Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Automotive Archaeology

Lately I've been sifting through old music. It's been a lot of fun and it wouldn't have come about if I hadn't decided to clean my car. During my half-assed effort--the ultimate result of which was a single small bag of trash and an allergic reaction to the dust--I happened upon a black rectangular object. Made to resemble leather and sealed with a zipper, it opened like a book to reveal these astonishing silver discs. They were all the same size and bore the same small hole in the middle. They had different designs printed on them. Some were even covered completely with colored paper. The sight of these discs--glittering relics of a bygone era--aroused some kind of primal ancestral memory, and I carried them hooting like an Australopithecus to my PC. I put them in the slot where DVDs go and music started playing.

Yes, these artifacts were Compact Discs containing musical content in digital format! Specifically, CDs I'd bought back in high school and the first year of college. They hadn't been in my car that whole time, but they'd been there since I took rooms at The Humboldt and they'd lain untouched for years before that. Just paging through them was a fun trip down memory lane. Some things you outgrow, like normal adults outgrow "Spongebob Squarepants." Some things you don't, like how Christina Ricci's body never did catch up to her head. My point is this: people change. In high school, you are not the person you end up being. You are a person of whom your future self would be deeply ashamed, if your future self didn't protectively scrub away the most embarrassing memories over time. For example, my father denies all but the most cursory knowledge of his own life before the age of 18. Anyway, here are my thoughts on what I found in that CD book.

Rammstein: Sehnsucht
Staring me in the face as I opened the book. What a way to start. First, this album's cover and liner art are brutal. I don't even want to post them because they're so unpleasant. You can look them up. Second, this album affected my life in subtle ways that continue to this day. It's German industrial metal with German lyrics, so it kindled an interest in the German language. At the same time, I was entering high school and had to pick a language. I had a friend who was taking German, and once you added the potential of further Rammstein exploration the right decision became clear. So I started taking German, which led to years of study both in high school and college. It also led to some of my fondest high school memories. Your life wasn't any better; shut up. Frau Comenetz, who experienced life much as I imagine hummingbirds do. The senior-year rendition of Wagner's entire 14-hour "Ring Cycle" in 22 minutes in front of hundreds of people--it's a long and ridiculous tale leading to one of my life's greatest triumphs. I'll spare you. Finally, my friend in German class (Adrian) is an awesome dude who keeps it real despite being an old fat married bastard.

It's not as though this particular Rammstein album made these things happen. But by any estimation it was a life-altering purchase. Also, it's a fucking amazing CD. Every single song is good--this turned out to be a recurring theme with Rammstein. Even if you don't like metal, you have to admit "Du Hast" was a kickin' tune. Well, that's not even close to their best song and Sehnsucht is not even close to their best album. I have gotten away from my point and begun slobbering; I will preserve what's left of my dignity and move on. But seriously, incredible band.


Marylin Manson: Mechanical Animals
I won't apologize. I still listen to this album; what of it? Marylin Manson is a reasonably talented entertainer who by some accident of birth happens to be an insufferable bastard. Whereas most stars go crazy in their youths and fly straight as adults (assuming they survive and don't blow ALL their cash), Manson took the Memento approach. As a youngster he was supremely focused and devoted to music. Then he got obscenely wealthy and began to believe that he was actually an important human being. This is usually a bad move; if you realize you are important, you are already a douchebag. Then cocaine, which by most accounts is one sam-heck of a drug, happened. You can fill in the rest, but it involved several marriages and engagements to a series of beautiful women who would rather be with a goddamned freak for his money than a reasonable guy. The story ends with a "greatest hits" album called Lest We Forget. Which isn't even a joke.

Mechanical Animals, things being as they are, is great. It represents his glam-rock phase, so he's trying to make music people might actually want to listen to. It's something of a departure. This album is cheesy in the same way that most entertainment directed at teenagers is cheesy. It's overwrought and juvenile. But how many people do you know who adore shows as fucking skull-imploding as "Smallville." Ugh. As for the CD, just about every track is good in one way or another, and Marylin Manson is like Lady Gaga: underneath all the ridiculous bullshit is a nugget of legitimate talent. We should appreciate it for what it is. Speaking of which, Lady Gaga has a prime set-up to follow Manson's life arc. She should be careful.

Rob Zombie: Hellbilly Deluxe
Rob Zombie is amazing. He's all about giving his fans what they want. What they want is a 45-year-old dude dressed as a murderous undead hobo--an unholy chimera of Charles Manson, a trainyard vagrant and a revenant Bret Michaels. Which is pretty cool, though I don't want to be in the same room as it. The Halloween theme of his image and music and album cover art (pictured at right and awesomely cheesy) aren't for everyone. But it's not as though he takes himself seriously or ever did. If you really can't get past the raw dumbassery of songs named "Living Dead Girl," I guess I can't condemn you for it.

Another important point: this album marks the effective end of Rob Zombie's career as a force for awesome. He made two more full-length albums and they are both so offensively bad that I never even made it through a full listen. Mr. Zombie has since focused on his career directing movies of questionable taste and quality. Among them are House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil's Rejects, both featuring a villainous mass murderer named "Dr. Satan." He's a little like Dr. Horrible, only without the slightest trace of humor or irony or melody. Finally, Rob Zombie has the special distinction of being Spider One's actual brother. Spider One is the singer for Powerman 5000, a band which ceased to be relevant to reasonable people in about 2001 but which I adore to this day because I have a disease that causes me to passionately enjoy shitty music. I'm just kidding, there's no such disease. It's as fake as a millionaire's sex addiction rehab stint.

The reality is that some music is simply too awesome for most people to enjoy. It should be accepted without too much argument that huge numbers of people enjoy really shitty music--your Maroon 5s, your Ben Folds 5s, your 5 For Fightings. It follows logically that huge numbers of people would therefore despise amazing music, and that's what we're looking at here with Rob Zombie. Q and Check and E and Mate and D.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Face Hedge

Over the last couple weeks I've been growing a beard. Typically I sport a small goatee to show everyone else how cool I am, but the full beard is only a recent undertaking. I was inspired by two things: first, Baron Davis. Even though he's no longer playing for the Warriors, his mighty beard speaks to me. It says, "Hey. I'm pretty awesome. I give this guy an air of gravitas he might not have commanded as a mere NBA player." I'm a fan of gravitas, it being one of the universe's most primal forces, and I defy anyone to look at King Baronidas' whiskers and not be impressed. They cling to his face like a dense thicket of kudzu. They give him strength beyond that of any ordinary man. I'm not sure what I'd do with superhuman strength, but it seems cool and besides I think I'd need it to withstand all the extra gravitas.

The second inspiration is the awful facial hair I find myself confronted with every day. My roommates can't grow anything beyond depressing patches and my co-workers are no better. A few of them manage mustaches, but let's be real: we're talking about completely different things there. In some societies, you'd have a point. India? Sure. Mexico? It's actually illegal for anyone without a mustache to own property in Mexico. I didn't make that up. Frieda Kahlo kept hers because she wanted to remain financially independent from her husband. When election season rolls around in Mexico, every single square inch of public space is occupied by an obnoxious poster of a grinning mustachio'd man. I'm not sure whether he wants to be my elected representative, or tie me to railroad tracks. You can never tell with mustaches, and that's why you shouldn't trust anybody sporting one.

The dearth of credible facial hair at work is a tragedy. Among the many things beloved by dorks is facial hair; it affords them a more mature attitude when they're arguing with their mothers pursuant to bedtime. Also, growing a beard is an excellent way to remove a personal-hygiene activity from your daily regimen--always a big coup if you're a QA dork. The ideal uniform includes a leather jacket, shorts, waist-length hair and as much hair as can possibly be grown on one's face. Whether the hair is scraggly, uneven, patchy, stringy or otherwise pathetic is irrelevant. It's there; that's the point. I'm surrounded by pathetic facial hair every day, grown by simpering man-children who know nothing of hair that doesn't grow in great greasy locks from their own heads. I am Silverback; hear me roar! Or rather, watch me grow hair out of my skin.

I decided to grow the beard while shaving my neck and most of my cheeks (hair grows basically up to my eyeballs and down to my chest, where it merges with my Man-Suit). The neckbeard wasn't an option. Realize that the dork bearding process is essentially to just stop shaving. It's similar to starting a garden by dumping a bag of dirt on the ground and walking away for a few months. Why shape, plan or cultivate? Them shits grow out the ground, bro! Because of this, they routinely rock neckbeards. In fact, "neckbeard" is a great way to obliquely refer to a dork without him realizing. So some shaving had to be done, including my upper lip. Mighty though my follicles are, they don't exert much effort on the mustache front. It's for the best.

The beard started out as an endeavor of pride. It worked pretty damn well--so well, in fact, that pride ceased to be a motivating factor. After the first week of not shaving (in an office full of guys who had, for the most part, also not been shaving) I had a heavy enough coat of scruff that co-workers actually commented on it. At that point, this whole operation became a fact-finding mission. How much strength could I ultimately project from my face? Would it fill in nicely like Baron's or just turn nasty like Joaquin Phoenix's? Three weeks in, I've been pretty happy with the results. The scratching has been minimal. I haven't gotten any really large pieces of food stuck in it (if you know me well, you are impressed by this). There's nice volume, though Baron's got me (and everyone on the planet who isn't some kind of mythical Spartan warrior) beat. I grow thick dark hair at a prodigious rate, so it's nice to save time and real estate when shaving. How do the ladies feel about it? Well, I don't have a girlfriend and all my co-workers are male and in social situations I am basically a sea urchin (quiet, cold and prickly). So I have no idea how they feel about it and they're not lining up to tell me. Let's just assume they find it roughly as unappealing as the rest of my being--a beard shouldn't move the needle too much in either direction. But generally, women despise beards because they're jealous. If they had some personal feature that could be so easily grown, disposed of, modified and accessorized they'd go crazy and expend huge amounts of money and effort doing all the things to it I just listed. But they can't, so they hatin'. See the picture at right? That dude's beard is fucking awesome, but I guarantee his wife hates it. She didn't even come to the beard competition and she tells her man every year that it's a stupid idea. But she knows. She knows.

Sadly, it's time for this adventure to end. Soon I'll take the shears and razor to the virile hedge I've erected. I've accomplished everything I set out to: I've shamed my fellow dorks and taken for myself the metaphorical conch shell that is the best beard in the QA department. I've learned that I can, in the space of 2-3 weeks, grow a convincing Amish beard and blend in with those simple people. They have Comcast high-speed over in Pennsylvania, right?

Sunday, March 28, 2010

I get my cheese from the govmint

It's the end of the month and there are bills to pay. I handle most of the big financial transactions around The Humboldt, because it allows me to embezzle from my roommates by keeping them in the dark about how much things cost. I understand a similar practice persisted in the Bush White House for most of his tenure. That sort of information was just going to frustrate the man. Likewise Nick and Rob, who are freed to merrily explore the world unfettered by these burdens. A while back, Rob bought a pair of special gaming glasses. They are polarized; intended to make the colors of a PC monitor more vibrant and enjoyable. They are not intended for use outdoors. They are not even intended for use with anything that's not a PC monitor, so your TV will just have to remain back in the Paleolithic Era. This fine product for discerning gamers costs $80. You'd think this would be a foolish purchase in retrospect. You'd be wrong. Rob fucking loves his gamer (lamer) glasses, and honestly I love them too. Jackasses spend so much time pretending to be something other than what they are; it's refreshing to see a spade call itself a spade.

After a weekend of bill-paying, grocery-buying and tax-evading I've got money on the brain. I got to thinking about my own situation, and how it's actually pretty enjoyable for what it is. Poverty is underrated, unless of course you have children or big-time responsibilities. Poverty is cool if you're an educated white male from an upper-middle-class upbringing, is I guess what I'm trying to say. Here are a few little-known perks of living on meager means.

Easy Tax Returns
It took me about 30 minutes to do my taxes this year. That's state and federal, in their entirety. How? Well, my only income is hourly wages and unemployment. The latter doesn't even have a real form to fill out: you say which state you collected from and type in the lump sum. I don't have any kind of retirement account or investments. I don't own a home (probably never will), I don't get anything paid for by anybody else, and I rarely travel because I can't afford it and my job would never send me anywhere.

Essentially, I copy a couple numbers from my W-2 and I'm done. My entire financial existence could be scrawled on a single piece of notebook paper by a book-smart but awkward child, whose school performance lags behind his capabilities because he's afraid to stand out. Good thing there's no form in the federal code that would require me to pay a Literary Genius tax, because I just created a phenomenally compelling character in one sentence for no reason. My talents are going to waste just like a Russian trapeze artist who loses her leg to a wolf trap in the Urals while on a pilgrimage to St. Basil's Cathedral. AGAIN.

Opportunities to help people
Just a week ago, I was shopping at Trader Joe's when an old lady came up to me and started asking questions about produce. No senile geriatric she; instead, she just assumed I worked at Trader Joe's. Trader Joe's has loose uniform standards, but all retail employees wear aloha shirts. I was not wearing anything that resembled an aloha shirt, yet this woman was so convinced I had to be a worker that she didn't even inquire. There was no "excuse me, do you work here?" Just a sudden embarkation into the stormy seas of squash pricing.

I couldn't help her, it turned out. Her conundrum was something outside my limited powers to correct, but it's nice to know that my beard, wardrobe and slovenly demeanor immediately project to the rest of the world, "I work in a yuppie grocery store." I informed her I didn't work there, and while she quickly apologized I reassured her: "No worries, I am young and scruffy." She didn't answer. I wasn't even trying to be a dick; it just comes so naturally.

No health worries
It's been said that if you don't have your health, you don't have anything. I absolutely believe that. Your health is very important and it can be really difficult to get anything done when it's in question. I personally try to quiet my anxieties by reminding myself not to get worked up about things I have no control over. And as a poor bastard, that's the attitude you have to take when it comes to medical issues. Because your job doesn't offer health insurance and you can't afford to buy private insurance. With some savings, you can afford to visit the Amazonian shaman at right so he can have his pig diagnose you. It smells disease, you see.

Well, I take that back. You can afford to purchase an insurance policy. You can't afford to buy one that offers you actual medical care. Under my policy, I pay for all expenses out-of-pocket unless I get hit by a train. If I tear my ACL playing frisbee, I am screwed. If I get hit by a train, I'm set. Anything in between, I'm also screwed. But like I said, this leads to some serious peace of mind. Should you go to the hospital or shouldn't you? Why even worry? I can't go to the hospital under basically any circumstances (see: Train, hit by). My friends with cushy jobs have to make appointments for physical therapy and massages and checkups: things that I never have to think about. A former co-worker of mine got hit by a car not long ago, bouncing off the hood as the guy drove off. Did he limp off to a hospital like some Pointdexter? No, he limped to Walgreens and bought some bandages and Bactine. Like a boss. Well, a boss who doesn't have health insurance. No clue where you're supposed to find one of those.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

"Intriguing Duality?!"

Had an incident with a dog when I got home. It's not what you're thinking, though I can hardly blame you for thinking it. My run-ins with dogs a matter of public record. Some of the Mexican children who live next door (it's okay, they have parents--it's not some "Lord of the Flies" thing) were scampering about in the parking lot, as Californian youngsters are known to do. They spend their lives in cars, so it's natural. I pulled in, and they started running towards my car. This was unsettling; running children should be increasing their distance from oncoming traffic, not the other way around. But then I heard the yelp of their dog, and hit the brakes in a panic reaction.

Let's understand before I go on that this dog is an asshole. It is a black chihuahua--I was going to call it a "small black chihuahua" but that's just a waste--and it never stops barking. I should clarify; it never stops barking except when it's in lethal danger because you're about to hit it with your car. Then it drops into silent running like it was aboard the Red October. Being a tiny little creature, it is naturally adapted to stealth. When you're not about to kill it with a motor vehicle, it yaps and snarls and hops around your ankles in what it imagines is a menacing fashion. It has no affection whatsoever for any human being who is not a Mexican child--the little shit even seems to hate the adults in that household. It possesses no redeeming qualities. It's not even cute in the way that most small furry animals manage to be cute in spite of themselves. It resides comfortably in the Ferret Zone: the taxonomic region populated by animals whose odor and viciousness preclude all but the most fleeting illusions of cuteness. But somehow, the convenience of such a tiny dog (tiny poops!) became more important than the animal actually being appealing. You see the same thing with parents--even the ones with ugly babies still seem to like them. It's a conundrum.

Once I'd stopped the car I started to look around for the dog. I figured I hadn't hit it because if I had, the kids would be screaming and crying. But at the same time, I couldn't figure out where the little fucker was because it's a goddamn chihuahua. Another reason to despise the breed. Not only are real dogs much easier to see and avoid, but they're actually noticeable if you do hit them. If I killed a Golden Retriever, I'd feel it. Chihuahua? You don't feel anything. Not even inside your heart. The kids reached my car and spirited the little guy off to safety. I hadn't killed him after all. But I kinda wish I had. I take that back--I don't wish I'd killed that stupid dog. I wish somebody else had done it.

After the initial tears, would it really have been so bad? It's not like anyone can blame you for inadvertently greasing a tiny little animal like that. You can't see it, can't hear it, can't feel it. And what the hell is this tiny creature doing romping around the wheels of a car anyway? I know the answer, actually: it's an twitchy overbred abomination and it doesn't know any better. If anything, it would have been the kids' fault for letting it run loose. Damn, the more I discuss this the more it feels like a squandered opportunity. C'est la vie. That's French for "fuck little obnoxious dogs."

*****

God of War 3 has been on the edge of my periphery lately. That's the edge of an edge, for those of you educated in the words of Science. Rob has been plowing through it and I hope to enjoy the experience once he's done. The controller might be a little sticky, but beggars can't be choosers. In any case, the game is a remarkable achievement. Remember all the means things I've said about Dante's Inferno? While Kratos' latest adventure falls into some of the same traps (the pull of Shitty Dialogue on the writers of video games must resemble that of a singularity), I can't bring myself to say a word against it. It's though somebody ground up pure uncut Awesome and rubbed it into my eyelids. It's also one of the most metal games ever made.

My co-workers hate it when I describe anything as "metal." Clods that they are, they insist the adjective is meaningless. I will concede it is nebulous, but the concept is similar to pornography: I know it when I see it, and I would like to see as much of it as possible. During the opening sequence, you battle a snake with spider legs and a horse's head that Poseidon summoned from the sea. This Uberhorse has impaled a mighty stone giant, and you fight it as a speck on the surface of the giant's body. The giant itself is merely landscape, and you ultimately finish the battle by tearing the Uberhorse's lower jaw off in spectacular fashion as you fly through the air. Later, you kill Poseidon using the creative tactic of punching him in the face over and over until he is dead dead dead. I'm not sure what you think of when you hear the word "metal," but that is fucking metal. It could be more metal, but that would involve Kratos beating his foes to death with the severed head of a unicorn while the mountains catch fire behind him. Ever hear of Hermes? Well, not anymore you haven't because Kratos pulled his head clean off (bare hands, again) and is using it as a lamp. It projects light from its mouth and eye sockets, you see. Kratos is nothing if not practical. Like the Native Americans, he uses every part of the proverbial buffalo.

The game really must be seen to be believed. The animation, the style and the sense of scale make other games look foolish. In God of War 3, you can see Hades slaughter a Titan (as in, Clash of the Titans) in spectacular fashion as it attempts to climb the slopes of Mount Olympus. That happens in the background of the first level. This is the kind of gauntlet-throwing that happens once in a decade for gamers, and every weekend for the passionate, devoted workers of your local Renaissance Faire.

P.S. I'm watching the Xavier-Kansas State overtime as I write this, and the Kansas State coach looks like he's about to burst into flames. Not since Redman dropped Cheetos on Dean Cain's rug have I seen such incandescent rage. On the one hand, he's right to be angry because K State got completely hosed at the end of regulation. On the other, the subsequent overtime has allowed Gus Johnson to rev up to fifth gear. I bet if the K State coach could hear Gus' play-by-play he'd feel sunnier.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

RIP, my homie America

For the second time in 18 months, EVERYTHING CHANGED. Congress finished passing health care Sunday night. After a year in the goddamn bathroom, I think everyone was ready to finally get in there and see the damage. Even if you don't like the result, you're so happy the ordeal is over that you'll just plop right down and start your business. It doesn't matter that the smell in there could knock out a bull moose.

But I woke up on Monday morning with a rotten feeling. One weekend Barack Obama steals an hour of my sleep to give to poor people, and the next he's stealing my money to pay for poor peoples' abortions. The fact that I make under 20k/yr and pay over $100/mo for health insurance that pays for ZERO medical expenses before the deductible is immaterial; I hate poor people and the uninsured for their laziness. Maybe you've seen the film Scrooged? In this Randian tale from 1988, a father and his son have a heart-to-heart on Christmas Eve that explains what I'm talking about:
"Here you, Frankie. Merry Christmas!" (Father hands son a wrapped gift)
"Is it a choo-choo?"
"No, it's five pounds of veal."
"But I asked Santa for a choo-choo."
"Well, then get a job and buy a choo-choo!"

It warms the heart and teaches an important lesson. If you want health care, buy health insurance. If you don't want to pay for a private plan, get it through your work. If your work doesn't offer health insurance, get a job that does. If you can't get a job in the worst hiring economy in decades, then you obviously didn't deserve it. If Barack Hussein Obama ever held a real job in his life (we will define "real job" as the ownership of an oil company paid for by one's family connections) he'd know these things about the market economy. Instead, his biography reveals a shamefully mis-spent youth loafing about in urban communities to "organize" them. We laid out the streets in grids and built giant housing projects and filled the streets with cops; those places are plenty organized.

So America is totally fucked. The good news is that the Democrat party is similarly totally fucked. As Newt Gingrich said after the vote, them fly donkeys "have destroyed their party much as Lyndon Johnson shattered the Democratic Party for forty years." Mr. Gingrich refers to President Johnson's insistence on major civil rights legislation. His stand came with grave political costs as Southern white people weren't too high on the idea that Southern black people were their equals. That Lyndon Johnson and his commitment to equality; what a stupid asshole! That decision sure is hilarious in retrospect; standing up for his principles and President Kennedy's legacy over his party's short-term political fortunes! As if. But Obama's jumped down the same suicidal rabbit hole, and Republicans are poised to capitalize on his mistake. They will go home to their constituents this Fall and tell them "I did nothing. Absolutely nothing. Not only did I do nothing, I worked my fingers to the bone trying to prevent others from doing anything." If Democrats had any sense, they'd have put health care to bed and never ceded the "didn't do shit" high ground to their rivals. Oh well; their loss.

You'll notice I keep referring to this legislation simply as "health care." I do this because I don't know anything about it. I know that it's wrong, and that it will give my money to poor people. I think I read an article saying it'll give my grandmother to poor people as well, but what would they do with her? Probably sell her oxygen tank and other Medicare-financed medical equipment to pay for their asthma drugs and bullet wounds and whatever they buy there. Don't worry, though; my grandmother is already dead. I know that whatever they're doing with this bill costs a lot and it will add to the deficit. This frightens me because deficits are bad and the Democrats are causing them. President Bush (being Republican) held up fiscal responsibility as a cornerstone value. Did you hear word one about deficits under the last administration? No, because they ran a tight ship. If they'd been running all kinds of deficits, getting the country in trouble, we'd have heard about it. Their own party would have ripped them apart, and that's why we need the GOP back in charge. Principles.

Speaking of which, it is a daily tragedy that John McCain isn't in charge of this mess. He'd wrassle it into shape. He's always been a rabble-rouser; a tough guy. I respect that. I started watching "Battlestar Galactica" and I had reservations because, like Osama Bin Laden, they are polytheistic. I don't know what that's about. Do you just call them all "God" with a capital G? That would get confusing. But I stuck with it because Space John McCain is in that show and he's a badass. He doesn't take no grief from those softy liberals: I've seen him get up in that bull dyke Starbuck's face for threatening the sanctity of his marriage. And while Adama (What does that rhyme with? Why am I the only one asking these questions?) is trying to liberalize the fleet and let the terrorist Tom Zerek control everything, who stands athwart the rails of history? Space John McCain. Real John McCain needs to bust out his tough-guy eyepatch and show those pinkos in D.C. what's up.

I've gotten so angry writing all of this that I think I'll wrap it up a little early. The effort to repeal this bill is already underway and led by Mitt Romney. I like Romney. It takes real courage to stand up and oppose a bill that was based on Massachusetts legislation you advocated for, signed and used as a major credential in your Presidential campaign. Mitt understands that if this country's disastrous slide into decline continues, our children will be reduced to giving our grandchildren ridiculous names like "Mitt." Even Sarah Palin's retarded kid has a better name than that. These are the stakes. And it doesn't matter that repealing a bill requires passing another bill through Congress, then getting the President's signature. It doesn't matter that the President who'd sign that paper would be Barack Obama, who signed the first piece of paper that you're getting him to sign the second piece of paper to un-sign. It makes you wonder if government is deliberately complicated, just to confuse us regular Joes. I wouldn't put it past them. Government, I mean.

*****

I couldn't let this happen without linking: the trailer for the upcoming Lifetime Original film "Amish Grace." It hit me like a ton of hand-molded bricks from a wood-fired kiln. The line read the husband gives at 0:20 in the video just blows my mind. It's so fresh, it's almost like he'd never before seen those words placed together in that order. They fall from his mouth with all the virgin beauty of a field just after snowfall; like a relic from before the Fall of Man.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The All-Upset Squad

Here at The Humboldt (the classy Victorian establishment just off Highway 101 where young men of good quality may take boarding-rooms), we spent the weekend watching basketball. We've no sustained rooting interest; I believe the Stanford Men's basketball team is currently the practice squad for the Stanford Women, so even I have nothing personally invested. We just want to watch good games, and the NCAA Tournament has provided quite a few so far. Fresh upsets trickle in every day, as mid-majors find a way to squeak out one win against superior competition.

On one hand, this is the same trend we've seen in other college sports over the past decade: a flattening effect. The fact that huge numbers of college games get broadcast on television spreads out the talent more evenly amongst schools. But the fact remains: were this tournament to be played in a series format, the upsets (uncommon at the best of times) would become vanishingly rare. As I know from my college Ultimate career, upsets are fundamentally rooted in the element of surprise. You can say "we were the best team today" after it's all over, but that's not really true. The other guys were the best team. You came out swinging, made a couple big shots and kept it rolling. You knocked them down early, jumped on top of them and wailed away until the last whistle. Your team wasn't great, but your effort and execution was. The moment was special; the team just made it possible. And since the St. Mary's of the world (on whose bandwagon we have eagerly jumped) aren't legitimate threats to win the whole tournament, isn't the moment what really counts?

I've tried to process the games I've seen and understand the crucial elements of these shining moments. If I could build an NCAA Tournament All-Upset squad--the combination of players and archetypes that best lend themselves to upsetting traditional college basketball powers--how would I do it? And would I place my findings in the context of RPG gaming? The first question was difficult. The second was not. I don't actually know how many kids are allowed on an NCAA roster (that Wikipedia page is much further away than other Wikipedia pages and I don't feel like driving), but in practice only 8-9 kids actually play during most Tournament games and we'll stick to that. Roster slots 10-12 wouldn't have been funny anyway. I'm convinced that all successful basketball teams can be explained in terms of RPG parties, so we'll look at the tournament through that lens. For clarity, when I say "RPG parties" I mean the groups of characters in a role-playing game, not a party where dorks congregate to play RPGs. I may have a disease, but I'm not that far gone.

Center: The Tank
Class: Warrior
Primary Attribute: Strength
This kid is simply the biggest thing on the court. He isn't terribly athletic because if he were, he'd be playing for the very same Cobra Kai motherfuckers you're trying to take down. This is your Omar Sanham, who looks like some goon at the local blacktop court but is really goddamn good nonetheless. So he becomes the tank: the guy up front who takes the punishment and deals out enough of it to keep himself the opposition's focus. If you can support him with solid healing (point guard; we'll get to that) and offense (shooters; later) you can ride his mighty shoulders and doughy bulk to victory. This player is an old-fashioned bruiser and the quick, athletic guards employed by powerhouse schools just can't deal with him. He has too many Hit Points, and they'll eventually get picked apart by the supporting cast. Who we will get to eventually.

Power Forward: The Barbarian
Dual Class: Warrior/Rogue
Primary Attributes: Strength/Dexterity
I can't really think of a perfect example off the top of my head because I don't know anybody's names in college basketball. How can I, when all the best players leave every year and there's like 80 decent teams? But this guy is the sort of player who never quite had the talent to wow the NBA scouts, but he does look the part. He functions in a damage-dealing role (scoring point) and has the physical tools to overpower the aforementioned small athletic guards. Additionally, his lousy NBA prospects means he's stayed in school. He's 21 years old with years of high-level basketball experience, and he's not intimidated by anyone. His attitude and copious tattoos add flavor to his role as Barbarian.

Shooting Guard: The Sharpshooter
Class: Ranger
Primary Attribute: Dexterity
Not one of those lame animal-focused Rangers that have pets and build traps. Real Rangers have big goddamn bows and they shoot things with 'em. This year's Platonic ideal for the Sharpshooter role has to be Ali Farokhmanesh, who hoisted an incredibly ballsy (and ill-advised) three at the end of the Kansas-Northern Iowa game. His shot was a horrible brain fart up until the point where it went into the hoop and became an absolute dagger in Kansas' collective hearts. Mickey McConnell from St. Mary's banked in a deep three at the end of their win over Villanova, which was ridiculous because nobody banks in a three. At the same time, he never flinched or made a face like you'd expect if that wasn't how he meant to shoot it. In any event, these guys make up for poor size and athleticism by shooting the lights out. White people had to create the three-point line so our shots could count for 50% more than black players' shots. "But Tony, black players shoot threes all the time." Yes, but we didn't think of that. There were plenty of things back then we didn't think other races should be able to do. Like vote.

Small Forward: The Druid
Dual Class: Mage/Warrior
Primary Attributes: Intelligence/Strength
The Druid adapts to the situation and the needs of the party. If the Tank is swarmed with opponents, he rains fire from the perimeter. When the subs are in, he picks up the slack and drives to the rim. He does a lot of rebounding and passing. He isn't the glue that holds the party together, but he has some unique capabilities that come in handy. Like if a giant ferocious beast appears, the Druid can use his magic to lull it to sleep. I don't know what the basketball equivalent of that would be. The Druid isn't the cornerstone of the party, but he smooths out the kinks and plugs the holes.

Point Guard: The Captain
Class: Priest
Primary Attributes: Intelligence
The point guard is the beating heart of the team, because it is through him that the ball flows. His relationship with the Tank is crucial, as he makes the centerpiece of the team more effective. For the All-Upset team, the point guard should be a scrappy little guy who's on the edge of losing control at all times. There was a moment during the St. Mary's-Villanova game where the Mary's point guard tripped and fell, but kept his dribble going. He got to his feet and hoisted a three because clearly God wanted him to take that shot. Of course it went in.

The Bench: Flavor!
Classes and Attributes vary
First, you need a sixth man. It's best if he's a white guy who's really excited to be in the game. This makes him a fan favorite because normal jackoffs identify with him. They too would be excited to play some basketball on TV. Let's do it! As for the rest of the bench, their most important function is cheering on the good players. Their psychotic jumping, cheering and bench rituals propel the guys on the court to greater heights. The bench prefers to keep their mouthguards in, so they look like Sloth cheering on Chunk whenever The Sharpshooter bangs in a three. They represent an aesthetically-pleasing ethnic paella of scrubs--since they're not going to play or contribute much of anything to the actual game, we can afford an entertaining cast of characters. Maybe one of them has a terrible tragedy in his past that he's playing through, like a basketball fell out of a plane and killed his sister, but he stuck with the team and his strength inspires everyone else. We're all so proud.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Hated for the White Devil, and...Volleyball!


A lunchtime volleyball game occurred today at work. I say "occurred" because these things are like major events in astronomy: they're so vanishingly rare that you can't even try to predict them. You may as well just sit back and enjoy the show, because who knows when you'll ever see its like again? Volleyball appeals to video game testers more than some other sports because it is, fundamentally, a game of standing. Contrast this to soccer--which, as Coach McGuirk notes, is a game of running. Here is a video of his collected wisdom, which I invite all persons of good taste to view.

Look, volleyball is a sport populated with great athletes--coordination, agility and strength are all valued. But they're not really necessary, are they? You'd have to pull off an amazing dive to dig a pro baller's shot out of the sand, but a dork? The ball will probably graze the net if it clears at all, and it will be moving slowly. The server will probably not be jumping, and he will probably consider it an accomplishment to just get the ball to somebody on the other side of the net. Which isn't even the point of serving, but we'll take it. And before you think I'm a douchebag, I will admit with full disclosure that I sucked too. I tried to perform an aesthetically appealing serve on two occasions. On the first, I over-estimated my vertical jump (stupid bare feet on sand) and totally whiffed the ball I'd tossed up over my head. The second time, I made contact but didn't get the ball over the net. I blame a decade of Ultimate for this--who knew that balls travel in a parabola instead of gliding in a straight line? This would have been useful information while I was taking those Stanford physics classes.

The point is, it's damn hard to get nerds to participate in voluntary exercise unless it is performed in front of a Nintendo Wii. Double that for the fine employees of Namco-Bandai America, who prefer to spend their time away from video games...playing video games. Nobody leaves the goddamn office until 6pm, they just microwave their lunches in Tupperware containers. The Tupperware is important because if they lose it, Mom's gonna freak. However, they will occasionally play table tennis. Sand volleyball is fundamentally table tennis, only it's outside and there are more people involved. But the extra people means you don't have to be involved on every play and can just stand around. Because volleyball, again, is a sport of standing. By the way, I call it "table tennis" because "ping pong" sounds like an racist slur somebody would have directed at an Asian person around 1930. I'm pretty confident somebody in a bowler hat yelled such an epithet through the door of a San Francisco laundromat at some point in history.

The whole "outside" thing is unfortunate but it was a nice warm day and everyone seemed happy enough. There were murmurs about sunburns, but you're statistically unlikely to get melanoma by standing outside with your shirt on for forty minutes. Also, nerds may dislike the sun but they fucking love to wear shorts. Playing volleyball allows them to wear shorts, or (alternately) to roll up their jeans so that it's like wearing shorts. Sadly I have no insight to offer on the nerd proclivity for shorts-wearing. I'd guess that it's related to the nerd desire to always wear the same thing. In the future when computers have positioned nerds to control everything, we will all wear black tracksuits at all times. They are slimming and their dark colors mute the garish orange of Cheez-It crumbs. Nerds wear shorts all the time in their living rooms, so being able to take that show on the road (with minimal risk of getting cold, because you are a well-insulated dude) and wear shorts very minute of every day is really an ideal scenario. That's my theory, anyway. I'd ask one of the shorts-wearing dorkmachines at work, but I don't think he'd see anything remarkable in it.

The game was a lot of fun. I joined a team as its only non-Asian member, as well as its only member taller than 5'6". This was about as awesome as I'd hoped for, because it meant I was the only guy who could play "above the rim," and by rim I mean net because in volleyball there's this net right in the middle of everything. At one point, a teammate made a nice jump and spiked the shit out of the ball, which shot forward in a horizontal line until it impacted the dead fucking center of the net. I started to celebrate, but then I remembered it wasn't soccer and hitting the net was bad. Sports are confusing.

At one point, an opposing player was struck in the face with the ball and busted her glasses. This was a problem and she seemed a little upset. I don't think she should have been, since the last things to touch the ball before it ricocheted into her face were her own hands. After a break, she returned sans lunettes and the game resumed, though she whiffed on basically every ball that came her way from there on out. I can't remember the last time an activity had to be put on hold because somebody messed up her glasses. At least I didn't have to endure a lunch break in a game that took place on lunch break.

I've decided volleyball was actually more fun this way. It was as though we were all trying to tame some capricious woodland spirit that had taken up residence inside of a volleyball. It was nearly impossible to tell what direction the ball would travel after a player hit it, though it was slow enough that it could usually be tracked down. Who knew what that rambunctious little pixie would do next? The games were always close, because 95% of the points would end in an unforced error by one team or another. We were all terrible, so each team was as likely as the other to commit such an error and everything stayed relatively exciting throughout the games. I say "relatively" because watching two teams trade a half-dozen points without a single serve landing fair can be something of a drag. We won in the end because we had the only player who could actually spike it over the net. Again, I don't mean to toot my own horn because I am also terrible at volleyball. Whereas actual volleyball players get "kills" (far too brutal a term to apply to such a tame sport), I get "maims."

I thought of a good analogy. It's a hunting analogy, though I've never been hunting. If actual volleyball players are hunters who kill animals, I'm a shitty irresponsible hunter who just maims them. I spray the underbrush with bullets, and my quarry gimps away bleeding to croak somewhere else. The ball will get over the net and it will eventually strike the ground (probably after bouncing off somebody's leg or hands or face), but nobody looks good and nobody's happy with the result. But you know what? We won, and it was cool enough for me to keep my shirt on. Though now that I think about it, taking it off might be a good professional decision. I can imagine my boss' reaction: "Ooh, a silverback! That's leadership potential right there!" And the sky is the goddamn limit.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Days of Rage

I happened across a great idea from an unlikely source: the militant Palestinian organization Hamas. The big H and I don’t see eye-to-eye on most things. To take an easy example, they believe Jews are an abomination, whereas I had a lovely time slow-dancing with Brienne Johnson at a Bar Mitzvah back in the seventh grade. I’ve also been known to enjoy a carnitas-based entrĂ©e at one Mexican restaurant or another, and I gather the folks over there in Palestine aren’t down with that. Something about sour cream? I’m not sure exactly. Religion is confusing.

Anyway, I’m stealing Hamas’s “Day of Rage” concept. They recently declared a Day of Rage against Israel, though I’m unclear on the specific rationale. I went to their website to find out but they have one of those little checks on the front page: “How much do you hate Jews?” I answered “Only a little,” because that was the nicest option they gave me, and I got kicked out! Right to Google’s homepage, and they had some recognition setting that kept me from getting in with another answer. I felt like a teenager who accidentally clicked the “I am not over 18” button on a porn site, only there’s not an infinite number of alternative Jew-hating websites to fill me in on whatever this beef is between the big H and the big I. Which I just realized are right next to each other in the alphabet as well as the Middle East! So that’s pretty cool.

The Day of Rage, as I understand it, is basically a day devoted to very directed and specific anger. It’s like the Two Minutes Hate, only a leisurely day-long hike of anger as opposed to a sprint. You’re not expected to be actively railing against the Day of Rage’s subject; rather, you’re supposed to proceed with the ever-present mindset of hatred. Just keep it in your thoughts as you go about your day. To stick with the same example, you wouldn’t wear a DEATH TO ISRAEL T-shirt to work. But if you’re buying lunch and the lady at the counter gives you your change, you should say “Thanks. A Jew would have kept my money!” Or if you encounter a beached whale, you could say to your friend, “I wish that whale would just retreat into the sea. Like Israel.” Just take advantage of any opportunities to express your distaste.

All this helped me to realize that I’ve been really sub-optimally angry. In a given day I probably hate twenty different things, to varying degrees and for various reasons. Most of these things make sense, like hating people who wait until they’ve already started their turns to activate a turn signal. The light from your signal telling me you’re turning reaches my eyes at the same time as the image of your car turning, telling me you’re turning. But still, the strain and mental gymnastics of hating so many things wears you out and ultimately dilutes your precious rage. To this end, I will endeavor to concentrate these feelings on a single issue each day. Well, not each day; if Days of Rage are such a mental cakewalk that you can manage one each day, you’re doing it wrong. So we can’t do this every day. Certainly not at first; maybe we can build up to something bigger. But for now, let the Days of Rage begin!

Our first subject? The United Parcel Service. They have earned themselves some concentrated ire this week because they are a package-delivery company that does not deliver packages. I ordered a pricey PC component online and had it delivered to my home via UPS (there was no other option). They failed to deliver on Day 1 because I have a job and was not home to sign for my package. This was not unexpected. I signed for the package on the back of the slip (where there is a designated spot to do just that), but on Day 2 the delivery was not made. I might have found a way to be at home during the delivery window, but none was marked. It just said "Wednesday." Congratulations, UPS, on beating out the cable company for Most Farcically Poor Service. At least Comcast gives me a non-binding four-hour window in which they might decide to appear and do their jobs.

Frustrated, I called customer service. The helpful woman I talked to help me lay out a simple, very specific set of instructions to be conveyed to the delivery supervisor and thereafter into the gutter-speak of the delivery Orcs they breed in pits beneath my local UPS Store. She assured this doubting Thomas of success several times, and everything was set up. Except that the instructions were never followed and the package was never delivered and I discovered upon calling UPS that not only was it not delivered, but due to the three failed deliveries it had been returned to sender. If I'd called before 7pm that day, this could have been avoided! Except that I didn't get home until after 7, because I have a job that also prevents me from sitting on my ass all day waiting for UPS packages.

Customer service also informed me that my local UPS facility was closed for the weekend and I had no recourse but to try and stop the return Monday morning at 7am. I did; it was too late. So now it's been returned and I can't re-order the component because this shipper only uses UPS and they're cheaper than everywhere else. The upside? I did manage to agitate multiple UPS customer service employees over the course of the weekend. There are a couple keys to this: first, do a heavy trade in patronizing statements/questions. For example, I asked one young lady: "Philosophically, what is the purpose of a delivery company that doesn't deliver things?" She couldn't answer, but she could get defensive and angry! Another big thing: the pronunciation of the word "fuck." You need to enunciate; that much is obvious. But the real trick is to put heavy emphasis on the F and draw it out just a little, so when you get to the meat of the word it's like you're spitting it in somebody's face rather than just saying it. It's really great, and it triggers reactions both strong and immediate.

I won't belabor my personal UPS situation too much, since I know countless people who've been in the same boat. UPS is fine if you're a company. If you are a human being, you are shit out of luck. It's a bit like trying to contact a member of Congress. Other crimes committed by UPS:
Poor fashion: Brown. Brown brown brown. What can brown do for you? It can sit there quietly on the toilet paper and accept its fate in the watery maelstrom. Those DHL guys get the color yellow, and I imagine their jobs are 2.6% less miserable than a typical UPS employee. Also, according to Wikipedia the uniform for UPS prohibits any facial hair aside from a mustache. Mustache encouragement is unacceptable from any person, entity or organization. The shorts are forgivable because they are a humiliation tool, rather than a fashion statement. See: the U.S. Postal Service.
They killed my uncle's dog: A few years ago, a UPS van struck my uncle's beloved Golden Retriever, killing her in the driveway right in front of the whole family. On Christmas Day. I shit you not.

So let's just spend tomorrow in a state of loose meditation; ruminating on the intense suck of this horrible company. Meditation has always been a preferred tool of the furious, and few organizations work so hard to establish petty misery in the lives of their customers. Congratulations to the United Parcel Service for being the centerpiece of the world's first non-anti-Semitic Day of Rage. Let's give it up.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

There's a message for you, sir!

From: Leon Romero (lromero@siegsand.com)
To: Cmd. John Shepard (jshepard@normandy.net)
Subj: RE: IRS all over my ass
Commander Shepard,
It is good to hear from you. Some time has elapsed since we last communicated and we at Siegmund and Sands were under the impression that you were, to put it bluntly, deceased. You were legally declared such and therefore your file was closed. We are sorry to hear of your recent tax troubles, but delighted that you appear to not in fact be deceased. Congratulations!

To answer your first question, you are required by law to pay taxes on all income and taxable holdings during all years for which you are alive. To answer your second, I'm not sure what kind of "fucked-up" world we live in. It is bracing at times, to be sure. If you have not paid the requisite taxes for the years 2183 and 2184, you are required to pay them as rapidly as possible in addition to penalties as specified by the IRS on your Schedule 14 form. If you would find it agreeable to resume our professional relationship (as you have not paid dues since you were declared dead) we can begin work on your past returns. Any documentation you have at hand for the years 2183 and 2184 would be much appreciated and can be relayed to us via Space Fax at the most convenient Mass Relay.
Best regards,
Leon Romero
Siegmund & Sands CPA

From: Cmd. John Shepard (jshepard@normandy.net)
To: Leon Romero (lromero@siegsand.com)
Subj: RE: IRS all over my ass
Leon,
Appreciate the prompt response. You answered my question wrong. I know what they want, but why should I pay taxes when I was dead? You missed this, I think. I was dead for two years. Now I am not dead. Those leeches want me to pay tax on post-death Spectre compensation? That is bullshit. If I am dead, I have no income. This is my argument. Make it. To them. On my behalf.

If they do not accept it and we must file nonetheless, I will retain your services. I regret I am short on any tax-related documentation for those years because I was fucking dead. And what's more, my ship blew up and everything got burned or blown into space. So no, I have not saved my goddamn receipts.

I apologize. I am having something of a Renegade day. I'll have my Yeoman put together some expense estimates and Space Fax them over. This girl has all the free time in the world, I swear. Managing my e-mail is not a full-time job.
-Shepard

From: Leon Romero (lromero@siegsand.com)
To: Cmd. John Shepard (jshepard@normandy.net)
Subj: RE: IRS all over my ass
Commander,
I regret that I was not entirely clear on your position vis-a-vis your personal death. However, I have made inquiries and it appears you have little recourse but to file for those years as back taxes. It may be possible to waive the penalties with some negotiation, but you are in my professional opinion likely to end up paying the full sum as asked. We will do our best to ensure that no extra tax burden falls open your shoulders and will mitigate your taxable income to whatever extent possible.

To that end, I have begun examining the documents Ms. Chambers forwarded to me. Via Space Fax. The proceeds from the sale of your Citadel apartment (condolences, by the way. I hear it was an excellent Presidium location) were taxed at the time to your estate, so you owe no additional tax and no property taxes for those years. I believe we can write off essentially all out-of-pocket expenses for the operation of the Normandy. While it was owned by the Alliance on lease to the Spectre program, we're considering it a company car for tax purposes and filling out the forms that way. Your situation does not fall easily into the mold of the tax code, I'm afraid. A sad shortcoming of a rigid system in an increasingly chaotic universe. Entropy, you know. But I won't bore you with my musings on the philosophical failings and resulting shortsightedness of the Intertellar Tax Code.

We'll keep moving through your documents as the very sociable Yeoman Chambers forwards them along. Please don't hesitate to bring any questions you may have to my attention. I've done my homework on interstellar superhero tax law, so I should be able to answer with authority. Incidentally, if you're curious about the tax code I run a blog devoted to it. I can forward the address if you're interested.
-Leon

From: Cmd. John Shepard (jshepard@normandy.net)
To: Leon Romero (lromero@siegsand.com)
Subj: RE: IRS all over my ass
No time for blogs, Leon. Reading outside of e-mail is a waste of time. Time can be spent jogging in space suits and talking to people. Doing favors here and there. Also have a lot of battle to do, which takes time. How much time depends on whether there are Scions. Take forever to die.

Loss of apartment was unfortunate but loss of life and ship and my hot Asari girlfriend was worse. Good to know I can skip out on property taxes; every year they hike them for those swanky Presidium schools. The councilors and bureaucrats move there for schools and they vote every year for higher taxes. For the children. I will probably end up shooting their children. I shoot a lot of people.

Next question, reviewing old reports: was the gear on the Normandy deductible? I know selling old guns and upgrades counted towards my tax liability. Corrosive Ammo II, who's going to document some crap like that? I should have dumped that shit out the airlock, saved myself the headache. But if it counted then, it's my stuff. I should get to deduct it as a business expense since it all got blown up. What do you think?
Regards,
-Shepard

P.S. I forgot. Cerberus never sent me a W-2 for either year where I was dead but being re-built. I had no personal income at all for that time. Can I just ignore it? So I don't have to list them as an employer until next year?

P.P.S. I know the IRS won't budge on this, but you should threaten them with violence from me. I'm a Spectre, I can tear things apart and shoot places up at any time without consequence. I won't do these things, but it might change their minds. I'm going for a "chaotic neutral" sort of thing and a healthy reputation as a badass would serve me well.

From: Leon Romero (lromero@siegsand.com)
To: Cmd. John Shepard (jshepard@normandy.net)
Subj: RE: IRS all over my ass
Commander,
I have received a response from the IRS, stating you must definitely pay for these years but that the penalties have been waived. They said being a Spectre counted as a special circumstance under which death might be claimed and rescinded. You lead crazy lives, after all, and it's hard for the paperwork to keep up. They do wish you'd have notified them of your need for a special-circumstance Death Exception (Form FN-92) prior to your claim of personal death. In the future, you may be able to save yourself some red tape. I confess I did not forward your threat of physical violence; I thought it unnecessary at the time and inappropriate over Space Phone in any event.

The weaponry and gear on the Normandy should indeed be a write-off and we've made a serious dent in your overall tax liability as a result. I thought you'd want to hear the good news. Your current employment with Cerberus is something we don't need to touch until the next tax season. Though if you were resurrected from the dead by their technology you might want to list yourself as a dependent of theirs, at least for the period in question. At the time time, it is likely that doing so would increase your total tax liability. If the "dependent" label does not accurately describe the situation, we'll speak no more of it. And since I'm a stickler for detail...while you can write off all the deuterium fuel you purchase for your company starship, you can't necessarily write off all the ammo you use on a given mission. Only the first two thermal magazines expended by each crew member are deductible. Apologies for the inconvenience; I don't make the rules.
All the best,
-Leon

From: Cmd. John Shepard (jshepard@normandy.net)
To: Leon Romero (lromero@siegsand.com)
Subj: RE: IRS all over my ass
I'm dependent on nobody. Even now I'm hesitant to write Cerberus in as my current employer since I don't really work for them. At least, that's what I tell myself in my Paragon moments. Still, there's no way to make the Normandy II work on paper without that declaration. It's hard to claim you've got a company car when you don't work for a company. I thought they had me over a barrel with that whole we-brought-you-back-from-the-dead angle, but the tax conundrum they've created means I really can't back out on them unless I'm willing to take a huge hit the next year. I swear they made the new Normandy twice as big just to seal the deal. I can't say no to something like that, but I can't keep this sweet machine without signing my soul over. And that Aussie minx Miranda, always in her office, always watching and filling out forms and...collating them all foxy-like. She's so far ahead of me on the facts and figures that I'll probably end up owing her a year's Spectre salary just for the privilege of having ridden on this ship. It's what I get for neglecting my accounting classes at college. "I'll never need to know this crap, I can spend all day at the shooting range!" Live and learn.

Thanks to you and your staff for all your help in preparing these returns. If I had to do it alone, the entire galaxy would be in peril. Well...it's still in peril. I'm working on it.
-Shepard.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Three Great Lies of Bad Company 2

I've been playing a lot of Battlefield: Bad Company 2. In fact, it's the only game I play when I'm not at work playing video games all day. It is a supremely awesome game that flows logically from the following core principle: it is awesome when shit blows up. Many games have been made starting from this idea (first uttered, I believe, by Siddhartha Gautama. This is one of the central tenets of Buddhism, along with "every man for himself") but this is the first to decide they really mean it. In Bad Company 2, everything blows up. Is your foe hiding behind a wall? Do you have some kind of explosive? Well, then there doesn't need to be a wall, does there? It is a beautiful kind of logic, which renders the typical mindset of an online shooter moot. At the most basic level, it is a delightful kind of wish fulfillment. How many times have you been trucking through a building and thought "Man, there should be a door here?" In BC2, you have the tools to make your own door! Or if you want to nitpick, the tools to make giant holes in things. But what are doors, really? Just glorified holes. So don't surrender to the petty tyrannies of architecture; carve your own glory hole.

At the same time, the game perpetuates a number of myths and that disappoints me. In a title with so much eyeball-searing realism, why cut corners? I'm going to take this opportunity to point out the three worst mistakes DICE made in this title. Just be assured that I do this out of love. All the scorn I pile on anything is motivated by a sincere desire for that thing to be better. There is one exception: the band Red Hot Chili Peppers. Dear RHCP: you suck. You've sucked for 10 years, and if not for the hiatus prior to "Californication" that number would probably be higher. I'm tired of your half-assed writing, which at this point mostly consists of name-dropping locations in the United States. I know why you do this: you do it to pander to the drunken frat boys who fill your shows, since they attend colleges named for those locations followed by the word "State." Your band is an unholy abomination. I hope you die of gonorrhea and rot in hell.

Yay, back to video games instead of seething elitism! In no particular order:

Everyone has a fucking machine gun
There are four player classes in Bad Company: Assault, Engineer, Recon and Superhero. The last of these, often abridged to "Medic," is the most popular. While the designers chose to outfit the other classes with the kinds of reasonable small-arms weaponry that actual soldiers might have (shotguns, rifles, pistols), Medics get fucking machine guns. These weapons handle and behave fundamentally like assault rifles, only they hold 100+ rounds in a magazine and remain accurate when fired on full automatic for long periods of time. Additionally, Medics can heal themselves (and others) as well as boasting greater toughness and the ability to resurrect their teammates from the dead. Why we haven't deployed these guys to Iraq yet, I'll never know. Needless to say, these traits do not accurately describe actual Army Medics; who (not to be critical) cannot retrieve their fallen comrades from the great beyond.

If you occasionally had to deal with one of these fuckers, that would be bad enough. But no; 80% of all BC2 players play Superhero and thus the games can easily turn into a giant hurricane of never-ending gunfire. Because if you have a clip that holds 200 rounds, you need to fire all 200 of those rounds as quickly as possible. Especially because players whose guns hold normal human quantities of bullets will run out of them. What fools, for not choosing Superhero themselves! This is hyperbole, of course. But seriously, the worst Medic gun holds 100 rounds. One hundred. Ugh.

Russia's military is credible
In the single-player mode, the United States and Russia are pitted against each other in a global struggle for supremacy. More specifically, Russia has invaded all kinds of shit and want to take over the world. They're even in Alaska and Mexico and half of Europe and the world stands on the brink of annihilation...at Russia's hands.

I took a course in Russian history back in college, so I am an authority on the subject. I own a giant book called "A History of Russia." I keep it with many other leather-bound tomes. Let me assure you as an expert that the Russian army has never been effective in an offensive capacity. Ever. The Russians may be tough and accustomed to misery, but they are not natural soldiers. "But Tony, they beat back Hitler on the Eastern Front! They conquered Napoleon's army." They didn't do that; the soul-crushing godawful cold did that. The entire might of the Soviet military was nearly beaten back by Finnish people on skis. One Finnish pilot shot down fourteen Soviet aircraft in a WWI biplane. A massive military presence in Afghanistan couldn't subdue it (we're there too, but we've handicapped ourselves with Iraq. Doesn't count). During the Time of Troubles (which lasted from 1584-1613 and was so awful that Russians call it "the Time of Troubles") a band of Polish mercenaries revolted against their welching employer and actually took over Moscow. However, Moscow was such a frozen shithole that the Polish ran out of supplies and resorted to cannibalism. That's right...Russia is so horrible that not only did they allow their capitol to be sacked, but the conquerors fucking ate each other and died in the sacked capitol.

My point is this: Russia plays defense. They will never be able to conquer anything unless they have a staggering numerical advantage (Finland, the Warsaw Pact countries). Try to invade them, and you fucked up. They will destroy you with their winters and their spite and their hideous old women. Additionally, this is the country whose navy lost their brand-new prototype super-submarine on its first voyage. Lost at sea with her heroic captain, and the brave crew of the Kanavolov. Russia is important because they have a lot of nuclear missiles, which are not mentioned in this video game. So, DICE, the next time you make a shooter let's work just a little harder to provide a credible foe. Even Nazis would work...oh, that's your next game? Okay, I'll probably have to buy that one too.

Knives are more dangerous than guns
I've written about this before and I won't belabor those points. I will say this: in Bad Company, you have a button that rapidly slashes with your knife. If you press this button, an enemy within five yards of you will die. Close-range encounters come down to who presses his FWAASH button first. Which is cool until you see it in practice. Many people, upon seeing an enemy at close range, simply sprint at him for a stab. It actually works; I've pumped a dozen rifle rounds into an onrushing attacker only to be insta-shanked with him at 10% health. Let's be real: an onrushing attacker who receives that kind of punishment will be able to do two things to his enemies. First, fall on top of them; second, bleed all over them. He could fall on top of you and then bleed on you. The one thing he's not in shape to do is be effective in close-quarters combat. Killing an armored, struggling person with a knife would be a tall order under the best of conditions; to say nothing of attempting it after ten gunshot wounds.

My last question is this: if I can have a grenade launcher accessory on my gun, why can't I have a knife launcher? Or a bayonet? That'd be pretty neat; if we extrapolate the power of a normal knife up to the bayonet level, the weapon would just automatically kill anyone you pointed your gun at. Or, you know...you could just have a fucking machine gun.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Constantine: The Emperor: The Movie: The End

VEEE VILL SHTAAAHT with a story I wanted to tell on Monday. Constantine came up and it reminded me of this. But it warranted more than an aside, so I held onto it for later. Today is later. This particular story was cited by my old friend Geoff just last night, so I took it as a sign. I mean, shit...it's Constantine. Which I hate putting in italics over and over because I think that insults the dignity of italic characters everywhere. My handwriting is italic and illegible, so it seems appropriate to mention it in an italic and illogical discussion. And the pun was in italics. Pirate booyah (often articulated as "Yarrrrr").

Story!
I went with my college roommates to watch Constantine in the theater. We were running late and knew we'd miss the first 5 minutes. Nate Dogg was really fired up about the movie and got the rest of us similarly hot 'n' bothered. Yes, that's his name. If you've ever met him, you know. We got to the theater, bought our tickets, sat down...and had our MINDS BLOWN. There was so much crazy shit and special effects, and characters we didn't even know were getting killed, and then this crazy bitch comes down to stop Keanu Reeves from stabbing Rachel Weisz, whose name we didn't even know. Keanu Reeves was Constantine. We knew that. And holy crap, this was just the start of the movie! Imagine the rest of it: insane. Then Keanu Reeves is slitting his wrists and bleeding to death while he smokes a cigarette. He even stubs the butt out in his own blood pool. I've said it before, but don't watch Constantine.

Keanu's impending demise made two of our foursome (Geoff and I) realize that we weren't watching the beginning of this movie. We were watching the end. We'd walked into the wrong theater and not realized it because, being late, we expected the movie to already be playing! It wasn't remarkable that we'd seen no credits and gotten dumped into the action. It was remarkable that we considered the possibility of a post-Matrix Keanu actually appearing in the sort of brain-searing life-altering movie we'd extrapolated from the first 20 minutes (which were the last 20 minutes).

This was a serious bummer. We were on a tight schedule to get back to campus and couldn't make it through a full showing at this point. Maybe we could get our tickets refunded. But the biggest problem? Nate Dogg and Dave, the other two guys. We looked over and they were enraptured. They were so happy to be watching these pretty sweet things in a complete haze of sensory overload and confusion. Moreover, the rest of the movie had to be even more awesome! This was one of the high points of their recent lives. Could we take it away from them?
"What do we do?" I whispered to Geoff.
"Dude, Nate is gonna freak out if we tell him."
This was probably true. "But they're gonna find out soon! The credits will roll."
"Should we just wait it out?" he was right. We were on the same page.
"Ugh...yeah we should."
"I don't want to deal with Nate screaming WHAT?!? in a quiet theater."
I nodded. We waited.

The movie resolved itself. I won't go into it because I'd hate to ruin a completely retarded movie with spoilers. If it can't even offer its putrid stew of plot giblets, there's no product at all. Geoff and I kept nervously looking over at our compatriots, trying to gauge their reactions. Dave seemed confused. Nate looked very concerned, which was understandable because the final events of the movie were pretty somber. And then...fade to black. The credits started to roll. People were getting out of their seats and collecting their belongings. Nate Dogg was working through some stuff in his head, attempting to reconcile the awesome he'd just witnessed with the lame he found himself suddenly surrounded by. Finally:
"WHHAAATTT??!?" It was pretty damn loud. There was more yelling afterwards; I don't remember exactly what was said. Nate Dogg was upset. So was Dave, but Nate was demonstrative enough for both of them and Dave seemed satisfied with his rage.

We did get our money back, which calmed Nate down just enough to be trusted with the responsibility of driving back to campus. In the car on the way back, we had something of a revelation: this had actually been a positive experience. First, we had seen twenty-ish minutes of movie footage that was objectively pretty sweet. It was stupid too, but much like Dante's Inferno or a CW drama they provided just enough eye candy to keep you from having a stroke. We realized another thing: as odd as our journey had been, it was still objectively better than any alternative. Because our original plan, if executed correctly, would have led to approximately two hours of Constantine viewing. We would have had to endure the parts of the film that weren't over-the-top climactic action--and having seen the entirety of the movie since, those other scenes don't help it.

Did you know Gavin Rossdale, of former Bush and current Gwen-Stefani's-uterus fame, has a speaking role in the movie? It's true! We'd seen only the most awesome parts of this movie, and still came away with a sour taste in our mouths. Imagine how we'd have felt after a complete viewing. AND! We got our money back after all, so the entire experience cost only as much as gas. We'd seen a nonzero amount of entertaining film for a zero amount of money. And God dammit, in America that's something. Nate and Dave determined they'd have rather the movie was, in fact, only twenty minutes long and only comprised the footage we'd seen with maybe sixty seconds of pre-ownage exposition. You know, to introduce the characters. Because that's where the magic of the movies really happens.

Finally, because I mentioned CW shows (Classic Warner, formerly "the WB" back when people were actually calling things "the X" in earnest. Like the keyboard guitar, this was a slice of American culture we were happy to lay to rest. In case you aren't familiar, this was a network devoted to producing shows with the emotional range of a 2-minute Twilight trailer. They might charitably be described as over-wrought. At the same time, they are excellent in their own particular way. Just watch this actual footage from the actual show "One Tree Hill," which will not be receiving any fucking italics. I cannot emphasize enough: this show, and this scene in particular, were not produced or shot with any kind of irony or satire. Everything you are seeing is 100% effort, and you are expected to react to it in earnest. Enjoy. It is magnificent.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

It's on the record

Friday night, in a condition of extreme intoxication, my roommate Rob agreed--come to think of it, "agreed" isn't so accurate a word as "eagerly volunteered"--to bring an animal into our house. Not just any animal, but a bird. Not just any bird, but my parrot from back home.

Her name is Kahili. She's a Conure, a smallish green South American bird. She's happy to be petted and fed and talked to. She'll mimic laughter, drinking, eating and other noises. She can't talk, which is very disappointing. She knows how I feel about it, and we've moved on. It's cool. She'll ride around on your shoulder and be cute for hours with a modest amount of pooping. You can't get around the pooping. These sound like great things, don't they? It sounds like a perfectly reasonable idea to bring this animal into an apartment, doesn't it? Particularly when, as mobile young people, conventional pets like cats and dogs are difficult for us to keep? This all sounds like a great idea!

Except that it is emphatically not. This bird will not enter our home, as I insisted on Friday. Despite my own sub-optimal condition, I maintained discipline because I am a sensible person with the interests of the house at heart. Rob knew not what he asked for, and I did the right thing by holding the line. I'm actually quite fond of Kahili and would like to have her around, but I have lived with her before and I know things about parrots that most people (who've never owned one) don't. Allow me to enlighten.

The first thing to know about parrots is what they're not: birds. Cockatiels are birds. Budgies and finches are birds. Parrots are minor demons. They simply can't be thought of as a normal pet. Their combination of physical attributes, speaking/mimicking ability and intelligence elevate them above even dogs and cats on the pet pecking order. If a dog or cat started speaking, you'd assume it was possessed and kill it. Well...you'd try to kill it. Whether you'd succeed is another thing entirely, and depends in large part on your current Skill Level in Exorcism. If you haven't been investing your Experience Points into this worthwhile ability, I recommend it. The kinds of behavior you get from parrots sets them apart. How many creatures of the natural Earth can fly AND speak AND live for fifty years? None. There's no fucking animal alive that can do those things, and that's more evidence on my side.

Still not convinced? Well, among the many delights of parrot ownership is the following fact: they live up to 80 years. Not all of them; mine is a short-lived species that averages about 30. "But isn't that great? I wish my dog would live 30 years!" I bet you do. Your dog is a pet. My parrot is basically a person; an occasionally sweet but often very spiteful person who hates (among other things) shoelaces, pillows, human women and towels. She hates them so much that she wants to just rush at them and attack them with the sharpest parts of her face. Some of these things are more socially acceptable to attack than others. Which brings me to another point: parrots, like most asshole animals (defined in biological terms as animals who are assholes), fucking bite you. What else bites you? Demons. Q.E.Dizzle.

I've aggregated this information, along with some other important facts, into an eye-pleasing chart. Click the image below for an expanded version that can actually be read with human eyes. No, I will not stop making these with MS Paint.

If you've played the excellent video game Dragon Age: Origins, you're familiar with their loose classifications for nether beasts: Rage Demon, Lust Demon, Pride Demon and so on. Parrots are Noise Demons, and Kahili is no exception. What does this mean? I tried to explain this to Rob, but I'll try it again here: it means that the bird will, many times each day at unpredictable intervals, just start screaming. Rob lives in an open loft directly above the location for a hypothetical parrot cage, by the way. He will experience it as a waking nightmare. It will begin without warning or explanation, and the noise will come at the most silent of moments, when the beast perceives that your defenses are down. Another characteristic of malevolent spirits: striking suddenly when its prey is most vulnerable. I know you're thinking, "Parrots don't prey on shit. They eat seeds and plants." That's what you see them eating. Their true sustenance comes from feeding on the minds of their "owners." If you've never owned one of these things, their shrill cries blast through your cranium like a storm and leave only blackness in their wake. With sufficient volume and frequency, parrot screams can utterly incapacitate a human being in a matter of seconds. This is unlikely to happen in practice, because the parrot prefers to drain its subjects slowly and over time. If these creatures grow too gluttonous, they risk drawing the attention and subsequent wrath of the local priesthood. We're talking gun-slinging demon hunters like Keanu Reeves in Constantine. Did you see Constantine? Don't see Constantine.

So there you have it. Robin Jerome Walker did, under the influence of the demon alcohol, openly and explicitly advocate the introduction of an unholy demon from the gates of hell into an otherwise happy and functional home. Shame upon his family for five generations. And five generations of blessings upon my line, because I was the voice of reason and sanity and--as always--temperance and moderation. You don't really want a parrot. No decent person really does, which should (correctly) brand avian enthusiasts as witches; consorting with their vile pets day in and day out, and in the tongues of men! Right under our noses!

I knew Barack Obama would ruin this country.