Last Shuttle Now Departing

It doesn’t seem so long ago that I was lamenting the end of Battlestar Galactica, and now I suddenly discover that the episode of Caprica I just watched is in fact the series finale. I had no idea that the show had been shot in the head, though I can say with conviction that it was a far better bow than Battlestar had.

Caprica has been a show that featured an incredibly talented crew of writers, actors and actor/directors — in particular Jorge Montesi, a fellow who’s responsible for a significant amount of very frustrating work I had to do on Andromeda and is also responsible for one of the finest quotable quotes I’ve come across, which was “I light my way by the bridges I burn!”

And if I’m going to single folks out, I have an obligation to reference Jane Espenson doing her usual brilliant stuff. So sorry that gig has come to an end, Jane. Hoping you’re part of the next incarnation in the Battlestar mythos.

Caprica had enormous promise. It started off with a literal bang and then spent lots of time and energy delving into a debate about the validity of religious beliefs. While I think this is admirable and awesome, I suspect it’s also why the show ended up being resoundly rejected by a vast majority of its potential audience. Lots of North American viewers were probably alienated by the discourse that was taking place – the idea that monotheism was aberrant probably scared a whole lot of folks away, and may equally have confused those who don’t ascribe to any theistic beliefs whatsoever.

Plenty of reviewers have complained that the episodes aired earlier in the season were “confused” or “lacked direction”, but I don’t think that’s the case. I never felt adrift in the story – what I saw were people being confronted by complex issues, each maneuvering through difficult waters in order to achieve a short-term goal that might (or might not) supply the reward they were eager to achieve. The characters had complicated responses to complicated problems. It was bloody smart writing and bloody excellent execution.

What’s more, and what saddens me the most, is that unlike Battlestar the producers and writers clearly had a vision and direction that they were pursuing. The tragically short montage at the end of the final show is far more coherent and encapsulating than the conclusion to Battlestar (even if you toss in “The Plan” DVD that attempted to wrap things up post series – not pointing fingers here, Jane, you did the best you could with the backstory you were working with). These folks knew where they were going, and there are hints at an astounding number of fabulous stories that will now only live as sketches.

This makes me sad.

I really wanted to watch these stories unfold over time, to see Eric Stoltz demonstrate his tremendous talent on a regular basis, and *feel* for these characters as they coped with their messy reality.

Sadly, the rest of the audience voted with their feet and tuned into the latest episodes of Survivor or Hell’s Kitchen or whatever. Well written, complex, challenging TV is yet again trounced by digital gruel.

The same fate is apparently on the horizon for “Stargate: Universe”, which similarly has not been able to capture a massive audience – another show that is smart, dark, and awesome, but has been abandoned by the “we want fuzzy bunnies” crowd and has remained off the radar of the “we like good shows” bunch. Dammit, people, I read endless laments about the lack of ‘good’ shows out there, and yet none of you are watching and/or supporting the handful of well written and dramatically intense programs that are being produced.

Wear the damn colors. Support the good stuff. Or else.

Otherwise, your entertainment is going to consist entirely of Dr. Phil re-runs and brand new episodes of “Survivor: Los Angeles”. You have a vote here, and that’s to decide to watch stuff that’s worth watching. If you decide that “Wet T-Shirt Extravaganza” is the height of creative entertainment then that’s what you’re gonna get. And nothing else. If you decide to spend an hour or two a week watching smart, difficult, and uncompromising storytelling then perhaps there’s hope for us yet.

But I don’t think you will.

You’ll probably spend you precious eyeball-hours on the lascivious crap that the bottom feeders are producing. You’ll decide that watching Helen throw Stacy under-the-bus is much more entertaining than the moral dilemma of deciding to kill a hated enemy vs. uncovering the information that would save thousands of virtual lives.

You’re not interested in stories. You’re obsessed with gossip.

You need to realize this, and think about it, and decide if that’s the person you really want to be. A person who respects a good story, or a person who thrives on bad things happening to others. I know where I stand in that debate.

UPDATE: And so “Stargate: Universe” has now been officially canceled. We’ll never get to find out where the writers might have taken us. We’ll never know how things might have developed in that story. And at this point, I’m not sure if it’s the fault of the viewers who didn’t tune-in, or the broadcaster who tried to be clever with their scheduling decisions. Either way I’m disappointed. Shame on all of you for not supporting an honest creative effort. Shame on all of you for participating in the death of a worthwhile endeavor. Enjoy your Dr. Phil and WWE reruns.

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Skyline Torched

“Skyline” is a new science fiction… er… a new thriller… no wait… it’s a new horror… um… action… Bah. I don’t know what the hell it is, and I don’t think it really knows either.

Frankly it’s all just a big old mess.

It starts out with an intriguing first act – a young couple out of their natural habitat, the boy being offered a break by the old pal who’s made it big in LA. The characters feel like they’re going somewhere, which just makes it all the more frustrating when they don’t.

Then the aliens arrive. At first the only thing the audience sees is a brilliant blue light. People start to vanish, and the light has a hypnotic attraction to anyone unfortunate enough to look at it directly. This is followed by an alien-free interlude in which the characters do absolutely nothing other than wring their hands and debate personality flaws. Charming, but nothing said pushes the story forward or leads to any insights about these people.

Fortunately the aliens return just in time to prevent me from clawing my eyes out. This time it’s ships. Big, seemingly biomechanical mother ships which, aside from that striking blue LCD shine, are pretty much straight out of “Independence Day” and the rest of that sub-genre of giant alien ships hovering over Los Angeles movies.

The invasion and harvesting of the human race now proceeds apace. We’ve changed gears and we’re doing the second act of “War of the Worlds” (pick your preferred version – I think the Spielberg one is better, with the exception of the screaming children – gah). Meanwhile our heroes plan their escape because the aliens apparently have some sort of phobia about hovering over water — um “Signs”? — Maybe. So these folks head for the garage, grab their cars, get as far as the garage entrance and suddenly we’re watching “Cloverfield”.

The African-America dude is the first one to get taken out. I think that might be an anti-anti-cliché at this point. Will Smith has single-handedly programmed audiences to not expect that to happen. He is promptly replaced by suitably ethnic actor in the form of David Zayas (Det. Batista of “Dexter” fame, who I will now refer to as Batista even though that’s not the name of his “Skyline” character, but since that character made about as much of an impression as a limp noodle slapped against a hunk of surgical steel we’ll just roll with it), who delivers the only memorable and enjoyable performance in the movie. Some irrelevant bystanders die horribly as we discover that…

The aliens are here to eat our brains.

Our glowing blue brains (with one exception, but we’ll get to that later).

Does this count as an idea that’s so archaic that no other filmmakers would have the balls to use it? Or is it just that the directors are so woefully uneducated about the alien-brain thing that they thought they were being original? All I can say is that by this point I was literally shaking my head in disbelief.

To make matters worse, the survivors retreat back to the same freaking condo that they’d recently vacated, hiding out like rodents. At no point does anyone do anything even remotely sensible. While this may be consistent with human nature, it just serves to point out that none of these characters are growing or adapting to the situation. I was practically screaming at them to fill up available containers with water, raid other suites in the building for food and/or weapons, try to fortify the damn place. Anything other than what they end up doing, which is having arguments that exist simply to point out that the ostensible leading man may have been physically infected by the light he was previously exposed to, and his assertion that he actually feels more powerful… Huh?

When did this turn into “The Fly”?

Well, not for long, since it’s right then that the air force finally shows up. Now we’re watching “Independence Day” again.

We intercut between a big-assed air to air battle and — the characters watching the battle on their big-screen TV. Although it’s true that the film has established that the aliens will spot you if the blinds aren’t drawn, you’d expect they have more important things on their minds at the moment as they bitch-slap the majority of the Terran defense force. So in the middle of this big battle the characters argue about watching current events on TV. This is not the time for a social comment by the filmmakers about the growing tendency for people to choose virtual experiences over real ones. I want to watch the damn dogfight!

Which is over when the air force manages to nuke the mother ship, and I groan horribly as the dialogue that follows is an almost word-for-word riff on the “we’ve won – we know how to take ‘em out now” lines from “Independence Day”.

Because I know what must inevitably come next…

There’s another one of those ‘big twists’ (TM, copyright, whatever). The alien ship is actually fine – the nuke was nothing more than a flesh wound and it quickly reconstitutes itself. And I suddenly realize the other vibe I’ve been getting while I watch. It’s an echo of those other impossible-to-stop incomprehensible aliens from some TV show named “Star Trek”. The freaking aliens are big-budget Borg.

Of course, the nuke causes the drapes to fall down in the condo, and then the army arrives by chopper. This finally prompts our nominal hero to say “we can’t stay here”, while Det. Batista is all for laying low. In a penthouse. With no windows. I’m sure there are probably a couple of units in that building with windows that were facing away from the blast, but whatever.

Hero and girlfriend head for the roof and yell at soldiers, who almost shoot them but then call in a rescue chopper. Meanwhile the most irritating female whinger gets hypnotized by the aliens and lets them into the awesomely secure penthouse condo, which leaves Batista no choice but to flood the place with the still running natural gas from the stove so that the filmmakers can deprive him of a dignified end by having him nearly flub his own demise. He does ultimately manage to get off the obligatory exit quip and detonates the place, but not before we’re all sort of feeling sorry for the actor – that role just sucked, dude.

Our remaining heroes are not in good shape at this point, because we’re back in “Cloverfield”, with a gigantic alien doing its impersonation of “King Kong”, destroying the rescue helicopter and terminating the military presence with its massive ‘claws of doom’.

It’s only now that the hero really gets to do something, because we finally get the obligatory beat as he goes mano-a-mano with one of the smallest of the alien critters, and is so broken by the end of the fight that he just fucking gives up… And so does the girl… And they’re swept up into the alien ship in what should be a final embrace that signals the end of mankind. That would be a bit of a downer, but if these particular aliens did happen to invade I suspect this is exactly what would happen. As a species? Toast.

But those Strauss boys couldn’t leave well enough alone, because you can’t have everyone just die…

So suddenly we’re inside the ship, which is sort of dimly lit and rather a bit much like the goo-filled real-world of “The Matrix”. Inches away from his beloved, our nominal hero is de-brained, the unusually red-tinted glowing cortex making its way to a hungry brute of a critter that I’m not certain we’ve seen before. The girl, our only remaining survivor, is not immediately killed because she’s pregnant and this guarantees her some sort of special treatment.

The special treatment gives our hero’s awesome-red-glowing-brain (can I TM that???) time to take complete control of the alien who’s eaten him, and he leaps to the defense of his galpal, possibly saving her life. She has just managed to figure out that her boytoy is now this big ‘ol monster as… the credits roll.

Methinks the boys responsible for this disaster have big plans for the sequel.

Gawd I hope that doesn’t happen.

What’s stunning to me is that this is one of those train wreck stories that slipped by everyone who should have seen the basic problem. See, the characters never really do anything at all. They spend the entire movie reacting to events around them, and as a consequence they don’t grow, and we don’t give a damn what happens to them.

“Skyline” could have been a good movie if it hadn’t gotten caught letting circumstances dictate action, and if it hadn’t tried to be ten different movies instead of just one. It could have been a terrifying film in the same way that “Thirty Days of Night” or “Night of the Living Dead” were – about people trapped in a building and surrounded by things trying to kill them. It could have been a kick-ass action movie about a bunch of folks fighting their way out of the city. It could have been a horrifying examination of unwanted alien infestation. It could have been a lot of things, and indeed that’s what it tried to be… A lot of things.

Instead, it’s none of the above. It’s just a wretched brew of borrowed ideas and standby tropes that, while not the worst film I’ve seen this year, is far from the best. And that just makes me sad, because I really was looking forward to “Skyline”, hoping it would be a fresh take on the alien-invasion sub-genre. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go watch “Cloverfield” again. At least they tried…

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What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Amazon Studios is only two days old, but already it’s being pounded on by a lot of people who either work in the film industry, or are at least reasonably informed about it. As of a few minutes ago, there are over seven hundred projects that have been created within the last forty-eight hours, all of whom have agreed to Amazon’s contest contract.

Haven’t heard about this yet? Head over to the Amazon Studio site and have a look around.

The handful of folks who’ve made an effort to actually understand the legalese of the contract (and yes, kids, it really is a contract, not just an entry form) have generally concluded that it stinks in that special way which only the most vile and moldering corpse can. I’ve read most of it and I’m inclined to agree. For those who enter, that contract guarantees that any intellectual property submitted will essentially remain susceptible to Amazon for the rest of eternity, not just those initial eighteen months. Subsequent revisions or contributions by others automatically cede all ownership and copyright to Amazon forever.

No professional writer will likely ever touch it, other than perhaps submitting something that’s lying in a trunk and which would otherwise never be looked upon again. I suspect there will be a few of those, but not many. At least one of the projects already posted claims to be a Nichols’ quarter-finalist, though I wonder if the writer realized how bad Amazon’s deal potentially is while rushing to post the screenplay.

The people who will dominate this arena will be amateur writers that have a lot of time available. Other attempts to create collaborative on-line screenwriting sites have all suffered from people who spend a lot of time up-ranking people in order to get others to up-rank their own material, and taking out the competition by down-rating anything that might possibly be better than their own stuff.

More than anything, the way Amazon Studios presents itself seems to paint a very clear picture that the company has done little or no research into those established collaborative sites, nor have they thoroughly considered the likely outcome of their “anyone can revise a project” philosophy.

Aside from the personality-focused circle-jerk community that will certainly rise to dominance, there is going to be an absolute rush by truly inexperienced amateurs to attach their names to the most popular scripts by providing rewrites. I wonder what that almost-award-winning script will look like after some fifteen-year-old in Sudbury has finished improving it. I will grant you there is a chance, a fractional-percentage-point possibility, that the results might genuinely be better. But let’s be honest. Folks, I’m not placing any bets on that horse, and I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t either.

In fact, my money’s going on this prediction – the entire thing will descend into a massive clot of rubbish from which it becomes nigh impossible to find the handful of promising scripts. The most popular projects will be those that most closely resemble existing, successful, and widely seen feature films. As someone else has noted about this (though I didn’t think to bookmark the page, but it’s too good an analogy not to use) if you crowd-sourced the invention of the perfect hamburger, you’d inevitably get something that was feature-identical to a Mickey-D’s Quarter Pounder.

Being original is hard work.

At the present time, it seems that about 2,000 films are produced annually for Western audiences, and about 450 of those are made in North America. That’s every movie, folks, not just Hollywood. The major movie studios produce far less than a hundred, though a precise figure is not easy to come by. Anecdotally it seems that studios only produce about one out of every hundred scripts that they option, and that represents only a fraction of the number of scripts that are actually pitched or submitted on spec.

And Hollywood is trying very hard to find product. Hundreds of people work as professional readers, slogging though piles of scripts so that a handful can be perused by time-challenged agents and producers. The kid in Sudbury wouldn’t even be able to get his script inserted into one of those piles – unsolicited scripts are legal nightmares waiting to happen, so if you’re not a known commodity, you’re not getting past the front door. This is, by the way, one of the reasons Hollywood seems like such an insular community to writers – were the floodgates opened to the 50,000 scripts that are registered with the WGA every year, there simply wouldn’t be enough time to read and review every last one. And let’s face it, those registered screenplays represent just a fraction of the total number of scripts that are out there right now. Folks, there are literally millions of un-produced movies sitting on dusty bookshelves around the world, and now there’s a place to show them.

With all the effort expended by studios to make profitable films, we see barely a handful of original movies come from within the ivory towers. Innovation is for independent production companies – studios have shareholders they must answer to and are fundamentally risk-adverse. Heck, the majority of those ‘original’ properties aren’t even being conceived by writers. They’re projects spearheaded by the studio to create product that fills certain niches. Writers are hired and told what the studio wants.

I suspect that the number of projects at Amazon Studios will quickly grow into the thousands, then the tens-of-thousands. Since they are apparently trusting the denizens of Teh Interwebz to determine the best stuff, the winners are all going to look a lot like that cheeseburger.

Warner’s isn’t going to be interested in cheeseburgers. Oh, and for those of you who don’t understand what a “First Look” deal is, it means that the studio gets the chance to look at projects before the creator/owner takes them elsewhere. Studios usually make First Look deals with extremely talented people who’ve made them lots of money already so they can call dibbs on that person’s new project. They usually pay a lot of money for that opportunity.

I doubt Warner’s is paying Amazon a dime – and if they are, they’re foolish to do so. Amazon gets to tout the deal in a way that makes it seem like a winning screenplay is absolutely going to get made. What it really means is that the script will manage to make its way into the pile of other scripts on an anonymous reader’s desk, a reader who already has to eat a lot of cheeseburgers every single day.

The only consolation for the writers is that Amazon probably won’t forward the rejection slips. Unless they post them in the project…

So can any good come of this?

Maybe, but not in any of the ways that Amazon is presently anticipating, unless they’re really as evil as some folks seem to think they are. There are plenty of horrible thoughts that have occurred to me, but rather than conjecture I’ll leave it to you to consider the possibilities.

I think it’s very unlikely that Amazon Studios will be taken seriously by Hollywood, but it does shine a brighter light on the kind of crowd-sourced productions that are starting to flourish. There are independent documentary filmmakers out there who, lacking the budget to travel, are eliciting the aid of others to film footage for them. Even the BBC adopted this model for portions of the doc series “Virtual Revolution” that aired early in 2010.

What differentiates these efforts from Amazon’s is fairly simple but fundamental – all of them are helmed by a “Benevolent Dictator for Life”, someone who has final say on the productions as a whole. Amazon’s biggest error is to allow users to force changes on others’ projects, rather than providing originators ways to moderate changes selectively, or focus the crowd’s efforts on specific areas that need work.

The Open Source software movement works this way, and it works well, primarily because of the tools that developers employ while cooperating. Systems exist to manage and approve changes, to give programmers varying levels of access, and to create virtual managerial hierarchies for large projects. If Open Source developers were forced to limit themselves to the tools that Amazon provides, the entire movement would be toast within a week.

Message to Amazon – Phone Google right now. Those folks have been working for years to build on-line collaboration tools, and you might want to consider licensing some of their technology before things have spun completely out of control.

Message to Google – Don’t answer that call from Amazon. Build something yourself – a toolset that can be used for Open Source art projects – anything from a sketch to a movie. Hire a bunch of those underpaid Hollywood readers and get them to cherry pick the best projects, then broker those projects to major studios for a cut. Heck, at some point you’re going to need content for that YouTube premium service. Think of it as an investment in your own future.

For Amazon Studios to succeed, it needs a way for project owners to manage their projects and the communities that will grow around them. I actually believe that a committee might be able to come up with something far greater than the sum of its parts given strong leadership and direction. But the only thing Amazon is currently providing is a big bin to dump stuff into.

I already have one of those – it’s under my desk and it’s not where I put things that are important to me.

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I Have Been Betrayed by Rice

So I’ve been puzzled for a long time as to how I might manage to get poisoned on a seemingly routine basis, because I have. Food poisoning is not fun. It involves hours (and sometimes days) of discovering exactly how many tiles are on the floor of your bathroom, and then attempting to forget that number while counting for the Nth time.

But, I think I’ve finally figured it out. It’s all about rice. See, I’d always assumed that the proscriptions about eating reheated rice were based on not-adequately-sterilized leftovers — the assumption being that if you heat those leftovers past the boiling point you’re safe, and anyone who got sick wasn’t doing that.

Um… ANNOYING BUZZ! False!

The problem is that rice is home to a particularly nasty bacteria that, in its dormant state, does not get killed by home cooking – you need temperatures in excess of four-hundred-degrees to denature the suckers (which, as it turns out, is what those big food companies do to prepacked meals). As soon as the rice cools to a bacterial-friendly temperature, these little mofos come to life and start breeding, and their ‘excrement’ is a toxin which does not break down when heated, even though returning the rice to high temperatures kills the critters themselves. Their crap is there to stay.

So it turns out that you cannot under any circumstances consume rice after the initial cooking without risking serious consequences. If you have a top end rice cooker and don’t open it, you can actually hold the rice for a really long time, but as soon as you access it you’ve got at most a window of a few hours in which to safely eat it.

Gee… You’d think I’d have known that with my vast and in-depth explorations of all-things-food, but no. I suppose it’s just one of those “everybody knows they shouldn’t do this” things that I never experienced. Dammit. Nobody has ever said to me “don’t eat day-old rice because IT MAY BE POISONED and YOU CAN’T MAKE THE POISON GO AWAY.”

Dang.

Well at least I’ve finally figured that out. I will now go and eat freshly cooked rice along with the pea soup I’ve just finished making. I will savor every bite. And if I have leftover rice after I’ve finished my meal I’ll be sending it to the compost heap.

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The Story is Important

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I originally wrote this nearly eight years ago, and while I’ve made a few tweaks to it the intent is, to me, astoundingly unchanged (though some of the details are freakin’ archaic at this point). I’m publishing it now because it still reflects my opinions. Don’t waste time pointing out that we all have broadband these days – when I authored this piece broadband was still reserved for the fortunate few.

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I may not be a professional writer but… I write a lot… You’re probably thinking, “Duh!”

But I didn’t always. Even into my teenaged years, I had no skill at manipulating words into sentences, and was even less able to form a meaningful thought into a paragraph. I managed to pass my grade-twelve English course only by submitting a collection of poetry I’d written over the preceding year. My teacher declared that I was either a genius or “severely disturbed”, and was happy to be rid of me in either case.

Got a passing grade. Worked for me.

Interestingly, even by this point in my life I was a voracious reader, chewing through seven or eight novels a week. I’d often spend my meager income at the local “used” bookshop and lug home a shopping bag full of the darned things. While I’d initially been focused almost exclusively on science fiction, I began branching out somewhat as I grew older.

Discovering that my Uncle had been reprimanded as a student when caught reading “War and Peace” in an art class, I was inspired to do the same, but for my own subversive reasons. I loathed art class, believing I had no talent. Ironic when you consider that I now do art for a living. My frustration drove me to seek interesting ways to confuse my teacher, a middle-aged woman with a Valium habit who was eventually fired after repeatedly seducing teenaged male students (no, I wasn’t one of them).

So I started bringing Dostoyevsky to class, and kept it open on my desk. I wasn’t so bold as to read to the exclusion of all else, but I turned a page every five or ten minutes. It wasn’t until day-three of this exercise that teacher finally demanded to know what I found so interesting in the book I was reading. I flipped it over, exposing the cover, and asked if she’d liked the book as much as I did when she’d read it. Humming and hawing, she asked me in an overly polite tone to please read outside of class, and then beat a hasty retreat.

The thing I’d already figured out even then was that while virtually everyone has heard of “War and Peace”, generally only people intent on becoming English scholars actually read it, and even then I suspect that far more reliance has been made on Coles notes than the actual text itself. In our modern era, reading “War and Peace” for personal pleasure is fairly rare. However, admitting that you hadn’t, particularly when you worked in academia, was verboten.

The thing is, I really did like it. Certainly the stories it tells were hard to follow, and I recognized the political leanings of the text. But it struck a chord deep within me. I sought out other works in a similar vein and discovered the “holy trinity” of existentialist literature: Camus, Kafka, and Sartre. I went through their entire bodies of work over several months, and while I never declared myself an existentialist, I had one teacher who admitted that he believed I was the only real one he’d ever met.

I have since recovered.

But for all that, I still didn’t write anything except free-verse poetry, with my few efforts at prose falling decidedly flat after a page or two. Perhaps I just lacked confidence in myself back then.

Things changed when I was sixteen. I got my own computer, an Apple II clone, and a few months later discovered a thing called a modem that would let me dial into places called bulletin boards. We’re not talking about the Internet or e-mail; this is a time before either existed. We’re talking about one computer calling another computer, reading and posting a few messages, and then signing off so that the next person could log in and have their turn. The maximum speed, a whopping 300-baud, was approximately 200 times slower than the bottom-end 56K modems that people with dial-up connections still use these days (circa 2003). Graphics? Ha! At the time, the hardware to do this cost about $200. That’d be close to a grand in the current (’03) era.

The systems were so restrictive that posted messages were a maximum of eight lines of text, with a limit of forty characters per line. That’s 320 characters, or about half the size of the previous paragraph. Further, the maximum time limit on the system was thirty minutes a day – after all, other people needed a chance to have their turn. Typically you called in, read the new posts, logged off, considered your reply, and then only logged back in long enough to add your two-cents worth.

As with many other people who have trouble handling social situations, I took to this new medium like a duck to water. The boards were anonymous, you picked a handle and nobody had to know who you really were. I enjoyed being able to discuss the topics that I found interesting (there were perhaps two-dozen “chat rooms” on a given board, compared to the sixty-thousand-plus available through Usenet today). Nobody cared who you were or where you were from, it was just a place where people “talked”.

But it’s not like you could ramble on endlessly the way folks do now. Those size and time limits were pretty tight, especially if you weren’t a fast typist. No “offline” mode in those days, either. So you had to be concise, and quick, or you’d be unceremoniously logged off mid-sentence.

So, in the midst of trying to express myself something happened. I got concise, and I got quick. And one day I sat down to write something and the words just started to flow. Paragraphs, pages, documents in their entirety, came easily. A year or two later I decided I wanted to write a screenplay for a movie, and I finished the entire one-hundred-twenty pages in just five sleepless days. It wasn’t a masterpiece – anyone reading it would probably contemplate using it to line a gerbil cage. But what a revelation it was to be able to drop something on the floor that I’d written and hear it make a resounding thud.

You might suspect those early explorations in digital communication would have evolved as the Internet did, and that I’m probably a Usenet and chat-room junkie. But that’s not the case at all. I haven’t bothered posting a message on a public board in years.

Back in the “olden days”, the community of users was small, and all of them local. Nobody was interested in paying long-distance charges to access a system, so geography gave us something in common. Further, there were plenty of folks who got together in the real world on a regular basis, so you could always head out for a mixer and actually meet the people on the other end of the terminal.

It kept us honest.

The technical skill required to set up a modem in the first place was a fairly daunting barrier-to-entry as well, and virtually insured that other users were intelligent and at least somewhat articulate. Additionally, the system’s owner moderated every forum. That was an easy task when the sum total of the contributions to the system was equal to about two typewritten pages a day. SPAM was still canned meat.

In short, things have changed. Go take a wander through a Usenet group. For the uninitiated, Usenet is “the other Internet”, a system with a huge number of “rooms” in which anyone on the planet can read messages and post some of their own. It’s not real time, so any user typing a message has the opportunity to make at least a minimal effort at editorializing its text, to present their thoughts, and therefore themselves, in the best light

Nope. Take a look at any Usenet group with a “specialized” focus, like game design. Though there are perhaps several hundred professional game designers working these days, you won’t find a post from any of them (exception for Derek Smart, who wrote some real doozies). What you will find are messages from a hoard of desperate “wannabe” designers who ask the same questions over and over again – “How do I break in?”, “Can you help me make my game for free?”, etc.

You’ll also find something far more annoying. A small subset of the crowd are poseurs, pretending to be pros, who get some pathetic ego boost by soliciting the fanboys to ask questions, and then dispensing wisdom based firmly in the fantasyland they inhabit. Generally, their advice is just plain wrong. Worse yet, these folks are the most prolific of the individual posters, and they treat the groups as if they were personal territory. Any contradictory point of view prompts an immediate flame war.

Flame wars are a cascade of messages in which all relevant discussion on the topic at hand is replaced by a cacophony of insults, slurs, obscenities, and the eventual and inevitable comparison of one of the participants as a member of the Nazi party or genetic relative of it’s leader. This is referred to on the Net as “Godwin’s Law”, and it usually causes the thread to terminate, with the author of the offending comment being deemed the looser. Don’t believe me? Look it up for yourself.

The bulk of Usenet traffic (aside from the inevitable SPAM and porn) is generated by a slew of dysfunctional personalities who have nothing better to do than rant at each other day in and day out. The toxic quality of the conversations, along with the despairing lack of anything approaching grammar, spelling, or intellect, drove anyone interesting out of the venue years ago.

Then there’s real-time chat, where you discover that people have reduced the English language to an obscure collection of short-form slang expressions (“ROTFL” equates to “rolling on the floor, laughing”) that have become the only accepted use of capital letters. It’s like hanging out with the cast of “Dude, Where’s My Car”, none of whom can actually type more than four or five words a minute.

Even a one-on-one e-mail conversation tends to be unsatisfying. I regularly write letters that are two or three pages long, and my pen pals will almost inevitably respond with two or three paragraphs — or lines — or words.

It ends up feeling like too much effort for too little reward, though I realize that most people don’t write as easily as I do. I wish they could – our society has lost the skill of writing letters, and I think that’s a sad thing. We came to know many of our famous historical figures from the letters they crafted, words they considered before committing them to paper. Future generations will only know the people from our time as sound bites that were recorded for CNN, and were often written by someone else.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t begrudge the people who use and delight in the multitude of online conversation systems. Plenty of folks benefit enormously, and there is no reason they shouldn’t continue to evolve a method of communication that suits them. It’s just a pastime that I don’t have any interest in.

But I digress…

The point is, I don’t do the random-public-exposure thing any more. Instead, when I write it’s either for work, or for myself. This place is a case in point. You might think that I’ve just gone and assembled a bunch of monologues that were kicking around and stuck them here for your review. In that you are correct. This blog *has* started out (rather late in the blogging game) as an aggregation of material produced over a period of decades. Everything here was previously available only as privately scribbled e-mails, or as material that had never been read – like this particular piece.

People change and grow, and one of the best ways to see it in the way they write. Some folks keep journals or blogs. Me? I write essays about myself. Sometimes they’re for public consumption. More often they aren’t, and you won’t find those here. I’m not gonna air my angst-ridden inner demons for public consumption. That would be too easy, and frankly rather annoying.

Does any of this explain why I write? Nope. The truth is, I don’t really know. Certainly it’s a way to clear my head and express my feelings, but I could do that in a dozen different ways that would involve a lot less work. The easiest way to put it is that I write because “I can’t not”. It doesn’t matter if it’s a technical paper, computer code, a movie or a monologue. When I write, I feel content, and if I don’t write for a protracted period I feel frustrated.

I write these days for the sheer love of assembling words and conveying thoughts, even though I don’t think much of what I write is all that great.

But it’s good enough for me.

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But Honestly Monica

“But Honestly Monica…”

Those words, e-mailed to Monica Gaudio on November 3rd by “Cook’s Source” magazine owner/editor Judith Griggs, were the start of an Internet hate fest that has seen the magazine’s Facebook page flooded into submission. Griggs name has been Google-bombed into popular slang – to ‘griggs’ is to steal copyrighted material for your own profit.

But at the same time as the mob were doing this, they were launching a denial-of-service attack at the magazine’s website host. They also began e-mailing and calling the companies that advertised in the magazine.

What became apparent very quickly was that the majority of folks posting vitriolic flames on the Facebook page had no knowledge of the actual facts about the situation. They’d just heard that one of their own had been ripped off and jumped into the fray, spewing random hate at whatever targets presented themselves.

Now before I go on, here are the facts.

“Cooks Source” is a free magazine. It’s the kind of thing you see stacked on a table near the entrance in small shops and eateries. It’s a local rag, one that gets read by no more than a couple of thousand people a month. It’s a one woman show, with Griggs literally going door-to-door trying to drum up business. Some of the owners that paid to advertise are now allegedly claiming that Griggs pressured them to buy space, and at least a few of the shops on the magazine’s ‘list of advertisers’ have claimed that they paid once, weren’t happy with the results, and haven’t bought an add since.

But they’re still on that list. And it only took a few minutes for the addresses, websites, e-mail addresses and phone numbers to become widely known. Along with the advertisers, the mob also got their hands on a similar list of all the locations where the magazine was being distributed.

These aren’t evil mega corporations, they’re small town shops, family run. They support their community. Out of a list of a hundred and fifty shops that made the magazine freely available, the only recognizable chain was a single Starbucks, and it’s unlikely they were even aware it was there.

Not a single advertiser could possibly have known that the content filling “Cooks Source” had been purloined. The distributors even less so.

But the mob assumed they deserved to be killed anyway.

As of this writing, it seems that the advertisers have been slammed by hundreds, if not thousands, of e-mails that range from pleas for support to vitriolic rants that have quite possibly left completely innocent bystanders scared and confused. Some claim to have received over a hundred phone calls. None of them have any intention of ever advertising in the magazine again.

And yet the hate keeps coming.

Laura, owner of a small bakery, has spent the last two days posting on the magazine’s Facebook page, pleading for people to stop harassing the advertisers, reposting the same message again and again because the flood of posts drives it off the main page within minutes.

The thing is, there’s a significant number of real head cases out there who can’t figure out that they’re actually causing real harm to innocent people – store owners who’s businesses are being seriously disrupted.

This is even more tragic when you realize that the mob had been completely successful in their quest to destroy Judith Griggs by noon on Thursday. The moment they discovered the origin of the stolen content, they leapt to the aid of the mega corps and contacted people who would insure a civil and possibly criminal investigation. The theft is so pervasive and obvious that Griggs will almost certainly loose everything, possibly even her freedom.

The mob won.

And still it wasn’t enough.

The cries for reason are shouted down. For the most part the people doing the shouting don’t have a clue, often referring to these mom-and-pop shops as ‘evil corporations’, almost as often not even being aware of the perpetrator’s gender, nor for that matter the victims’.

Three days later and there are still angry shouts that the magazine needs to fire the editor and issue an apology…

Oy vey.

What makes me sad is the irony. Monica Gaudio’s sole compensation for her work being purloined will likely be the year of blog hosting that an anonymous individual paid for. The net worth of Judith Griggs, along with a portion of the meager living she scratches out for the rest of her life, will be divided up between Disney, OmniMedia, and a host of other ‘evil empires’.

Meanwhile, a large number of completely innocent shop owners will have had their lives disrupted and loose hundreds, possibly thousands of dollars as a result. It’s possible the net cost to these businesses well exceeds the value of Griggs’ assets. They won’t get a dime.

And as of this very moment they’re still being harassed. Laura reposted her plea again just a little while ago.

In a few days the mob will burn out. In a few weeks they’ll have forgotten about it entirely.

But for families and friends of the affected businesses, this is an event they’ll remember unhappily for the rest of their lives – the time the Internet burned them without a second thought.

UPDATE: Well, it seems that some good may have come out of this after all, at least for a few of those local businesses. Now that the mob has started to thin out, there are a lot of good folks who are going out of their way to support the shops that were getting unfairly flamed. Business is brisk, and the short term boost will probably offset the losses from both the money paid to Griggs and from the disruption. My faith in humanity in general and the Internet in particular is restored… For now.

UPDATE REDUX: This. Interwebz, I love you.

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The Amazing Instant Blog!

Many years ago I spent a brief stretch of time blogging routinely on the Suicide Girls website. Yeah, that place, back before anyone had actually heard of it. Unfortunately, I got rather busy around that time, and my nascent blogging career was overwhelmed by what seemed like more important stuff. That was my year in Los Angeles, which I’ll get around to talking about at some point.

Nine years, a huge number of life changes, a lot of insight that comes from passing the forty-year-old-mid-life-crisis gauntlet, and a growing level of self understand and being comfortable with who I turned out to be, has resulted in taking up the part-time vocation of blogging once again. Terrifying though it might be to some of the people who know me…

While this particular blog has sprung into existence on a fine overcast November day, a lot of my old posts along with innumerable e-mail rants are going to end up here retroactively. So if you’ve stumbled across this place because of some article and are asking yourself why you’d never run across it before, it’s because it actually wasn’t here.

Now, I have an awful lot of material that needs to be sorted out, so I’m not going to get all clever and amusing with this first official entry. I’ll save that for some time soon.

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The Source is Not With You

Google “Cooks Source Magazine” if you want the gory details, but let me sum it up for you…

Last night someone noticed a distressed blog entry that described how the blogger’s work had been “appropriated” by a for profit publication without notification or payment. Not a pro blogger, just another one of those “hey, I wrote this thing for anyone interested in reading about it” folks.

The magazine is just one of those little local free papers in central Massachusetts that gets distributed at various shops and restaurants, reaching maybe fifteen or twenty thousand readers. A friend of the writer had contacted her to congratulate her on being published. The writer, thinking it might be an honest mistake, contacted the owner/editor of the rag. She politely asked for a printed apology and a donation of $130 to the University of Columbia’s Journalism department.

Then the editor made the mistake of responding poorly, refusing to pay, claiming that the victim should be happy about it, and that if anyone deserved to be paid it was herself as she’d had to edit the article — her editing consisted of butchering transcriptions of fourteenth and sixteenth century English into modern – completely missing the point of the article.

The quiet sigh of distress from the victim got noticed, and as the majority of content on the interwebz is *written*, you can imagine how outraged the professional writers got when this came to their attention. Hell, the girl wasn’t even asking for money herself.

By eight AM this had gone wide enough that well-read bloggers had picked it up. By nine AM Neil Gaimen had tweeted his 1.5 million followers. Wil Wheton tweeted it to his. At 11:30 it had been picked up by at least one national news organization. I expect it’ll make Fox News this evening.

See, it turns out that pretty much the entire content of the magazine is lifted from the web. And the editor didn’t restrict herself to unknown bloggers, she’s been swiping stuff from The Food Network, Paula Deen, and Martha freakin’ Stewart. Oh, and there’s also some infringement of stuff owned by a little company created by some fellow named Disney.

What’s astounding is that she reposted the entire magazine on a Facebook page, and it took folks about thirty seconds to start pasting paragraphs into Google and locating the originals. Deen has already confirmed that she’s unleashed the lawyers. Others are surely following suit.

The magazine’s source of income, the local businesses who advertised in it, have been e-mail bombed into submission, expressing justifiable outrage that they’ve been taken advantage of. These are the editor’s neighbors and possibly even former friends. The woman’s business is toast. Her social standing has been demolished publicly and internationally. If any of the major players sue (and they likely will, because we’re talking about print here, not just some ephemeral bits) then she will be financially ruined. Add to this that copyright violation is a US Federal offense, and she is absolutely screwed.

The Internet has effectively destroyed her life in a matter of hours, and she could have avoided it if she’d just been polite and anteed up $130 dollars.

And you know what? Based on her actions, her contemptuous response to that unrewarded blogger, she’s one of those people you run across occasionally who really deserves it.

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Grilled Cheese in My World

It starts small. You have a singular craving, something which is supposedly simple and easy to achieve – the creation of a grilled cheese sandwich. And yes, I realize that at first this seems like a simple thing, but it turns out it’s about the effort to fulfill a desire that is purportedly easy within our culture.

For some reason today I found myself craving a grilled cheese sandwich. This is not particularly odd as I personally adore cheese and, during my vegetarian phase, often resorted to it as a staple. Crunchy butter-toasted bread, awesome cheesy goodness within – forget hamburgers, this is the food that I really wanted.

And occasionally I find myself needing to fill that “Grilled Cheese Void” even now.

Trivial, you say. Go buy a loaf of bread and a hunk of cheese, fry the sucker up and you’re done…

Except it’s *me* who’s making it.

So, having decided I wanted that particular sandwich, with appropriate accompaniments, I was forced to set off on a mission.

It started with the Soup…

A grilled cheese sandwich is nothing without an appropriate accompaniment that provides dip-able goodness, so I needed to fabricate a soup. Since this was the part that would take the longest I tackled it first. Into a deep pot went onions, celery and carrots, a fine base to build flavor on. After the veg had colored I tossed in some stock that I’d previously frozen – and a soup was born. It was a bit weak, so into that brew went a load of spices and a few bits of random dried pasta that were lying about. A hit from my stick blender brought it moderately together. I had proto-soup, but it wasn’t quite there yet.

Meanwhile, I needed to deal with the bread. I don’t buy bread – I make it. So, into my stand mixer bowl went a cup of flour and a tablespoon of yeast, followed by a cup-and-a-half of hot water. An hour later I has a fabulously fragrant sponge to which I added another two cups of flour and teaspoon of kosher salt. On to the stand mixer, which thanks to a dough-hook blended the mass into a cohesive whole. Another ten minutes of old-fashioned-hand kneading and I had the beginnings of the loaf I needed.

The soup had cooled, so I moved it to my refrigerator for the next hour or so, wanting it to be thoroughly chilled. The stick blender had done a good job, but not good enough. This was going to need a serious mulching from my traditional blender. I gave it that, and then some. A pinch more salt. Some generic curry powder. A bit of hot sauce. Suddenly the soup had a WOW quality – not great as a standalone product, but just perfect as the accompaniment for my nascent sandwich.

Before we go on let’s clarify. I wanted a simple sandwich with a tasty side – thus far I had built a soup and created proofing dough. Another hour passed. The dough wasn’t rising aggressively (not surprising given that the weather out here has shifted to cold and wet – yeast doesn’t like this atmosphere). I shifted gears and went to work on the grilled cheese filling. In my fridge was a hunk of aged cheddar, some “at the end of its’ life” mozzarella, and various bits. I did *not* start with the cheese. Instead, I decided the base of the filling needed to be a tomato concassaee. That’s the tomato flesh stripped of its skin, emptied of the internals, diced into small bits. So I proceeded to blanch the globes, denude them, and chop.

Now I moved onto the cheese. A little block of cheddar met my box grater defiantly, but fell easily. A similar chunk of real (not processed) mozzarella followed (it fought me desperately but was ultimately shredded). This filling still lacked punch. Ah! Kalamata olives were hiding at the back of the fridge. A dozen, chopped within an inch of their lives, provided both salt and sharpness to the filling. A few grinds of pepper and I had my core.

Meanwhile, the bread dough rose, and I was reduced to a waiting game. An hour passed and I knocked out the dough and transferred it to a loaf pan. Another hour passed, and then two. Finally, the mass had risen sufficiently to warrant baking. Into the oven it went. Five hundred degrees to start with, immediately reduced to four-twenty-five. Forty minutes to bake, and nothing I could do to speed the process.

Later. Bread. Done. Cooling on one of my baker’s racks. A pause. Thirty minutes for the loaf to set.

And now the finale. The loaf cooled, my serrated knife tore through it. I slathered one interior side with Dijon mustard, the other with roasted garlic puree I had stashed in the fridge. Between them I slathered the mix of cheese, olives and tomato. I pressed the slices together passionately. On the outer sides I applied a liberal coating of butter while I heated a non-stick pan to *incendiary*.

With the pan at maximum heat, I slipped the sandwich into it. The roar of the sizzle filled the air. The nutty smell of browning butter was everywhere. It took less than a minute for one side of the nascent sandwich to brown to perfection.

Flip.

The pan roared as the second side hit the glowing cooking surface. Seconds passed, each one tortured by the fear that I was letting the bread remain on the grill too long, that the resulting creation might become burned. But I held out, trusting my instincts, believing in my ability to judge the done-ness without seeing it directly.

And I was rewarded.

A perfect, crisp exterior gave way to an oozing interior, each bite a complex song of crunch, tomato, cheese and olive. The ultimate grilled cheese sandwich. And when dipped in the warm soup…

Heaven.

I had achieved my goal.

And so it took me seven hours to cook a grilled cheese sandwich… Something which most folks take for granted as a “quick and easy meal”. The lesson here? Truly good food takes time. There is no substitute. What most people consider good is really just a mediocre approximation.

You may want to argue this point, but I’m not going to participate. See, I’m the one eating this awesome sandwich, with the astounding accompanying soup, and a casually created wasabi mayonnaise that gives the plate an added punch. I just *do not care* if you believe you’ve got a justifiable contrary position because this is a spectacular grilled cheese sandwich that makes me happy.

The only regret I have is that you’re missing out on it.

That’s my literary two cents worth on the meal I just had. Your mileage will vary.

Me? It’s been awesome.

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Scott Pilgrim vs Me

Well I finally managed to get around to seeing “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World”, and the question that was on my mind when I started watching was “why did this movie do badly?” It had huge geek buzz, made an enormous splash at ComiCon, and was being touted as the “cannot fail” movie of the summer. And yet it tanked.

But the reason it fails is immediately obvious…

Michael Cera.

That’s it. The casting of the lead. I’ll grant you that the film is, in its editing, fairly unusual. The narrative can be a bit confusing initially, and it takes some time to become acclimated to the idea that we’re operating in a sort of alternate video-game universe (though I’m so far out of the movie’s demographic that I’m probably not competent to render an opinion). Now, in a few years, I don’t think folks will have a problem with this style, but at the moment it’s nascent, and the audience hasn’t really transferred the conventions of game narratives to passive entertainment. My guess is that people will eventually look back at this movie and consider it ground-breaking. The style is just running a few steps ahead of the zeitgeist.

But I’m also certain that folks will look back at this film and recognize that casting Cera in the lead was a horrible error, on par with the voice-overs that the studio demanded be appended to “Blade Runner” back in the day. While there can be little doubt that the film got green-lit partly because of Cera’s involvement, that’s just a clear indicator that the studio was imposing its perception of what a “lead geek” should be.

The basic mistake is that the “normal” folks running productions have a vision of what a geek is. Heck, maybe even Winter has a vision of the archetypical geek. What they didn’t get is that geeks *do not perceive themselves as geeks*. Geeks do not feel awkward, even though they are awkward. What they feel is that they’re normal, that they’re no different from the popular crowd, except that for some mysterious reason they’re not part of that crowd, and it makes them sad and/or pissed-off.

Geeks feel just as embarrassed by Scott Pilgrim’s ineptitude as normal folks do. They just don’t find any humor in it. The Borat-loving crowd may get a certain amount of amusement out of watching a geek fail, but they’re not going to emphasize with that character. Geeks watching a dude like Pilgrim just squirm – it’s too close to home.

And so Scott Pilgrim, while managing to be a cool movie, does not provide a cool central character.

Now let me get all writer-ish about this for a moment, because this is a really complicated problem to solve. These guys needed to create a character who was both a geek and an awesome dude. They needed to convince us to respect the guy even while he was bumbling about, make us feel sympathetic to his inability to connect to the *girl of his dreams*. And here’s the painful thing – they really managed to pull it off from a writing perspective…

And then some asshole decided that they needed to cast Michael Cera in the lead because he’s been typed as a geek. And that he needed to play to form as an uber geek.

Big. Freaking. Mistake.

What they needed to do was cast someone who was absolutely not a geek. If I had access to a time machine I’d have cast freakin’ Christian Slater – from the “Heathers” era – in the lead. They needed a lead who absolutely oozed coolness but “didn’t realize it”. Hell, I have a vague suspicion that Brandon (“It’s not my fault they cast me as Superman”) Routh was Winter’s original choice for the lead but got nixed and relegated to a lesser role. That would have worked amazingly well.

But instead, we get an actor who is so viscerally ineffective as a human being that we can’t accept his transformation.

Here’s the big secret… Geeks do not see themselves as un-cool. They see themselves as misunderstood. In their minds’ eye they’re Jedi freakin’ Knights who were born at the wrong time and in the wrong place. They’re absolutely not thinking of themselves as lame assed losers. And this is where Hollywood goes totally wrong in doing geek-centric movies, ultimately managing to alienate both the mainstream audience and the ComiCon crowd.

You can call this the “Peter Parker Phenomenon” if you like because Toby McGuire managed to pull off this transformation in “Spiderman”. A guy who starts off as a lame-assed-twit and, by the end of the movie, manages to transform himself into an awesome SOB. Cera, sadly, does not have the range or ability to affect the same transformation (nor does Winter have the capacity to fake it in post). Result? Lame dude is still lame after the climax (and we even get a scene where his sorta-ex-girlfriend has to prompt him to do what he should by now be doing for himself – I *do* blame the writers for that bit of business by the way, but then again they may have had no choice in writing it).

Bottom line – Scott Pilgrim could have been a blockbuster. All it needed was a strong lead actor who could pull off “unintentionally un-cool” for the first half and then drop that affectation for the second half. Instead they cast someone who remains one-hundred-percent-un-cool throughout, and so the film dove into the ground at a thousand miles an hour.

I should mention that I have exactly the same issue with “Kick Ass”, but that movie managed to overcome the limitation simply by abandoning the geeky lead entirely in the second half, changing gears so that the twelve-year-old “Hit Girl” suddenly becomes the protagonist. Structurally a total gum-up, but it rescued the movie. “Scott Pilgrim” was not so fortunate.

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