Semi-New Song Sunday: Lord Huron

Lord Huron’s ominous and atmospheric music may not need such an elaborate framing device, but I’ll allow it

I can tell I’m getting older, because my reaction to Lord Huron over the past couple of days has been that they don’t have to try so hard. They could just keep releasing pretty, Beck-ish songs like “Mine Forever” and we’d all be perfectly happy with them. It doesn’t all need to be framed in layers of supernatural-60s-TV-country-and-western visual treatments.

Which is a little sad, because I used to go nuts for that shit. You could show me a black-and-white globe and fictional broadcast call letters, and it’d set my heart aflutter.

I don’t know when I became such a spoilsport. Especially when it’s let them take the live-from-home COVID-concert trend and turn it into a web series of broadcasts called “Alive From Whispering Pines,” with vaguely Chris Isaak-meets-surf-guitar songs like “The World Ender”.

And it’s churlish of me to begrudge a band wanting to apply some showmanship to songs that would make for an amazingly creepy and atmospheric road trip, at a time when we’re all stuck at home.

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier: Sleeper Agent

Four episodes into The Falcon and the Winter Solider, and it’s finally won me over

I had pretty low expectations for The Falcon and the Winter Solider — it was being marketed as a buddy action comedy set in the MCU, and it seemed to be a little too familiar to be super compelling. It seemed like it was going to be a genre series, even before WandaVision came along and spent a couple of months chewing up multiple genres and spitting them back out in the form of an extended grief metaphor/blockbuster film prequel.

It’s a little unfair, since the show’s been really good from the start. Good performances, a great action sequence to start with, pretty good pacing, smart and understated dialogue, and a tone that manages to be serious without being humorless, grounded without being mundane. The whole “odd couple buddy comedy” aspect does make up much of one episode, but then it’s mercifully relegated to the background.

I felt like I had a handle on the show by the end of the first episode, and the best example of that was the culmination of Bucky’s story in that episode. It seemed like the show wanted the “reveal” of Yori’s son to be a big deal, but I thought it was weird they were stretching out that scene, since I’d thought they’d made it all but explicit up to that point. But I also wasn’t that bothered by it — it wasn’t a huge, Shyamalan-esque “Oh my God did we just blow your ever-lovin’ mind?!” scene, but instead a weighty character moment that worked okay even if you weren’t that surprised.

So that was my overall impression of the series — it might not be blowing me away with its surprises or innovations, but it’s all entertaining and well-executed. That lasted until midway through the fourth episode, when I realized this series had gotten its hooks into me. And although it initially comes across as formulaic, I think it’s subverting the Marvel superhero formula more subtly and intelligently than some projects explicitly questioning the genre.

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Friday’s All Right for Doing It, Rockapella

This week’s links are a retrospective for a charming educational series, city planning primers, and more about why GM sucks so bad.

I was too old to be the target audience of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, but that didn’t stop me from watching pretty often. It was such a charming concept executed so well that I wished it had existed just a few years earlier. (Except then, it wouldn’t have been such a product of the 1990s, which is probably an inseparable part of the charm). This retrospective/history of the show does a pretty good job of reminding you why it was so appealing, even to those of us in college at the time.

I’ve also spent the week re-discovering the City Beautiful channel, where Dave Amos makes well-produced videos about different topics in city planning and city development. I first found the channel on account of its videos about the original plan for EPCOT and a comparison of Disney World’s transit system to “real world” transit systems in similarly-sized cities. I think The Algorithm brought it back to my attention because I’ve gotten into the “City Planner Plays” channel, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: a city planner doing play-through videos of Cities: Skylines.

And in case I was getting too optimistic about our potential for intelligently planning to solve the issues facing cities, Climate Town came long with another video describing how General Motors’s outsized influence on city planning helped destroy the entire model for healthy cities in the United States, to guarantee that we’re overwhelmingly dependent on cars.

The one encouraging thing is that it’s another reminder of how many of our problems in city design, pollution, income inequality, and racial inequity, have been orchestrated, instead of being inevitable or just developing organically. If we’re reminded that people are responsible for all this, then we can commit to being people that fix it.

Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: A Real Tough Cookie, Not a Divorcee

If you like these two tunes, come back in a couple weeks for your boosters.

The Beastie Boys and Pat Benatar all agree: get vaccinated!

It’s a good way to be a responsible citizen looking out for your neighbors, just like Pat Benatar does in this video by telling someone in the front row of the audience that he’s got some barbecue sauce on his cheek.

One Thing I Like About Godzilla vs Kong

Godzilla vs Kong seems perfectly happy to be spectacular, beautiful nonsense

Title Image: Kong vs Godzilla in Hong Kong in Godzilla vs Kong

I liked Kong: Skull Island quite a bit, although apparently that didn’t come through clearly enough in my post about it. A few years ago, I was applying for a job on a licensed video game that I would’ve hated working on, so I’m very fortunate I wasn’t offered the job. At the interview, though, the interviewer mentioned reading that post and seemed skeptical I’d be happy working on a project that was part of a major franchise subject to scrutiny from tons of invested parties.

I was reminded of that while watching Godzilla vs Kong, because it’s very much the culmination of a movie franchise. But it also doesn’t betray a hint of pretense that it’s anything else, or that there’s anything wrong with being the culmination of a movie franchise.

And I really enjoyed the hell out of it. It was big, gleefully dumb fun, on a scale that I don’t think I’ve seen since The Mummy. The aspect of it I love the most is that it knows exactly what it wants to do, and exactly what people want to see when they watch a movie titled Godzilla vs Kong. Which is perfectly illustrated by this scene:

(The rest of this post has spoilers, which I really suggest you avoid reading because there are some fun surprises in the movie, even if you, as I did, go in thinking you’d already been spoiled for all of it).

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Friday Afternoon’s All Right for Simulating

A random assortment of links including fascinating simulations of path-traveling algorithms.

I pretty much always think Sebastian Lague’s “Coding Adventure” videos are fascinating, and this one about ant and slime simulations doesn’t disappoint. His videos aren’t tutorials or how-tos, really, but more a diary of his train of thought and a high-level description of his algorithm while exploring a particular topic. It helps that he’s adept at making videos that make each topic compelling.

As a result, I’m almost always inspired to action after watching one of the videos. I want to learn about compute shaders, and procedurally-created meshes in Unity, and techniques to make interesting visualizations! But then I usually end up just sitting back and watching more theme park videos.

Also discovered this week:

  • This weird video from the Primer channel about running simulations to determine whether there’s a genetic advantage to altruism.
  • I love just about every single thing from this ad for the Magnavox Odyssey game console from 1972. Music, typography, even the dad gleefully firing a rifle at innocent animals the television under shroud of darkness.
  • Here’s a longer promotional film for the Odyssey that does a better job of dispelling any potential nostalgia. (I’m intrigued by the Haunted House game, though). I’m hoping that no millennials watch these videos and go away thinking that we were all impressed with screwing a VHF channel-switch box to the antenna connections on our TVs. Even at the time, we all appreciated that that was janky as hell.
  • Another fascinating video from the “A Critical Hit!” channel: Wild Gunman ’74, the first FMV game, from Nintendo.

Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: Better on Video

Two tangentially-related tunes every Tuesday: today’s videos made me like the songs more

This installment of Tuesday Tune Two-Fer has two of my favorite music videos ever, and in fact they’re so good that they make me like the song more.

First up is “And She Was” by Talking Heads, which has such an amazing aesthetic that I’m still surprised it wasn’t used more often. (The only other occurrence I know of is Michael Jackson’s “Leave Me Alone” video). I still want to make some kind of video or game project that looks like this, which let’s be honest must be a billion times easier to do now. Just use shaders or some shit.

Second is “Hello” by Emergency Broadcast Network, which goes by the better title “You Have Five Seconds to Complete This Section” on their album Telecommunication Breakdown. I didn’t actually discover the video until years after I got obsessed with the album, but it’s almost overtaken “Electronic Behavior Control System” as my favorite thing by EBN.

I say “almost” because I really can’t overstate how much “Electronic Behavior Control System” blew my mind, even as a tiny QuickTime video hidden on the data portion of the album CD. This one wasn’t included on the CD, for whatever reason, so I never really appreciated just how much video DJ-ing went into the track. I also appreciate how their sense of humor comes through more subtly in this one, especially with the sign language interpreter pointing accusingly at us.

They… they ASSURED me there was PEANUT BRITTLE in that can!

Get a load of the whiny sons o’ bitches at The Verge!

I have it on very good authority that this is the new mascot for the Volkswagen Group. Image from D23.com.

Given all the genuine stuff to get stressed out or worried about, I’ve got to thank The Verge for giving me something completely inconsequential to be irrationally annoyed by.

The story in brief was that Volkswagen did a beginning-of-April marketing stunt announcing that they were changing their US branding to “Voltswagen,” to reaffirm their commitment to electric vehicles. The Verge chomped on that like a starving bass, running it as a top story on the site. Now, after finding out that the obvious marketing stunt was, in fact, a marketing stunt, they edited their story from press release regurgitation into a long-form tantrum.

Normally, I’d do the Nelson Muntz point-and-laugh and then move on, but the Verge writers’ histrionics have actually made me kind of angry. First, instead of being good-natured — or even the wet blanket but appropriately skeptical approach that Ars Technica took — they changed the headline to say that Volkswagen lied about their rebranding! Here showing the same understanding of “lying” as the aliens in Galaxy Quest.

Worse, they made repeated references — in the byline of the rewritten article, and on Twitter — to “Dieselgate.” Because, obviously, fooling a couple of gullible and clickbait-seeking internet writers is equivalent to a multi-billion dollar, years-long, massive environmental scandal.

But now we know the rebrand was nothing more than another lie from a company that’s become known for something else: lying.

A butt-hurt, insufferably whiny baby

The reason this makes me so irrationally angry — apart from putting me in a position where I’m not just defending Volkswagen, but defending an April Fools prank — is that it’s another reminder of how embarrassingly low journalistic standards are in 2021. Actually, that’s a third strike against it: it makes me want to put “journalist” in sarcastic quotes, but I can’t do that, because that’s the province of all the knuckle-dragging losers on the internet complaining about Brie Larson and Kathleen Kennedy.

The writers can clutch their pearls and stand aghast at VW all they want, but the truth is that they simply didn’t do due diligence for their non-story. They valued page views over newsworthiness. “They published a press release!” insists the article, ignoring the obvious fact that you’re not obliged to run every press release as front-page news.

The undeniable fact of all this is that this stunt was not news. Even if it had been 100% real. Even for a company gigantic as the Volkswagen Group. It was so obviously as much a non-story as the results of the Puppy Bowl or the war between Left Twix and Right Twix. It’s depressing that they think the problem is a company fooling them with a lame (and clearly publicity-grabbing) stunt, instead of how eager they were to “report” on the stunt in the first place.

Semi-New Song Sunday: Thundercat

I’m embarrassed I’m only just now finding out about Thundercat.

There’s usually no shame in the Semi-New Sunday series. After all, the whole point is for me to acknowledge that I’m out of touch with what’s going on with music, and I’m making an effort to broaden my horizons. But I’m genuinely embarrassed that I’m only just now finding out about Thundercat.

Because he’s straight-up hilarious, and I am 10000% behind this new weird genre of Nerd Funk that he’s created. Plus he’s made what might be the best album cover ever.

I feel like I’ve seen the video to “Dragonball Durag” before, but I just assumed it was some Adult Swim thing, and I didn’t think much of it. Thinking of it as just a weird comedy video, I didn’t appreciate that he’s so brilliant at playing the bass and coming up with a groove that he doesn’t need to take anything all that seriously. He can treat it as just a vehicle for him to be weird and write songs about his cat and playing Diablo, and making a video of himself trying to hit on women and getting turned down repeatedly until he finally gets some traction with Este Haim.

This NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert from 2017 gives a better idea of what a great bassist he is.

That talent — combined with what seems to be a total lack of concern about looking uncool — results in a kind of freedom that I think is just amazing and inspiring to see. It feels like unapologetic, unfettered enthusiasm. Without hesitation, or self-censorship, or fear of being too earnest.

For instance: the video to “Them Changes”, which you know is about a samurai simply because he thinks samurai are cool and wanted to dress up as one. And the video is set up like a gag, but there’s no wink to the camera. There’s no line where the gag stops and the earnest part begins. It’s not using something silly to hide a serious message; it’s kind of suggesting that everything is always cool and dumb and silly and sad and serious and funny, all at the same time.

That story is continued in the video to “Show You the Way,” which also has Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald, also simultaneously a stunt and an earnest appreciation of their music. There’s a feeling of celebration in all of it, even the melancholy parts. I know that funk and R&B have a long history of being weird and funny, but this is the first time I felt like I’ve really connected with any of it.

Re: Fwd: Disneyland

Speculation on Disneyland’s proposed expansion plans

Expansion concept art from the Disneyland Forward website.

Last week, Disneyland made an announcement with an accompanying “Disney Forward” website, which I heard described variously as an expansion to the Anaheim theme parks, a third theme park, a west coast Disney Springs, or a second attempt to push through their earlier rejected plans now that the COVID-19 pandemic gave them more leverage with the city of Anaheim.

Looking at the site more closely, it looks to me like it’s just a proposal to re-zone land at the Disneyland Resort to be mixed-use. The stuff I’d read suggested all kinds of grand schemes and/or nefarious ulterior motives, but I should know by now to take everything I read about Disney parks on the internet with a big old salt lick. It’s never as spectacular and magical, or as sinister and profit-driven, as people make it sound.

To be clear, it’s an extremely savvy pitch on Disney’s part, as you’d expect. It’s timed right before the parks re-open, when the city and residents of Anaheim are most aware of how much their economy relies on Disneyland. It’s presented to the public — and using much the same format they use to sell hotel stays and DVC points to guests — instead of as a dry zoning proposal. I’m presuming that’s partly for transparency, to keep it from seeming as if Disney is colluding with the city government, proposing huge projects without any regard for the people affected by them. I’d bet it’s also to get the legions of Disney parks fans excited, to try and change the narrative from “Global entertainment behemoth stomps over small local businesses” to “Opportunistic Harbor Blvd hotel and restaurant chains crush the dreams of children.”

There’s also a repeated idea that sounds, hilariously, like a veiled threat: if this proposal doesn’t go through, Disney’s going to have no choice but to demolish some beloved attractions. “Nice tea cups we got here. It’d be a shame if anything… happened to them.”

But at the same time, everything that they’re saying is obviously true. There is no space left to expand the parks or build new stuff; the Galaxy’s Edge expansion was squeezed in as it was. They have tried to expand using the current hotel/retail/theme park zoning, and the plans fell through on account of pushback from the city. (Technically, their most recent plan was cancelled by Disney judging it not worth the investment when the city refused to give them the tax breaks they wanted. Still tough to choose a “good guy” in that fight, which was why it was savvy of Disney to pitch this one as room for new attractions instead of just room for more profitable hotel space).

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