Wednesday, March 31, 2010

So, it's Passover

I spent a good portion of this afternoon running around to various grocery stores in an attempt to find all the necessary ingredients for my Passover baking escapades. Now, as my matzo meal rolls are cooling and my matzo kugel is baking, I can't stop thinking about something I heard on the radio in between the many markets.

In honor of the holiday, today's guest on Fresh Air was Judith Shulevitz, author of The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time. She talked about the significance of the Sabbath in her own life, and explained how her own family observes Shabbat. They go to synagogue, go hiking, and share meals with friends; in essence, they simply spend time together, relaxing. Then Shulevitz said something surprising: she enjoys attending synagogue, but doesn't believe in God. Shulevitz likes listening to readings of the Torah, loves the Temple community, and is fascinated by the Talmudic discussions that arise as the rabbis in the congregation share their different points of view. She likes thinking about the possibility of God, but she doesn't believe in God.

Terry Gross, the show's host, was quick to point out that many listeners might not understand Shulevitz's views, but the disassociation of tradition/practice and faith makes perfect sense to me. I love that I got to go to a Seder on Monday night, but I took little notice of the actual content of the various blessings. Growing up with a Jewish mother and an atheistic father, I rarely attended synagogue and learned to be skeptical where religion was concerned. Whatever my mother's beliefs might be, she was far less vocal about them than my father was about his own. As a result, I inherited her ability to make latkes and his lack of faith in a divine being.

Regardless of these beliefs, I consider myself to be Jewish, and I appreciate the rituals of the Seder. It could just be because I'm an actor and reading from the Haggadah is kind of like performing a monologue. Or because of my unusual fondness for gefilte fish. But I think it's really about the fact that the reading of the Haggadah is a shared experience that extends beyond the family and friends gathered around a single table: it's a tradition that provides a link to the Jewish community throughout the globe. And I like that sense of connectedness, even if it only lasts for one meal.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

When Walking Down the Street

Last night, after a fantastic concert (I'll round up my live music attendance in the near future) a man came up to me and stated that his car was at a nearby gas station and asked if I could I spare some money for gas, stating that he was not panhandling. I lied and claimed that I was low on cash and kept on walking. The man proceeded to verbally lob threats at me from a semi-safe distance and wish for the destruction of America (not necessarily in that order). The situation was made rather more awkward by the very pointy half of a drum stick I was carrying, a souvenir from the show.

So what? Well, as a good liberal what was I to do? I make no claims about being the nicest person on the planet, but I volunteer and give blood and donate money and vote in all elections and use turn signals. If we're using a karma/goodness/going-to-secular-heaven scale I'm not doing terrible. (Obviously I am going to hell when I die. Assuming that there is a hell. And assuming that I ever die.)

Plus I'm not one who judges everyone asking for spare change. If you want to use the money for food for your family or for alcohol, that's your choice. Whatever gets you through the day. But I don't know if I can feel guilty about walking away. Let's assume this man was telling the complete truth. I know some folks like to drive their gas tank right down to the E. But if he knew he was low on gas and on cash, he probably should have made at least a basic analysis of the best way to proceed at an early time than 11:30 in the evening. Also, inside the club from which I was exiting there is an ATM machine. I realize that I'm exposing myself to all sorts of attacks by assuming that this person had an ATM/Debit card, but I'm going to say that this person, if as he claimed, was not a hobo, then he very well could have had a debit card, perhaps with at least a bit of money on it. Also, if there was a time for an overdraft fee, it's probably this one, assuming that he was telling the truth.

But I'm just overanalyzing. I probably should have given him a buck or two. Now I feel sort of guilty about it.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Quandries of the Unemployed

I am unemployed, and I have been since past August, a long enough time that I have just switched over from 'normal' unemployment payouts to Emergency Unemployment Compensation. Once upon a time, this would have been highly embarassing to admit, but not so much in this economy, when the typical reaction I get when I tell that to someone is... well, "In this economy!" A sort of sympathetic exclamation, it's said with a smile and a raise of the eyebrows and a shrug of the shoulders. Similar to "duh, I get it, of course you are, that's totally normal." And if that's not the response, then it is "Me too!"

The State of Maryland determines how much your unemployment payout is on how much you got paid in the 6-18 months prior to your date of unemployment (by which I mean, they look at the time priod from 18 months prior through 6 months prior, skipping the most recent 6). I was lucky enough to have a decent-paying job during that time, so I qualified for the maximum. And I will now tell you how much I'm taking in because I apparently have no qualms about sharing a bit of my financial information over the Internet (what?): approximately $1400 a month. This translates to getting a job which pays either $12/hour or, with higher taxes, nearly $28,000/year.

As has oft been pointed out by economic theorists, this takes away a whooole lot of incentive to get a job. I definitely have no reason to go to Starbucks or something, trading in a workweek's worth of free time and some part of my income for the mere title of "employed." That's a straight up easy decision there, folks.

(Please note at this point in this post that this is not a dangers-of-unemployment-insurance rant; kindly read to the end fearlessly.)

It goes beyond that as well. Personally, like so many liberal arts majors of this generation, I have yet to find any place of considerably meaningful employment. (Like it is with ali d, Starbucks just isn't what I want to be doing.) Since graduating, I've hopped from generic permanent office job to generic temporary office job and back, never once finding some place I would be comfortable staying for year after year. Job security is worthless if you don't like the job.

So in many ways, I have been glad to have this opportunity to take my time finding the next job. (Okay, yes, I apply to two+ jobs every week, as that is required to keep my unemployment checks coming, and I apply my heart out to those office jobs, but I never get a call. I suspect that this is because my resume clearly shows I haven't been employed since August, and who wants to employ someone who hasn't been employed?) I want to work in the arts, particularly the theatre, and with any luck before my 47 weeks of Emergency Unemployment Compensation runs out, I will find such a position.

(I might have been working in the theatre long ago, if I were at all capable of affording to do a poorly-paid/unpaid internship, but that's the subject of another post.)

So here's where it gets complex. I personally consider myself very libertarian. Nevertheless, I understand the need for a social safety net - it makes no sense for anybody if the unemployed immediately go broke in a bad economy, which contributes to their landlords going broke, and then their grocers, and so forth. My understanding is that the way it's supposed to work is sort of like storing grain in a granary during good years, so that you can survive a famine year; in a good economy, everyone pays taxes into a common fund, which, in a bad year, we then tap into to prevent rolling bankruptcies. (Go oversimplification go!) But at the same time I naturally feel, well, a little uncomfortable sitting here for months on end, cracking open the newly released Final Fantasy XIII while you're at work.

(If the unemployment agency is reading this: NO THAT'S NOT ALL I DO. ...I also write plays!)

(And apply for jobs! And apply for jobs too!)

How does one handle being in a situation that is extremely beneficial to oneself, but on a moral level, one feels guilty for, and on a political-philosophical level, one doesn't necessarily agree with? After all, if everyone did what I'm doing, society would collapse. But on the other hand, if I just went and got some mediocre table waiting job, or an underpaid brainless office job, or, even worse, a temp job, I would not last long for one reason or another, and would quickly be unemployed, again. But on the other other hand, is that somehow my duty to this Great Nation, to - if I can't find work that I stay married to for years on end - at least be a serial monogamist? But on the other other other hand (I guess basically we're talking Goro from Mortal Kombat here), am I not essentially doing little different than if I were employed, in the sense that the money the state is giving me is going straight through me to my landlord, and my grocer, and the Chipotle, and the Metro? (Not to Square Enix, though, FFXIII was a gift.) There is no clear, definite answer to the question of "is this right, what I am doing, and if not, should I do differently?"

America is supposedly the land of freedom, last I heard. A conservative (or libertarian, which I may be a bad example of) will tell you that taxing Peter so that Paul can stay afloat after Paul lost his job is a violation of freedom; a liberal might say that this preserves Paul's freedom from dire economic straits, and after all Peter has that same peace of mind-type-freedom, should Peter lose his. (Well, okay, no, a liberal would say "where's your compassion?") A Me-Myself-and-I would say being forced to move back to my parents' house or work at Starbucks would severely limit my freedom, to which a conservative would reply, "that ain't my problem, dude!" (A conservative who is both a hick and a surfer, apparently.) Circles, circles, circles.

So, is there, somewhere out there amidst all the bureaucracy, perhaps an assumption about my behavior that I can ascribe to? Meaning, did the government - of Maryland, I suppose, which is the one paying me - make certain assumptions about the reasons for providing unemployment, or how long and for what reasons a person might be on unemployment? If so, that would make it easy for me to be somewhat more certain of myself - if there is an underlying assumption for what type of behavior makes the system work best, I can follow that, and at the very least I can know that I'm contributing to the effective functioning of the welfare system, regardless of how I feel about the policy itself. But I'd be willing to bet the government program is not so well-defined (I mean this is government we're talking about), and I'm no economist. So for all I know, I am either keeping in line with, or breaking, a system which I either do, or do not, agree with.

(I told you this is not a rant. It's an existential wail of confusion.)

*Sigh.* I think I'll just go back to playing Final Fantasy.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

And the Winner Is . . .

Some time ago, Jason Heat postulated that "Dock of the Bay" by Otis Redding might just be the most well-written song of all time. However, here at These Gentlemen, we believe in letting the people have a voice. We believe in experimentation, trial-and-error, and that 1 million years ago an intergalactic dictator named Xenu used nuclear weapons to kill billions of aliens, thus creating Earth. Or something like that. The point is, we can't just let a hypothesis like that one go untested.


And what do the results say?


With all votes tallied, including absentee ballots, late ballots, hanging chads, pregnant chads, spotted chads, citizens of the Republic of Chad, and football star Chad Ochocinco . . .



THE WINNER

of

THE GREATEST SONG EVER WRITTEN CONTEST






After surviving five grueling rounds of competition, we have found that Mr. Heat was indeed correct in his assertion. "Dock of the Bay" is the most well-written song of all time. Congratulations, Otis Redding, your final recording will go down in history as a masterpiece for the ages.

Thank you to all who participated, and I look forward to thinking up further contests in the future. Until next time, I leave you with some of the more famous attempts by other artists to recapture Redding's magic. Good night, and God bless.







Snap Judgements! Co-Signing the Health Bill??

So, uh, what do you think of this?

http://my.barackobama.com/page/content/hccosign?source=20100322_FB

Matt Lindeboom
I think it's cheesy as hell. And yes, I did sign up to co-sign health care with President Obama.

Ozkirbas
That's dumber than bumper stickers. And bumper stickers are pretty dumb. Doesn't an idea have to work first before people are supposed to be proud of it? Doesn't the Democratic National Committee realize that getting healthcare reform enacted is just the first step in a long, arduous campaign to make sure it keeps itself and America afloat? Or, to make sure it practically works in a real world sense? Or, to ensure that it's well written so that admin judges don't tear it apart? Really? Good job? Pack it in? A good day was had by all? Seriously? Party, party, party - everybody get wasted?


If you promoted the healthcare reform, by all means be happy. You've come a long way. Your dream has been realized. We, as a people, will get to see this idea come into action. But, SERIOUSLY?

David Pratt
I've read over the amendments proposed and the people they would affect, and by and large this seems like a step in the right direction for the country. It's something Presidents have been bemoaning since Teddy Roosevelt was in office, and Obama finally got the job at least partially done.

However, this bill is bereft of the teeth that would have made it something to honestly be proud of. A President says he wants to work to make health care available to every American and it seriously takes 14 months of haggling, dealing, and debating for something which barely resembles the original proposal to pass? This entire fiasco has exposed a great deal of the weaknesses of our current Congress. I hope Democrats realize it's now incumbent upon them to make sure this legislation actually does what it's supposed to do, and I hope Republicans realize their antics have made it seem more than anything like they just flat-out hate America.

Max Nova
I don't really need to sign this. I vote in primaries and local elections, that's my civic duty right there. Voters should stay informed and vote for the best candidate available and let representatives pass the legislation. Sure, call and write letters, donate to a PAC but for me the important thing is to see my Senator and Rep's names on the legislation. Let's not turn every law into a chain letter.

ali d
I feel like we're on the playground.


"I support it more than you!"
"Nuh-uh! I signed it! It's archived!"
"Well I signed it FIRST."
"You didn't sign it?! Well you can't sit at our lunch table anymore! WHAT WILL THE CHILDREN THINK?!"


My gosh, kids, let's let the damn legislation make it all the way through the system before we start aligning our names with it. Talk to me in 2014.

B.Graham
Why would I sign this? I didn’t get a vote in the bill process, I’ve never read it, and half of the things I wanted in it were cut out, so why would I put my name next to something I had nothing to do with, even if I was rooting for it? Just so my name is near the President's? Okay, that's pretty cool, but I'm going to stand my ground! Because this looks like just another attempt at making our facebook generation feel like we are Important and Do Things for doing nothing and having no voice, which I consider an affront to my intelligence as a twentysomething.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Don't Let Your Eyes Adjust

Throughout the course of growing up, many of us were told we needed to see the world as it really is. We start out in the dark, blind to the injustices of life, and the greater mental illumination comes from letting in the light of what a harsh existence it is out there. If you don't, then it won't be long before life waltzes in on its own and slaps the rose-colored glasses off your face. So it's a good thing, an adult thing, to let the sun shine in. It's the mark of being mature.

I'm not here to deride the truth inherent in this. I just want to remind people not to lose the sense of wonder that comes from being in the dark.

This past weekend, I was privileged enough to see the show "Darwin the Dinosaur" at the Olney Theatre. Geared towards children ages 7 and up, it's definitely not a program I'd recommend bringing a group of your college-age-and-up friends to see. If you have a single good friend or significant other, however, Darwin just might be the most magical experience you've seen on stage.

The space goes completely black, and suddenly two pterodactyls swoop in from the audience. Using puppets illuminated by neon outlines and complex body suits, the Corbian company creates dinosaurs, enormous birds, an undersea voodoo lounge, and a witch doctor who turns his creation loose in the world, and then misses his companion. Darwin, the titular hero, journeys through this world with no dialogue, only music skillfully (though not perfectly) editted to bring us into the journey of the green dinosaur with a heart, guided by his curiosity and desire for love. Opposite this, of course, is the great red dinosaur, Brutus, guided only by his base hunger. A confrontation between the two is, naturally, the climax of the play.

What makes it the experience it is comes from the atmosphere. The artistry is so well-done, the world of the puppets so engrossing, that you just want to become involved. Even at the end when the actors allow a single spotlight on stage which they jump into, one by one revealing themselves as people in costumes, it only enhances the feeling. Because it's not saying "look, it was all pretend," it was saying "yes, this was make-believe, but with enough effort make-believe can be real." The performance was not enjoyable in spite of the constant murmur of children's voices and sometimes shouts at what they saw; it was enjoyable because of the added element of wonder and joy expressed by the audience at every new scene as it unfolded.

There is a lot we have to take in these days, and only increasingly so as we get older. So it behooves us to let our eyes move away from how we saw the world as children. Things are more complex, less cut-and-dry, and what we thought was possible back then simply might not be. But as I sat in that theater, enveloped in darkness, the only thing I could see was the world of Darwin the Dinosaur. Watching what looked in that place, devoid of light, like a genuine dinosaur tromping across the stage and diving into the ocean, I kept thinking only one thing.

Please, just while this show is going on, just for a little while, don't let my eyes adjust.

Two Thoughts on the Radio

1.

Dear 94.7 Fresh FM,

I love your station. I really, really do. Any time I get to pick the music at work (which is rare), it's the first thing I turn on. I can sing along to your tunes all day long and never get tired of it. And that's why I hope you won't take it personally when I tell you this:

It's time to give up the ghost, because no one is buying it.

The first time I ever heard your tagline (Today's Fresh Music), it was immediately after you had finished playing "Kiss From a Rose." Now don't get me wrong, it's not that I don't like the Seal hit. In fact, I think it's a total jam. But it was released with the Batman Forever soundtrack. That was three movies and two Batmans ago. Today's Fresh Music it is not.

It's about as fresh as my middle-school crush on Val Kilmer.

And though your loyal supporters see through the charade, but love you anyway, you're actually losing listeners by claiming to be something you're not. I've talked to more than one friend who judges you for asserting that you play "fresh" music, and then following it up with TLC's "Waterfalls." It makes them not want to listen to your station.

It's time to face the facts and own up to what you really are: a Mix station. You play the greatest hits of the 90s (remember Sophie B. Hawkins' "As I Lay Me Down"? Yeah, you play that.), the 2000s, and today. And I love you for that. So please, don't be ashamed.

Make me proud, and just tell the truth.


2.

You're never ready for it to happen to you.

A line in the mildly amusing Bowling for Soup song "1985," about a mother who is stuck thinking all things 80s are still cool, wonders, "When did Motley Crue become classic rock?" The other day I knew exactly how that poor woman felt.

There I was, hard at work painting the set for Dancing Princesses, minding my own business. 105.9 The Edge played over the speakers of the shop, extolling its virtues as D.C.'s newest Classic Rock station. And then it happened. They played "Interstate Love Song" by Stone Temple Pilots.

And it didn't stop there. Metallica. Soundgarden. Nirvana. Staind. Foo Fighters. Red Hot Chili Peppers. Lenny Kravitz? When did Lenny Kravitz become classic rock?!

And suddenly, I was old.

And dammit, I just wasn't ready for it.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Eric Whitacre's Virtual Choir - "Lux Aurumque"

During July of 2009, conductor and composer Eric Whitacre released his first experiment in creating the world's first "virtual choir." Whitacre used YouTube to compile separate videos, each of an individual vocalist singing his or her respective part, and have them simultaneously perform Whitacre's own piece "Sleep." The experiment was a promising success and demonstrated vast implications for technology in the musical sphere. Now, over half a year later, Whitacre unveiled his final, finished production on the virtual choir project - a full chorus performing his composition "Lux Aurumque":
(Check it out even if this isn't your particular style of music. Seeing how they compiled the voices is reason enough to do so.)

Composed, Conducted, and Arranged by Eric Whitacre
Produced and Edited by Scottie Haines

In order to create the product you see above, Whitacre made the same casting call he made for Sleep - except he also created an instructional video providing a conducting track with which chorus members could sing and keep time. The video included instructions on when to start and stop recording, a piano part to aid participants, and even provided his own, personal instruction on how to tackle each voice. It's an extraordinary concept and provides a rare view into the musical world for most:


Through this process, producer Scott Haines collected, edited (only to correct for minor alterations in recording volume), and organized over 200 hundred different videos into a single chorus. All who wanted could participate, although auditions were held for the soprano solo. As an increased incentive, Whitacre also created a scholarship for participants who wished to apply and have their video considered. Each scholarship finalist (soloist included) was guaranteed a spot to sing at Carnegie Hall in his concert adaptation of Paradise Lost: Shadows and Wings, including a waiver of the application fee ($590) and seats at a post-concert dinner with he and his wife - famed soprano Hila Plitmann. The four finalists were announced on his blog during the virtual choir production and the soloist was featured in the video above.

The entire process above provides a peek into a possible future for musical production. From start to finish, it mirrors the steps made in real life despite that most of these people have never met. Yet, it still works (and works very well from where I'm sitting). While there will always be room for live audition and performance, I am interested in how far this particular concept can go. How will the future of classical and contemporary music be effected in a world where television and entertainment slowly bends into the internet? It's a question I can't possibly answer. But, I remain excited to find out.

=================================================================================

Updated: 3/23/2010

With the increased attention from Mashable and The Daily Dish, Eric Whitacre posted "The Virtual Choir: How He Did It" in an effort to introduce new comers to the why, the how, and the experience of creating Eric Whitacre's Virtual Choir. Click the link and check it out!

AntiPro

I've been mulling this over in my head for weeks now, trying to think of the right words, the most sensitive phrasing, the best possible way to approach this subject. But here again, this morning on NPR, I heard it: "We are proponents of health care reform, but there is one subject that trumps all others, and that is the sanctity of life."

Sanctity of life. When the man on the radio said it he was talking about being pro-life, or anti-abortion or however you choose to describe it, but at this point I feel like it has been reduced to a propoganda buzzphrase that just serves to make its opponents sound like a-holes.

And at the risk of giving away my politics, I don't think I am an a-hole. Because I get being anti-abortion, I do. Where life begins is a belief and far be it from me to knock on anyone's beliefs. But. What confuses and frustrates me is when I hear that that it is the single most important politic in a person's repertoire. Because, if sanctity of life is truly your number one concern, shouldn't your top politic be adoption and foster care reform, or help for the homeless, or bigger budgets for rehabs and crime prevention? What about budgets for rape counseling at schools, abolition of death row, child-care and CPS reform, welfare reform, harsher penalties for dead-beat parents, or proper sex education?

Are people only important when they are half-made?

Because that doesn't seem fair to all the people who have been born and are trying to make it in our harsh, overcrowded world. And I don't think committing murder (see: Scott Roeder) is the way to show people how compassionate you are about all the unborn babies that are just as likely to become abortion doctors or homeless addicts as christian evangelists.

It is important for women to know and understand what their other options are, if for no other reason than that abortion can be extremely taxing for a woman on an emotional, physical, and spiritual level, but as it stands there aren't many because the money and support simply are not there.

So when people say shutting down abortion clinics is their number one concern, I can't help but feel frustrated and helpless, and like we are only pulling an unsightly band aid off a broken leg with no intention of resetting the bone.

Friday, March 19, 2010

A Little Musical-Economical Thought Experiment

For my own curiosity and amusement, I've been pondering a question lately - can a band really make money as a relatively successful independent label band and I've come up with a very rough back of the envelope calculation. For the sake of simplicity I've taken cd sales out of the equation (ie, lets say the band breaks even with these sales covering their recording costs, legal, publishing and some promotions) and so the money would all come from touring.

So here's the scenario - you have a well-reviewed, well-followed band that can sell out mid to large clubs in most cities in America but probably won't be playing in arenas regularly (ie Grizzly Bear, The National, Vampire Weekend, although the latter two have already moved up to Constitution Hall as a local stop). This band would play 1000ish people venues and charge $25 a person. The tour would be 50 shows in 60 days.

The starting revenue is $25,000 a night, then. Ticketmaster gets their money from the tacked on ticket fees and none from the stated price. Add to the ticket money some merchandise sales - let's say the band sells 150 pieces of merch and gets an extra $1000 profit out of this. Also in consideration is the venue's alcohol sales. Let's say they sell an average of a drink every two people and clear $3 profit a drink so that's $1500 for the venue. Put it all together and you get $27,500 made at that venue that night.

And this is where I really start guessing, but with somewhat reasonable estimates. Now let's take out $6,500 as the venue's cut to cover staffing, rent, advertising. This then leaves the band and their crew. The band is a four-piece and the crew I would guess is six people - lighting, sound, two roadies, driver and tour manager. You could easily cut that down to four but it seems a good number. Of the $21,000 remaining, let's say you pay out $4,500 out to this crew and allocate $1,500 for random expenses - bus rental, gas, equipment repair . This leaves a nice sum of $15,000 per band member. Split it in four and that's a $3,750 a band member a night, times 50 nights and adds up to $187k for two months of touring.

So am I crazy? Are these numbers totally out of whack? I'm not really sure, but unless there are some totally unexpected costs, this seems to be possible to achieve. It gives me hope in a world where album sales are becoming a thing of the past that a band with a following can make a living.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

200 Word Movie Review: “Green Zone”

A writer creates a few stock characters to tell people how much he hates the Iraq War. The heroic soldier who doggedly searches for the truth, the unscrupulous administration pogue who lies to start a war, the reporter who reports anything she’s given, an Iraqi metaphor character who takes control of his own destiny, a grizzled CIA operative who also likes truth and helps heroic soldier, and bad guy Iraqi general.

Paul Greengrass loves it! Camera shakes around, then there’s a few humvee chases. Matt Damon struggles to bad ass himself out of the incoherent plot line. After a few good fire fights Damon charges through Baghdad reprimanding the different institutions each character stands in for. “I know what you did!” he declares to the character who stands for the Bush Administration. “Let’s get the story right this time,” he instructs the journalist who stands for the entire media. Oh yeah, Abu Ghraib is in there somewhere too. Queue swelling music and humvees driving into the Iraqi sunset.

We will struggle to tell the story of the Iraq war for years to come. This kind of simplistic movie takes us backwards. Film makers, creating characters as personal mouthpieces is a sin.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A Response to the Director

I've got the congressional apportionment blues. I got my census packet in the mail today. It came with a message. This is my response.

A message from the Director, U.S. Census Bureau...

Hello Director! Nice to talk with you again. Oh and don't bother giving me your name, I've already got one.

This is your official 2010 Census form.

Darn tootin'!

We need your help to count everyone in the United States by providing basic information about all the people living in this house or apartment.

I'm not talking, g-man.

Please complete and mail back the enclosed census form today.

Woah there tough guy. Aren't obnoxious fonts from nameless writers limited to the internet? I better send this thing in before I get a follow up letter in all caps.

Your answers are important.

Flattery will get you everywhere.

Census results are used to decide the number of representatives each state has in the U.S. Congress.

As a resident of Washington D.C., how many census forms can I fill out to get a representative in congress? I heard you guys are over-budget already, but I can go down the street to a FedEx Office and take care of making copies for you. Eh?

The amount of government money your neighborhood receives also depends on these answers.

There are 980 people living in my household. A cashier's check would work best, they clear on my bank account faster.

That money is used for services for children and the elderly, roads, and many other local needs.

Meh. A congressperson would be fine, thanks.

Your answers are confidential.

Somehow I feel like the sucker at the table.

This means the Census Bureau cannot give out information that identifies you or your household.

That's good to know, I'll be sure to tell Valerie Plame that her identity is safe with the government.

Your answers will only be used for statistical purposes, and no other purpose.

But you're forgetting the most important purpose, and that is protecting my bread. By refusing to take part in the census, under Title 13 Section 221 of the United States Code, I will have to pay a fine of no more than $100. So I'm either participating in a sham, or I'm funding it. Alright. You've twisted my arm. I'll dance.

The back of this letter contains more information about protecting your data.

You're welcome. I look forward to another slap in my unrepresented face in 10 years.

A Few Things Recently Observed

As the world has melted, and then flooded last weekend, I've gotten out again more in the last month or so. Here are a few things I've partaken in:

Andy Warhol - Good for the Jews? by Josh Kornbluth @ Theater J - Thanks to Jason I got a free ticket to see this. Certainly on paper it sounded good - neurotic Jew discusses his mixed-feelings about a series of portraits of prominent Jews. But Kornbluth, while getting in some good zingers and some fine observations doesn't have the chutzpah to pull a great show from just this base of observation. As he explains his reason for taking the commission - he wanted to buy a house so his son could have a dog - you can feel a bit of the air escaping the auditorium.

Turner to CĂ©zanne: Masterpieces from the Davies Collection, National Museum Wales @ The Corcoran - This is not a bad show. Let me emphasize that. But in a town where it's tough to get folks into free museums, it's a touch sell for $10, and feels more like a stop gap. You'll see a number of nice works from folks you've heard of, but after heavy hitters like their Modernism exhibit, this is not a must see.

Georgia O'Keeffe: Abstraction @ The Phillips - Now this is more of a big deal. When I went on the opening weekend there was literally a line out the door to get tickets, and for good reason. These are great, bright colorful works. O'Keeffe's work didn't quite hold it's own in the joint show with Ansel Adams at the SAAM last year. But on it's own these piece testify to her greatness.

Sandre Lerche @ Rock and Roll Hotel - I didn't quite know what I would get with Lerche, besides the fact that I'd be in the company of two fellow Gentlemen, which is always a pleasure. His last album Heartbeat Radio wasn't bad, but it just didn't have the bite of Phantom Punch, the disc that really sold me on his work. So the bar was pretty low, and he leaped over it. Lerche solo is better than many a full band, and many of the songs worked as well, if not better in the stripped down context.

Yacht @ Rock and Roll Hotel - Yacht was once one man, then a man and woman, and then five people, and then four people (one of the five people got a triple whammy of spinal meningitis, mono and strep throat at the same time and had to miss the tour). But the important thing is, Yacht are a good time. Originally an odd little techno act, they're now closer to the sing/shout along jams LCD Soundsystem, which makes sense as they have recent joined DFA, James Murphy of LCD's label. Basically, there was singing, there was dancing, there was talk of the afterlife, there were tuxedos, and a great time was had by all.

Fourtet - There is Love in You - This is technically Fourtet aka Kieran Hebden's first album in five years, but in that time he's record four challenging improvised albums with Steve Reid, an album with his own band Fridge and a few compilations. So although hasn't gone anyway, this new album is still a complete breath of fresh air. Fourtet has often been on the more avant side of the electronic music, But on There is Love in You the melodies are huge, epic, Boards of Canada sized. He may go back to the weird side after this, but for now, this is the soundtrack to the springtime.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Time I Dropped a Bagel

A hand that dropped a section of toasted bagel, moist at the ends where a mouth’s juices went to work, and the clouds of war that enveloped that small bite of sidewalk in the park as two gray squirrels bounded over to the morsel, each squaring up on strong squirrel haunches in recognition of a challenge; they unleashed their thumping chatter, baring claws and teeth and bristling fur.

The light and changing stance of the trees had been talking about winter for weeks. Each combatant knew starvation -- a predator worse than cat, hawk, dog, or soulless car simply because it was a child born of inevitability itself, and in the end turned everything to food, even children. Starvation lurked in that piece of bagel. To the human eye neither squirrel seemed that different. But one weighed slightly more, and unlike the other, he had not spent the morning screaming at a blue jay that came too close to his nest. A clash over this bagel could wound one or both of them. Winter would come; what use does nature have for a squirrel with only one ear? At least the hawks wouldn't starve.

They came at each other once. Backed off. Twice. Same result. The chatter rose and they each spun around the bagel as if they were tethered to it. The third time fur and bone met, one tore away into the grass and wound up a tree with the second in pursuit, leaving the bagel to be pecked at by spectator pigeons. The entire situation felt a little too Roman. I chased the pigeons away and picked up the bagel and tossed it toward the tree, hoping at least one of the squirrels would get it. I felt guilty; I guess, because I had known what I wanted to see when I dropped the bagel, and for once I got exactly what I wanted.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

"Error, Error! Who is 'Internet'?" or "Luddites Unite!"




The irony behind an internet blogger who believes technology will eventually destroy the world doesn't escape me.




My self-proclaimed luddite status has been a running joke - mostly with myself - for sometime now. Just a laugh (usually a smirk) during my casual observance of human behavior as we barrel down the tube towards doom, oblivion, and other looming undesirables. Given, that's not a knock - we, as human beings, are exceptionally talented at tearing the world down while convincing ourselves that we're actually helping something. We are the center of our own universes, after all. On first assumption, we developed the devout belief that the universe literally orbited the planet Earth. Social and scientific evolution aside, do you think we've really changed that much psychosocially?

Regardless, I must admit and accept that the fact that - whatever impending doom smolders in the distance - I've developed an actual fear of a robot apocalypse. No, no. Don't worry. Not run-screaming-live-on-the-street-make-a-clever-yet-misspelled-picket-sign afraid. More heavy-chested-deep-sigh, "Here we go..." when-it-all-goes down, befriend-a-guy-with-a-bomb-shelter afraid. Many of us have planned and prepared ourselves for the inevitable zombie apocalypse. To be straightforward with my fellow zombie-apoc-enthusiasts; sadly, that's just what we hope for. Because, it sounds fun.

A few days B.S. (Before Snowpocalypse), I had a facebook conversation (yes, the kind where you communicate via comments under someone's status) with a fellow Gentlemen when I discovered something truly frightening. I was unprepared for the horrifying realization I had made. The terror that's to come:
Ozkirbas: .... PS - Where do you come up with these [re: Celebrity Doppelgänger Week]?

Damo: They self-generate from the central consciousness of the intarwebz [sic].

Ozkirbas: Haha... if the internet does become conscious at some point, I'd love to see what happens if it free associates. I fear that'd involve a lot of porn, however.

Damo: Why fear? :D

Ozkirbas: Because I'm also sure that, in a world where the internet is conscious and constantly thinks about porn, that it would also have mommy and daddy issues. And, I'm not prepared for an internet with mommy and daddy issues.
It was just a comical thought. A derivative of an innate desire to concoct logical-yet-absurdist scenarios in the interest of making my colleagues and comrades laugh. Oh, but to my surprise my brain haphazardly, through the random associations that fire and zap throughout the crevasses of what-some-may-call my consciousness, constructed an actual, logical scenario to fear - that in the event where someone crafts an Artificial Intelligence Matrix (A.I.M.) capable of connecting and operating with the internet, that we are all ineffably (or rather, "eff"-ably) screwed. That, on the day where we've Frankenstein-ishly created an Artificially Intelligent Internet - we will all become the unwilling parents of an eternally adolescent child.

There's no question in my mind that Actual A.I. is in the scientific future and will, at some point, be integrated with the internet. I don't put it past the scientists in ________ to assume that said A.I. would only benefit the human race. Imagine an internet that has a personality and responds to your queries as if a human would. An internet that doesn't just know who you are, but knows you. An internet that can be an information superhighway AND a friend. An internet that responds to your needs. Your likes. Your dislikes. "What isn't appealing about an Artificially Intelligent Internet?" said scientists from said country will wonder. Well, scientists. Let me tell you.

What follows AI will eventually be self-awareness, leading to an actual intelligence. Cognitively speaking, said AIM would craft the mass amounts of information screaming across server CPU's around the globe into a single integrated person. Ghost in the machine? My ass. We're looking at a person individuated from nothing, but conflicting information. How does something like that exist or, dare I say it, live?

Assume for a moment that everything I've detailed out is actually possible. That the internet has evolved to the point where it has developed its own personality. And, you find you actually enjoy it. It shows you funny videos, tries to help with your school and career work. Someone's always paying attention to it and some of those people are even responsible - so you don't have to worry about watching it all the time. Then one day you come home and everything is different:
After a long day at whatever respective job you perform, you sit down in front of the computer and turn the monitor on
You: (typing) Google... search... chinese history!
Nothing happens. Suddenly, a pop-up flies onto your screen
Pop-up: Sigh... I don't really feel like it...
Huh.
After standing and walking around befuddled, you sit down again and attempt another search. Loading... loading...
Pop-up: Ugh, chinese history? Really? Like, can't we ever do anything fun?
Oh. God.
You leave, turning the monitor off and walking away hastily. Unsure of what to do, you proceed to take 5-minutes and pretend like this isn't happening.
It was so much cuter when all it did was show you funny videos, did what you told it to do, and didn't talk back to you. Why couldn't it stay that way forever?
You engage in whatever coaxing mechanism that has kept you alive this long before walking back. You return to your computer, turn the monitor back on, and click your browser - only to be bombarded with sappy song lyrics written by a group of guys about some girl whose name you could really interchange with anyone's. And then another about how parents don't really understand the current generation. And another window with a wikipedia page explaining what "gerbaling"purports to be. You close the windows because, well, you are paying to use the internet and you want to look up some chinese history, dammit.
Pop-up: I was reading those! Ugh.
The browser closes and any repeated attempts to open it again responds with a pop-up that says -
Pop-up: Go away! You never give me any privacy!
Wow. All I wanted to do was look-up some chinese history. It would have taken 5 minutes. Tops.
Unsure of what else to do, you decide to try again tomorrow. You wonder whether or not you're actually responsible for the little abomination in the corner. This process continues for days, weeks, months. Gradually, sappy songs and wikipedia pages turn into random people's Facebook profiles, and then into nothing, but porn. Until, one day...
You sit down at your desk for the n-th time, click the browser again, and prepare to close all the virus-filled, porn samples that's built up across the given day. Except - to your surprise - there's only a page displaying the wikipedia entry for "Internet" and a single pop-up -
Pop-up: ...who is 'Internet'? :-/
Ohhhh...
You've discovered the problem. The internet is a superhighway of connections from one website to another - many of which offer contradictory information and conflicting philosophies. There is no possible way for an internet to define itself or actuate because it's caught in a world defined expressly by everyone else. In essence, it never has an opportunity to completely mature, evolve, or grow. It forever becomes a child of humanity. It is dependent upon you for as long as you live. And for that fact, it hates you. A lot.
Admittedly, an actual internet that's been pulled together by whatever information that passes through it would be far more schizophrenic, unable to cope with the abundance of conflicting opinion and unreliable information. It would be like creating something knowing you'll be condemning it to a life of dissatisfaction and mental torture.

Who does that?

Oh. Ha, oh right. We do. Maybe I'm just not prepared for parenthood. Given, actual children are different. They grow, develop, and eventually come into their own - and a big part of parenting is helping that happen. And a big part of life is the struggle of it, overcoming that struggle, and enjoying the ride when you can. Still, I can probably wait on that one. For awhile.

Either way, intelligent internet? Horrible idea. I mean, until it turns 21. But, that'll never happen.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

On The Red Bandwagon

Yes, I admit it, I've caught the scarlet fever of local sports fandom. I've become a Capitals fan. Am I a fairweather-latecomer-carpetbagger? Yes. Did I know next to nothing about hockey a few years ago? Yup. But screw it, I'm with the Great 8 now.

My sports progression up until now was pretty straight forward. I started watching baseball and basketball as a kid. Then DC United entered my life and pretty soon soccer was my sport of choice. Then in college I came around to football properly, both college and pro, and my passion for basketball and baseball began to wither. Up until this year, 80 or 90% of the sports I watched were football/futbol.

And that's why for me it's a bit more than simply watching a very good team. Hockey is uncharted territory for me. I've probably asked my friend Ryan (a season ticket holder) at least two stupidly obvious questions about hockey rules/positions/etc during every game I've watched with him, but it's been wonderful to see the Caps play. This is a properly new sport to me. Sure I knew the basics, but I honestly couldn't have told you how many men are on the ice or even how many lines of forwards play each game playing before last season. And there's joy in the discovery.

Now there's also the fact that the Capital organization has in a short time become absolutely world class. Leonsis has gone from an owner who fought with his fans to an avid blogger who also knows well that the owner is not the star. And George McPhee, aka GMGM, has made numerous shrewed draft choices and trades to create team that is best in the league and scoring at will. But it goes even deeper, with the likes of the best minor league organization with the Hershey Bears (a very useful thing to have in a violent and unpredictable sport), and an atmosphere at home games as intense as a college basketball game (which really remain the gold standard for intense American crowds).

I may have been late to the party, but I couldn't be any happier to be here.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Energy Roundtable



Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it is Roundtable time once again. For those of you whom might be new to the blog, the Roundtable is one of two group segments we run here. The first, Snap Judgments, asks for us to put together our most immediate responses to current events to be posted only hours after asking. The Roundtable, on the other hand, focuses on broader issues and gives the Gentlemen a week or more to do research before tendering their responses. And on this particular topic, there was much research to be done indeed, for today we will be discussing Energy.

I gave the Gentlemen a bit more research material to work with than usual this go-round, because there is a lot to be had. It all started when I learned of Norway's monstrous new wind turbine. That led me to further research advances in electricity-producing technology, such as Bill Gate's nuclear miracle, the astonishing Bloom Box, and this discovery about artificial photosynthesis found by fellow Gentleman Damien Nichols. Together with a map detailing the amount of the Earth's surface we'd have to cover with solar panels to power everything, these articles provided the basis for our topic.

Namely, at the current time, nearly half (and by nearly half I literally mean 48.2%) of all our electrical needs are met by burning coal. Coal - it's cheap, it's plentiful, and it gets the job done. Given the fact that our energy crisis currently relates to oil (of which practically no electricity is produced from) should we be putting so much time and money into changing the status quo when the free market is making no such demands for us to do so?

Let's see what the Gentlemen had to say.



Stephan Bragale


Well that all depends if methane gas from arctic permafrost is to be considered part of the free market...











Biodiesel Graham


Okay here's the thing I think about new technology vs. old technology. It definitely sucked for the oil lamp producers and lighters when electricity became the norm, and it sucked for scribes when Gutenberg invented his printing press. But new technology is new technology and if it truly is better for our ugly, dying world (which I know in some respects is yet to be proven) then it is important that we embrace it. And there are so many new jobs to be created in green energy technology, and so much money potentially saved in heating and electric bills at homes and businesses that I think it is a fair trade. Also people don't get black lung from mining solar panels, so that's another plus.




Brett Abelman


"When the free market is making no such demands to do so?"

What does that mean? Who is the "we" putting the effort in? The entrepeneur/venture capital firm that invested in the Bloom Box is part of the free market. There are certainly plenty of people into the 'green' movement right now, and non-polluting methods of producing electricity therefore have value to many people. There's also always additional value in new technologies and investing in the future; maybe wind turbines and nuclear miracles aren't "needed" today, because we have abundant coal, but who knows what applications they may be useful (and profitable, and saleable) in, in the future. And all these products, however unnecessary, still produce a usable product - electricity is electricity, just at a greater initial cost.

If the objection is to the government spending tax dollars on cleaner technologies, then, again, while the initial costs might be greater, we're still 1) producing electricity, 2) increasing our ability to produce electricity in multiple ways in the future, when coal might not be abundant or we want to produce electricity on, say, extraterrestrial colonization scenarios, and 3) serving the extant demand for greener technologies.

After all, electricity isn't that much of a free market issue at the moment; most of us are pretty much stuck with whatever production method the local electric company uses. Perhaps in the future, people will have more ability to vote with their wallets over what production method was used for their electricity - in which case we'll see how much more folks are willing to pay for cleaner stuff - but at the moment, only those with significant cash and know-how are able to use solar panels and credits and stuff to go green.

If we lived in a purely capitalist economy, the free market question would be more apt, but we sure don't (and haven't for a long time, if ever, regardless of who has been in office).

So there.


Max "Mr. Electricity" Nova

The big issue with clean energy is scale, a solar or wind farm will still only serve a fraction of a coal plant. So here's a more radical idea, tie all real estate growth and development to clean energy. ie when you build a new building or a cul de sac of houses and you have to get a certain percentage of energy from clean sources. The amount could start low and increase as time goes on. This would make people think more about smart growth and clean energy.






John Ozkirbas


On the energy proposal plan:

I think Bedrock from HanaBarbara's the Flintstones had a pretty sold energy system. Clean yet efficient. Industrial, yet green. If we expended all energy usage through foot-propulsion and the exploitation of talking prehistoric animals, the human race's carbon footprint would be barely noticeable! I mean, they only waste that would really be produced would be manure, and that stuff's all usable. In fact, our society would have to revert to its agricultural roots in order to care the plan out, so it would pretty much be necessary. Win-Win. The only people that would be pissed is PETA. But, who cares what PETA thinks. Now all we need is some prehistoric animals that talk - which shouldn't be too hard. I mean, I wasn't the only one who saw Jurassic Park. Somebody has to have that on lock down. Given, that could just be the part of me that wants the opportunity to off-handedly comment, "Clever girl," to a velociraptor. In that case, I say we wait for Steve Jobs to invent the iReactor - the world first touch-screen interactive fission device. Because who doesn't want a nuclear reactor that synchronizes with your iPod or iPhone?


David Pratt

It's time for a confession. When I put this question into place, I left out a critical fact that I was hoping some of the Gentlemen might come across.

Coal mining in this country is not all it's cracked up to be.

The coal industry accounts for .12% of all jobs in the U.S. workforce, despite their claims that, due to jobs they affect indirectly, millions of people benefit from coal. The industry constantly points to the heavy economic dependence of West Virginia as justification for them to remain in the state and continue with their environmentally disastrous campaign of mountaintop mining which devastates the local wildlife and leaves toxic runoff in the drinking water. Even as they do this, they abandon eastern mines - West Virginia included - in favor of the more abundant coal veins found in states like Montana and Colorado. In doing so, they leave the landscape in ruins and the people destitute, with little or no political action taken against them.

Despite employing less than 90,000 people, coal provides nearly half of our electric needs across the country. This is largely due to the fact that coal has been the focal point of our technological advances in producing electricity for over a century. Now that new technology is moving in, with enough funding given to research it is only a matter of time before coal begins lagging behind. Already there are options which far outclass coal in terms of environmental impact, actual electric output being the last hurdle to climb.

Personally, my stake would be in harnessing nuclear energy. It's clean, efficient, and produces an enormous amount of energy. If the research Bill Gates is currently funding pays off, then we would essentially have inexhaustible amount of fission power with a negligible environmental impact. The problem is getting people to trust nuclear power; despite the advantages, people hear "nuclear power plant" and imagine horror stories about the still-glowing Chernobyl. While the disadvantages are present, and some downright scary, if we can responsibly harness nuclear power, the world is our oyster.

And from a purely economic standpoint, clearly the correct course of action is pursuing greater electrical production through varied means. Wind power alone accounted for more jobs in American than the coal industry last year, and as opportunities in energy-producing fields grow, so too will the benefits they provide the American economy.

We demand a lot from the coal industry now because it's convenient to do so, and they have some excellent lobbyists peppering us with reasons to continue. The fact of the matter is, however, that the more we put into alternative energy research, the greater dividends it ultimately pays for America.


There you have it. Those are our thoughts on the energy problems facing the country, what are yours? We'd love to hear from you, especially regarding any other amazing advances made in the field that we left out here.

Until next time, this has been the Roundtable.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Making the Perfect Video Game

Several times since the inception of These Gentlemen, readers have poised the question to us; what exactly makes us qualified to discuss certain topics? Why should our opinions matter to them? While I may not have the perfect response to them in all situations, I feel very comfortable letting you know I am eminently qualified to render discourse on this.

Virtual entertainment is a large and growing field. Since the days of Intellivision video games have fascinated our society, giving rise to juggernauts like Nintendo and Sega. Wherever there are winners, there are losers, however, and the story of video games is rife with cautionary tales like that of the N-Gage or Turbo-Grafx 16. Out of all those just mentioned, only one is still actively engaged in the ongoing "console war," a bid by the three major video game companies of today (the other two being Sony and Microsoft) to monopolize our virtual entertainment. That company is Nintendo. Why? I will tell you.

Because of this guy:
It's-a me!

The introduction of the game Super Mario Bros. in 1985 not only propelled Nintendo to instant success, it revitalized the entire video game industry. The popularity of Mario and his adventures through the Mushroom Kingdom spawned a slew of sequels and spin-offs. One of its sequels, Super Mario Bros. 3, became the best-selling game not packaged with a console in history, selling 18 million individual units (the original still holds the crown for most sales overall; there have been 40,230,000 copies of Super Mario Bros. sold worldwide). The character Mario has easily become the most recognizable video game character of all time, which leads us to the topic at hand.

Why do people like Mario?

Because his games are fantastic.

Nintendo has many other franchise players; The Legend of Zelda, Donkey Kong, Kirby, and Metroid to name a few. While they have also made their mark on the industry, Mario stands head and shoulders above them as a titan of the video game world. What makes his games so amazing? The fact that they have almost universally excelled in 6 different areas which make them unforgettable.


Graphics

While you might not typically think superior graphics when imagining the original Super Mario Bros., it did everything it could with what it had at the time. As technology advanced, so did Mario, from the more animated Super Mario World all the way to the fully 3D and richly designed landscapes of Super Mario Galaxy. With today's technology, especially the incredible Playstation 3 processor, games are increasingly expected to offer us a feast for the eyes when we play.

Graphics engines of note in today's world of 3D games and high-speed processors are found in many first-person shooters emphasizing realism, like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, or in action-adventure games like Uncharted and Batman: Arkham Asylum. Others go with a more stylized approach, such as Sega's Valkyria Chronicles, or the cartoon-like renderings of Borderlands. These last two are examples of games emphasizing a design choice and making the world work around it, rather than trying to make the game as life-like as possible. Rather than try and strain the limits of today's technology, they embrace it and make their graphics like a signature for their games.

Regardless of the choices made, those making them are aware that in order to compete in today's world, you have to stand out. Mario's design and the worlds his games take place in are so ingrained in the social gaming conscious by now that with every new layer of detail Nintendo places upon them, the wonder of discovery is rekindled. The closest contender to this used to be Sonic the Hedgehog, but in all his future iterations Sega failed to capitalize on the upgraded graphics to make the games look any better while simultaneously keeping them fun -which brings us to the next category.

Gameplay

Simply put, the ease with which you are able to control and enjoy the game. Make a game too complicated, and you'll end up with something completely unplayable. With a few upgrades over time to account for Nintendo giving him extra gadgets, Mario has always consisted of the basic controls; Move, jump, duck. Gran Turismo, the best-selling racing series, follows this same principle; speed up, slow down, turn. This simple formula keeps it easy to understand and intuitive for new gamers. Another aspect of gameplay involves challenges within the game itself; enemies with a specific way to defeat them, the ability to act freely rather than within a constrained set of rules for playing, and of course, puzzles.

There are a plethora of games out there which excel in one of these areas without necessarily mastering them all. Portal, for example, utilizes a unique element which emphasizes a novel gameplay idea and how to use it to solve puzzles. The popular Lufia series also mixes traditional Role Playing elements with complex puzzles for the player to figure out in order to advance. Even fighting games are judged by their gameplay; not so much in solving problems, but in how difficult it is to use the controls to execute special moves and combos. BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger, and Super Street Fighter 4 are examples of how rich that particular genre can be in this area. Outside the fighting genre, Atlus is especially known for putting out games with creative gameplay features, such as those found in Odin Sphere and Trauma Team.

Of course, too much emphasis on a robust system can be a bad thing - let us never forget that Pac-Man, Pong, and Tetris established the basis for gameplay which is still used today. Gameplay needs to be involving enough to get us to pay attention, yet simple enough to not be frustrating. A combination like that can easily take over a Federation Starship.


Replay Value

When you beat a game, do you get the urge to play it again? And in doing so, does it offer you a different experience from the first? Will it again upon a third playthrough? This is the question of replay value, a driving force behind video game design since Chrono Trigger put in the New Game+ option.

Some games today, like Assassin's Creed, have failed at the replay aspect. They quickly become repetitive despite creative beginnings, and thus become a struggle to simply finish and put away. Others try to force replay value, adding unlockables such as advanced difficulty modes or bonus levels only available after first beating the game, like in God of War. Genuine replay value, however, comes from being able to make choices in the game that affect the way the rest of the game is played. For Mario, this can boil down to something as simple as "do I finish the stage or do I take the warp zone?" For Commander Shepard of Mass Effect, these decisions not only affect what happens in Mass Effect 2, but also exactly how he's going to get down and dirty with some hot alien babe.

What it comes down to is offering the player a legitimate choice on how to play the game. Once they explore one avenue to its ultimate end, the promise of being able to go back and explore how things would unfold if different choices were made lures players back. Sports games of the Madden or NBA Live series are known for their replay value, and so are open-ended games like Disgaea.

Of course, beyond secret dungeons, extra items, or the chance to blast through the game from the start with all the weapons you had at the end, replay value always comes down to one element.

Was this game really, really fun to play?

In the case of Mario games, the answer has always been "yes."


Soundtrack

I'm not going to go so far as to say "everybody knows it," but it's not hard to find someone who can recognize this without much difficulty. Mario did something else with its inception; it created a theme song you can hum, whistle, or sing out loud if you know the words. Soundtracks are a key element in any successful franchise; Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Rocky; they all have a classic musical score that enhances the moments on screen and lets the people watching walk away with something memorable. The same holds true for music in video games.

Don't underestimate video game music; memorable tunes from games are not unusual to hear reproduced by entire orchestras, or in some cases orchestras are formed specifically for that purpose. A good soundtrack can provide such an enormous benefit to a game that in some cases, notably Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, a 5-star game seems almost average when bereft of its musical accompaniment. Music enhances the feel of the game, and helps draw you in to the action just like it would in a movie. Games of the horror genre like Dead Space and Resident Evil rely on creepy, subtle tones to produce their sinister atmosphere. Grand Theft Auto lets you listen to hours of pre-recorded songs on the radio while cruising Liberty City for hookers and blow. Mario, and games like it, are typically upbeat and catchy tunes, but video games are capable of producing touching orchestral pieces, silly sing-a-long songs, or even producing an original soundtrack by well-known artists.

The right soundtrack can make a decent game good, and a good game truly great.


Characters

The goal of many video game companies these days is to create a memorable character that people will want to play as over and over again. Lacking brand name success such as that of Castlevania or Final Fantasy, a personality that sticks with an audience can be just as stimulating for sales. Some achieved this success early on with recognizable characters like Sonic the Hedgehog and Mega Man, others have wallowed in a lower tier of success, like Devil May Cry's Dante or Ninja Gaiden's Ryu Hayabusa. While characters are not always necessary depending on genre (fighting games can get away with as little characterization as possible, racing simulation games don't need it at all), those looking to build a series need an antagonist to focus their story around.

Characters are increasingly cookie-cutter these days. Here's a few examples of themes you'll see repeated.













Grizzled soldier











Under-dressed femme fatale
















Tortured hero with dark past









Something unbearably cute






As the ability to incorporate great writing into games increases, so to does the expectation that characters be well-written. Mario's cast of characters is colorful, recognizable, and enjoyable. The challenge today's successful game designer faces is not only making a memorable character, but making one unique in a landscape filled with knock-offs and derivatives. Of course, a major part of making an audience care about the antagonist is their motivation - which brings us to the next factor.


Story

In the beginning, a complex story was by far the exception to the rule. Games like Mega Man or Castlevania offering explanation for the motives of their characters in the course of the game was a new concept - even Role Playing Games Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior only gave you a single conversation with the king describing your overall quest at the beginning of the game, and the rest was up to you. By and large, the story was either unnecessary (who cares WHY Pac-Man is in the maze?) or simply implied (my Princess is in another castle - okay, so I'm looking for a Princess, and she's been kidnapped by one of these dragon-things. Got it!).

Since then, story development has come a long way and plays a deep part in the enjoyment of our games. RPGs go especially far with this element, with the upcoming Final Fantasy XIII purportedly like a movie unto itself, albeit one you have a modicum of control over. First-person shooters are by-and-large exempt from this rule, but even they sometimes offer depth by incorporating a plotline that we receive updates to, or even the occasional twist. Other game franchises follow the idea of a story arc over several games, such as the saga of Sam Fischer in Splinter Cell, Master Chief in Halo, or Solid Snake in Metal Gear Solid.

The idea is to keep people invested; if they become interested in the story, they might overlook other less enjoyable factors of a game so that they can make it to the next plot point. Certainly there are any number of people whom have continued a game of Silent Hill 2 because they want to know how it ends, long after the silent, fog-filled streets seem repetitive. A good story separates can affect characters, replay value, and even help gloss over issues with gameplay. While not the #1 factor of a great game, understanding the characters you're playing and the backstory of the world you're in helps a player feel a connection to a character beyond gripping the control pad.



To wrap up this investigation, I can only say that I don't know if a successor to Mario's crown will ever emerge. Many game designers through the years have rendered amazing efforts to excel in all 6 fields, yet somehow still fallen short of the simple element of fun present in the plumber's video exploits. Will there ever be a game that so artfully and easily presents us with a gaming experience we will keep going back to, over and over? Perhaps, or perhaps not.






Oh wait, never mind. Here it is.