Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Rules of the Unreal (The Thing)

Last week I finally got around to watching John Carpenter’s 1982 horror/sci-fi joint The Thing. I say “finally” in a couple of different senses, one being that I had originally planned on incorporating it into my Spooktoberfest gorge on monster movies and beastly books last fall, but ended up running out of days in the month. In the moment I consoled myself with the thought of putting off The Thing until winter, with the prospect of freezing temperatures and maybe even snow making an even better real-life backdrop for a movie set in Antarctica. Ironic, then, that last week was unseasonably warm for February. Whattayagonnado.

But there’s also the “finally” implicit in the movie being thirty years old and all up in my wheelhouses (and incidentally listed amongst the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) and yet unwatched by me until now. Yes, the film is both horrific and science-fantastic, and yes it stars Kurt Russell, whom I am geek-credo obligated to love for such pillars as Escape From New York and Big Trouble In Little China (but whom I will also stridently defend as the best thing about everything from Sky High to Death Proof) but I also have to make special mention of the special-effects wheelhouse, as well. Theoretically there could have been a Kurt Russell showcase in a tense, speculative film where everything otherworldly was suggested and never shown onscreen, but The Thing is not that movie. It puts all manner of special-effects grotesquerie in front of the camera’s lens, and I officially love it for that.

EYESTALKS!
To directly address the elephant in the viewing room, these three-decade old special effects are best described as “quaint”. Lots of latex and puppetry coated in homebrewed goop to make everything a bit more viscerally nightmarish. But they totally worked for me, despite how glaringly low-tech they were (or possibly because of how low-tech they were, as I believe I’ve made my antipathy towards too much CGI in the likes of Hulk and Avatar abundantly clear in the past). Part of the success is directly attributable to how audacious the effects are. (Spoilers coming, I guess. Going into the movie I already knew about the human-head-with-spider-legs picture above, but I didn’t know about this next part, so I think a warning is only fair.) Whether it’s faithfully realistic or totally cartoonish, there’s plenty of shock value in seeing a dude’s stomach open up like a jack-o-lantern mouth and chomp off the arms of the doctor performing CPR on him, and that’s what I expect to get out of my time investment when I check out a flick like The Thing. So well done there.

The other (admittedly subjective) element which makes the old-fashioned special effects appealing to me is that when I was a kid I was borderline obsessed with that kind of fantastical movie magic. I used to get excited when the local PBS station would have its pledge drives because that meant a high probability of being able to catch a making of Star Wars documentary they dragged out for the occasion every year, which positively fascinated me with the behind-the-scenes glimpses of how the creatures in the cantina were created. I checked books about Lon Chaney out of the library with alarming regularity and seriously considered F/X makeup as a career path. I was the kind of ten-year-old who actively enjoyed painstakingly applying prosthetic ears and nose and fangs and facepaint to be a werewolf on Halloween. The point being that The Thing came out when I was eight, which means it uses some bleeding-edge-at-the-time techniques to portray its titular shapeshifting alien, exactly the kind which were impressive as hell when I was most enthralled by exactly those kinds of tricks of the trade. So watching the movie in the year 2012 was retro, but in the most charming way possible.

(And speaking of retro charm, I have to also say that I never fail to be amused by the way that John Carpenter thinks that computers should work, which seems to be predominantly informed by Batman comics.)

The narrative itself is a little more problematic, which is not so much the fault of the storytelling as the premise itself. The Thing follows in a long and rich tradition of tales in which the protagonists spend much of their time simply trying to figure out what exactly they are up against, while the antagonist leisurely picks them off one by one. This is well-covered territory, encompassing everything from Alien to Nightmare on Elm Street to Buffy the Vampire Slayer (to name a few of my personal faves), and they all primarily hinge on one assumption: that there are rules which can be figured out, and that abiding by the rules can lead to the victory condition. Probably the most famous setpiece in The Thing is the blood test, when Kurt Russell takes samples from everyone else at the base and sticks a hot needle into each petri dish, believing (correctly, as it turns out) that if anyone is really the Thing in disguise the blood will react like an independent living thing to being burned. Of course as soon as that happens, the doppelganger given away by the test proceeds to freak out, morph into a monster, and go on a killing rampage. It’s highly effective in the moment, the high note in the symphony of fear and paranoia the movie plays out, but it’s a little bit hard to make sense of it after the fact. The Thing seems to be operating throughout the movie under a deep fear of being discovered, but the more and more the researchers learn about it, the more invincible the Thing seems to be. It’s incredibly strong, ferocious and violent with unearthly malevolence. It can regenerate and assimilate other creatures using parts of itself as small as a single cell. What on Earth would it be afraid of? There seems to be a moment where the humans learn that the Thing’s weakness is fire, but as events progress it seems that fire only slows the alien down unless every cubic centimeter of the thing is burnt down to ashes; any biological matter inside its charred husk can infect someone with a touch and start the whole cycle over again. The finale of the film involves an attempt to blow up the entire Antarctic research station and sink the Thing beneath the ice, where it will go into suspended animation again and hopefully never be discovered and disturbed again. Which begs the question, if that’s the only way to stop it, why did the Thing give the researchers enough time to come to that desperate conclusion? Why not kill/assimilate them all in one predatory blitz without all the mindgames? It’s tempting to work up some kind of Darwinian (or possibly Dawkinsian) explanation that the Thing wants to propagate itself and the best way to do that is to quietly assimilate all the researchers, then have those dozen or so doppelgangers return to the mainland and spread exponentially, so wholesale slaughter is more of a last resort, but that is clearly WAY overthinking it.

Therefore I would recommend The Thing as more than deserving of its must-watch reputation, but I would add the caveat that it’s best not to expect it to make crystal clear logical sense, nor to even play by its own rules. It’s a grisly meditation on whether or not fear of the unknown is actually worse than death, and therefore it includes a supernatural terror which exists as pure plot device, capable of dealing out equal parts paranoid fear and bloody death not as means to nefarious ends but as ends unto themselves. Get past that, and it’s a disturbing yet crazy kickass ride.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Here's to you, Mr. Sturgeon

I had a thought recently, probably not a terribly original thought, but it’s taken hold in my mind and this is traditionally where I hash such things out.

WEIRD FISH WEIRD FISH
You may or may not be familiar with Sturgeon’s Law (though just the fact that you’re here reading this makes it pretty likely you are) but for those of you who don’t recognize the expression and also don’t like following links, the upshot is: ninety percent of everything is crud. It originated as a kind of defense of sci-fi as a genre, pointing out that there may be a lot of awful sci-fi out there, but if you think about it there’s a lot of bad music and bad tv and bad movies and bad books of all stripes, and genuine quality and artfulness is rare, and if you’re going to be dismissive of sci-fi because some or even most of it is trash, then you should be equally dismissive of every other genre in every other medium. And in fact, in the Epoch of Snark, there are plenty of people who embrace this philosophy wholeheartedly and are only too happy to point out the various ways in which 90(+)% of mass entertainment proves that human civilization is overdue for a mass extinction event.

There is something fatalistic yet oddly comforting about believing that “ninety percent of everything is crud” if you allow that to somehow justify an attitude of passive resignation. If you get in the car in the morning and drive half an hour to work, listening to the radio and wondering how the kids these days can call that noise music while waiting for the one song in ten that speaks meaningfully to you, then “ninety percent of everything is crud” places your aesthetic suffering in context. Ditto if your daily routine involves collapsing onto the couch during the part of the day between getting everything accomplished that needs accomplishing and going to bed. On certain nights you know exactly which channel to turn to at exactly which time for a show you enjoy watching, but the vast majority of the time you pass hour after hour flipping around looking for anything at all that crests above the tolerable threshold. It’s not ideal, but it makes sense, since the tube is only going to be broadcasting something non-cruddy ten percent of the time.

The thing is, that kind of passivity is kind of a relic, rooted in the idea that there are only two choices: schlock expressly designed with lowest-common-denominator pandering in mind, or nothing. But the availability of alternatives has exploded in every direction. We have a music industry that sells one song at a time from a near-infinite virtual inventory. We have DVRs, box sets of DVDs, and streaming video from the internet. There is very little reason to settle for what’s being offered via the distribution methods of least resistance when the overall time, effort and money required to dig a little deeper doesn’t register a significant difference.

And on top of that, we have more tools than ever before for gathering responses and building consensus and spreading the word about what’s crud and what isn’t. Of course everything tries to sell itself as worth your time, and everyone who tries to speak to that notion has their own agenda, whether they’ll profit directly from something being consumed or not. But with enough time and enough voices, something resembling objectivity emerges, a canon of classics which is utterly simple to look up in one form or facet or another. Information is all around us and it’s human nature to (attempt to) organize it.

Here’s the so-what: classics come along every once in a while, and forgettable dross pours out in a steady, constant stream. The 9:1 ratio is probably pretty immutable, but I’m starting to believe that’s somewhat irrelevant. Ninety percent of everything is crud, it’s true, but at this stage in the game, the early 21st century where all new releases instantly become part of the permanent archive, ten percent of everything is good AND it adds up; ten percent of everything ever is more than enough to fill every idle moment of the average person’s life. This is what has occurred to me recently. I could spend the rest of my life actively avoiding cruddy entertainment without really breaking a sweat, and I would never be bored, and I would never run out of things to consume.

In a way this is kind of a delayed revelation that I’ve been building toward for a while now, longer than the time I’ve been blogging. I’ve touched on it here and there; the 1001 Film Club is obviously one manifestation, as was last year’s pop-resolution attempt at reading 12 stone-cold classics of western lit. It’s the underlying impetus behind my slow transition away from buying comics off the stands every month, knowing full well that a big chunk would be intrinsically disposable, and over to the compilations and collections instead. It’s the reason I’m planning on re-reading George R.R. Martin, so that I can fully appreciate watching Game of Thrones on Blu-ray, which was pretty clearly in the top 10% of televised entertainment last year. And so on.

The trade-off, of course, is that if you work your way backwards through the ten percent good stuff of years (or decades)past, and always wait for the collective pop-culture society to deem things worthwhile before even checking them out, then obviously you’re living in the past. You miss out on the current conversation (assuming there is one), at least sometimes – in theory you can come in late on something awesome that’s going to continue to be an ongoing thing in the future, and you can track it in real time once you’re up to speed and be part of the water cooler discussions and so on. You also lose the possibility of discovering something that everyone else has overlooked but you personally think is phenomenal. I was plenty into that when I was younger, buying books literally based on their cover or albums solely because they were filed in the right part of the record store and the band name sounded cool, with no other advance knowledge going into the experience. Ninety percent of which turned out to be crud. But ten percent was at least interesting.

And of course, there are arguments to be made in favor of crud. To hyper-condense another thousand or so words, anything widely praised is likely to be inherently challenging in one dimension or another, which is an appropriate and important definition of “good” but not always exactly what one wants or even needs. I could go through life as a locavore vegetarian, too, and that would be easier and (arguably) pleasanter than ever, but I’m not about to give up pepperoni pizza or bacon double cheeseburgers no matter how bad for me I know they are. Sometimes after a long hard day of work and/or parenting my brain does not crave dazzling consciousness-expanding entertainment, it craves simple-to-digest pabulum.

So I’m not saying that I’m definitely going to forswear mediocre tv or flash-in-the-pan Cineplex blockbusters or dumb and pulpy fantasy trilogies and focus exclusively on modern legends and Oscar and Pulitzer winners. But it’s fascinating to me to think that I could, and sometimes just knowing that the option feasibly exists is worth holding in mind.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Construction Zone

The big excitement around the office as of some time last week is an ongoing construction project taking place on our floor. The end goal of this build-out is to reconfigure the entrances to our suite. At the moment there are certain physical security precautions in place between where the elevators let people off on our floor and where the actual work gets done, but insufficient security precautions for doing Secret-level classified work. (I will spare the details of what differentiates the two levels of precaution in the interest of national security.) Since many people in this office need to do classified-type work, the workaround since we all moved to this building last year has been to go to a different floor of the building (which does have the proper physical safeguards) whenever we need to get some secret work done. This is clearly less than ideal, hence the construction to address the root issue. When the work is completed, the classified equipment on the other floor can be relocated to within our suite, and everyone will be able to do all their work in one place (in theory).

Odds we all get locked in due to a citywide power outage someday?  50-50.
So there’s a zone of the office consisting largely of unfinished drywall and exposed joists and fluttering curtains of heavy plastic dropcloths and so on. Which would be unusual enough in and of itself, but as mentioned this zone happens to encompass the entrance to the suite, so any comings and goings by necessity have to pass through it. There are actually multiple doorways leading from the elevators to the suite, but they’ve been roped off with yellow and black Do Not Enter tape in turns over the past week or so, causing detours the long way around the suite. It’s odd and a little bit annoying, but again, usually things are so quiet and boring around here that at least it’s newsworthy.

Honestly, I will miss the split setup a bit. The secure area on the other floor is a windowless room with bare walls and cubicles, since no one works there even close to fulltime and thus no one customizes their work area. (Technically none of the work areas belong to anyone specific, and are available to anyone who needs them at any time, but of course we all tend to sit in the same places every time we end up there.) But it’s blessedly quiet, and sometimes I’ve taken advantage of an incredibly flimsy work-related pretext to head down there and just muck around with some busywork in order to get away from the rest of the office. Sad to think that could ever amount to something like a perk, but sadder still to think of that going away.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Closed off

Last night my wife and I had the closing on a mortgage refinance. It’s been in the works for a while but I haven’t really mentioned it much (at all) because it’s exceptionally dry stuff. We get to lock in a lower interest rate and we’ll end up shelling out about a thousand bucks less per year. Of course with the re-fi we’re starting the whole thirty year process over again after two years of progress, so that’s a trade-off, however abstract and theoretical since the year 2042 still seems like a science fiction milieu more than anything.

It's a beautiful diurnal cycle in the residi-complex ...
Then again on the other hand we could pay more than the minimum every month and get ahead of the curve faster with the lower interest rate, potentially. I don’t know exactly how easy or difficult it would be to make up 24 months, partially because I haven’t crunched the numbers (and don’t know exactly how to factor in jargon like “amortization”) and partially because it doesn’t really matter, re-financing at a lower interest rate while those low rates were still available seemed like the prudent and responsible grown-up thing to do and blah blha blah. It definitely doesn’t matter now because it’s all a done deal!

The loan company was nice enough to send a notary out to our house last night to collect the dozens of signatures across a mountain of paperwork required for the closing. And he was … interesting. I know I will in all likelihood never see the gentleman again in this lifetime, so what I ultimately make of him isn’t a critical matter, but these are the things that stick in my head sometimes.

I should back up and say the whole situation was a little strange. My wife was home with the kids yesterday and took them to a farm park in the afternoon, then had the laudable idea to swing by a local restaurant for takeout before heading home again. Said restaurant (a) has awesome Mexican food and (b) is supposedly going out of business very soon, two very strong reasons informing her planning. Unfortunately, the restaurant was not answering the phone at the time my wife tried to call ahead with the dinner order, so my wife simply headed west ahead of rush hour traffic and ended up getting Chipotle, which to be fair is always welcome. I, on the other hand, elected to stay a little later than usual at work since I didn’t need to pick the kids up at daycare but could stand to make up some leave time for the recent sick days. So I knew I would be getting home at about 5:45 and the notary would be arriving around 6, but fortunately Chipotle is something I can wolf down with gusto.

At any rate, the notary arrived right on time and I had inhaled my burrito grande but my wife was still finishing hers. The little guy had wandered away from the dinner table and the little girl was waiting patiently in the high chair for her feeding time to begin. Also the playroom was in its usual state of whimsical disarray while the kitchen’s array was in somewhat extra dis, since my daughter had scattered a pile of loose papers earlier and no one had gathered them up yet. The whole middle-of-dinner, house-a-mess vibe is generally one of those barometers for a relationship: totally fine if good friends stop by, to be avoided if you’re trying to make a good first impression on anyone else, excellent excuse to get solicitors off your doorstep, etc. It’s hard to say, though, where exactly the notary falls on that continuum. He’s a guest in our home, but representative of a necessary annoying formality, but one that we specifically opened ourselves up to … I probably should have felt worse about the inhospitable conditions, but I wrote it off to doing the best we could with our over-chaotic lives.

At the very least, I did remember to shoo the dogs out into the backyard before letting the notary in through the front door, though of course the dogs still went ballistic barking at the stranger they could see through the dining room’s sliding glass doors. Which the notary responded to with a peevish, “Oh, hush!” back at them. And I thought this was a little odd. Maybe it’s due in part to my ruminations earlier this week about how I’ve gone from cat-hater/dog-appreciator-at-a-distance to ark co-pilot, but I really do take for granted that you can generally assume most people like their own pets and a surefire way to ingratiate yourself to people you’ve just met is to slop metaphorical sugar on whatever critters might present themselves as such. Even if said critters take the form of noisy barking dogs, it only takes the bare minimum of self-awareness to acknowledge that most dogs are at least somewhat territorial and you are the invader on their turf. When I lived in a townhouse I confess I grew deeply annoyed with my neighbors who owned large and highly territorial dogs who would stand in their living room windows and bark at me and my dog as we walked down the sidewalk, but again, I knew it wasn’t the dogs’ fault that their owners had made a bad combination of small physical property and overprotective canine. And even that annoyance would have been misplaced if I had actually crossed the threshold into one of those neighboring townhouses.

And the sneering at our pooches might not even have left that much of an impression on me except that about halfway through the signing (which, I gratefully point out, only took about thirty-eight minutes total) the notary made a weirdly disparaging comment about how out eldest cat was almost too fat to fit through the cat door leading to the basement. Sure, we make fun of her swaggle-belly all the time, but she’s our cat. Borderline contemptuous mockery of family members, even four-legged ones, is not the ideal way to win people over.

Yet, again, what would have been the point in winning us over? His job was to get all the paperwork signed and good to go, and our job was to scribble next to every X he pointed out, and we got all that done. Just to top off all the weirdness, when we had finished the closing paperwork and the notary was ready to leave, I walked him to the door. Earlier I had led the way into the house, but this time I followed him. And that was when I noticed that he actually had a fair amount of difficulty walking, including a very stiff-legged gait which made stepping over and around things exceptionally perilous, and I came down decisively on the side of feeling terrible for not having tidied up better before he arrived, or at least cleared a better floorpath.

I’m not really sure what the takeaway for all this should be, if in fact there is any. Cut all living creatures some slack? That’s pretty much my life philosophy in a nutshell, so sure, let’s go with that.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Choppers

The other day at staff meeting my government boss asked me if the baby was feeling better (all my absenteeism lately has been because I need to stay home with a sick child) and I laughed and said she was fine, mostly. Then I explained that she was teething, and that she seems to be teething almost constantly, and sometimes it’s hard to tell whether she’s actually sick or just has a runny nose and general crankiness as side effects to cutting yet another tooth, but either way I can’t really remember the last time my wife and I were able to string together three consecutive nights of good, uninterrupted sleep, because if it’s not one thing it’s another.

I have to confess that I chose to unburden myself in that manner for a variety of reasons. Since my boss is a mother (whose actual diaper-changing days are far enough behind her that she no doubt looks forward expectantly to grandchildren) it’s a way to score cheap brownie points and/or sympathy. It also gave me another chance to reality-check the situation, because sometimes I think continuous teething for a baby who has eight pearly whites in plain view by the time she’s ten months old seems a bit outside of normal, and sure enough my boss was fairly astonished and assured me her children didn’t really get their teeth until they were a year old (though, again, that was decades ago so grain of salt and all).

There can be no doubt that the little girl is growing by leaps and bounds. Sometime recently she finally did get the hang of actual crawling on her hands and knees (as opposed to frantically pulling herself along on her stomach) and she’s gotten quite speedy in that mode of locomotion, so much so that her brother finds it sufficiently amusing to get down on all fours with her and race her. (He also tends to enjoy races that he is likely to win, but it has to at least feel somewhat like an actual contest of sorts.) She’s also eating new things, not necessarily every day (and most have the pretty standard menu of breast milk, Cheerios, bananas, and green beans or sweet potatoes) but certainly at a faster and less rigorously controlled clip than was imposed on the little guy. Neither their mother nor I have any food allergies, and we took caution to make sure the little guy didn’t either, but at this point we’re obviously not so concerned. Oh, second child, for better or worse you have a different experience than your trailblazing older sib. But when the calendar says it’s only about seven and a half weeks until we let the little girl smoosh chocolate cake in the general vicinity of her open mouth, I guess a bit more casual attitude is only to be expected.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Saved(?)

I’m between movie-viewings in the 1001 Film Club project right now, currently re-reading the first installment of The Kingkiller Chronicle, and avoiding buying any new comics lately as part of a general post-holiday, post-home-repairs/pre-spring-sprucing-up program of austerity, so the pickings are a little bit slim for new media upon which to fully geek out this week.

Even if I had a focal subject readily at hand, though, I’m not sure I’d be in the right frame of mind to dwell on it today. Word on the street is that Community is finally going to finish airing the rest of its season 3 episodes, and I am simply overcome with emotion.

GO GREENDALE
Well, technically, word on the street is that Community is going to be airing in its old 8 p.m. Thursday timeslot on March 15, so it’s still like three weeks away, and it’s strongly implied that the remainder of season 3 will play out over the course of the subsequent March, April and May Thursdays, but there’s really no guarantee there. NBC could freak out over low ratings after March 22 and just start airing outtakes from The Voice or something, I guess. Or the rest of season 3 could unfold as the best episodes of the entire series so far, building to a gut-wrenching cliffhanger to be resolved in season 4, and then the show could be cancelled over the summer and never heard from again. But I’m choosing a more optimistic interpretation. Community is coming back! Good times with awesomesauce.


P.S. Perhaps this goes without saying but if you've never watched Community and are at all swayed by the wailing and gnashing of teeth and/or I've done hereabouts, you could totally do me a solid by checking it out this spring, talking it up, and straight up stonecold bribing anyone you know who has a Nielsen box into tuning in as well.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Fur richer or poorer

It’s still strange to me to reconcile the fact that I have, technically, been the (co-)owner of five different cats over the course of the past six years. Two of them succumbed to illness, and three of them are still with us. Of those three, two are kittens and therefore have tons of time left on the clock, and one fully inhabits and embraces the role of grand old kitty dowager and will no doubt outlive us all. So yeah, a parade of felines through my home over the better part of a decade, and no end in sight.

This is weird because I grew up largely indifferent to cats until I became horribly allergic to them in my adolescence, which coincided with discovering the cottage industry of cat-hatred celebration. I owned a well-worn copy of 101 Uses For A Dead Cat in high school, which I found endlessly hilarious, because teenagers are stupid. I could have very likely gone my entire life with cats simply being Not My Thing, but for the fact that I fell in love with and married a veterinarian. And bringing home slightly misfit cats who have nowhere else to go is one of my wife’s occupational hazards, and I’ve accepted that to the point where I don’t even think about it day to day, and then when I do think about it, huh, look at that, it’s not just “my roommate has a cat” or something but “I have a bunch of cats”. I seriously considered cashing in some of my credit card reward points this quarter on a PetSmart gift card because we always seem to be running low on kitten chow.

All of which also leads to a question which is, have you guys seen My Cat From Hell on Animal Planet?

The name, the tats, the facial hair, the fashion sense ... it's like he's terrified of being mistaken for a Crazy Cat Lady for some reason.
Jackson Galaxy is not exactly the Mantracker but he is quite a watchable character nonetheless. It is fairly amusing to watch him go into situations where a cat is terrorizing its humans, and then proceed to tell the humans that it certainly isn’t the cat’s fault, ahem, ahem. (This pushes much the same button as when Jo on Supernanny sits down with the parents and explains that children don’t just spontaneously erupt in full-blown brattiness of their own accord, so the perceived appeal for you in one should indicate how much you’d find in the other.) My Cat From Hell also conveniently falls into the reality-category of “everything turns out fine” so there’s absolutely no tension in any given episode, as you know going into it all the players are going to live happily ever after no matter how many legs they have.

I think my wife enjoys My Cat From Hell because it consistently pushes the message that cats are living creatures who do a fair amount of (their own version of) thinking and feeling, all of which needs to be taken into account and respected for the cat’s own good. This of course stands in contrast to all the clients who come into her clinic looking to have their cats surgically or pharmacologically modified in some way, as if they were electronic appliances that broke at an inconvenient time. If everyone approached pet ownership the way that Jackson Galaxy advocates, my wife’s job would be immensely easier. But we don’t live in a perfect world, so when I’m flipping through the channel guide and see My Cat From Hell, the least I can do is offer my wife another chance to watch.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Little offsets

Friday really was not that bad of a day, all in all. I was home with two small, sick children but thanks to the wonder-drug properties of antibiotics the kids were pretty close to their usual pleasant selves. I spent a good bit of the morning responding to e-mails and a good bit of the afternoon doing laundry and other household chores. We all got through it, my wife came home, we put the kids to bed and ordered some pizza (which was extra cheap because of some crazy post-Super Bowl promotion Papa John’s had going online).

And the rest of the weekend went by much the same, with some belated Valentine’s Day celebrating on Saturday (dinner out and exchanging of gifts between my wife and I; she has some new jewelry and I have a working Blu-Ray player again, plus we discovered an excellent sushi place nearby, so that’s a multitude of wins) and some fun socializing on Sunday and a mixture of illness-rooted sleepless nights and blessedly uneventful nights seemingly devoid of rhyme or reason, but so it goes.

We gonna drink Blackstrap like it's ya birthday
Today is a federal holiday, but not a company holiday for my employer, so I had the option of working and chose to take it, mainly to offset last Friday. But of course this proved to be somewhat easier in theory than in practice. Things began auspiciously enough since I was able to get ready fairly quickly (no need to tie a necktie or even button up a dress shirt since it’s dress-down casual on working fed holidays) and leave the house slightly earlier than normal, then make my way out of town without incident and race down 66 thanks to all but unheard of lightness of volume. But about halfway to the Metro station I heard the traffic report on the radio and learned that Metro was doing scheduled track maintenance on the Orange Line and two of the stations between my starting point and destination were closed. This fact only briefly flitted through my consciousness, just long enough for me to be glad neither of those stations were places I needed to get to. (Note the heavy differentiation between “to” and “through”…)

There was plenty of parking at the Metro station, and I made my way down to the platform and only had to wait a minute or so for the next train. I took my seat and was trying to ignore the announcements while reading a book, but slowly it dawned on me that the Orange Line train was only going as far as the last station before the closures; apparently you can’t go to OR through those sites of maintenance work. At which point I belatedly realized that all the HOV restrictions were off for the day and I really should have just driven all the way to my office (I think a day’s parking downtown would even have been cheaper than two Metro rides and Metro parking – but then I wouldn’t have gotten to read!) but once I had my seat on the train it seemed all too onerous to go back up to the parking lot and resume the driving. So I rode it out, getting off the Metro at the end of the foreshortened line and following the crowd to the free shuttle buses that transported we few hardy souls a couple more stops down, back underground to the rail again and out the last few stops to my office’s neck of the woods. Of course all this time I was mentally grumbling imprecations in WMATA’s general direction for disrupting service on a Monday morning when come but not all folks get the day off, but even in the depths of my aggravation I realized that it’s better for Metro to fix things when they can rather than let them go until they break at the most inopportune time, not to mention the fact that I was taking the Metro to work because the VRE simply isn’t running at all today, so really thanks for nothing, VRE.

I ended up getting to work at the same time I always do, and the office was deathly quiet. Fortunately a couple of hours into the workday, my contracting boss (who never takes a day off, it seems) offered to buy everyone on the team lunch, so hey, free pizza, full circle and all that. I managed to put myself in a bit of a post-lunch food coma, which doesn’t do a whole lot for my productivity, but at least I still get credit for showing up and have saved a floating holiday for when I need one later.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Miasma

Best baby shower present evar
The little guy was complaining of pain in his ear last night and generally not at all himself, so my wife dutifully trundled both he and his sister into the pediatrician's office today. Both children now have ear infections (and general gunkiness, both respiratory and spiritual) which is a drag; the good news is that the little girl has been on antibiotics for four or five days now and her infection is showing definite signs of slow but steady improvement. At this point we are just waiting the germs out. I sense some serious Pixar movie marathons in the near future.

It seems entirely liely at this point that I will be taking the day off from work tomorrow to stay home with the sick munchkins, but I've bene on a pretty good roll with the blog posts this month so I will try to check in at some point and keep the streak alive.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Murder in black and white (Shadow of a Doubt)

I had a genuine moment of mental gear-grinding surprise when I was watching the special features on the Shadow of a Doubt DVD and people started talking about Alfred Hitchcock’s evident fascination with Americana, and I suddenly remembered that Hitchcock was an Englishman. He just seems so much like a figure of Americana himself, a monumentally huge part of the pop-culture landscape, as if he were born on a Hollywood backlot with an old-timey director’s megaphone in his hand instead of a rattle.

So of course I know who Hitchcock is, because pretty much everyone does, right? And I feel like I know him well, almost entirely by virtue of how large he looms. The fact is, I haven’t seen very many of his movies. Not Psycho, not The Birds, not North by Northwest, not The 39 Steps, not Vertigo, &c. &c. Before Shadow of a Doubt, the only Hitchcock movie I had watched all the way through was Rear Window. If I haven’t said it enough already, let me say it one more time: gaps like this are a big part of why I would sign up for something like the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die Blog Club in the first place.

We end up doubting ourselves most of all.
Shadow of a Doubt is interesting and worth watching for a couple of different meta-cinematic reasons. The first has to do with its time-capsule nature, filmed in 1943 and ostensibly set in that year (or close enough) as well. There’s an old-fashioned theatricality to the performances by all the actors involving penchants for monologues and crisp enunciation and overly broad facial expressions and so on. But ultimately that seems entirely fitting for a story that takes place in an era so distant to us now it might as well be another planet. Crucial plot points hang on technological developments (or lack thereof) available seventy years ago. (Spoilers ahead, but did I mention this movie came out seventy years ago?) Uncle Charles is being hunted based on suspicion alone, because no one is sure how well he matches the description of the Merry-Widow Killer, due to the fact that there are no photographs in existence anywhere of either of them. There is no internet, people get their news from the newspaper rather than an omnipresent sea of information all around us, and therefore Uncle Charles can hide something from his family by tearing out a section of broadsheet and stuffing it in his pocket. An attempted murder relies on a car that can have its engine started and continue idling with the key removed from the ignition. And so on. It’s a story set in a markedly different milieu, and it’s performed in a markedly different way from what we see today, so much so that whenever Hitchcock tried to create moments of normalcy or realism with multiple actors speaking over each other, those were the parts I found jarring.

The other intriguing aspect of the film is the psychological game that Hitchcock plays with the audience. The title, after all, is Shadow of a Doubt, and I found myself meditating on that title throughout much of the running time. Uncle Charles is introduced in a low-key but fairly sinister way, and the implication seems obvious that he’s up to no good … but then there’s that title hanging over the whole thing. Everything in the beginning is ambiguous enough that it’s plausible Charles hasn’t done anything wrong and is being unfairly persecuted. The evidence steadily mounts that Charles is the Merry-Widow Killer, but virtually all of it is circumstantial, so the doubt persists, all of which reinforces the fact that most of the movie is told from the perspective of his niece Charlie, who slowly begins to connect the dots herself. Even when Uncle Charles is actively trying to cover his tracks by murdering Charlie, I still found myself on the edge of my seat not only to see if Charlie would escape but to try to figure out if clues were being dropped which would allow the ending to deliver a colossal twist in which Uncle Charles was innocent all along, the homicidal incidents were accidents, and the creeping paranoia had always been a trick of shadows and smoke. The doubt persisted long past the point it probably should have, largely due to the carefully selected words Hitchcock chose to put at the beginning of the credits. That’s not a half-bad trick.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

But it's still better than renting

OK, so: front entryway ceiling in need of replacement, estimates obtained, work scheduled for two appointments including a three-or-four hour block on Saturday to take down the old ceiling, put up new drywall sheets, and mud over the seams, to be followed after a few days of air-drying by another two-or-three hour block to put up a second coat of mud. Fair enough.

Or so we thought, going into this past Saturday morning. As mentioned yesterday, the baby didn’t sleep well on Friday night and neither did her parents, but we managed to rouse ourselves out of bed and go downstairs and have breakfast by the time the contractor showed up as promised at our house. Since the work was going to involve a fair amount of dust and debris and power tools and whatnot, all in the area of the house adjacent to the front room/living room/play room where we would normally while away a Saturday morning, we decided the best course of action was to hide out upstairs for the duration of the work. The little guy has nearly as many toys in his bedroom as in the play room at this point, our master bedroom has cable tv and a dvd player, the little girl would hopefully take a mid-morning nap … how hard could it be?

Not hard if everything had gone according to plan, but of course nothing ever does. The contractor was at our house until some time after 5 p.m., so about nine hours and change total. My wife, who had previously made plans which weren’t anticipated to overlap with the ceiling repair appointment, actually left the house, had lunch, went to a wine tasting, and came back, and the work in the entryway was still going. I herded the kids downstairs for a quick lunch and then got them back up out of the way again. By late afternoon you could barely walk flat-footed in the little guy’s room, for all the cars and building blocks and jigsaw puzzles and books and other diversions strewn around his bedroom/confinement cell.

Fortunately, the contractor called it a day right before we reached the breaking point. He did manage to do everything that was supposed to be done in the first appointment, so we’re still on schedule for the overall project. And I’m optimistic that the second visit will hew closer to the estimated plan than the first, because according to the contractor the thing that really slowed him down was the sheer amount of random crap littering the space between the upstairs floor and the entryway ceiling, making the whole clean-as-you-go aspect of the take-down-the-old-ceiling step significantly more difficult. I’ve seriously lost count of the number of times (both here on the blog and in real-life conversations) I’ve lamented the half-assed home maintenance habits of the folks we bought our house from. There’s still no denying they were very much a slapdash-it-yourself couple, but the contractor’s revelation about construction debris in the innards of the house makes me wonder if the entire property isn’t somehow cursed. The previous owners didn’t build the house with their own hands, after all, so we’re talking about two separate and distinct groups of people who made structural contributions to our home with very little foresight in evidence, who set things in motion that I have to deal with later on, either in working around them or losing entire days to letting professionals work around them. I can hardly imagine what other mad discoveries we’re bound to make the longer we live there.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Fumes

At various points over the course of the weekend, I tried to get a couple of mental reminders to stick in my own brain. One was to charge the portable DVD player and load it with the DVD for the next of the 1001 Films on my to-watch list. Another was to put together something like a reasonable lunch for Monday, since I’m running a little low on stockpiled meals here at the office. Of course, the whole weekend blew on by in a hurry (for various reasons both typical and out of the ordinary, some of which I will explain below) and my mental reminders went unheeded. Nevertheless, somehow, in the midst of getting ready for work this morning in the usual amount of time I allot myself for the task, I managed to shove some leftover rotisserie chicken in a baggie, and gather up all the parts of the DVD player as well as the aforementioned Netflix selection, and still make it to the train on time. No doubt there’s some kind of metaphorical life lesson about wasting time inefficiently trying to get ahead when the last minute breeds perfectly acceptable results, but I am way too tired to suss it out right now.

The big development of the weekend was a nasty illness afflicting the little girl. She was up and down and up and down with screaming fits all through the night on Friday, but my wife and I assumed it had to do with teething and resolved to give her some infant analgesic the following night to take the edge off. But even with a dropperful of ibuprofen in her system, the little girl’s Saturday night was every bit as rough as Friday, so Sunday entailed a trip to the urgent care where she was summarily diagnosed with an ear infection. Not terribly shocking, and as my wife so aptly pointed out, in reality the little girl is kind of a slacker because she’s ten months old and finally getting her first ear infection, whereas her big brother had his first at four months. (Even less surprising when you consider that the little guy was born in the fall and was four months old as of January; this has been a milder winter but we’ve hit the coldest part of it now and lo, the head colds and complications arrive like clockwork.) Our daughter had her double-dose of antibiotics yesterday and a painkiller parfait of both ibuprofen AND acetaminophen last night, but still couldn’t sleep in a horizontal position for much more than an hour at a go before the pressure would build up in her ear and make her cry out miserably. She’s fine, happy and intermittently energetic when she’s awake in the daytime, sitting up or pulling herself to standing or whatnot, but the nights have been the suck. So there’s that.

On a positive note, now that she’s being properly medicated she could theoretically turn the corner at any moment. But in the mean time my wife is engaged in the heroic work of holding down the fort at home with a slightly needy baby and a very needy three-and-a-half year old who maddeningly dials it up to eleven when he suspects his sister might be getting a little extra coddling for some unfathomable reason. Meanwhile I’m at work on my normal routine schedule, but if the blogging goes a little light and low-content this week, you now know the primary reason why. But hopefully I’ll be able to check in semi-regularly with more info about the crazy weekend and such.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Unintentional Portmanteau

(The following random anecdote contains a bit of rude and ribald wordplay. If your sensibilities are incredibly easily offended, feel free to skip this one. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

Sometimes when I think about my recent woes with retaining information (like names and plot turns from books I’ve read, necessitating re-reads) I wonder if it’s a simple case of space limitations within my old brainpan: new data displaces old data. And certainly becoming a parent has dramatically increased the amount of vital information I need to hold onto in my day-to-day mental schema, but it has also multiplied the amount of trivia stored in the folds of gray matter. Because I enjoy taking an interest in the things that interest my children, and I’ve managed to capture the names of Cars characters from the indispensable to the insignificant, partly to satisfy myself and partly because the little guy’s default setting is to expect me to know these things as well as he does, if not better.

This reminds me of when I was a kid, older than the little guy is now, more like nine or ten years old, and the sprawling cast of fictional characters I was most conversant with was G.I.Joe. Watched the cartoon, collected (and ardently played with) the action figures and vehicles, and constantly updated my mental inventory of the toys I didn’t have but hoped to obtain. Typical American male child circa 1983, in other words.

My father remembered when G.I. Joe was the name of one guy, not an entire special missions force fantasia, but he made a game enough effort to keep track of the codenames and weapons of choice for the various little plastic men who overran his house. But sometimes, of course, game enough falls just a little short of success, and even a slight misstep can have unintended consequences.

To wit … here are a couple of classic 1980’s Joes:

You may already see where this is headed.
On the left we have Snowjob. As you can tell by his snazzy white parka and matching skis, his military specialization was arctic missions. He also (according to the bio sketched out in his personnel file on the back of his packaging) was something of a con artist, hence his codename. On the right, that’s Blowtorch, whose niche within the team also serves as his self-evident nom du toyetic guerre. All innocent enough (jingoism notwithstanding) and all in good fun. I knew these characters well – I can’t swear to owning either of these action figures, but surely some of my friends did, my Little Bro might have counted one or the other among his half of our not-exactly-shared collection, and they certainly both figured prominently in various episodes of the cartoon. And just as certainly, they managed to infiltrate my dad’s consciousness as well. Sort of.

So one night, when my dad was trying to hustle me and/or my Little Bro towards our evening bath, he exhorted us to hurry up and gather whatever toys we wanted to play with in the tub. And he started rattling off the names of specific G.I.Joes, and got the first couple of them right: “Go on, grab your Shipwreck and your Snake-Eyes and your Blowjob …” The two things I remember most clearly about the immediate aftermath of that unexpected addition to the Joe roster were understanding completely how my father got Snowjob and Blowtorch mixed up and melded while shouting out free-associative string of compound words, and simultaneously turning bright red while utterly failing to conceal any kind of outward reaction to the utterance of a dirty word. At nine or ten years old I truly had no idea what exactly a blowjob was, I just knew it had something to do with sex and wasn’t the kind of thing you talked about in front of children if you were a grown-up, or your parents if you were a kid. If one of my peers had said the exact same thing I would have screamed with laughter, again just because of the taboo violation and not because I had any concept of the reference. But given voice by my father, of all people, it left me absolutely dumbstruck.

Really it’s not so much a question of if but when I am going to fall into a similar pitfall as my father did. There are very few subject matters I naturally shy away from, and just about the only area in which I’ll willingly censor myself is in dealing with my children. So the chances of my usual mental habits overriding my self-imposed artificial restraints, especially when there’s some kind of humorous overlap or juxtaposition, ultimately trend toward absolute certainty. I’ll be sure to call myself on it and report it here when the inevitable comes to pass.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Bad Robots

Sooner or later they all rise up.
This is the little guy’s latest obsession. Well, not pixellated webcomics per se, but the subject matter above: bad robots. Not only does he bring them up often (and almost equally often, apropos of nothing) but they show up in the freestyle artwork he brings home from daycare. At this stage in his neuro-motor development his renderings consist entirely of monochromatic marker scribbles, but when we ask him “oh, what is this a picture of?” the answer is generally some variation on “bad robots”.

On one hand I find this really fascinating because it taps into an interesting element of geek morality. With all the tropes of action-adventure and problems-solved-through-violence inherent in everything from comic books to video games, there comes a point at which you have to ask if it’s really ok for the supposed hero to deal so heavily in carnage and death (perhaps exemplified best in the Clerks-esque discussions of all those faceless stromtroopers who are annihilated when the Death Star explodes). But there are ways around that kind of moral thorniness. Zombies are a standout example, embodying bad guys who are (a) already dead and (b) impossible to stop without destroying and also (c) capable of making the case that destroying them is actually a kind of mercy. Robots, or certain versions thereof, are very similar: lifeless, mindless, and plausible enough to throw at the good guy in automaton hordes, allowing the good guy to cut loose with wild abandon and dismantle them with untroubled hyperviolence.

The little guy has the capacity for hyperviolence, of that I have little doubt. He’s been known to very calmly, sweetly even, confess to my wife, “Mommy … I just like hitting.” So by all means, if he wants to channel that aggression toward the destruction of bad robots, this is in my view something to be encouraged (as long as the boundaries implied are rigorously observed). But the funny thing is, I certainly didn’t plant this particular idea in the little guy’s head. I have no idea from whence it springs. I have to assume he picked it up at school, the only time he’s really receiving ideas unobserved by either his mother or myself. Some other little boy who has an older sibling into Transformers no doubt suggested fighting bad robots on the playground and it just clicked into the little guy’s receptive imagination.

At the Super Bowl party we all attended, my buddy Clutch dragged out many toys (his own, for he’s a man after my own heart) for the kids, including Rock’em Sock’em Robots, which the little guy was of course instantly drawn to. I was amused by the fortuitous coincidence myself, and acquiesced several times when the little guy wanted to pull me away from the football game in the living room and over to the robo-deathmatch game in the playroom. The game was one of the newer editions, not an antique from the 60’s, yet inevitably still prone to the same mechanical limitations as always. I found these worked to my advantage, though. The little guy and I would both flail away at the punch controllers in a very loud stalemate, and whenever I decided I had had enough I would just shake the movement lever back and forth as hard as I could, which was generally sufficient to unhook the catch inside my robot’s head and cause it to sproing upward, at which point I could tell the little guy “You win!” and everyone was happy. Of course, this is a matter of some contention in the household at the moment, whether or not three, almost three-and-a-half is an age at which we shouldn’t always let the little guy win, and at which we should expect him to play games by their established rules and not make up his own, but that’s something to be settled another day (or which very well may simply settle itself).

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Laughing last

I’ve been having a bit of a tough time concentrating today, as the weather forecast was for snow, which tends to play havoc with the VRE and its exposed-to-the-elements rails. Said havoc generally takes the form of a slow crawl, true, but today is one of my days to pick up the kids from daycare and therefore getting home expediently is kind of important. At this very moment, it hasn’t started snowing yet, and if it holds off for another hour or so I should be all right. But in the meantime, I keep glancing nervously out the window every twenty minutes or so, and a profound and meaningful blog post has (unsurprisingly) failed to materialize under those circumstances.

So lacking anything really deep to haul out and overthink, I might as well weigh in on the latest geekosphere brouhaha, which is the recent announcement that DC Comics is going to publish new stories set in the world of the Watchmen, set (by necessity) in the same time periods as some of the flashback sequences in the landmark original series, since a true sequel set after the events in the seminal story would be (even more) pointless. The original creators of Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, are not involved creatively with these prequel-y tie-in naked cash grabs. Gibbons is supposedly pretty cool with them, though; notoriously cranky Moore is not.

I’m of two minds about it. They are transparent attempts to milk fans for more money. They may very well be inferior, head-scratcher trifles at best or aggravatingly awful at worst. I don’t think they represent an artistic crime against Moore as a person or Watchmen as a book, and would just as soon see them judged on their own merits and flaws as opposed to whether or not they stand up to comparison with their forebear (doubtful) or whether or not they tarnish its legacy (only if you let them, is my pre-emptive take).

I’m also certainly not going to rush out and buy all of the new Before Watchmen comics as they’re released, not only because I’m really out of the weekly comics shop habit but because the idea of exploring or deepening that world doesn’t appeal to me all that much. I’m not standoffish from the idea because I’m taking some kind of moral highground about creators’ rights or the integrity of classics or anything like that. I’m just not salivating at the thought of Watchmen spinoffs, not even to the same minor degree I was salivating in anticipation of the Watchmen movie a couple years ago (which I ended up acquiring the director’s cut of on DVD, but have yet to actually get around to viewing, read into that what you will).

But at the same time, it’s such an unusual, arguably unique moment in the history of American comics, that I have a high level of curiosity about the execution, if not the content. And, admittedly, a little bit of that undying collector’s need to hold a bit of the moment physically in my hands. And if I were going to fork over a few bucks just to get my own first-hand experience of what-were-they-thinking, I already know which title would end up in my collection:

I'm honestly amazed we haven't seen more 'reboot = rape' jokes, considering.
And not because it’s the perviest cover (not just because of that, at any rate). What occurs to me is that, within the narrative of the original Watchmen, Comedian is the archetypal sellout. When the conflict came down to the government on one side and masked mystery men on the other, Comedian betrayed his teammates and became a lackey of The Man. It’s one of the dominant themes that defines him in the story.

Now we get Before Watchmen, which is fully deserving of having the term “sellout” bandied about in the same breath. Just how meta will the sellout miniseries about the most sellout character in Watchmen end up being? It’s very possible that it could wind up subtext-free and just superficially expound upon how Eddie Blake became a high-level CIA assassin and put on some weight. But there’s also the potential there for some crazy self-aware inside jokes – it is the Comedian, after all. I could see giving that a whirl.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Extra tech support

Right then, after yesterday’s victory dance, let’s get back to talking about work, shall we? Don’t get me wrong, I could keep talking quite a bit about the Super Bowl party (spirited discussions of Bill Belichick’s coaching strategies to inspire championship performance, including black bag operations against players’ loved ones and dealings with dark eldritch soul-thiefs) and the fallout of the party (my wife and I were in headed for bed by 9:30 last night, and that was later than we had intended) but at a certain point even I acknowledge enough is enough already.

To those of you who wound up here because you Googled 'Bill Belichick + Mind Flayer' ... you're welcome, nerds!
OK, now it’s enough.

I’ve long accepted the fact that the specialist knowledge-gap between myself and my co-workers is a double-edged sword. I’m indispensible (as much as that means anything in our insecure modern economy) because no one else knows how to do what I do, and I’m given lots of leeway to do what I do in my own way and on my own time because, again, no one else knows the nuts and bolts of what I’m doing, how long it should take, &c. On the other hand, I’m isolated, and when I run into a problem there’s no one else I can turn to for assistance (or even sympathy, really). But, as I said, that’s my lot, and I will take it, even when attempting to bridge the aforementioned gap gets odd.

It’s not that odd when I have to perform contorted mental translations while discussing things with my contracting boss, who for example will refer to a web application as a database, which to me only refers to one component of the application but to him basically sums up the whole purpose of the app as a collection of information. At least I can wrap my head around how he defines terms, and I’m not so screamingly pedantic as to try to correct him. We manage to overcome the point-of-reference barrier more often than not.

It’s also not that odd when I get asked questions about things which are epically outside of my expertise, because if no one understands exactly what I do, then no one is going to understand where what I do stops and other things, similar only by virtue of being “techie”, begin. I’m so used to this phenomenon by now that I have a fairly robust set of boilerplate replies to deploy at a moment’s notice which convey that I understand the question but can’t speak to the answer, which I regret while simultaneously completely understanding why the question was brought to me in the first place. I may think like the stereotypical Office Computer Guy but I strive not to project those thoughts too loudly.

No, what’s odd is when I get the creeping feeling that I’m the only one in the room who knows the most fundamental basics of computer operation. Elementary web programming is almost laughably easy, once you take the time to learn the ropes, but I can understand how baffling it may seem to an outsider. And the intricacies of relational databases, or the various mutable factors affecting server performance, those really are things which a non-specialist has absolutely no reason to possess any insight into whatsoever. But in this far-flung outpost of the computer age known as the year 2012, I guess I expect everyone who works in the Big Gray’s office setting to know his or her way around Microsoft Windows and its productivity software. Yet just this week my boss was expressing some concerns to me about updating one of our web apps, which would require a review and rewrite of the content, although the original storyboards for the content seemed to be locked such that people couldn’t update them. He forwarded the material to me and it turned out that the storyboards were just PowerPoint slides and the files in question were read-only. It’s really not that hard to get around that, yet I found myself explaining to my boss how Save As would do the trick while hoping that I wasn’t going to have to pay later for being condescending. It looks like I needn’t have worried about the last bit, which is right back to the double-edge again: I’m happy to help, I just can’t believe anyone else needs that kind of assist.

The good news overall, of course, is that if all of this mystifying file editing gets sorted out, I may end up with actual updates to make to an actual web application, which is always good for my intermittent efforts to rack up accomplishments I can put on my next annual review. But as with all things government agency-related, there’s an awful lot of ground to cover between where we are now and that hypothetical future point, so we shall see.

Monday, February 6, 2012

The sweet smell of Lombardi

There’s really not much to tie the Super Bowl last night to work today, except how dreadful it was to hear the alarm go off this morning after the unstinting overindulgence of the night before. I think (amazingly enough) that I’ve gone all these years here at the blog without mentioning this, but for years I maintained a very serious position that three new, secular holidays should be added to the corporate year: Ash Wednesday, March 18th, and the Monday after the Super Bowl. That way people could go out and enjoy Mardi Gras, St. Patrick’s Day and the NFL Championship as they were intended to, relatively unmindful of the consequences. Now that I have two children and don’t drink-drank-drunk the way I used to, I’ve softened quite a bit on the Ash Wednesday and March 18th propositions, but I’m still fairly certain post-Super Bowl Monday should be a national day of rest.

Of course, as alluded to given my happy family-man lifestyle shift, the overindulgence last night for me consisted of drinking two whole beers and eating lots of chicken wings and various other snacks. I actually felt more fryer-fat-hungover than alcohol-hungover this morning. Neither one makes it easy to roll out of bed at 5 a.m., though. Thank goodness for my mindless daily routines which allowed me to autopilot through one step at a time and get to the office in approximate normalcy. But again, that’s pretty much all I can say work-related, though hopefully you won’t blame me because come on GIANTS WOOOHOOOOOO!

The game was good, although I was slow to warm up to it, as I had a tough time shaking off the feeling that the Giants’ hot streak would finally fall apart and the Patriots would mercilessly dismantle everything that had previously been working for them. I completely missed the coin toss and the kickoff, as I was still circulating through the kitchen and grazing, but once the Giants started showing evidence of some gas still being left in the tank, I got progressively more and more into it – at least as much as juggling the little guy and littler girl allowed. My wife actually did a huge amount of the kid-wrangling, and I can only hope to repay her by running myself ragged during next year’s Super Bowl party which I am simply going to assume will feature the Steelers in the title game because that’s the way it seems to go around here. I do wholeheartedly believe that my wife’s bandwaggoning for the G-Men was a crucial element of their winning formula, and I hope I’ve been sufficiently expressive of my thanks for that. At any rate, the four members of my nuclear family cheering section made it all the way to the end of the party (which, apparently, means not just the end of regulation but the MVP award, although our consensus was that the defensive corps deserved it more than Eli, but you know, drop in a bucket); the little girl fought sleep with all her miniature might and didn’t pass out until the waning minutes of the fourth quarter, whereas the little guy seemed ready to talk to me for the entire car ride home until he finally conked out maybe fifteen minutes shy of pulling into the garage. As an added bonus, both kids stayed asleep going from car seats to respective bed/crib. I walked the dogs, turned on SportsCenter to watch the highlights of the game I had just finished watching live, and tried to go to sleep at about 11:45 (although I was so wired that when the baby started crying at about 12:30 a.m. I had only barely dozed off). See above re: alarm clock pain.

I understand from the online chatter today that it was not the best of years for Super Bowl commercials, which was the distracted impression that I got as well. I did spot one trend which no one else seems to be talking about: urban zip lines? Was it just me who noticed that not only was an urban zip line the piece de resistance in Seinfeld’s Acura ad, but also that there was a random zip line running through the street party in the “I Believe In a Thing Called Love” Samsung spot? Is this a thing the kids who live in the hipster neighborhoods are actually setting up, which I would know about if I didn’t live in the boonies subordinate to a notoriously unhip city?

JUSTIN F'ING HAWKINS, MF'ERS
I go back and forth between loving it when people take the piss out of Apple and feeling that it is (pun unavoidable) pretty low-hanging fruit. Just the fact that Apple managed to run a tv campaign for years which was supposed to highlight all the awesome ways in which Macs were superior to PCs and which will always be fondly remembered for how much people loved the guy who played PC and wanted to punch the kid who played Mac, that tells you something right there about how insufferable Apple is. But the Samsung-users-passively-rub-their-gadgets-in-the-faces-of-hipsters-waiting-in-line-for-iPhones ads were getting played out, too … until last night when they brought in not just The Darkness but The New and Improved Darkness With Waxed Curlicue Handlebar Moustache. There is nothing in that overall concept I am not a sucker for.

Also I would be remiss if I did not point out that I was at a party populated by folks who were well-disposed to geek out over the Avengers movie trailer. Which is probably not a huge surprise, but I point it out because it was personally heartening. These friendships of mine go back to my early 20’s, some even earlier, and now that we all have jobs and families and have spread out a bit more geographically, we don’t all see each other as often as we used to, the occasional Holy Day of Football Obligation notwithstanding. So it was gratifying that, once the Avengers trailer had run, the reactions were not simply variants on “looks rad” but more in the vein of “we are all going to need to go see that TOGETHER and we have exactly three months to figure out how to make that work” which is arguably within even our meager event-planning capabilities. But as I say, sometimes it’s just nice to know that everyone still cares about getting together and hanging out and experiencing things communally instead of in our own overstressed little silos.

And now we must enter into that darkest time of the year between the NFL season and the beginning of spring training for the MLB. But at least there’s a world championship to ease the pain.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Book Store No More

Lately, when I’ve been getting off the train in the morning, it’s either been uncomfortably cold or warmer but rainy, so I’ve been making a beeline for the underground shops entrances and following that semi-indirect route to my office building in order to hide from the elements. But today it was dry and chilly but not frostbite-inducing, so I walked down Crystal Drive outside.

I often am reminded of one particular afternoon when I walk down the main drag, an afternoon which at this point is years gone. I was working at my first contract gig for my present employer, which was also located more or less on Crystal Drive, a bit closer to the VRE station than my present assignment (at this point I now think of all the time I spent in Rosslyn as just a brief interregnum in the Crystal City phase of my professional life). One day at lunch I decided to stroll down to a small, independent bookstore and pick up some new reading material. I bought a paperback and then crossed the street to Chipotle, where the noontime line was long enough that I cracked open the book and started reading while shuffling ever closer to the counter. I continued reading at a table by myself while I ate my burrito. And then I went back to work, and continued reading that book as I commuted back and forth over the next week or two. This was the old commute, before we moved, even before the little guy was born, in July of 2008. (I know this because I am so weirdly list-obsessed that I have, in a notebook on my desk at work, a complete inventory of every book I’ve read while commuting since May of 2007, broken out by month.)

I made the whole new-book-entered-into-over-burrito association again this morning, which is unsurprising when you consider a few factors. One, the independent bookstore in question closed up not long after I made that purchase, and I’ve always thought that was a shame. And I just finished reading a book about David Foster Wallace, which is really a long transcript, with very minimal editing, of the tape-recorded back and forth between DFW and David Lipsky, a novelist doing an assignment for Rolling Stone, about the book tour DFW undertook for Infinite Jest. Lipsky decided to publish the unvarnished accidental portrait, with DFW’s family’s blessing, after DFW’s death. There’s occasional insertions of Lipsky “now” looking back at the conversation he had a decade prior, and one thing he keeps mentioning is that a lot of those manifestations of the late-millennial publishing world, like independent bookstores and public readings and so on, have gone away.

And the book in question, which I’m being so coy about, was A Game of Thrones. As I mentioned recently, I’m planning on rereading A Song of Ice and Fire soon, and with the completion of the DFW interview book, I’m that much closer. I’ve basically finished all the big books I got for Christmas and the few others I had picked up here and there (at the Borders GOOB sale &c.) so, there’s that. Sorry to keep harping on this but what can I say, it's top-of-mind partly because of the novelty (to me) of deliberately having a second go at something for a reason other than "I was probably too young to really get this at the time I first read it."

Alas, poor Ned.
Anecdote-within-this-anecdote: when I picked up the first volume of A Song of Ice and Fire three and a half years ago it was just yet another series of epic fantasy novels. Now thanks to the HBO series its popularity and general pop visibility has increased exponentially. Back then it was just generic nerd-bait. I still clearly recall bringing it up to the bookstore counter and the girl working the register telling me “Oh, great book. Great book. I resisted reading it for a long time even though a bunch of my friends told me it was awesome, but then one of my friends started running a roleplaying campaign in this setting? So I figured I’d better familiarize myself with the environment. So glad I did. Now I just can’t wait for the next one to come out.” Bear in mind, I was on my lunch hour from work, the work for which I am required to dress like a grown-up in a shirt and tie and everything. So I was not wearing my Justice League of America ringer t-shirt, is what I’m getting at. But this girl assumed I would know all about roleplaying campaigns based on specific properties – which of course I do, but I’ve never really known what it is about me that just screams this to the world. I don’t wear glasses or a crystal dragon pendant or anything. I just have the face of a geek, I guess.

Also, at the time the girl mentioned her eager anticipation for volume five, I thought to myself “Well, I’ll just pace myself and work my way through the older books as the newer ones are coming out, and spare myself that waiting.” This did not work as Martin is legendarily slow, and A Dance With Dragons just came out this past July, three years after my transaction in the bookstore. I had long since finished the first four by then, obviously.

At any rate, it’s a shame that bookstore didn’t survive but in a selfish way I should be grateful. If it were still around, now that I’m back to working on Crystal Drive, I probably would have spent way too much time in both the bookstore and the facing Chipotle, and my house would be overflowing with impulsively obtained clearance table hardcovers while my weight climbed somewhere up around my age times ten. A little deprivation is definitely a good thing in my case.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Threenage Wasteland

How have I not already used this as a blog post title? I suspect the fact that the little guy has only been 3 for about five months has something to do with it.

We're all wasted!
The little guy has always been what his mother and I would describe as “intense”, and once he transitioned from baby to walking/talking toddler that intensity became more and more manifest as “willfulness”. I’m very used to it by now, and I’ve accepted the fact that I’m always going to have to find ways to either work with it or around it. So the fact of him being willful (contrary, ornery, &c.) no longer surprises me – but sometimes the specific manifestations still do.

Some time in the last few months (the exact timing eludes me) the little guy underwent a subtle transformation from pure rampaging id to a … ok, honestly, I have no idea what to label him as now, and maybe that’s all for the best. The rampaging id is easy to identify, because it’s the little guy throwing himself on the ground and kicking and screaming and repeating things over and over and over again (either the thing he wants which he’s being denied, or just the word “no” if he’s fighting with me or my wife over something we want him to do). And the only thing we ever did with the rampaging id was allow itself to burn out its furiosity and then lead the way in calmly moving on. Recently, though, the tantrums seem to end (or at least change gears ) much more quickly, and with minimal prompting from us. The little guy will yell and shout his protest and then just kind of collapse, seeming to go from anger to sadness complete with burying his weeping face on the couch, thrusting a rejecting stiffarm in our general direction, and saying “Go away! Just leave me alone!” And of course, I can’t help but wonder … is this his evolving emotional profile showing itself to us? Is he genuinely becoming the kind of person who feels brief anger followed by a devastating sadness, and who needs to shut everything down and step back to get a grip? And is he figuring out the rudimentary parameters of this at age three? OR … is he totally playing us, and figuring out the rudimentary parameters of manipulating us into feeling sorry for him? (Because we do, for the most part. I don’t think there’s been an instance yet where he’s reached the “Go away!” point and we haven’t said “Awww … poor little guy.”) Is one or the other of those possibilities – more sophisticated self-management, or more sophisticated exploitation of parental concern – more likely at his age? Or is “I can’t help but wonder” a cover for me saying “I can’t help but project” which, in fact, we all know I’m guilty of on a frighteningly regular basis?

Yet another possibility is that it’s all three; the little guy is getting somewhat more nuanced in the way he interacts with the world (because he has to be, he’s growing up little by little every day) and some of those new facets of his personality will be more desirable, and some less so, and through it I’m constantly looking for myself in him because (a) he really is bright (and still intense) for his age and (b) I fall a little too easily into the trap of not thinking of him as a small child but as a short, occasionally spastic potential peer and (c) it’s just an inherent weakness of mine, I’m not made of stone here people, come on.

A much more recent addition to the little guy’s repertoire only complicates the issue even further. Lately he’s taken to responding to any firm drawing-the-line by me or my wife with the following cri-du-coeur: “You guys NEVER let me do ANYTHING I want!” Additionally complicated by the fact that that particular gem doesn’t make us go “awww”, it makes us laugh (which we take great pains to stifle and/or hide). Again, it’s slightly more nuanced than just digging his heels in, and it also smacks of attempted guilt-trippery (however ill-conceived for its blatant untruthfulness), and it also makes him sound exactly like he’s about fourteen years old. Kids, they grow up so fast.

But then again, you know, just this morning my wife sent me a phone picture message with a shot of our son sporting a ridiculously adorable and age-appropriate smeared-chocolate Vandyke. That was on the heels of a picture of our daughter pulling herself to a standing position on the edge of the little guy’s train table. So I can probably put off completely recalibrating my expectations of the little guy’s interpersonal sophistication a little bit longer, which is convenient since I’m apparently thiiiiis close to several months of chasing a wobbly little girl around the house and making sure she doesn’t pull too many heavy things down on top of her head.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Gonna use almost all my tags on this post (Ready Player One)

In the novel Ready Player One, Ernest Cline sidesteps quite a few narrative challenges by setting most of the plot’s action inside a virtual world known as the OASIS. One major aspect of the book facilitated by the OASIS is the ability to showcase multiple pop culture mash-ups in ways which might otherwise violate suspension of disbelief, whether due to the logistics of physics or simple genre incompatibility; within the confines of a giant, immersive video game, all of those concerns can be handwaved away because none of it is “real” anyway. Another benefit of the computer-simulation conceit is that it provides the means by which our first-person narrator and protagonist, Wade Watts, can shade ever so slightly into a touch of omniscience, as he sometimes knows what other characters in remote locations are doing, thanks to the fact that he and they are all playing the same game and the Scoreboard is always virtually accessible. In honor of the Scoreboard, I’m going to go ahead and assign (and deduct) points for Ready Player One as a means of reviewing it.

+20 points for Wade’s name. I admit I am a sucker for fictional monikers that try to pack in the allusions, and this one is a doozy. Always a strong move to give the hero of the tale a first name which is a verb, as Wade is, especially one which can reference something brave and righteous, such as “wading into the enemy lines”. Of course on the flipside, there are other non-mighty connotations (like wading pools) so that helps give the hero a relatable, not-altogether-badass aspect. A watt is a unit of power, which is useful both for conveying the potential derring-do of the hero and also evoking the electric dreamland in which his quest unfolds, and yet Watts still sounds like a believable last name, so all in all the kid has a good handle.

+5 bonus points for lampshading the alliteration. Very early on Wade mentions that his dad was a big comic book fan and wanted his son to have a double-initial name like Peter Parker. Works for me.

SCOTT SUMMERS!
+50 points for the premise and premise-within-the-premise of the book. The outer-layer premise is this: by the middle of the 21st century the Earth is in full-on hell-in-a-handbasket mode, with fossil fuel reserves depleted, global warming out of control, a worldwide recession dragging everyone down except the super-rich, and life in general a big bowl of crap. The one bright spot for civilization is the OASIS, the ultimate manifestation of cyberspace as an interactive virtual reality that resembles a cross between MMORPGs, YouTube, Facebook, and every other major internet trend and/or destination. Logging on to (and losing oneself in) the OASIS is most people’s reason for living, with poor people working as indentured servants to obtain the access fees for the OASIS’s minimal functionality and rich people indulging every whim a programmable environment (and high-end high-priced experience-enhancing accessories) can afford. The premise of the story, building off that foundation, goes like this: James Halliday, a Gen X-er who created the OASIS and became a reclusive billionaire, died without heirs, and his will stipulated that his entire fortune (and, essentially, control of the OASIS) will go to whichever OASIS user can find an Easter egg he hid within the program. Five years later, during which time he has pored over the biography and pop culture obsessions of Halliday, Wade Watts manages to decipher a clue Halliday left behind, which sets him down the path to claiming the ultimate prize, although of course he has to race against others intent on the same goal.

So it’s a classic dystopia wrapped around an archetypal hero’s quest (a tripartite quest, no less, with three keys and three gates and everything) and at the same time it’s a love letter to geeky 80’s pop culture, justified by the fact that a genius programmer who died of cancer as an old man in 2040-something would have been born in 1972 and spent the ages of eight to seventeen as a geek in the 80’s. All of these are fantastic ingredients for a book that is so very much in my wheelhouse that it is all but collapsing the wheelhouse floor under its weight. In theory.

Not enough board game references, either, but I'll let that slide.
+10 points to you if you have already guessed that I don’t think it quite came together to live up to its potential. I know this is totally unfair of me. Just the other night my wife and I were watching Top Chef and I was lamenting the judges’ tendency to judge how far away a dish was from the judge’s expectations, as opposed to judging what was actually in front of them in and of itself. But I do think there’s a difference between Cat Cora dissing a dish because she personally does not care for tarragon, and my sense that Ready Player One missed some huge opportunities to deliver more solidly on its dual premises. Moving on …

-15 points for the toothlessness of the dystopia. A few dozen pages into the book it occurred to me that Ready Player One was more or less a YA novel. There are two ways to handle a dystopian setting: make it a truly grim and dangerous place, or make it a cardboard backdrop to justify whatever unreal plot elements you care to incorporate in the tale. Ready Player One is the latter, content to assert that the real world sucks which is why the OASIS is so popular and important. Wade is part of the poor underclass, orphaned because his father was shot during a looting riot and his mother later overdosed, raised by a wicked aunt who hoards his food vouchers for himself. And yet he is perfectly healthy both emotionally and physically, the usual teen angst and nerdy weight-struggles notwithstanding. He manages to feed himself by doing odd jobs in computer repair, somehow. The government conveniently gives all children free OASIS access and hardware so that they can go to virtual school. It’s all a very by-the numbers Dystopia For Kids, by which I mean a dystopia which children could read about without having nightmares. Everything is dirty and run-down and non-ideal, but nothing is truly horrifying. Wade even has a kindly elderly neighbor, Mrs. Gilmore, who validates him as a nice young man. A true dystopia brings out the worst in everyone; a dystopia that has sweet little old ladies in it speaks for itself.

+10 points for killing off Mrs. Gilmore. Of course, right when I was thinking that it would not be hard to make a G-rated movie out of Ready Player One, Cline ramps up the vilification of his main antagonist by having the heavy blow up a good chunk of the shantytown trailer park where Wade lives in a legitimate attempt to kill Wade. Granted, by narrative necessity, Wade is somewhere else at the time, but Mrs. Gilmore isn’t as lucky. (Nor is Wade’s aunt but she was already unsympathetic enough for deserved-to-die status.) So, maybe not completely toothless, if there’s a genuine bodycount.

+88 points for the focus on the 80’s. I give full (maybe even excessive) credit for the ballsy move of setting a story in the future but populating it almost entirely with decades-old referents, right down to the d├ęcor including wood paneling. I mentioned above the justification of Halliday’s age, and the unspoken axiom that the golden age for any entertainment is “when you were 12”, but I know some people still found the relentless 80’s vibe jarring. Not me (though obviously I too was 12 right in the midst of said decade), because I can get behind committing to a concept 110% as well as writing what you know, which Cline clearly does.

+9 points for not going exclusively 80’s. On the other hand, Cline wisely concedes that even in a virtual universe where the deity-figure loved the 80’s and most of the denizens reverently follow suit, there are going to be some people clamoring for other touchstones which came later. Including the Whedonverse and quidditch were touches which I personally appreciated.

Book-quidditch, as opposed to movie-quidditch
-20 points for a complete lack of originality. But, arrgh, here’s where it starts to go a bit pear-shaped. As presented over the course of the novel, the OASIS represents an inescapable dearth of creative thinking. It is literally a limitless realm of unencumbered possibilities, and the only thing people use it for is recreating existing intellectual properties. I offer absolutely no argument against the fact that it would be surpassingly cool to fly on Falkor the Luckdragon’s back with a lightsaber hanging on your hip and Green Lantern’s ring on your finger while on your way to visit the Sky City of the Hawk Men. But there should be some new IP in the mix somewhere, shouldn’t there? Considering that the story is set a few decades in the future, there are two potential sources, really: individual OASIS users could have invented their own worlds and creatures, vehicles and weapons, and so on; OR, since Cline makes reference to “movie stars” as still being a thing in the future, he as author could have invented new movie and tv franchises which people could be copying in the OASIS. But no, every fantastical element seen in the novel is either determinedly generic or a specific reference to a real-world bit of pop culture. I know, I know, there’s a certain purity to that, and it’s a presumptuous trap of arrogance an author can fall into to start making assertions like “The interactive Battle of the Sarlacc Pit (from Return of the Jedi) was an all-time favorite among OASIS users, but the Last Stand Against the Cyborg Demons (written by Jacques Trebuchet of Halifax in 2037) was even more popular”. Maybe it’s best to avoid the temptation altogether. I’d argue the converse, though.

-10 points for ignoring comic books other than the aforementioned double-initials thing. I mentioned the GL ring above but that’s my own personal mash-up fantasy. In Ready Player One, no one so much as sports Batman’s utility belt as part of their ensemble (unless I missed it). Yes, to a certain extent I take this as a personal slight, that comics get no love amidst the thick swarms of movie, tv, video game and music references making up the novel’s literal pop culture landscape. But I think it’s worth a ding in the points tally because it represents a kind of unfired Chekov’s Gun, too. Wade mentions early on that Halliday was a renowned comic book collector, and the whole quest-structure of the plot revolves around Halliday’s obsessions, but nothing ever comes down to knowing the convoluted history of a legacy Spider-Man villain or anything. Disappointing.

-30 points for the ending. I’ve got nothing against a happy ending, but not only does everything work out perfectly for Wade, but it does so in a completely uncomplicated manner. I’ll go ahead and give a spoiler warning, but does it count as spoilers if there are no surprises to ruin whatsoever? There’s a battle at the last gate, but Wade makes it through, with the bad guys on his heels. Inside the gate, instead of a single challenge as at the first two gates, there are three – one similar to the first gate’s, one similar to the second’s, and one requiring a minimal amount of applied trivia-knowledge. Wade completes the challenges, finds the Easter egg, meets an AI simulation of Halliday, and inherits the OASIS fortune. Also he gets the girl. The end. No twists, no reversals, it’s hard to even call the whole extended setpiece a climax because the outcome is never in doubt.

IT'S A TRAP!
-100 points for the hollowness of all the references. OK, this is where we get down to the nuts and bolts of what totally drove me crazy over the course of the book. This is a book for and about Gen X-ers, a great unselfconscious whooping declaration of passionate love for the entertainment of our youth. But it also seems shockingly unaware of a certain negative reputation that nostalgic Gen X-ers (rightfully) have accrued, namely that our pop culture memories mean something to us not because of what they represent or taught us or convey, but simply because they existed. All it takes to make a Gen X-er happy is to say “Oh, dude, remember Manimal?” The relative quality and/or meaning of Manimal is irrelevant. It existed, and we remember it, and we can talk about that endlessly, in infinite variations. Remember that thing? Yup, that sure was a thing. And that’s pretty much the unironic approach that Ready Player One takes.

I’m not saying that every fleeting reference to a bit of pop culture flotsam that passed through Wade’s peripheral consciousness in the book needed to be fraught with philosophical significance. But even at the heart of the book, Halliday’s Quest, everything just sat there pretty inertly. Here’s a list of the specific touchstones Halliday incorporated into the Easter egg’s trail of clues and keys and gates: Tomb of Horrors (a D&D module), Joust (an arcade game), War Games (a movie), Zork (an interactive-text computer game), Captain Crunch (a real-world hacker/phreaker named after a breakfast cereal), Blade Runner (a movie), Black Dragon (an arcade game), 2112 (an album by Rush), Schoolhouse Rock (Saturday morning educational cartoon interstitials), Tempest (an arcade game), Monty Python and the Holy Grail (a movie), Adventure (an Atari game). It’s a solid, eclectic mix which certainly evokes the 80’s with a fairly heavy nerd-slant. But why those artifacts specifically? Could the exact same story have been told with a different set of movies, video games, and assorted references (and therefore without the song “Subdivisions” getting stuck in my head for days on end)? I would have to say it could, and whenever that’s the case it does not tend to reflect well on the story in question.

And the part that sets my geek-teeth a’gnashing is that a lot of the specific choices Cline made have so much potential for analysis and deconstruction and thematic connection, but he never goes that far. To a certain extent, all right, Halliday is described in the novel as being a little bit of an undiagnosed Aspergers/autistic type, and so it’s plausible that he likes War games because he likes it, in a superficial way, and included it in the quest because he wanted other people to interface with it. (Halliday wanting people to share his obsessions becomes something of a mantra throughout the book.) War Games is a movie about video games and computer hacking and so on, all of which seem to make it a natural for Halliday’s favorites, but it also raises some real questions about over-reliance on technology (the WOPR/Joshua computer with the potential to start World War III) as well as the wisdom of dropping out of society altogether (as Professor Falken has done at the outset, only to be dragged back into the military-industrial complex by the crisis at hand) and setting up some kind of metatextual dialogue between those ideas and the nature of the OASIS would have been not just interesting but super-awesome. Or what about Blade Runner, with its replicants and its probing into what it truly means to be alive? Or Tomb of Horrors, which is essentially about fighting the undead (and also has a reputation – never mentioned in Ready Player One - of being practically impossible for characters to survive) but could easily become a meditation on mortality and the weird nature of the OASIS and whether or not user avatars ever “die”?

Ding, dong, the lich is dead
I could go on and on, but it would at this point just be overcompensating for the fact that Cline doesn’t get into any of that stuff at all. I can understand not wanting to be ham-fisted about narrative themes, and expecting the reader to do some of the cognitive work without holding his or her hand, but I don’t think Cline’s showing that kind of restraint, really. I think he just set out to write a shiny adventure story crammed with a ton of pop culture references that make him happy in and of themselves, and did so and called it a day. It just aggravates me to no end (because that’s just the way I am, I suppose).

So all told, where do we end up? +7. That’s terrible if we were grading on a scale of 1 to 100, but I never claimed to be doing that. A +7 magical item in Dungeons & Dragons, for instance, is nothing to sneeze at, and maybe that’s the best way to regard Ready Player One: a magical entertainment weapon with a +7 bonus against boredom. It’s a fun, quick read very well-suited to sitting down and consuming cover-to-cover in a single afternoon, with some flaws in the form of squandered potential and missed opportunities, but that likely only matters if you are some kind of ridiculous, compulsively overthinking pop culture obsessive.