued obnoxiousness of a bonafide douche.

Asswipe and its variant, Shitstain, convey the same sense of uselessness as douchebag, but without the same sense of oblivious arrogance.

Dipshit and its TV-friendly Dukes of Hazzard-era version dipstick only cover the stupidity, but again, not the arrogance.

Assclown is pretty great, but it’s from Office Space. It’s always going to be from Office Space.

Asshat captures the incompetence, but none of the smarminess of a genuine douchebag.

Jack-off and the pathetically underpowered jag-off are just kind of vulgar and stupid. And even if they weren’t, they kind of capture the self-absorption of the true douchebag, but none of his unctiousness.

Twat is awfully close, but it’s a lot more vulgar, right on the edge of what’s too vulgar for me to be using in casual conversation. I don’t like typing it, much less making it bold and italic.

And all the fuck- variations — -wit, -wad, -head, -brain, -ing jackass — might as well just be less PG-13-friendly versions of asshole.

Clearly, douchebag is an immensely powerful and unique word. How else to describe Jeremy Piven and that guy from The Mentalist? It’s a word whose time has come.

Which got me wondering: what prompted the douchebag explosion? I don’t remember using it at all before 2006, and since I’m usually late to catch on, that means it must’ve entered wide usage around 2000. Office Space came out in 1999, with Gary Cole’s pivotal role of Nordberg providing the personification of the modern douchebag. (I don’t mean to diminish young Robert Downey Jr.’s pioneering work in douchebaggery in the 80s, or the great work that Dennis Miller has done in the field consistently over the past 25 years, but it hadn’t yet become a phenomenon).

But surely douchebags existed before then. OR DID THEY?!

There are various studies done by actual, professional linguists on various isolated communities that suggest a correlation between a society’s understanding of certain concepts and whether that society has a word for that concept. This goes way deeper than that “1000 words for snow” business: this is freaky reality-bending stuff.

For instance: one society didn’t use specific numbers for counting, but more general terms like “none,” “a few,” “more than a few,” or “a lot.” When shown two different amounts of something — both within the “a few” cut-off — they simply didn’t recognize a distinction between the two amounts.

Another study took people who didn’t have separate words for different shades of a color — not just guys, who either can’t or refuse to acknowledge the distinction between “salmon” and “pink,” but more like societies who didn’t have a word for “purple.” As I understand it, even in tests where language was removed, the people couldn’t distinguish colors they didn’t have a word for.

So there’s the question: has there always been a constant supply of douchebags, and we’ve just gotten better at identifying and describing them? Or are we actually creating douchebags, summoning them from the ether like Bloody Mary or Beetlejuice? Maybe some kind of combination, where we’ve so effectively described the douchebag that the guys (not being sexist, just accurate: they’re always guys) who were formerly just vaguely described as “pretentious twits” or “smarmy pricks” or “Christian Bale” now had something concrete to aspire to.

So I guess what I’m saying is: words have power. And I like making fun of people who never really did me any harm.

Happy Birthday Rain

Because I didn’t think to buy a card.

I want to wish a happy birthday to my best friend Rain, who is neither a weather phenomenon nor a Korean pop sensation (although really, she could be if she’d just put a little more effort into it).

I’ve been friends with Rain for almost fourteen years now*, and she can still surprise me by doing something unexpectedly and inexplicably awesome. Like, for instance, not just buying me a cake for my birthday, but sitting outside in the cold with me and eating it so I didn’t have to finish it by myself. I — like many humans, I’d guess — would never even think to do something like that, but then I’m neither as tenacious with my friendships nor as thoughtful.

Rain is one of the first friends I made outside of work after I moved to San Francisco, and that kind of ruined things. See, I’d never been out here for any length of time, so I just assumed that things on the west coast worked differently. I thought I’d been somehow moved up to some higher circle, where everyone was inordinately hip and smart and effortlessly funny, and people were true to their word, and everyone would be unjustifiably kind to you without expecting anything in return. Of course, I eventually learned that there was nothing inherently special about San Francisco; I’d just moved out here and almost immediately met someone exceptional. I can say without exaggeration that Rain’s friendship is about 95% of what makes the bay area not just “the place I live,” but “home.” (The other 5% is just because the katsu curry rice around here is really good).

So happy birthday!

* She was, of course, 16.

Merry Christmas

ChristmasTree.jpgI hope everybody’s having a Merry Christmas, even if you’re not the type who usually celebrates it. As for me: I didn’t get knocked over by any crazy Italian women, I’m about 90% over my seasonal debilitating cold, I’ve only read 1 work-related e-mail in the past 7 days, I’m full of dressing and my mother’s squash casserole, I’m loaded up on presents, and I’ve got a TiVo full of Samantha Brown Christmas specials (Disney and otherwise). I can’t think of how Christmas could get any better.

Let me tell you what I got: an alarm clock radio that hooks up to an iPhone, so I can actually hear it and never be late for anything ever again; a huge hard drive for my home theater PC; the latest MST3K DVD set including Tom Servo; a copy of Up that I won’t be watching any time soon, lest I break down into heaving sobs; and a copy of Fantastic Mr. Fox, which means I might actually finish reading a book this year.

Plus, we got my mother an iMac — the best kind of gift, since it means I get to buy something else from Apple. It’s been so long since I became a Mac zealot user, I forgot just how much is involved in making the switch. The gang at Cupertino are sitting all smug on their $200 share price, I’m sure, but I don’t think anybody at Apple appreciates how much trauma they’re causing new switchers by not including versions of Free Cell and Klondike with OS X. I’ve been unable to find a decent one online, so I had to promise my mom I would write one for her before I go back home. Here’s hoping I’m not all talk.

So Season’s Greetings from Georgia, and I hope everybody has a Happy Week-Leading-Up-To-New-Year.

Shutting off the Satellites

Life in a post-DirecTV world

b52satellites.jpgAccording to this here weblog, it was almost exactly 11 months ago that I canceled off my satellite subscription. At the time, this seemed like an earth-shattering decision. Sure, I knew lots of people who’d gone without cable or satellite for years, and they claimed not to miss it at all. But I knew that they were really living the hollow lives of shadow creatures, coming home from the drudgery of their jobs to find a David Lynchian living room silent except for the incessant drone of an old refrigerator, sitting on a couch and staring blankly out a window into the darkness as they waited for death to release them.

I expected one of two things to happen: I’d achieve a Buddha-like state of awareness as I used my free time for reading and exercising and cleaning up around the apartment and grooming, able to quote from the greatest works of Western literature as I shattered bricks with my fists and I stood, shirtless as a Bowflex ad, inviting the neighborhood children to bounce quarters and superballs off of my rock-hard abs. Either that, or they’d find me in my apartment after I’d hung myself with a coaxial cable, a forlorn suicide note scrawled with a manic hand and addressed to Sal Castaneda, the cat having gnawed off as much of my lower extremities as he was able to reach.

Neither of those actually happened; in fact, it’s been such a non-issue that I wish I’d skipped all the hand-wringing and cut the cord years ago. The status quo is pretty much the same: I still have more stuff available than I have time to watch. The only difference is that instead of spending hours numbly flipping through cable channels, I now spend hours numbly flipping through RSS feeds. And I have a skewed idea of what is and isn’t supposed to be popular, which as it turns out isn’t as useful as I’d always assumed.

While I had a freakish dependency on television, I’m pretty sure there are plenty of other people who are in the same boat. So here’s what I’ve found after a year, the kind of stuff that would’ve helped had I known it a year ago. Maybe it’ll help anyone who’s been wondering if they really want to keep paying $80 a month or more for television:

  1. All this assumes a broadband internet connection. You’re not really getting rid of an addiction; you’re just trading one for another. I don’t know if the SF Bay Area is particularly well-connected, or if it’s just 2009, but high-speed internet access seems to be pretty much a given these days.
  2. I don’t watch sports or reality TV. If any one of those were true, I’d probably be missing the live TV a lot more. As it is, I hear rumblings about things like American Idol and Dancing With the Stars but couldn’t tell you much more than that they exist.
  3. I don’t work from home. When I was freelancing, it was important to be able to set aside the “computer area” from the “entertainment area,” which is harder to do if you’re getting all your entertainment from the computer.
  4. Consider getting an antenna. As sad as it may be to admit, sometimes you really just want to sit in front of a TV and watch indiscriminately. Now that everybody’s made the digital conversion and you can get over-the-air HD broadcasts, TV antennas aren’t nearly as ghetto as they used to be. I’ve mentioned it before, but it still surprises me: an over-the air HD broadcast is indistinguishable from an HD cable or satellite picture. Unlike an analog signal, a digital signal doesn’t degrade when you lose reception: it’s all or nothing. Either you get blackness, or you get the full, crystal-clear picture with 5.1 surround sound, the works.
    I bought an “HD Antenna” (apparently any antenna will work, and the “HD” moniker is just clever marketing) for less than the cost of one DirecTV bill. I’ve been too lazy to install it on the roof, but even indoors in San Francisco, pointed away from Sutro Tower, I can pick up all the major networks except NBC. And as it turns out, PBS is surprisingly entertaining as long as it’s not the hellish Sunday afternoon home improvement block.
  5. Reconsider getting an AppleTV. At the time, the AppleTV was a no-brainer. But then revealed the full extent of its evil and started cock-blocking boxee in favor of its own player — apparently, there are ways to work around the limitations, but it got to be more hassle than I was willing to put up with. So now, the AppleTV does no more than it advertises: funnels content from your iTunes library to your TV and/or home theater. Anything you want to watch over the AppleTV (that’s not YouTube, anyway), you’re either going to pay for or convert yourself. The AppleTV feels very much like an interim solution that’s either going to change significantly or get discontinued altogether.
  6. If you’ve got a computer anywhere near the TV, hook that mother up. Both Microsoft and Apple are paying more attention to the home media functionality of Windows and OS X, making either one basically plug-and-play. You might even be better off in the long run getting a full media computer for the television, instead of getting a dedicated box like the Apple TV: you won’t be tied to one provider like the iTunes Store, and you’ll be able to use hulu’s player as well as boxee or plex or whatever else comes along for free content. It’s even better if you don’t mind watching TV at a computer; I’ve never had the attention span (or a comfortable enough computer chair) to do that.
  7. If you’re using Macs, ditch the G4 machines. I have an old first-edition Mac mini hooked up to my TV, but it’s basically useless. It doesn’t have an IR sensor for the remote, for one thing. Worse, though, all of the free media center apps require an Intel machine — boxee and hulu desktop both refuse to run.
  8. If you’ve got a videogame console, find out what you can do with it. Both the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 let you buy TV shows through their online stores; I haven’t used either, because they both run a little more expensive and are a good bit more inconvenient than iTunes. (Plus it’s been nice to occasionally copy a TV show onto my phone to watch on a plane or elsewhere). But if you’re using a Windows machine, the 360 can act as a “media extender” to let you watch video from your PC on your television. If you’re using OS X, nullriver software makes MediaLink to connect to the PS3 and Connect360 for the 360, which let you watch videos or listen to music from your PC on your home theater. Be aware that neither version supports content you’ve bought from the iTunes store, whether music or video (even, surprisingly, the supposedly DRM-free “iTunes Plus” tracks). And finally, if you’ve got a 360, the Netflix streaming support on the new version is pretty great.
  9. You might save money, you might not. I’ve avoided using BitTorrent* and can’t easily use hulu, so I’ve been getting series and individual episodes from the iTunes store. Instead of a monthly fee spread out over the year, I end up paying a big chunk whenever a new season starts. I haven’t yet gone through an added up how much I’ve spent over the past year, but I doubt it’s quite as dramatic as I’d expected. On the other hand, I haven’t felt like I was missing anything.

So there’s really no excuse for reading or going outside these days. And you can rest easy knowing that you’re still giving lots of money to Rupert Murdoch and Disney and NBC Universal and all the other big media conglomerates; you just now have more options to pay a la carte.

Update: Disneyland Still Fun

splashterror.jpgFrom the “posting just to say I’m still alive” department:

Last weekend I tagged along with some friends to Disneyland and it was, despite United Airlines’ best efforts, a great big ton o’ fun. One of the many things I like about Disney parks is that you can go hundreds of times, covering every inch of the park and even poking around back stage, and still manage to see something new each time you go.

Most of the time, the combination of familiar classics + a little bit of novelty + Dole Whips is enough to remind you why Disney does an outstanding job with the parks, but occasionally you’ll see something amazing. This trip I saw three:

  • Remodeled Sleeping Beauty Castle Tour: This has been closed off for years, rumored to be the blame of post-9/11 hypersensitivity. Even before then, it wasn’t a must-see; it’s always neat to go inside, but the Barbie doll figures re-enacting the dullest scenes weren’t exactly a big draw. Now, they’ve installed some amazing effects installations that combine 2D and 3D animation with flats and what seems to be rear projection and fancy particle systems and even an interactive section (like the brass apple at the entrance to the Snow White ride). I still have no idea how they did some of those effects.
  • The Toy Story Zoetrope in the Animation pavilion at DCA: I’d seen video of this in action, and apparently I’ve even been to the park since it was installed, but I never saw it working before. It’s absolutely incredible. I watched about five or six cycles of it and would’ve stayed longer if I’d been at the park for an extra day. There’s a “making of” display that explains the process and gives credit to the original zoetrope at the Studio Ghibli museum. So now I have to go to the Studio Ghibli museum.
  • Toy Story Midway Mania at DCA: This was open the last time I went to Disneyland, but we didn’t feel like waiting in a 50-minute line. As it turns out, that may have been a huge mistake. The idea of taking the Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters ride, converting it to carnival games, and adding 3D glasses just didn’t sound that compelling. I’ve talked to people who’d been on it, but never heard a review more enthusiastic than “It’s fun.” All this is either a sign that I’m completely out of the loop in things Disney-related (possible), or this is one of the most under-sold attractions in Disney history (also possible), because it’s fantastic. The effects are perfect, the controls are responsive, and the whole thing feels just seamless — it’s not just a dark ride that gives you a score at the end, but a real game that makes you want to come back and play again. And unlike any Disney attraction I’ve seen in recent memory, it doesn’t feel as if any concessions have been made. All the money was put into exactly the right places.

Sometimes I’m amazed at how creativity can survive under all the constraints that Disney is under: not just the usual constraints of budget, but the fact that you’ve got to make something that appeals to millions of people but still isn’t watered down for the lowest common denominator. And as the technology gets more sophisticated, it gets even harder: how can you deliver something with that “wow factor” and a five-year production cycle, when tech that’s cutting-edge today will be available in a Best Buy one year from now? (I can still remember when the touch screens at Epcot were an amazing thing). They seem to be taking the right approach here: make sure that the technology isn’t the focus; the characters and personality and fun are.