Haughty Melodic

I listened to Haughty Melodic, Mike Doughty’s new solo album, a lot on the drive from LA back to SF, and it’s great road trip music. Turns out it’s good sitting at the computer doing nothing music, as well. There’s nothing really “astounding” about it, like there is with a Soul Coughing album, because it’s more straightforward melodic (hence the title) instead of being all that experimental. Still, the guy’s a great songwriter — the lyrics are clever in places, and every one of the tracks is catchy at least. A couple of them, like “Unsingable Name” and “I Hear the Bells” are genuinely beautiful.

And the lyrics are predictable in places, and some of the tracks are more repetitive than catchy. So I’d say that it’s not brilliant, but still recommend it. Especially to Soul Coughing fans. (If you know El Oso, I’d say that his solo album is like an entire album of “Circles” and “So Far I Have Not Found the Science,” which isn’t bad unless you were expecting a whole album of “Rolling” and “I Miss the Girl.”)

PowerPC and the Apocalypse

I’m only breaking my temporary blog hiatus because I got a notice saying everyone who’s got a blog website has to put up something about Apple’s move to Intel chips. It’s fair that all of us who’ve bought PowerPC-based Macs recently will be concerned that our machines will be made obselete when developers move over to the Intel-based architecture, especially considering Apple’s kludgey OS 9 support, in the long run it can only mean…

Ah, who am I trying to kid? I don’t care. I couldn’t be more Apple’s bitch, and I’m going to buy whatever they come out with. Unless my mail and web browser suddenly stop working, my machine(s) work fine and will continue to work fine. And as for development, I realized a while back that I’m about as technology-ignorant as you can get while still being a computer programmer; I neither know nor care much about what happens after I hit the “compile” button.

Well, there goes any hope of my writing for Wired magazine.

Why must you keep taking all my money?

So I’m at the Best Buy tonight; it’s going to be a quick run. I just wanted to get a pair of speakers for my computer and be done with it. (I ended up getting the Bose Companion 2 set, which were pricey but I’m starting to understand why everybody raves about Bose speakers; they’re damn impressive). But it’s never that simple.

Actually, I came out okay — considering my track record with Best Buy, the fact that I came out with only 2 extra purchases is pretty good. (I also got WarioWare Twisted and The Best of Phil Hartman, just for his reading Madonna’s Sex book as Charleton Heston). But it was tough to get out with only that much collateral damage. I didn’t know that Harvey Birdman was finally released on DVD, and I know I’m going to have to buy that eventually, if only for the Jonny Quest and Apache Chief Episodes. And they had the big Star Wars display, of course, taking advantage of the good will that Revenge of the Sith built amongst us disillusioned Star Wars geeks. All of that I just see as inevitable expenditures; it’s not a question of if I’m going to buy them, but when.

But the most dangerous part of the store was the home video section. Where I go in thinking that I need a bigger TV, one that does wide-screen. It doesn’t matter that I hardly ever watch TV anymore; I need this. And that 37″ Sony plasma screen has an awfully clear picture. And it’s only $4500. A pittance, right?

People always talk about our responsibility as American citizens, and they usually mean our responsibility to vote intelligently. But I think the bigger responsibility is being able to deal with living surrounded by such excess and over-indulgent conspicuous consumption and not be totally consumed by it.

Still, that sure is a nice TV.

Not if anything to say about it I have!

I saw Revenge of the Sith Monday night, so I guess Star Wars is officially over. And I guess it was a pretty good send-off. The theater was more crowded than you’d expect to see on a Monday night, if not as crowded as you’d expect to see on the week of a new Star Wars movie. The crowd clapped for the Lucasfilm logo and the opening crawl, and again for particularly satisfying deaths and fight scenes. It seemed as if they were clapping to build up their enthusiasm instead of out of genuine enthusiasm, but it’s the same idea.

I’ve got two big “event movie” memories: one was waiting in line for four or five hours to see The Empire Strikes Back at Phipps Plaza in Atlanta, the only theater that was showing it, on its opening night. All thoughout the movie, there was no question that this was A Major Event. During the opening crawl, during big fight scenes, whenever a main character appeared on-screen for the first time, there was applause and cheering. Whenever Vader made an appearance, there were jeers and booing. During the big revelation, there were genuine gasps from everyone. No one was thinking about Joseph Campbell, or the demise of the art film in favor of commercial summer blockbusters, or merchandising deals, or implied racism, or any of the layers of irony and distance we’re supposed to look at Star Wars with now. Everyone was just there to get caught up in the spectacle and melodrama and wonder of it all, and it all just worked.

The second memory was of seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark at the Tate Center student theater at UGA; it wasn’t released on video yet, so this was the first time any of us had seen it since its original release. The theater was packed, and you got the same reaction from all the self-important, jaded college students. People cheered for Indiana Jones, hissed at the villains, laughed, applauded, and just enjoyed the thrill of seeing a classic action movie. The audience was used to big summer blockbusters by that point, and knew the movie inside and out, and of course as a college crowd was watching it with some since of liberal over-analysis and ironic detachment. But it still just worked.

It’s pretty much impossible to get that from a Star Wars release anymore; it’s been ruined not just by George Lucas himself, but by decades of over-analysis, artificially high expectations, over-familiarity, accusations of plagiarism or shallowness or whatever else people want to throw at it, and just age. There wasn’t so much a sense of wonder out of seeing Revenge of the Sith as there was a sense of inevitability, or of closure. It was just a case of wrapping everything up. “We’ve got to end a war, start an empire, have a bunch of lightsaber battles, kill a bunch of Jedi, get this guy into a respirator suit, and get these babies off to their respective home planets, all in about 2 hours. Let’s move, people!”

Still, while it didn’t manage to have the resonance or wonder that the original trilogy did, it did deliver on the spectacle. It was better than the first two, by far. But at this point, that feels like describing lessening gallstone symptoms to a doctor. It sounds like damning with faint praise to say that “there was nothing in the movie that outright sucked,” but with the Star Wars movies, the quality of the effects and the depth of the world has never been in question. So not sucking is a pretty big achievement. I’d say that Revenge of the Sith is good enough that it’s not a closer to the first three episodes, but it stands as a good prequel to the original trilogy.

In fact, it makes me wish that Lucas had just made the one movie as a prologue, and left all the Clone Wars and Fall of the Republic stuff to other people, like Genndy Tartakovsky. Where Revenge of the Sith really excelled was where it was like the Clone Wars animated series — minimal dialogue, minimal back-story, quick cuts between action scenes all across the galaxy. And maybe most importantly, staying true to the nature of the old serials on which the whole thing is supposedly based, where heroes and villains became resonant not by virtue of what they say but by how they look and what they do. The coolest characters are the ones with the least back-story and the least dialogue, from Boba Fett to Darth Maul to Count Dooku and General Grievous. And Darth Vader was a more interesting character in the first 15 minutes of Star Wars than he was in any of the six hours of Episodes I, II, and III.

But you could spend hours talking about what Lucas could’ve done with the prequels, which is something people are doing all over the internet and will most likely keep doing to a depressing degree. So I’ll just write my one recommendation: if you start the opening crawl with “War!” then you really should follow it with “Huh! Good God!”

Watch Out, This Ride Swings Wide

Okay, so it wasn’t much of a cliffhanger. I figure that there are probably a lot more trips to LA in my near future, so there’ll be plenty of time to go to Disneyland when it’s not so crowded for the 50th Anniversary, and after Space Mountain re-opens. Plus, it’s not as much fun solo. And also, I slept in until noon.

Turns out the ride on I-5 is just as dull on a full night’s sleep. Just seemed like six hours of wasted time, although I did confirm that Bossa Per Due is a neat album, and the Supersuckers do a great cover of Eastbound and Down.

The subject line was on the back of a tractor trailer. Funny thing it was one of those Covenant truck lines; I think that line is from Proverbs.

The End of E3

I was having trouble telling whether my inability to find anything interesting about this year’s E3 was because a) I don’t have the patience or industry clout to see what’s going on behind closed doors; b) since I’m not actually working in videogames anymore, I’m just not that invested in it; or c) there’s really nothing that interesting about the show. After hearing some other people’s recaps, I’m inclined to think it’s the latter.

The bar has been raised pretty high, and pretty much everything you find on the show floor is fairly polished. But nothing stands out. “Katamari Damacy” is the only game I can think of that truly invented a new style of gameplay, and its release this year is a sequel. There were plenty of games that looked interesting — “Sly Cooper 3” and “Kingdom Hearts 2” for example — but of course they’re sequels too. I’ve got a feeling that whatever becomes a hit from this year’s crop of games is going to be just due to random chance. Mac and I waited around the Square-Enix booth for a while to see if they were going to release any details of “Final Fantasy XII,” but it was another behind-closed-doors trailer movie. Again, it would’ve been easier just to stay at home and download all the movies from videogame websites.

But even when I was more interested in games, I was down on E3 as just marketing nonsense. The best part has always been getting to hang out with friends after the show, and I got to do that tonight. It was a nice, fairly low-key time with friends from the Sims 2 Console team, with the reassurance that people are still passionate about making good games, and it’s just not what “drives” me anymore.

Also, Anouk described part of what is so awful about LA, something I’d forgotten because I always drive into the city. She said as you fly into LA, you can see nothing from the plane except for a perfect square, paved grid that stretches out as far as the eye can see. And that’s totally true; it’s just depressing. While it did make it relatively painless (except for traffic) to drive from place to place tonight, it does tend to suck the soul out of a person. My geekified reference is that it’s like seeing one side of a Borg cube buried in the middle of a desert.

Most exciting bit of the day was that I got to go on a mini-tour of the Disney Imagineering facilities. I had either gotten so jaded, or it’s been so long, that I’d forgotten how that’s been a lifelong dream of mine. And it’s damn cool just to be able to see it, much less to have the opportunity to work for them. I was so excited by it that I’m thinking about heading down to Disneyland tomorrow and pushing my way through all the 50th Anniversary crowds by my lonesome. I’ll see tomorrow morning if I still feel like it, or just drive back to San Francisco.

Cool! My blog’s first cliffhanger!

My Last E3

So yeah: the show itself. It’s tough to come up with anything to get excited about. Microsoft has a huge booth set up for the Xbox 360, but it’s fairly unremarkable. The highlight is a big game from Rare called “Kameo”, notable for having hundreds of enemies on screen at the same time, but to be honest I assumed it was running on an old-school Xbox at first. Apart from that, there’s an unforgivably cheesy “Grand Theft Auto” rip-off, a racing game, and a couple of sports games out on the floor. Nothing to get all that excited about; it seems it would’ve been better for Microsoft to milk another year out of the original console before putting all that expense into showing off a lack-luster successor.

To be fair, it’s quite possible that Microsoft were showing the good stuff in private. It’s been at least three years since I’ve been to an E3, but it seems to have outlived its usefulness to the general videogame public; it’s a lot easier just to let the press and retailers deal with the nonsense and catch all the real info online. The last show I went to was Sega’s dream year, with big, impressive displays for “Jet Set Radio” and “Space Channel 5;” this year, everything worth seeing is sequestered away from the smelly masses. The PS3, the new Zelda game, and a game based around Peter Jackson’s King Kong movie, all had semi-private showings behind closed, huge, very expensive-looking doors, each with at least an hour-long wait in line. As it is, I just kept thinking of how expensive all these displays must’ve been.

Part of it could be that this is The Year of the Handheld, and there’s more new stuff to show for the PSP, the GBA, and the Nintendo DS, but handheld games don’t lend themselves to the huge screens and excess of E3. Sony went balls-out on their booth, with a huge video screen showing off the PSP, but it’s all over the place instead of focusing on anything. There’s a platformer spin-off of “Jak and Daxter” called just “Daxter” that looks really nice, but wasn’t all that fun to actually play. Apart from that, and a version of “Animal Crossing” for the DS, none of the handheld stuff really caught my attention.

There were a couple other minor highlights: a Japanese ink-brush themed game called “Okami” for the PS2, and “Shadow of the Colossus” from the makers of ICO. Bethesda Softworks had a bunch of announcements of cool-sounding games, “Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion,” “Fallout 3,” and “Call of Cthullu” game, but they weren’t showing anything except for a non-interactive trailer for “Oblivion.” I’ll see if I can make today the “survey” day and see stuff in more depth tomorrow.

Another thing: I saw Brian Posehn again. I see that guy everywhere — the Wonder-Con, E3, and an episode of “Tom Goes to the Mayor” featuring him was just on TV. I think he’s stalking me or something.

I Hate LA

Man, does LA ever suck. This isn’t the usual Bay Area-resident-bitches-about-LA routine, either — I’m talking about a deep-seated rage. I hate the heat; it’s not like the clean oven-baked heat of the desert, or the muggy womb-like pressure-cooker warmth of the southeast, but an oppressive sinus-clogging misery like being in a stinky convenience store hot dog rotisserie that hasn’t been cleaned in months. A big, black cancerous palm-tree-covered tumor lodged in between me and Disneyland.

So as bad as I thought it was going to be driving to E3 on 3 hours of sleep, turns out it’s even worse driving 6 hours and going to E3 on no sleep at all. Around 6:30 AM it occurred to me it’d be better to get a plane ticket and rent a car so I could sleep on the plane and/or take a nap first, but I figured that’d be too expensive. Luckily, the friendly LA highway patrol saw to it that I could enjoy the long drive and added expense by pulling me over right as I got through the Grapevine. For speeding. Because my 4-cylinder Volkswagen takes all those hills in the Grapevine blazing fast, almost as fast, even, as the 10 million people who kept passing me.

The CHP guy said I “stood out” not because of the broken headlight or broken windshield which I have yet to replace, but because I “threw cigarette ash out the window.” Not a cigarette butt; I’d been careful to use my ashtray for once so as not to get pulled over for littering. Pulled over because of ashing out the window. Which of course is understandable, because you don’t get that pristine, clean-room environment that is the LA freeway system by throwing small bits of white dust around randomly. Worst was how he tried to act like he was doing me a favor: “I decided to save you some money by only putting down 78, but you were really going over 80.” My ass. I drove on and of course immediately lit another cigarette, out of pure spite. No more flicking, though — I just held the thing up to the window and let the breeze from all the cars zipping past me take care of the ash.

Then it was a good 45-minute drive from Glendale to the convention center in LA traffic, $20 for parking, and then The Videogame Industry and all its gory excess. It only took 10 minutes to get a splitting headache, and by 4:30 the soul-crushing despair had won out. I started to doze off on the 45-minute-for-15-miles drive to the hotel, don’t even remember checking in or lying down, and just woke up at 9:30 PM, missing the chance to meet up with Mac or do anything. So it’s a dinner of cookies and peanuts from the vending machine while watching Cartoon Network in the hotel room. Truly I am a High Roller.

Also, the hotel only serves Pepsi. God, I hate LA.

Electronic Entertainment Expo

Speaking of weird obsessions, I’m driving down to LA for the big E3 show tomorrow-which-is-actually-today. If I had any sense, I’d be leaving in just a couple of hours, but I ain’t been to bed yet. Turns out that sitting around surfing the web all day isn’t as tiring when you don’t have to commute down to San Mateo to do it on Corporate Entertainment’s dime. So I’m still wide awake.

But when I sleep, I’ll dream dreams of driving six hours on three hours’ worth of sleep to go into a convention center packed to the sweaty and unshaven gills with gaming nerds, smarmy frat-guy producer types, and near-nekkid women with giant fake guns and even more fake grimace smiles held in place only by the thought of the cash they’re making and how that somehow makes it worth having hordes of blue-balled game developers ogling them with perverse thoughts so pathetic they can’t even fantasize about having sex with them without an internal monologue of stuttering, flaccid analogies to force feedback joysticks.

I can’t wait!

Obsession

Somehow this turned out to be one of those “theme” days, where everything all ended up tying loosely together. Today’s theme was passion and obsession. Not the creepy stalker variety, but The Orchid Thief-style passion over seemingly mundane things, and how we define ourselves.

I had breakfast this morning with Rachael, where we talked a little bit about job satisfaction and how to make a job a creative outlet instead of just a job. Later I had three separate AIM conversations with people talking about what they want to do as a career, hobbies or projects they’re passionate about, and trying to find a way to make it work. And over the course of the whole day I’ve been following web links digging deeper and deeper into the scary world of the “blogosphere” and web designers.

Now these are people who know a thing or two about obsessive-compulsive behavior. Lengthy criticisms and analyses of webpage layouts. Opinion pieces about the proper use of XHTML tags. Favorite fonts and ones to avoid. Intellectual theft squabbles over page layout techniques. Dismissive comments about Javascript and browser-specific markup and, of all things, gradients. And the same link passed from blog to blog to blog, all of them connected and cross-linked and referencing each other as the Elite of this community.

Several hours of digging through all this stuff left me with a very odd feeling. Not so much that I’d wasted the entire day, but that I was seeing a flavor of passion and obsession I hadn’t seen before — I’m used to this kind of thing with the geek fandom crowds and the “hardcore” videogame types, and always assumed it was limited to them. It’s the kind of lengthy talk about a subject that only comes from a combination of ego (essential to any blog) and pedantry. It was odd at first seeing people go on about typography, the BODY element vs. the HTML element, the same way I’ve seen people argue about a Star Destroyer vs. a Federation starship or Python vs C# — art geeks instead of computer geeks. (Of course, there’s a lot of overlap what with this being the internet and all, but these are mainly graphic design types.)

But then I realized that it’s all the same thing, and I’ve heard the same types of obsessive commentary on bands, clothes, sports teams, and movies as much as I have about operating systems and television series. And I realized that I’m not quite on the outside looking in, since I do have to admit to having a favorite font (Futura) and browser (currently Safari). So maybe all that’s required is the ego and the pedantry, in which case I’m all set.

Highlight of the whole trip was finding Airbag, which is easily the best-designed weblog I’ve ever seen.