The Discreet Charm of the 4 8 15 16 23 42

Feeling inexplicably charmed by the dumb idiot who was obsessed with a bunch of people on an island

(For the record: yes, I do still remember The Numbers completely unprompted, years later).

Earlier today I was looking for an old post on this very blog, and as often happens these days, I found myself reading through the adjacent and related posts, trying to make sense of what exactly past me was trying to talk about.

It’s rare that I give past versions of myself any grace at all, so I was surprised by how much I was charmed by the whole uselessness of this website. On top of all the broken image links from a failed server migration years ago, there’s the fact that I was writing posts on the assumption that 1) everybody else was watching or reading the same stuff I was, and 2) I was obligated to be obtuse so as not to spoil it for my “audience.”

As a result, there are just dozens and dozens of posts about Lost and Battlestar Galactica where not only do I have no idea what I was talking about, but they’re so alien to me that they might’ve been written by another person. I was clearly enthralled by whatever storyline happened to be going on at the moment, making oblique references to plot events and throwing out names and descriptions of characters I no longer recognize, that trying to read them now feels somewhere between stumbling onto a complete stranger’s text messages, and the Voynich manuscript.

But instead of smacking my forehead, I’m just happy to see myself so completely engrossed in something, and clearly enjoying it even as I complained about it. And I’m charmed by my naiveté assuming that anyone other than me would be reading it. It’s essentially a private journal trying to pass as a public discussion, meaning it fails at both. But it does survive as something else, an extremely nerdy time capsule.

I do wish that I hadn’t spent so much time in online forums (and soon after, social media) that I was constantly writing on the defensive, filtering every thought and every sentence as if it were opening myself to correction and criticism. I can somewhat place posts at different periods in my life without having to check the dates, not by anchoring them to significant life events, but just by getting a sense of how earnest or how guarded I was being.

And obviously, I wish that they were anchored by significant life events for me, and not a bunch of fictional characters on an island or a spaceship. But that kind of stuff doesn’t really belong on a public blog. And I frankly appreciate the distance from having to read a genuine account of what exactly I was thinking at traumatic or stressful times. It’s a lot more charming to read my younger reactions to stuff happening to Desmond and Penny and Starbuck and Boomer than to myself.

More often than I’d like, I’ll come across a post that’s either mean-spirited or crass, and think “who is this asshole?” But as somebody who tends to behave with the mindset of “Dance like everybody’s not only watching but recording it zoomed-in and broadcasting it live to everyone you care about,” I like the idea of a decades-long record of myself going full-on nerd and getting excited about inconsequential stuff.

Fun Fact: We Can Never Truly Know Anything

Thoughts about how easily-digestible information ends up in the same state as most things that’ve been digested

As the algorithms have spent time getting to know me, they’ve learned (at least) two things: 1) I’m a nerd who enjoys learning quick, easily-digestible pieces of information; and 2) I’m pretty shallow and will pay extra attention to anything presented by a young, handsome man with a beard. So YouTube must’ve understandably believed it’d hit the jackpot when it started recommending videos from the “magnify” channel.

And it was correct; it’s an interesting channel, mostly dedicated to short-form info, mostly related to language and the origins of words, with particular repeated emphasis on different aspects of Christianity and their roots in Judaism.

Coincidentally, in the middle of watching a ton of the short videos back to back, I checked into a forum on Discord and saw someone repeating the (certainly, patently false) etymology of the word “posh” as an acronym for “port out, starboard home.” The coincidence jumped out at me, because this was a recurring topic in the newspaper column The Straight Dope — or at least its online message boards — which I used to read with beyond-religious devotion in the days before social media took over everybody’s attention.

I should make it absolutely clear that the “magnify” channel is both entertaining and interesting, which is its only real obligation, and that it at least seems both convincing and motivated by a real desire to inform. I have yet to hear anything presented on it that fails to pass my bullshit test. I’m not trying to disparage or cast any doubt on the channel itself, or its content. Just its format, which is driven by the state of online media in 2024.

Continue reading “Fun Fact: We Can Never Truly Know Anything”

Now You’re Playing With Power!

Tabletop RPGs and my ongoing beef with social media’s corrupted version of progressivism

I’m not much into tabletop role-playing games, but my fiancé is, so I’ve seen quite a few videos on YouTube about Candela Obscura.

As I understand it, it’s the first game based on a system the designers made in conjunction with Critical Role, a popular group of actors who’ve spent years running their mostly-Dungeons & Dragons campaigns as web series. (And, among other spin-off projects, adapted their campaigns to an ongoing animated series on Amazon Prime). Again as I understand it, they were interested in developing a new system that could go beyond established D&D settings, and also would favor narrative more than mechanics, to be better suited to the type of content they were making.

There seems to be no shortage of videos on YouTube critical of Candela Obscura, most of them with hyperbolic titles calling out its inexcusable sins against the very fundamentals of RPGs. Along with accusations that they “ripped off” the game Blades in the Dark, the game is insensitive to marginalized groups or the neurodivergent, etc. Many of these are, of course, just clickbait looking for attention. YouTube’s gonna YouTube, after all. But some of them seem earnestly upset.

And even if I were invested in this genre of game, I would have no problem with people criticizing it, of course. Where I get annoyed is when the complaints are, invariably, presented as speaking Truth to Power.

After all, Critical Role is easily the most successful and well-recognized (i.e. I’ve heard of it) group doing what they do. Not only have they managed to turn their friendly games into a content creation and publishing business, but they’ve got tons of devoted fans. Which means they clearly need to be taken down a peg or two, I presume?

I know that when I think of high-and-mighty fat cats who are so rich that they’ve lost touch with the common man, I think of two groups: independent tabletop RPG creators, and voice-over artists. Maybe when they’re not lounging around in their mansions, or swimming in their money bins, they could deign to lower themselves to hear some honest and necessary feedback for once.

Continue reading “Now You’re Playing With Power!”

Our iPads, Ourselves

Dumb thoughts about obsolescence, both planned and unplanned

Apparently I’m firmly in the phase of my life where I get sentimental about computers of my past, and the one that’s been on my mind lately is the iPad mini.

That may seem weird, even by the inherently weird standard of getting sentimental about computers, because the whole idea behind the iPad is that the device disappears and puts all the focus on the content. But the form factor of the mini just got everything right. I remember seeing its initial announcement and thinking the whole idea was absurd: too big to be as pocketable as a phone, too small to be as practical as a full-size tablet. But then I went to a Best Buy, picked one up, and said, “okay, now I get it.”1No one at the store seemed all that fazed by my sudden announcement; I guess people at Best Buy are used to strangers having sudden epiphanies about gadgets.

I’ve “upgraded” to a bigger iPad, which is a lot more useful for the things I use an iPad for, but the mini is just ineffably more satisfying to hold. It’s also the form factor that feels most like living in the future. The larger ones might provoke thoughts like “I could draw masterpieces on this!” or “I could write a movie on this” or “I could watch a bunch of YouTube videos I’ve downloaded for a long plane flight,” but holding the iPad mini makes you2Okay, just me think, “I could scan the atmosphere for alien particulate matter with this!”

Last night, I dug my old iPad mini out of its resting place, found a lightning cable to plug it in, and quickly felt a pang of guilt. This is a device that had been perfectly happy in whatever Valhalla beloved computers are rewarded with after their short lifetimes of usefulness, and I’d cruelly yanked it away from the light, into the cold reality of late 2023.

A while back, when I tried something similar by recharging my old Nintendo handhelds, I was surprised at how easily most of them came back to life. They made a pleasant chiming sound and seemed to say, “Hey, welcome back! Let’s play a game!” The iPad mini just showed a dead battery icon before grudgingly stuttering into its home screen, as if to gasp, “Why won’t you let me die?”3The heat pouring off of its right side made it seem even angrier.

I looked it up, and I bought the iPad mini 2 in 2014. I hadn’t realized it’d been almost 10 years! It informed me that 154 app updates were available, and the installed apps were like a snapshot of ages past. Games that were never played, apps that had fallen out of favor and been replaced by newer versions, or ingenious ideas that the creators had simply abandoned. I’d forgotten about a book-in-the-form-of-an-app (remember those?) about Disney animation, which was touting the technological advancements of its newest feature, Frozen.

When I tried to place 2014 in my own lifetime, I couldn’t remember what was going on back then, even though it wasn’t all that long ago. For the record: it was right at the time of my disastrous second stint at Telltale Games, but the more memorable events were going to the British Isles for a wedding, and having parties and events with friends.4I also had pretty sweet sideburns for a while there.

I realized that that was a transition period in my life overall, where I’d stopped dividing up time in terms of projects I was working on and companies I was working for, and started using more personal landmarks like travel and social gatherings.5And my hair. It was the start of a shift to where I stopped thinking about my life in terms of productivity, and more in terms of just plain enjoyment.

By my old standards, that would make it seem like I wasn’t accomplishing as much. But by any really meaningful standard, it meant that I was starting to be able to enjoy all the rewards of hard work, instead of just working hard for the sake of some vague payoff in the future.

And back to using the iPad as metaphor: ten years of gradual improvements. If you read the tech blogs and watch the gadget videos, you could get the sense that the tech industry as a whole, and Apple in particular, has been stagnating. Just churning out variations on black rounded rectangles year after year, with incremental changes instead of revolutionary ones. But I can look at this device I got almost ten years ago, and it almost seems like a product of a different time. Things have gotten so much better since then, without my taking notice.

(To be clear: I do wish that ten years wasn’t “ancient” by modern computer standards. But I also have some stock in Apple, so the capitalist in me is glad they’re regularly selling more stuff).

So this iPad mini is unlikely to be that useful for anything apart from being a time capsule to not-that-long ago. But it also feels more like a kindred spirit: pretty slow and clunky, doesn’t perform as well as it used to, gets overheated with just a little bit of exertion, still mad sexy though.

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    No one at the store seemed all that fazed by my sudden announcement; I guess people at Best Buy are used to strangers having sudden epiphanies about gadgets.
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    Okay, just me
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    The heat pouring off of its right side made it seem even angrier.
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    I also had pretty sweet sideburns for a while there.
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    And my hair.

Blessed are the Mid

Rambling, unorganized thoughts about living up to expectations and how it’s okay to be okay

I spent Thanksgiving week at the house I grew up in, which is something I took for granted and something I hadn’t expected to be grateful for. I found myself up too late with insomnia, lying in a single bed with all the lights off, listening to Led Zeppelin IV way too loud on headphones, “The Battle of Evermore” and “Stairway to Heaven” crashing over me like waves, as if I’d been QuantumLeaped back to the early 1980s.

How often does a 52-year-old man get to relive being 13 or 14 years old so vividly?

Lying in the dark with music blasting has always left me feeling both expansive and maudlin. This was no exception. I thought about all of the things I wanted to do as a teenager, and I compared it to how many of them I accomplished, and how many I still want to accomplish. That’s not generally a healthy mental exercise even in the best of times, but it feels like the past couple of weeks have been particularly harsh for anyone who feels like they’re under-performing.

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We Have Always Been At War With DOMA

Unpacking my own hypocrisy (maybe?) and avoiding getting gaslit by the Obama administration.

After I read Kal Penn’s memoir, I was pretty salty about how it just barely even mentioned being not-straight1For lack of a better description, since I don’t know exactly whether Kal Penn identifies as gay, bisexual, queer, etc., and instead treated it as if had been a non-issue. He casually says that in his mid-20s, his friends already “knew that [he] was dating dudes;” he makes a passing reference about figuring out his sexuality; and he has a chapter about his partner that is more about NASCAR than anything else.

That’s pretty much it. It stands out because so much of the book is about facing discrimination as an Indian-American working in Hollywood, or as an actor (at the time primarily known for his work in stoner comedies) working in the Obama Administration, but makes absolutely zero attempt at describing any kind of intersectionality with his sexual orientation.

It’s been bugging me for the last few weeks, since I’ve been wondering how much, if at all, my criticism makes me a hypocrite.

Continue reading “We Have Always Been At War With DOMA”
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    For lack of a better description, since I don’t know exactly whether Kal Penn identifies as gay, bisexual, queer, etc.


Lorcana, memories of Magic the Gathering, and the value of novelty

There is absolutely no way I can justify buying the new Disney Lorcana trading card game. I’ve still got a few boxes full of Magic: the Gathering cards that have followed me across several moves, even though I was never that big into the game, and I haven’t played it in almost 10 years. I’ve got several other trading card games, and even more deckbuilding games, that I’ve accumulated over the years, and they’re all sitting unplayed.

But I mean, come on. It would be absurd for me to even try and pretend I’m not going to pick up at least a starter pack of the Lorcana decks, so why even bother going through the motions, when we all know how this is going to turn out?

In an attempt to pretend to be responsible, I imposed a rule that I have to get rid of all my Magic the Gathering cards before I can bring any new TCGs into the house1I really should find new homes for my copies of Netrunner and Doomtown while I’m at it..

And it was while I was sorting through the cards that I hit upon the epiphany that launched this post: hey, you know what, Magic is a really well-designed game!

Continue reading “Tapped”
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    I really should find new homes for my copies of Netrunner and Doomtown while I’m at it.

All That Heaven Affords

Observations about the optimism of design and designers

This was prompted by a recent blog post by Cabel Sasser called “Fantasy Meets Reality.” He writes about various cases where the design of physical spaces (mostly theme parks) breaks down when it comes into contact with actual human beings.

Cabel mentions how design needs to make different assumptions based on culture and location; even within the subcategory of “Disney theme park,” for instance, there can be dramatically different ideas of how much guests are compelled to follow the rules, and different understandings of what the rules even are.

There’s a sense of optimism in that post — not just because of Cabel’s inescapably infectious enthusiasm for things, but because of the sense that is often common among designers, that these are problems that can be solved, and that thoughtful design is often the answer.

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Remembrances of Block Rockin Beats Past

Blindsided by the nostalgia bomb delivered by The Chemical Brothers

Several weeks ago, I was feeling down, and an emergency trip to Anaheim wasn’t helping. On the drive back home, I decided to listen to The Chemical Brothers’ album Dig Your Own Hole from start to finish, something I haven’t done since the early 2000s, most likely.

I was completely surprised by how much of a cozy, warm, weighted-blanket comfort record that had become for me. It instantly took me back to the days of working on Monkey 3, going to see The Saint1Forgettable movie, incredible soundtrack at a screening, and weeks of driving around Marin County listening to “Setting Sun” and freaking out. It was such a surprisingly good memory of such a specific time, before reality started creeping in, and I could just be overjoyed with where I’d found myself in life.

And I was surprised that it’d be Dig Your Hole that became such a comforting2Or, since it’s British, homely record, since at the time, I just imagined it was music for wild, drug-fueled raves held in converted ruins and ancient-dungeons-turned-nightclubs all over the UK. The band’s marketing sure leaned into that image, with everything looking like a TV series where Prodigy was in charge of MI6, until I’m assuming they’d sold enough records to be able to take control over their own image, and hire people like Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze to make their videos.

I’ve never been to a drug-fueled rave, UK or otherwise, so the images it conjures for me are of Fairfax and San Anselmo, CA, going to lunch at wacky Thai or Casa Mañana, the theater in Corte Madera, Tightwad Tuesday at the theater in Novato, taking the long way to work that went through redwoods, watching The X-Files at my best friends’ apartment, and getting that first spectacular view of San Francisco as you come through what is now called the Robin Williams tunnel. I was very happy to get all those memories back, and I was singing and car-dancing like a maniac all the way up I-5.

There’s just one unanswered question from those days that still haunts me, though: who is this doin this synthetic type of alpha beta psychedelic funkin’?

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    Forgettable movie, incredible soundtrack
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    Or, since it’s British, homely

Subverting the Thing

Barbie, David Letterman, and the impossibility of being a mass-market radical

I didn’t like the Barbie movie very much, but I can’t stress enough how much that doesn’t matter. I didn’t dislike it, because it’s got some really good performances by actors who understood the assignment completely, a couple of stand-out gags1Especially the narrator’s voice-over about how appropriate it was to cast Margot Robbie, and it works pretty well as a modern homage to so many classic fantasy movies that inspired it. In that interview with director and co-writer Greta Gerwig, she mentions Barbie greeting Astronaut Barbies and saying “Yay, space!” and it really is a fantastic, charming moment.

The most clever thing about the trailers for the movie was the tagline that went something like “If you love Barbie, you’ll love this movie. If you hate Barbie, you’ll love this movie.” It might simply be that I’ve never had a strong opinion about Barbie one way or the other, so I couldn’t get into this movie. But it’s a toy company spending tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars to deliver an honest and earnest message about feminism to as wide an audience as possible, so what could possibly be the problem?

My biggest issue with it isn’t that it’s bad, but that it was so on-the-nose that I never felt like I had anything to engage with. It was two hours of characters always saying exactly what was on their minds, explicitly delivering a message that I already agreed with. Everything that seemed like an original or clever twist on the basic premise (which I’d already seen on SNL, to be honest) had already been given away in the inescapable torrent of marketing for the movie.

It’d be churlish and hypocritical to be too critical of anything I thought was “just fine overall,” much less one that explicitly comments how the patriarchy demands that women be exceptional just to be recognized as having any worth at all.2And especially when a bunch of dipshits have tried to leverage Mattel’s marketing budget to take their own idiotic potshots in their own stupid attempt at a culture war. I don’t actually have any strong opinions about the movie, but about the idea that it was subversive.

Continue reading “Subverting the Thing”
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    Especially the narrator’s voice-over about how appropriate it was to cast Margot Robbie
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    And especially when a bunch of dipshits have tried to leverage Mattel’s marketing budget to take their own idiotic potshots in their own stupid attempt at a culture war.

Being Reminded of Sarah Marshall

Nostalgia for a nostalgic TV series from the early 2000s is making me nostalgic for a rewind to the early 2000s.

Last week I was forced out of retirement to re-explain the end of How I Met Your Mother to people on YouTube who just didn’t get it, man. That re-awakened my long-dormant fandom for the series, which has had the side effect of waking up every morning the past few days with “Let’s Go To The Mall” going through my head1In the running with “the cake is a lie” as one of those brilliant pop culture ideas that got ruined by excessive repetition.

I honestly can’t tell if it’s ironic or completely predictable that a series all about nostalgia has triggered a fierce nostalgia in me for the early 2000s. And I’d never made the connection before, but that period — from around 2003 to around 2008 — was the time before Twitter really took off.

To be honest, I probably overestimate the impact Twitter had on pop culture, and we were all headed towards being cynical, pedantic, self-righteous, and bitter anyway. But I still get super-strong feelings of “They couldn’t make a show like that nowadays!” when I think about the early seasons of How I Met Your Mother.

Continue reading “Being Reminded of Sarah Marshall”
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    In the running with “the cake is a lie” as one of those brilliant pop culture ideas that got ruined by excessive repetition