Hawkeye: My Life as a Franchise

I’m gradually warming up to a Disney+ series that seems like it should’ve been a slam dunk

At the time I’m writing this, I’ve only seen the first three episodes of the Hawkeye series. The third episode was a relief, because that’s where it all starts to come together. For the first two, I spent most of the running time wondering why I wasn’t enjoying it more.

In theory, this should totally be my thing. It’s the Disney/MCU behemoth pouring its resources into a light-hearted comedy/action series, largely based on a beloved comics storyline1Which I haven’t read yet but has been on my to-read list for years, starring one of the most charismatic actors working today — who totally should’ve won the Oscar for True Grit, because her performance in that role is still astounding. For someone like me, who’s a fan of almost everything the MCU has put out on Disney+ so far, it seems like the only thing working against it is that it features the Least Interesting Avenger. But not only do they work that idea into the storyline and the gags, but they already set a precedent with The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. I had less than zero interest in that series, but it ended up winning me over.

But so much of it feels like it should be charming and exciting to me, but it just keeps bouncing off. I’m also getting this weird, vague undercurrent throughout that it’s somehow already taken for granted that people are going to love it. Look at this, beautiful people and intrigue and fight scenes and the occasional explosion, it seems to say, of course you like it. What’s wrong with you? We even put in a bit of self-deprecating musical theater to show how much we’re in on the joke.

I’m not sure how much I was pre-disposed to dislike it after getting the impression that the creators of the My Life as a Weapon comic weren’t compensated or sufficiently credited by Disney, even though the entire graphic design and many of the characters come straight from that comic. But I saw that Matt Fraction is credited as a “consulting producer,” and he and David Aja are in the credits under “special thanks,” and I don’t know enough about the business to know whether any of that has financial compensation. Not knowing the business, I’ll try to keep from forming an opinion on topics where I’m completely ignorant. But on the whole, it does seem like Disney tries awful hard to hold onto money that would be insignificant to the company but huge to the artists helping them build a library of stuff to sell.

To its credit, it’s made Clint Barton’s Hawkeye the most interesting version he’s ever been. It’s tough to build a series around a character whose whole thing is that he doesn’t want to be there, especially when the character is supposed to be more world-weary and less yipee-ki-yay than John McLain in Die Hard.

And I don’t think that’s a knock on Jeremy Renner, who probably doesn’t get enough credit for making a thankless role feel like a real person. Because this series gives him more to do and say — and in the proper scale, instead of burying it in the midst of the destruction of the universe — it makes his understated (and frankly, often energy-draining) performance make sense. He’s got much of Black Widow’s baggage but has even less desire to be a “poser.” It’s more an obligation than a call to glory. Plus, here he’s given more of a chance to be dryly funny and flippant.

Which is a good example of how I’ve been weirdly frustrated by the series. In one episode, he has to go to a LARPing event, and he ends up having to participate against his will. The premise itself is just, honestly, lazy writing: based on the tired old haha lookit the funny nerds who take it too far unlike our perfectly mature and healthy decades-long devotion to super heroes. (It’s the attitude of the first X-Men movie, and its pointed sneer at yellow spandex costumes instead of the obviously much more mature and realistic adults walking around in full-body skin-tight black costumes). But to the show’s credit, it takes the lame premise and turns it into a believably endearing moment. Clint isn’t won over by the experience or anything — which would be unrealistic — but he ends up being pretty good-natured and patient about the whole thing. It feels like an action-comedy setup that is being played not as an action-comedy, but as the character would genuinely react to it. That makes it more believable and a lot more endearing, but also kind of inert.

(Also at the beginning of the scene, one of the LARPers offers him a helmet with attached wig to wear, but he refuses. As if he’s too cool for that, although come on. Everybody in the world saw you with that haircut).

It seems like this version of Clint Barton is just doomed to be kind of dull, because of a decade-long series of choices that were probably the right ones at the time. So it was a pleasant surprise to learn that the Hawkeye-just-wants-to-get-home-for-Christmas storyline isn’t really the focus of the series; it’s just a framing device for Kate Bishop’s insertion into the next phase of the MCU.

Often it feels like the show is just coasting on Hailee Steinfeld’s charisma, but that’s not so bad since she’s got tons to spare. It’s interesting seeing her and Renner play off of each other, since they seem to be coming from the same place but with different priorities. Both actors get the whole MCU concept, which is “realistic,” relatable characters grounding fantastic situations and acting as both super-heroes and audience surrogates. But I get a sense that Renner is playing it in terms of “who is Clint Barton in this situation?” while Steinfeld is more focused on “who is the protagonist of this MCU action comedy?” I don’t think either approach is wrong, and it actually helps their dynamic, in that she’s eager to break into the super-hero world, while he’s hoping to be free of it.

I also like this version of the Kate Bishop character, even though she’s frequently in circular conversations with her mother and with Clint, sometimes feeling like she’s going from scene to scene because the plot demands it. It’s great that they’ve established that she’s rich and essentially good at everything, but is far from flawless. It feels like a rejection of the Strong Female Character trap that the comics and movies too often fall into.

I think Robert Downey Jr’s performance as Tony Stark helped hide the fact that the character was pretty two-dimensional: his arrogance and over-confidence was the one note played over and over again in the stories, but his performance showed how someone that obnoxious could still be endearing and relatable. I think this version of Kate Bishop could be a more nuanced take on a similar idea: her over-confidence comes not just from arrogance, but from feeling invulnerable. This is the source of some of the best-written scenes in the series so far, with her mother saying pretty much this explicitly, and later with Barton and Bishop on a subway train talking over each other, since he can’t hear her.

So far, it seems like a character-driven series in the guise of a plot-driven one, with talented actors doing their best to make their characters seem real and believable. I do often feel like it’s aiming for 80% while I want it to be at 100%, but then it has a chase scene with all kinds of trick arrows (including the USB arrow!) culminating in a double-shot that creates a giant arrow that impales a truck. Which, I mean, is objectively rad, even if a bunch of Eastern European gangsters all calling each other “bro” isn’t quite as charming as it might’ve been several years ago.

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    Which I haven’t read yet but has been on my to-read list for years

Movie List Monday: Unnecessary Animation

My favorite animated movies with details that don’t need to be there

When I mentioned trying to make “a Nick Park-style robot,” I’m not sure the reference worked, because I was specifically talking about the robot from A Grand Day Out. It’s one of my favorite animated characters, and the sequence where it wakes up and discovers Wallace’s picnic site might be my favorite moment in any animated movie.

It’s incredibly expressive, using only its hands. And it’s burned into my brain as the image of “endearing robot”; even though I haven’t seen A Grand Day Out in years, I was just futzing around with a modeling program and subliminally tried to copy a pose from that character exactly.

What I like best about that whole character, though, is that everything that makes it special is so unnecessary. It could’ve been a more conventional retro-sci-fi-robot design, and the story would’ve worked just as well. It was a choice to make it a completely silent coin-operated robot, and it’s never explained because it doesn’t need to be. Any more than it needs to be explained why the villain in The Wrong Trousers is a penguin.

The thing that made me aspire (and fail) to become an animator was that the best animated projects have a density of imagination and design that you don’t get in live action. Of course there are meticulously-designed live action movies, but with animation, it’s a necessity. There’s not a single thing on screen that hasn’t had at least one person spending hours thinking about it.

As much as I love Frozen, for instance, I still think it’s part of a trend of modern animation in which efficiency is key. By that I mean that everything on screen is in service of the story, or at least in service of a particular gag. The stories are pretty great, the gags are funny, and the character designs are appealing and often perfectly animated. But I rarely get the sense that there’s a detail or a moment that’s unnecessary, that exists solely because an artist wanted it to.

Here’s a list of some of my favorite animated movies, and the moments of unnecessary imagination that make them stand out. (Note that I’ve mostly lost track of animation in the past several years, and I still haven’t seen most of the Laika movies, Kubo and the Two Strings in particular. They tend to feel more free than the tentpole Disney movies in including details just for their own sake).

Continue reading “Movie List Monday: Unnecessary Animation”

One Thing I Like About No Time To Die

Daniel Craig’s last Bond movie makes self-reference into a celebration

Back when I begrudgingly picked Spectre over Skyfall as a better James Bond movie, I hadn’t seen No Time to Die. I said that I’d heard that the latest movie was even more self-referential than Spectre is, and I couldn’t imagine how that was possible.

Now that I’ve seen it — I made sure to watch it a couple of months after its theatrical release, so that I both missed seeing it on a big screen and had the privilege of playing big-screen prices to rent it — I’d agree that it is even more self-referential than any of the others. But instead of just going through the motions, it feels like a celebration of the franchise.

I think No Time to Die is the easily the second best of the Daniel Craig Bond movies, after Casino Royale. The problem is that the first half was on track to be my favorite of any of the Bond movies. It’s two hours and forty-five minutes long, and it really does feel like two Bond movies smashed together: the first is absolutely fantastic, but the second just descends into the same kind of muddled mess as the last three. Repeating the same old story beats to try and bridge the way into the final act, which is a journey into a supervillain lair filled with plot developments that just don’t make sense.

But this is about the positives! And even as the plot starts to fall apart, the movie nails the tone throughout. It feels like the only one of the Craig movies that fully embraces being part of the James Bond franchise, instead of poking fun at it or trying to turn it into something deeper and more mature. There are stunningly gorgeous locations, impressively over-the-top stunts, three disfigured villains, beautiful women kicking ass, and double-crosses piled on top of double-crosses. Bond even (finally?) makes a lame quip after murdering a guy.

The movie’s front-loaded with great, genuinely tense action sequences: one in a flashback, a blockbuster of a sequence in Italy, and then another in Cuba bringing multiple agents together. That last one is the one that brings in Ana de Armas and Lashana Lynch, giving them guns and plenty of opportunities for stunts, so that it’s not just Craig getting all the action. Ana de Armas is just as great as all the buzz had led me to believe, but I wish Lashana Lynch had been given more to do. It mostly feels like she’s there for no reason other than to escort Craig out of the franchise.

Those sequences flow together so well that it had me thinking the entire series has been like a machine learning algorithm: iterating on the James Bond formula (and throwing the Jason Bourne movies into the dataset) repeatedly until it got everything right. No Time to Die seemed to be incorporating something from every incarnation of Bond — not just the cars and the “shaken, not stirred” martinis, but everything. The cars and the Caribbean locations called back to Connery, the henchman Cyclops to Roger Moore and Jaws, the doomed love affair to Lazenby, the sequence with Felix Leiter back to Dalton’s version, the over-the-top stunts back to Pierce Brosnan (I guess?), and the production design (plus the mentions of Vesper Lynd) to Skyfall and Quantum of Solace.

And those are just the references I picked up on. I got the sense that the entire movie was a celebration of the movies. Not just the culmination of Daniel Craig’s run, but of the entire series.

Best of all, it was the first one I’ve seen in forever that felt like it knew what it was. These movies have been so dour and so expensive for so long, that any time they embraced the silliness of the Bond franchise, it felt like a clumsy mis-step. No Time to Die seemed to get that the series is best when it’s clever, fun spectacle. When the movie is fully aware of its own absurdity, but Bond and all the characters surrounding him are treating it like the entire world is truly in jeopardy and that they’re all essentially super-heroes capable of taking care of it.

Also, the movie is so adamant about being contemporary that for the first time, I’m re-thinking my opinion that future installments should be set in the Cold War. Q isn’t just played by a gay actor, but specifically mentions having a man over for a dinner date. Paloma plays up her own naivete and enthusiasm (and is, obviously, preternaturally gorgeous), but is in absolutely no danger of being seduced by Bond. Nomi isn’t just presented as a competent agent with her own sense of Bond-like vanity and self-confidence, but her identity as a black woman isn’t just treated as incidental, either — a villain boasts to her that he’d be able to wipe out everyone of the “West African diaspora,” and it doesn’t go well for him at all. And Moneypenny has been completely transformed from a lovesick secretary to someone who respects Bond for being able to get the job done, more often than not.

No Time to Die feels like a series that’s finally matured enough to have fun with itself. It’s acknowledging that it can no longer treat homosexuals and non-white people as exotic oddities, or women as either sexy victims or femme fatales. But more important than that, it recognizes that Bond as murderous lecherous super-hero isn’t the core of what makes the franchise. It’s not just trying to re-hash the past, or over-correct for the past, or pretend to be anything that it’s not. Much of it has the spark that makes for the best Bond movies: spectacle, travel, memorable henchmen, and over-the-top action.

Dreidelbot

And here’s the Dreidelbot 8000. I made it out of Nomad Sculpt. Partly to make up for posting Santa renders while Hanukkah was still going on, but mostly because I wanted to see if I could make a Nick Park-style robot. Don’t be alarmed by his low battery meter; his fuel tends to last longer than you might expect!

That reminds me: have there ever been any Black Christmas-type horror movies set during Hanukkah? It seems like a natural, what with a murder each day and so on. I can even think of the tag-line for the poster: “With his dreidel he will SLAY.”

Santa, Baby

I’ve been having a ton of fun with Nomad Sculpt on the iPad. I admit I didn’t think much of it until I found videos by Eric Lee on his eric3dee channel. (Start with his video doing Popeye). Not only is it possible to make neat-looking models with it, using the Apple Pencil directly on the model makes it feel a lot more natural than my previous attempts with Blender.

(It also makes it a lot easier to make simple lighting setups and renders than Blender does. I still can’t for the life of me figure out how to make even a basic 3-point light setup in Blender that doesn’t look lousy).

Anyway, here are a few shots of my first project with Nomad. It’s Santa Claus arriving at the home of Zhiyang Z Zyzzenberg, the 4.3 billionth person on his list. (Hope you wanted an Instant Pot, because that’s all that’s left!) I’d thought about doing an actual Santa Baby, but it got weird and unsettling real fast.

Star Wars and Focusing on the Wrong Thing

Getting closer to a Grand Unified Theory of what makes something “feel like Star Wars”

I like to think of myself as a reasonably well-adjusted adult, but every once in a while I get a flare up that reminds me I’m still an Extremely Online Nerd in my soul. Tonight’s episode: getting irrationally angry about Rogue One out of nowhere.

Okay technically not out of nowhere. I was trying to think of how to handle the issue of plugging cables into the Star Wars-inspired computer I want to build, which seemed like a distinctly un-Star Wars thing to be worried about. Everything in Star Wars just works — or more often, doesn’t work for dramatic purposes — without spending even a nano-second thinking about stuff as mundane as cabling or fuel sources.

Then I remembered that the climax of Rogue One has the team both trying to find a particular file in a file system, while simultaneously trying to get a cable to reach a socket. And I mean come on.

Over the years, I’ve settled into a more mature attitude towards Rogue One after my initial nerd-rage: accepting that it has both the best production design of the entire franchise, and the absolute worst plot and characterization of the entire franchise. (Except for K2SO, which I attribute mainly to Alan Tudyk). I’ve already complained about how the entire movie undermines its own protagonist, but if I’m being honest, the thing that bugs me more is that it doesn’t “feel like Star Wars” to me.

Which is also my main issue with The Last Jedi. That movie’s grown on me a lot, although I’ve still got some issues with how it handles the characters. But the biggest problem I have with it is that so much of it just doesn’t feel like Star Wars. The stuff with Rey and Kylo Ren is mostly fantastic, but the bulk of the plot is a pointless and futile digression onto a space casino, and the Resistance fleet running out of fuel.

The plot of a Star Wars story should never revolve around something as mundane as fuel. A broken hyperdrive? Sure! A lack of fuel? Garbage. Again, that’s Battlestar Galactica, not Star Wars.

A broken hyperdrive doesn’t make sense; the Millennium Falcon shouldn’t have been able to travel between planets without it. The reason it works in The Empire Strikes Back is because to the characters, it’s as mundane an obstacle as any other broken piece of equipment, roughly the equivalent of a flat tire or a broken air conditioner. But to the audience, it’s still fantastic.

JJ Abrams gets this, I think, but takes it too far. The Force Awakens built its climax around a “thermal oscillator,” which is nonsense, but is just enough of a McGuffin to drive the action. If anything, he spent too much time with a bunch of adults standing around a table, talking about nonsense as if it made sense. That’s Star Trek, not Star Wars.

And The Rise of Skywalker, along with all its other issues, takes it way too far in the other direction. It’s not that Emperor clones and thousands of planet-killing Star Destroyers, or even the “Force Dyad” or whatever they called it, need to be explained; they do need to be justified, though. There’s no sense of building up to it. It’s just thrown at you as an immediate threat, trying to raise the stakes without “earning” it.

Comparing all the good and bad Star Wars stories I’ve seen and read over the years, I think that the main thing driving the whole Star Wars aesthetic is that it’s impossibly ancient. Technology that’s thousands of years ahead of our own is already thousands of years old by the time our stories start.

It’s so ubiquitous that characters should rarely even comment on it. That’s my “in-universe” explanation for why none of the computer panels or spaceship controls have labels anywhere; it would be as absurd as putting instructions on door knobs or cabinet handles.1I admit I do like the theory that everyone in the Star Wars universe is so dependent on droids that they’ve become illiterate, though. It’s also why I think the Imperial aesthetic “reads” as evil and unsettling even when you don’t have Darth Vader walking around in it: it’s all so clean and shiny that it literally feels unnatural.

The reason I think it’s important, instead of just a source of Strong Opinions for Nerds, is that it forces (no pun intended) Star Wars stories to be about characters, along with ideas about spirituality and magic. They are, deliberately, silly fairy stories, but dressed in trappings that make them resonate. The sci-fi elements are there to make the fantasy stories feel contemporary.

Looking back on my reaction to The Rise of Skywalker, I’m surprised that my opinion hasn’t changed all that much. I did go back to the theater to see it a second time, and watching it as “Star Wars I can watch on a big screen” instead of “conclusion of a decades-long series that’s been hugely important to me for as long as I can remember” made it a lot more fun. It’s entertaining in the moment, but falls apart at any attempt to put it into a larger context. And whether it’s good or bad, it doesn’t change the enormous potential of Star Wars as a setting for stories.

Both officially sanctioned by Disney-owned Lucasfilm, and even better, the infinite number of stories not set in the Star Wars universe, but inspired by it. Star Wars is a specific aesthetic, and I’m no closer to being able to define it than “I know it when I see it.” But more valuable than that is the idea of freely picking and choosing from elements of pop culture — sci-fi, westerns, samurai movies, swords and sorcerers, WWII movies — to make stories that are about more than just their setting or their aesthetic.

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    I admit I do like the theory that everyone in the Star Wars universe is so dependent on droids that they’ve become illiterate, though.

Star Wars Pi Project: Intro and call for suggestions

I want to make a Raspberry Pi project that’s probably beyond my skill level

Several years ago, I bought a Raspberry Pi and a fairly cheap car-rear-camera screen to use as a display, with the intention of making my own BMO. I never got around to making anything beyond the “assemble the components” stage, and I’d lost interest in Adventure Time and the project itself by the time the components were already outdated.

But I never completely lost the desire to do something with a self-contained Raspberry Pi and display. A couple of years ago, I made a Star Wars-inspired light-up box for a wedding proposal stunt, and I had so much fun doing it that I want to take on another more advanced project.

In the Smuggler’s Run ride in Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland, there’s a short pre-show sequence (at about 5:15 in this video) right as you’re about to enter the cockpit, where Hondo Ohnaka appears on a multi-screen display and reminds you what the mission is and what the different crew roles are supposed to be. I was immediately fascinated by that display, both the motion graphics and the hardware itself. I’m now convinced I want to make that. Or more accurately: a small, desktop-friendly enclosure inspired by that.

In a perfect world, I would’ve already built it, and this blog post would just be pictures of it and an overlong description of how I made it. But while I’d rank myself as an “advanced beginner” when it comes to 3D modeling and printing, I’m still an absolute novice when it comes to assembling anything involving electronics.

Here are the components I’ve gotten so far (some from a separate Untitled Goose Game music-and-sound-playing toy project that I’ve pretty much lost interest in). It’s:

On order I’ve got:

All came from Adafruit.com, which is a great source not just for the components but tutorials on how to build their sample projects. Their tutorials are great, as long as you’re building what’s shown. The problem is that I never know how to depart from their tutorials and make something new. I’ve had enough practice now that I’m fairly comfortable doing stuff like soldering LEDs onto an Arduino shield, but don’t know how to bridge the gap to wiring individual buttons, potentiometers, sensors, etc that haven’t come pre-assembled.

I get the sense that the only real way to get comfortable with working with circuitry is by tinkering and experimenting. The problem is that whenever I’m in a situation without an Undo menu option, things tend to fall apart around me. Blowing out an LED isn’t a tragedy, but ruining a $40 computer or display would be pretty upsetting. It seems like going from the “make a single LED light up in response to a button” demo, to the “have multiple illuminated buttons, displays, and knobs all inter-communicating” stage would require some knowledge of how resistors work and such. I feel like an outlier based on the examples and tutorials I’ve seen so far, in that I’m pretty comfortable with programming and soldering, but don’t know where to start when it comes to designing or assembling the circuit.

So I’m hoping that someone reading this with more experience working with electronics will be able to point me to a good resource or resources for bridging the gap from beginner to advanced-beginner. Some questions I’ve got before I even get started:

  1. I’m assuming that the Pi and the main display could function as a unit, but all the inputs and external display would need to be run from a separate microcontroller. Is the Feather sufficient for that?
  2. The PiTFT leaves some of the Pi’s GPIO pins available, according to the specs. Would a microcontroller for the buttons & displays be wired directly to the PI?
  3. For simplicity’s sake, I was hoping to power everything with a USB cable connected to the Pi. (In other words, skipping this thing’s potential as a mobile device). Would the microcontrollers need separate power, or can they be powered via the Pi as well?
  4. Would each display require a microcontroller, or can they be run from the same board as the buttons & potentiometer?
  5. Is it madness to assume I could use that Perma-Proto board in the final project? Or would I need to look into having an actual circuit board made?
  6. What’s the best way to divide and conquer with a project like this? My first instinct is just to try to hook up the Feather to one of the illuminated push buttons and read/write from the button input and to the LED. Does that just naturally scale up to adding more buttons and a potentiometer, or would that significantly change the circuit and the power requirements of it?

Suggestions, warnings, tutorials, explanations are all welcomed. I’ll keep updating the status of the project — assuming there is anything to update — on this blog.

Sunday Smackdown: Ghostbusters (2016) vs Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021)

Two movies enter the arena, each with a different idea of what made the original Ghostbusters work. (Some spoilers for Afterlife)

At this point, there have been three attempts to make a movie follow-up to Ghostbusters that captured everything that made the original such a classic. None of them have managed to do it.

But it’d be unfair to be too critical of them for that, since the original Ghostbusters was such a once-in-a-lifetime confluence of ideas, execution, and timing that it’s impossible to pick the one trait that made it such a classic. Back in 1989, when I was feeling so betrayed by Ghostbusters II, I probably should’ve kept in mind how completely surprised I had been by the original.

I’d gone in expecting it to be another Meatballs or more likely, Stripes: a movie built around Bill Murray’s charmingly lecherous, rebellious, screw-up persona that somehow became an engaging action comedy. It was only after the opening sequence, with a genuinely scary library ghost, that I realized this wasn’t “just” a comedy.

If the decades of behind-the-scenes accounts and making-of stories and frequent retellings are to be believed, that dichotomy was present in the project from concept all the way through to filming. Dan Ackroyd supposedly had a concept that went all-in on the lore, and Harold Ramis and Ivan Reitman came in to steer it back towards family comedy. I’m skeptical that it was as clear-cut as all that, but it is evident in the movie, which has way more plot and world-building than a comedy needs, even in the golden age of movies that 1984 turned out to be.

(Case in point: possibly my favorite line in the movie is when the under-appreciated MVP of the whole project, Rick Moranis as Louis Tully, is foretelling the coming of Gozer the Traveler. From IMDb: “Then, during the third reconciliation of the last of the McKetrick supplicants, they chose a new form for him: that of a giant Slor! Many Shuvs and Zuuls knew what it was to be roasted in the depths of the Slor that day, I can tell you!”)

So any attempt at a follow-up inevitably has to decide what it was that made the original work so well. Ghostbusters (2016) decided that it was a special-effects-heavy comedy featuring SNL alumni as wacky, hapless outcasts crackin’ jokes while bustin’ ghosts. Ghostbusters: Afterlife decided that it was a lighthearted supernatural adventure whose strength came from its characters and their discoveries.1Ghostbusters 2 decided that Ghostbusters had made Columbia Pictures a lot of money, so bringing back the entire cast with more studio interference and a smaller budget couldn’t help but recapture lightning in a bottle.

Honestly, neither one is wrong. But neither one is quite able to encompass everything that made the original work, either. Is it better to be entertaining in the moment but ultimately forgettable? Or to be more earnest and emotionally resonant at the expense of much of the comedy and action?

Continue reading “Sunday Smackdown: Ghostbusters (2016) vs Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021)”
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    Ghostbusters 2 decided that Ghostbusters had made Columbia Pictures a lot of money, so bringing back the entire cast with more studio interference and a smaller budget couldn’t help but recapture lightning in a bottle.

EV Diary 2: The Honeymoon Continues

Minor update to my experiences with the ID.4 after a second road trip

My last post about having an electric car ended a couple weeks after my first road trip in it, from Oakland down to Los Angeles. I’d been worried about how much it’d change the dynamic of a long-distance drive, but in practice, the only difference was having more time to relax along the way while the car was charging. Tacking a couple of hours to the total trip time seemed like a small price to pay for not ending the trip still raging over all the drivers who insist on cruising in the left lane on I-5 instead of getting over.

The first week of November, I took a second road trip down to LA, and the results were about the same. It’s a comfortable, almost pleasant, drive now. And my total expenses (apart from having to spend the bulk of the day driving) were $8.50 for Taco Bell. The only thing that changed was that Taco Bell got demoted from “surprisingly delightful” to “at best, a sometimes food, and for road trips only.”

When I got the idea to make an EV Diary, I was sure that there were all these hidden aspects to driving an EV that people just weren’t writing about. There had to be a fundamental shift in the day-to-day experience, right?

Turns out: not really. The only real difference is that instead of spending 5 minutes at a gas station once every couple of weeks, I spend 30-40 minutes outside a Target1And invariably, inside a Target every three weeks or so.

The biggest change to my driving has nothing to do with electric vehicles, and is instead an aspect of the safety features added to most mid-to-high-end cars of the past several years. I already had similar on my last car2A Honda Insight, which is a traditional hybrid that is soon to be replaced completely by the Civic, Accord, and Clarity if my predictions are correct., and it was crucial for avoiding an accident. A car in front of me on the freeway had failed to stop, causing a four-car pileup with some injuries. My car automatically applied the brakes and slammed to a stop before I even had a chance to realize what was happening.

Fortunately, I haven’t had any similar incidents with the ID.4. I did have what I was sure was a minor accident on my last road trip: over the course of the trip, I kept running into a couple of guys in a similar ID.4 at the same charging stations at the same time. At one of them, they were watching as I was trying to back into a charging spot, which of course made me nervous and completely incompetent at backing into a charging spot. I felt a slam as I backed the car into the charging station, and I quickly got out, hoping I’d been driving slowly enough that I hadn’t caused any damage. When I looked, though, the car was still at least a foot away from colliding with anything. The back-up sensor had slammed on the brakes before I could do any damage.

More than that, though, the collision avoidance system allows for what they’re calling “adaptive cruise control.”3Yes, I’m aware that describing a feature that’s been available for years like that makes me sound like a grandpa. On every car I’ve ever had, I’ve hated cruise control and never used it. There’s not much more harrowing than feeling the car accelerate when my foot’s not on the accelerator, so I tend to turn it off immediately.

The drive along I-5 is a perfect test case for it, though, so I tried it out on my last road trip. This iteration of it is near-perfect. You set your desired speed, and it’ll try to keep at that speed unless there’s anything in front of you. In that case, it goes as fast as it can up to that speed, keeping a Volkswagen-calculated “safe” distance away from the vehicle in front.

It’s surprisingly good at recognizing the vehicle in front, too: on the instrument cluster, it’ll show you an image of the vehicle and how far away it is, changing between a truck, a car, and a motorcycle as appropriate. Surprising to me was that it even was able to account for people seeing my “safe” distance as an invitation to cut me off, gradually slowing down to make room for the interloper.

It’s still a long way from autonomous driving, which is fine by me because I have less than zero interest in autonomous driving. I think of self-driving cars in much the same way that I think about roundabouts: even if you show me that they’re statistically safer, they still freak my shit out.

I had the ACC on for much of the drive down to LA and most of the drive back. On top of the convenience, it seemed to be better for energy efficiency than my own driving, too. I ended up with a much higher charge on exiting the Grapevine, and I chose to make a third charging stop out of convenience more than necessity.

What I hadn’t anticipated was that it gets rid of much of the stress of being surrounded by asshole drivers: the people who follow too closely to the car in front of them, and are always lightly tapping on their brakes as a result. Whenever I get behind one of those people, I instinctively tap the brakes as soon as I see their brake lights, which is both annoying and gradually stressful as it accumulates over the miles. Here, I could just let the ACC do its thing, trusting that it would slow the car as necessary in time for me to slam on the brakes if I suddenly needed to.

Just about everything else in the ID.4 fits that same mindset: it relieves as much stress as possible from driving, and it’s comfortable, and it does exactly what I need it to do. I’d expected the honeymoon period to be over by now, and I’d start to notice more of the faults, or I’d just stop thinking about the car altogether. Instead, it’s actually growing on me. I like it more the more I drive it, and I’m looking for more and more excuses to drive it. I can feel myself turning into one of those insufferable people who loves his car and can’t stop talking about it. I’m not yet at the point of getting VW or ID.4 vanity license plates yet, but it’s probably only a matter of time.

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    And invariably, inside a Target
  • 2
    A Honda Insight, which is a traditional hybrid that is soon to be replaced completely by the Civic, Accord, and Clarity if my predictions are correct.
  • 3
    Yes, I’m aware that describing a feature that’s been available for years like that makes me sound like a grandpa.

My Favorite Games: The Sims 2

Memories of the game series that taught me about abstractions, and about how profitable video games can be (for other people)

The featured photo on this post is my attempt to create my own likeness in The Sims 41Or more accurately, a preview Create-a-Sim tool they launched to promote The Sims 4, and it came out pretty close. The character creation is still my favorite aspect of the otherwise-unremarkable The Sims 4, mostly because it wisely chose to embrace the cartoonish aspect instead of trying too hard for photorealism. (Also because it let me make a character whose beard color didn’t match his hair color, allowing me to finally see some representation in a video game!)

When I say “otherwise-unremarkable” I should probably clarify: even though The Sims 4 is my least favorite in the series, I’ve still put more hours into it than just about any other video game apart from SimCity. Maxis games for me tend to be less “entertainment” and more “all-consuming obsession.”

My favorite in the series is still The Sims 2, because it built on everything that made the first game work — and make the first one become absurdly profitable to an unprecedented degree — without straying too far from the core focus. The biggest improvement there was the Create-a-Sim mode, which allowed for more customization of characters without any hint of straying into the uncanny valley.

I happened to be working at Maxis on SimCity 4 while The Sims 2 was in production. I can still remember the first time I created a family in Create-a-Sim mode, and then when I launched into the game, it showed me a screenshot of the whole family posed together, smiling and waving. It was mind-blowing. I was still unfamiliar enough with 3D that it had never occurred to me you could render into a 2D texture. That moment in the game seemed to epitomize everything that made Maxis games so appealing: applying technology to something that wasn’t intended to be cool to nerds, but to give more universal audiences something charming and delightful.

It’s wild to read about the history of The Sims franchise. At every step, they made a decision that seems like it should never have worked, but it all came together to work magnificently. The process of building and decorating a house feels so different from the actual simulation that they could be entirely different games, and yet they build on each other in a perfectly elegant curve that seems like under-appreciated genius: a better and more efficiently-designed house helps your Sims do better in their daily lives, which in turn helps them afford better stuff and bigger houses.

Of course, it’s at least as much a Republican Capitalist Nightmare abstraction as SimCity‘s economic model is, but the sense of humor in The Sims is what makes it work. In contrast to the more blatant slapstick throughout the game, it’s more subtly satirizing consumer culture and its own promotion of that culture. At least in the earlier games. I felt like The Sims and The Sims 2 made a clear delineation between its abstractions and the real world, for instance by playing 1950s shopping mall-style music when in “Buy” mode. Along the way, the people shaping the franchise seem to have forgotten — or never understood in the first place — that it was all supposed to be a joke.

The genius of The Sims as a core game mechanic was being able to recognize people’s moment-to-moment lives as a coldly impersonal abstraction: to put “I’m lonely” and “I have to go to the bathroom” as roughly equal imperatives. The genius of The Sims as a classic video game franchise was recognizing the absurd humor of that abstraction, and leaning into the absurdity.

When I first saw The Sims, with its characters speaking gibberish before spinning around in mid-air to change clothes, or peeing themselves, or setting themselves on fire, I thought it was the stupidest thing I’d ever seen. Eventually, I began to appreciate it as brilliantly stupid and let it take over an enormous chunk of my free time.

My favorite story about The Sims is one I’ve told dozens of times, and I’m sure I’ve mentioned it on this blog but can’t find it at the moment. In short: the game recognized I was gay before I did. When I first launched the first game, it included a starter “family” of two women called the “Roomies,” and it invited you to move them into the neighborhood and make friends. My plan was to make another family of two men and move them into a different house. I’d thought I’d introduce them all to each other, have them pair off into couples, all go into the Music career, and eventually I’d have my Sims recreate ABBA.

I hit a snag early on, though, when I tried to have my two male roommates develop a friendship with each other. They got along a little too well, choosing to have long conversations with each other at the expense of all their other needs. Before long, they had the option to “Hug” each other, which was nice to see. One of the guys had a different idea of platonic relationships that I did at the time, though, since a heart appeared over his head. At that point, the guys had the option to “Try for a Kiss.” What could it hurt? I thought. It’s only a video game.

From there on out, the guys were inseparable. I brought the girls over and tried to start conversations between them, but the guys showed little interest, and things got somewhat awkward. As in real life, I tried to force one of the guys back onto the “proper” path and had him constantly striking up conversations with one of the women, inviting her over frequently, offering her back rubs. It was during one of these interchanges that his “roommate” entered the room, went into a jealous outrage, slapped the both of them, then stormed off into the kitchen to make dinner. Being a character in a Sims game, he set himself on fire almost immediately. The other Sims panicked and tried to put out the fire, but they were too late — the spurned man, just after a breakthrough in realizing his true orientation, died in the fire. I moved his urn into the backyard, which automatically created a tombstone.

His former roommate was inconsolable. He’d go out to the backyard and stand over the grave, unable to do much apart from “Cry.” His new ladyfriend eventually got bored and came out to join him in the backyard, trying to start up a conversation to cheer him up. The two Sims now had the option to “Dance,” which I chose, causing the man and the woman to dance on his former boyfriend’s grave.

For years, I thought of that story as being the perfect example of how even a seemingly absurd and comical abstraction could expose so much of my suppression and frustration while living in the closet. The best intentions. The repression. The curiosity. The guilt. The secret desire for retribution and a different life. When I told that whole story to my first boyfriend, though, he said, “You should’ve known you were gay when you bought a new video game and the very first thing you wanted to do was recreate ABBA.”

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    Or more accurately, a preview Create-a-Sim tool they launched to promote The Sims 4