Sunday, June 13, 2010

That's What it's All About

Last week, we made a comic referencing a story from a high school English class. Regrettably, the story was all-too-true. Many eons ago, in our Sophomore year of high school, Brian, Peter, and myself all had the distinction of being placed in an “honors” English class. I’m going to go ahead and assume Mike was off playing guitar or having girlfriends or something much lamer than reading “Ethan Frome”. If you have not read Ethan Frome, good for you. Spoiler alert- it’s about a bunch of sad pathetic people living in a sad pathetic town. Ultimately, they try to kill themselves, but fail even at that, managing only to permanently cripple themselves.

When you take this kind of feel-good literature, and slather on a rigorous homework regimen, lots of in-class busy work, and hours of highly speculative discussion about themes, symbolism, and other fluff, you realize the kind of dire straits our attention spans were in. This is the kind of class that drives you to sarcastically answer a major test question simply by rephrasing the answer just to, you know, stick it to the man.
The final nail in the coffin for this hopelessly oppressive class was that all the literature we studied that fateful semester had a running theme. Fueled by such other works as “The Great Gatsby” and “Winesburg Ohio”, we learned that our goals would not be reached, our love would not be returned, and that we would wear away the long years of our lives feebly grasping at the shadow of the person we dreamed we would one day become.

Obviously, we had to invent some seriously good ways to goof off in this class.

While I have fond memories of writing “I’m Oblivious” on a slip of paper and tucking it into the sweatshirt hood of the kid in front of me, there is one particular activity that I take great pride in having helped invent. This is the Casual Hokey Pokey.

As any four year old knows, the Hokey Pokey is a dance which involves the repetitious placement, and subsequent removal, of ones limbs from “in”. You put your right leg in, you put your right leg out, etc. The challenge, and the joy, of doing this in the middle of a high school Honors English class, is that one cannot simply get up and dance in class. If you were to try such a thing, it would undoubtedly result in a lengthy discussion about the symbolism and deeper themes of your dance, and ultimately a test that you would have to think of sarcastic answers for.

Too much work.

No, instead, the pleasure of the Casual Hokey Pokey is that you do it in plain sight of everyone, and yet no one notices. You play it cool- hence “casual”. It would usually begin like this- In some truly desperate moment, perhaps as we discuss the significance of a pickle dish slipping from a shelf and shattering on page 263, Brian and I would make eye contact. We are both thinking the same thing: Slip the cyanide capsule into your mouth and bite down hard. But then we remember our favorite classroom pastime.

One of us would begin to tap our foot, communicating a basic rhythm. Silent to the outside world, the music would begin in our heads.

“You put your right hand in…”

Brian extends his right hand to pick up the pencil on the edge of his desk, as I extend mine, covering the action by feigning the need to crack my knuckles.

“You put your right hand out…”

Brian withdraws with the pencil in hand, hovering it a half an inch above his paper. I retract my arm, having completed my stretch.

“You put your right hand in…”

As though he’s suddenly rethinking what he was going to write, Brian slides his hand a few inches forward and looks up at the teacher. I slide my hand forward again as well, as though resettling after my stretch.

“And you shake it all about…”

The pencil is now twirling casually in Brian’s hand, as I drum my fingers atop the desk.

“You do the Hokey Pokey and you turn yourself around…”

Alright this one was tough. There really is no way to physically turn around while in a chair which is bolted to a desk, so we would usually settle for just drawing little circles with our index fingers in the air. Typically at this point we would steal a glance across the room to make sure the other person was still in time, and finding them also spinning their finger, we would suppress a mutual laugh, and nod subtly in approval. No one else in the room had any idea.

“You put your left hand in…”

And so it would go on in a continuous progression of itches scratched, pen tops clicked, watches checked, feet tapped, legs crossed and uncrossed, and the telltale swirling of an index finger punctuating each verse. Hands left and right, each leg, and of course the greatest challenge of all, the dreaded “whole self”. This usually involved some kind of elaborate maneuver by which you extend your legs, cross your arms in front of you and put your head down, as though you’re just beat from all the thrilling mental stimulation, only to reverse the entire motion, and immediately do it again! Truly, only skilled masters of the Casual Hokey Pokey could pull off this finale with grace.

Once it was all done, Brian and I would take one last look at each other, silently acknowledging that yes, we are awesome. A quick glance to the left and right revealed the vacant stares of our peers, their glazed and unfocused eyes peering forward. They were none the wiser to our shenanigans. If it had been a particularly poor performance, maybe they would have thought, “Man, that kid is fidgety,” but the notion would quickly be dismissed, replaced with fantasies about cyanide pills. I’m quite confident no one ever deduced exactly what we were doing.

Now go forth into your lives, dear readers, and take the Casual Hokey Pokey with you- to your college lectures, your staff meetings, and your family functions. As long as you have at least one buddy who enjoys the thrill of hiding humor in plain sight, you need never be bored for long.


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Sunday, May 16, 2010

Get Off My Property!

Today I’d like to talk to you about intellectual property. No, I don’t mean the law school definition of intellectual property. I’m not here to go on about copyrighting or anything of that sort. I’m talking about who has ownership and creative authority when it comes to works of fiction. I’m talking about Anakin Skywalker, Dumbledore, and Donnie Darko, and all those characters, great and small, who have found a place in our hearts and minds. My thesis is that these people do not belong to the George Lucas’s and J.K. Rowling’s of the world. They belong to us, the fans.


This is a line of thought I’ve been pondering for a long time, but Mike’s nostalgic blog entry from last month really inspired me to actually write it down. The gears had been turning for some time, but the spark that really set me off was when J.K. Rowling declared publicly that Dumbledore was gay. To appease the sensitive among us, I’ll first clarify that I don’t care what anyone’s sexual preference is, and I’m in no way homophobic. What bothered me about this revelation was that, after publishing seven lengthy books, Rowling had the audacity to simply declare something about one of Harry Potter’s major characters as fact.
I imagine a press conference room, full of blinking flashbulbs, with Rowling stepping up to the podium with a serious expression on her face, finally delivering the shocking news as reporters scribble furiously. As word disseminates to the masses, people clasp their hands over their mouths gasping, and old women descend onto their fainting couches. Once the shock has died down, people tear the familiar books down from the shelves and scan furiously through them for every subtle morsel of homoeroticism they can find.
It’s a publicity stunt.

This is big news, people!

I’m not here to propose that Dumbledore was or was not gay. You know why? Because there are seven widely beloved books full of fine material through which you can form your OWN opinion. The evidence is there if you want to find it, but if like me, you did not suspect anything in particular, Rowling’s declaration was rather jarring. Dumbledore? I’ve been through seven* years at Hogwarts with you. Why did you never tell me? Suddenly, Rowling has tried to change my fundamental understanding of a beloved character. I have formed a relationship with this character, and suddenly the rug has been pulled out from under my feet.
Bullshit. Dumbledore isn’t yours to mess with any more Rowling. You concluded your series. I saw “The End” right there in black ink. Based on my experiences with them, those Characters are MINE now- And yours, dear reader, and every individuals. The story is too big now for the exclusive control of the author.

*yes I know, technically only six.


It is the beauty of books that so much is left to our imaginations. With a few words to guide us, we paint a picture with our minds- Perhaps a landscape, or a face, or the exact sound of a person’s voice. In a similar way, movies provide room for our imagination to abound via their brevity. Two hour blocks are far too short a time for many of us to spend in our favorite fictional worlds. Well crafted alternate realities, rich in culture and detail, provide an expansive playground for our imaginations. Star Wars is a prime example. Because the original trilogy, the basis upon which all else was made, is only six or seven hours of entertainment, we spend endless time simply thinking about it afterwards. What if I was a Jedi? Or maybe a smuggler, running jobs for gangsters with an alien copilot? On and on we ponder, and from this an extended universe is liable to spring. People write novels, make TV shows, and even fan fiction. An entire universe comes to life, founded firmly on the bedrock of the original material. This unshakable source is the basis of our happy little worlds.
And then they go and change it on us. Sorry everyone, Han Solo is softer than you thought. It turns out Greedo shot first in the cantina. Also, apparently Anakin Skywalker never redeemed himself, because his “force ghost” at the end of Episode VI is him as a young man. I wish it could go back to the way it used to be, but sorry, George Lucas said so.

Wait a minute... who's that guy on the left?

Again: Bullshit.
Sorry George, but the authority left your hands long ago. The saga lives in the hearts of thousands of fans. Many years ago you provided us with the raw materials, but from them we have built more than just movies, we’ve made a facet of our own cultural identity. It’s a slice of Americana, and it is ours to own; ours to decide what to do with.


Donnie Darko has been called the first real “cult” hit of my generation. I think anyone in their early twenties has probably watched this at least a half dozen times in college. With an eerie atmosphere, a dash of time travel, emotional isolation, and nice dollop of anarchist rebellion, Darko draws you in fast. There is love, perversion, science, philosophy, a dysfunctional family, and tons of other intrigue. At the end, the unusual plot and ambiguous themes leave you asking what the hell just happened, but even if you don’t understand, you have been drawn in so totally that you want to watch again and again until you can really wrap your brain around it. Because of this, infinite dorm room discussions have been carried out into the wee hours over the meaning of this movie.
Hey, aren't you the guy from Prince of Persia!?

Unfortunately, “official” explanations of the film tend to be way more disappointing than the amazing theories you and your roommates cooked up at 3AM that night sophomore year. It boils down to something like Donnie is experiencing an alternate universe in which he has super powers. Really? That’s what it’s all about?

Know Thyself

The solution to the inevitable disappointment of “official” explanations is to simply never ever provide one. I mentioned earlier that sometimes stories get bigger than their creators, and I would posit that the best stories tap in to things which are fundamentally human. The undercurrents of society, life, death, sex, god, love, hate, and the entire human experience are present in all of us, even if only at a subconscious level. I believe it is possible for people who are uniquely attuned to these things to write brilliant pieces of fiction, without even necessarily being able to understand why they made the story the way they did. Some might call it accidental genius, but I think it’s more closely related to letting the human condition flow through you. To anyone who has ever sat in the back of an English class during a discussion of symbolism and thought “the author didn’t do that intentionally!” you may be right, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there.
Let’s look at the Matrix Trilogy. While most people find the sequels to be inferior films, there can be no doubt that the entire series is packed to the gills with kung-fu-grade thematic punch. Religion, philosophy, the dichotomy of man and machine, and the relationship of creator and creature underpin everything that happens in these movies- and every overly-verbose monologue delivered by that Colonel Sanders looking guy. Like our friend Donnie Darko, Neo and the gang have had us up all night talking about what it is to be human, and where our place is in the world of the spiritual.

For anyone curious about the deeper themes in The Matrix, the Animatrix is an essential supplement.

In a master stroke of NOT meddling, and in the first move which I will applaud in this entry, Matrix creators the Wachowski brothers chose to withhold any “official” explanation of their tale. Instead, on the DVD commentary, they invite a panel of philosophers to discuss the meaning of the films. This was a brilliant decision. In this way, the story is still allowed to grow in whatever direction we are most happy with. If someone were to offer an explanation that disagrees with your own, you can easily dismiss it as a mere opinion. The Wachowskis have opened up a well for us from which we may drink in vast amounts of thematic speculation and pondering. If they were to have given their own definitive explanation, they would have replaced the well with a sippy cup.

So What am I Getting At?

There is in fact a point to this long ramble. Actually, there are two.
First, I believe it is important for authors, filmmakers, and other purveyors of fiction to leave their works be. Do not return to change things, and do not undermine the world you have created for the fans. Stories can grow beyond the scope of the creators control, and indeed, even beyond their understanding. After a point, their opinion is no longer more valid than anyone else’s, which leads me to point number two: Decide for yourself whose version you wish to believe. You must acknowledge that if you have found value and meaning in a story, no one can take that away from you.
Humans are story tellers, and through stories we find meaning and understanding in the real world. When you find a piece of fiction that resonates in your soul, take comfort in knowing that it is yours to own, and no one else can change your story.


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Friday, May 7, 2010

Particle Colliders and Future Tech

In today's comic we make the claim that to have a clear test of string theory you would need a particle collider the size of a galaxy. While that sounds like a ridiculous idea, we did at least do some baseline calculations, and I thought it would be good to go into it with a little more rigor.

This is all based on the wikipedia article on string theory which states:
There should be heavier copies of all particles corresponding to higher vibrational states of the string. But it is not clear how high these energies are. In the most likely case, they would be 1015 times higher than those accessible in the newest particle accelerator, the LHC, making this prediction impossible to test with any particle accelerator in the foreseeable future.
Without citing any sources, of course (thanks wikipedia contributors!), so maybe you can take that with a grain of salt. In any case, we can use this cautiously as an order-of-magnitude starting point.

Obviously when we talk about the utility of a particle accelerator for discovering new phenomena, the important quantity is the energy of the beam, not the physical size. But do the two scale together? Roughly, yes.

These data come from the list of hadron colliders that have information for both track length and beam energy on the wikipedia article listing particle accelerators. (A range is given for RHIC, so I took the maximum.) Running a trend line through the data gives us the average relationship between the two parameters, which in this case tells us:

Beam energy = 280.14 x Track length - 652.46

So if the LHC is capable of 7000 GeV and we want 10^15 times that, we're up to 7 x 10^18 GeV. (That's 7000 yotta electron-volts, for those of you keeping track.) Then we just solve the above equation for track length, and the result is roughly 2.5 x 10^16 km, or about 2600 lightyears. Of course, that's probably the circumference of a circle, so the actual diameter would be a factor of pi smaller, but you get the idea. It's big.

Maybe not as big as a galazxy, though, but hey, at this point who's counting?* It's about 26000 lightyears to the center of the Milky Way, but the Milky Way is actually pretty large among the galaxies in the Local Group. So maybe the size of a dwarf galaxy.

It would also be a terribly impractical machine. Not only because of the maintenance you would have to do along those 2600 lightyears of track, but also just the logistics of running it. If you started two beams at opposite ends of the track moving towards each other at nearly the speed of light, it would still take 1300 years for them to meet in the middle. And this all begins after you've waited 800 years for the signal to start to reach the opposite side of the ring. So maybe if you're lucky, you get one run of this thing every 2000 years, and just hope it doesn't break sometime in the middle because one of the hundreds of thousands of stars that it's lassoed up has orbited through the beam.

So in conclusion, no, it's not very realistic to build a particle collider to test string theory. If it were ever going to happen, we'd need some pretty significant engineering advancements first. But heck, maybe this is just the cost of finding the answer to life, the universe, and everything.


*I am, obviously.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Remember Things?

Hey guys, remember things?

Tonight I was thinking about the Matrix, which came out 11 years ago last week. How crazy is that? Anyway, there's that whole bit about "There is no spoon," and as I recall, everyone used to say that like all the time.

That was totally a thing!

But now it's 11 years later, and they decided to release two shitty sequels within 6 months of each other in 2003, so those late 90's glory days where they reinvented special effects are all but a distant memory. It's a tragedy really. You can't just say "The Matrix is a really good movie" without adding "I mean the first one."

It's kind of like Star Wars, but it's better in some ways, and worse in others. It's worse because Star Wars had 20 years to be the biggest thing to happen to movies ever before George Lucas made Phantom Menace and started that whole thing. Remember when the worst thing about Star Wars was the Ewoks, and they weren't really all that bad?

That was totally a thing, too!

But Star Wars had become a cultural thing, part of our shared history (maybe I'm only looking at this as a young, male nerd, but whatever). There was no way a few crappy movies could take down the original trilogy. The Matrix didn't have those 20 unblemished years, it only had 4.

But because Star Wars was such a powerhouse of awesome and was a testament to George Lucas' vision and talent, it made his fall from grace that much worse. Howard the Duck could be written of as a folly of the 80s. But we met Jar Jar Binks who brought fart jokes to Star Wars. Christ, George, why don't we just edit Casablanca so Rick gets a bad case of gas at the airport? Talk about amounting to a hill of beans.

And along with the prequels came the changes to the original. That was the worst. Hayden Christensen is now the face of Darth Vader after he dies? Sooo... he doesn't redeem himself and the last time he was a good person was before all that shit in Revenge of the Sith?

So here we are. Thirty-seven years after American Graffiti when Lucas hit the Hollywood scene ready to show the world he was capable of contributing. Thirty-three years after he changed the world with Star Wars, revolutionizing the way they make movies and inspiring filmmakers for decades. And twenty-nine years after teaming up with Spielberg and introducing us to Indiana Jones, easily one of the coolest heroes of all time. And where are we?

He's making an animated Star Wars comedy series with Seth Green. Idiot child, will not stop churning out the same jokes under a different name Seth Green. It's going to be Robot Chicken with Alec Guinness action figures. And we're going to have to watch it because it's Star Wars, and we can't not watch Star Wars.

Remember when the worst thing he ever did was have Greedo shoot first?

I miss that thing.

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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Blame Dan Brown

It’s no secret that the coolness of various genres tends to ebb and flow. Currently, we’re riding a long wave of superhero flicks, but if you’ll recall the late 90’s, disaster movies were all the rage. The popularity of a category of entertainment usually begins with a breakout hit, and then proceeds along a path of sequels and copycats. The question I’ve been asking lately is, what has lead to the recent wave of pseudo-religious action movies and videogames?

What’s that? You didn’t notice the wave? Neither did I, at first. What I’m specifically referring to is the idea in entertainment lately that angels and other holy beings are bad ass brawlers with a sword in one hand and a sub machine gun in the other. The most high profile offering from this lineup is probably the flop-tacular “Legion”, which appeared to have all the appeal of another straight to DVD Resident Evil sequel, with none of the style and mood that made Constantine successful, if only on the cult level. As near as I can tell it’s about an angel who defects from an angry god in order to protect humanity from some old-testament style wrath. A fun idea, certainly, but poorly executed.

Video games are where we’ve seen this genre really explode lately. Bayonetta is a game in which you play a gun-toting witch in an outfit so tight some considerably potent dark magic must have been needed to get in to it. Using (count ‘em) four pistols, you fight your way through increasingly bizarre heavenly creatures, all of whom have creepy gothic appearances, which all those renaissance painters somehow neglected to include.

Darksider’s is another entry. Here we learn that angels actually prefer a broadsword and head to toe medieval armor to a harp and robes. There’s some kind of apocalypse going on which pits said angels against a lineup of equally intense looking demons, and fun times ensue.

The trend continues with the new Dante’s Inferno game. I have not read the original Epic Poem, I must admit, but I can assume with some confidence that there was considerably less ass kicking.

There is in fact a point which I am slowly driving at here, and that is that all these action franchises which are based around the Judaeo-Christian religious structure require one thing to make them even remotely palatable: Tons and tons of style. That’s all there is to it. The material is already there: prophets, plagues, commandments from on high, fire and brimstone, heaven and hell, supernatural beings of unimaginable power, temptation, devotion, sacrifice. The bible would be a completely rockin’ read if not for its total lack of style! What the creators of these games and movies attempt to do is latch on to a little piece of this grandiose religion, oozing with epic potential, and slather a healthy dose of style on top of it. Strap some pistols to Bayonetta’s high heels. Give Constantine a huge gun shaped like a cross. Apply some moody lighting and hire an eccentric art director who’s seen too many old German films and you’re well on your way.

But there’s a problem. Drawing from good source material, and having a strong style are not enough. Sure that is the bare minimum to entertain, but without something more your feature is quickly forgotten as just another mindless entry in the genre. Turns out you still need to include those oft-forgotten extras, like compelling characters a well laid out story, and thematic punch to come up with something truly memorable. Some of the features I’ve discussed so far do this better than others, but I think it’s important for producers to remember that popular topics and style alone do not make for great pieces of entertainment. At best, they can be a cheap thrill, but they will never earn a permanent spot in the consumer’s heart without going the extra mile.


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Friday, March 26, 2010

Hey have you heard about our new blog?

Of course you have; you're reading it right now, silly.

Anyway, we're going to see where this goes. Giving 4 people space to write about whatever happens to pop into their heads? Heck, it's like a microcosm of the internet. But enough blogging about blogging (meta-blogging?) -- there are more important issues at hand.

The other day the TWWM team was having some discussions about the site design, etc. (via Google Wave, which I highly recommend if you're working on some kind of collaborative internet project) when I stopped everyone mid-conversation to tell them about the sandwich I was eating. It was that good a sandwich. Just simple peanut butter and jam (raspberry, with seeds) but it was a particularly transcendent sandwich. Actually, I'm going to paste for you an excerpt from my stream-of-consciousness thoughts at that moment. I don't think I could recreate it any better for you now:
"Crap guys. I'm eating another peanut butter and jelly sandwich on this bread and it's still amazing. I don't know that I've ever enjoyed a sandwich this much before. That's probably not true -- I've enjoyed quite a few sandwiches in my day. But the bar is usually set pretty low for PB&J and this has just blown away all of my expectations for the past 2 days. And the bread was on sale, too! How lucky is that? The name of the brand is "Nature's Pride", which every time I read it reminds me of "Nation's Pride," the Nazi propaganda movie in Inglourious Basterds. All in all, A++, would buy again."
I really do think it was the bread that did it. It was whole grain, soft but sturdy with a good heft to it. I've taken recently to buying the "natural" peanut butter that has the layer of oil on the top and you have to refrigerate. It's not particularly healthy, but I think there's something quaint about buying a food that only has one ingredient on the label.

At the time I was about 10 seconds away from posting the details of this sandwich to the TWWM twitter, but then I remembered that the main complaint people have about twitter is that it's just mundane crap like what people are eating for lunch. That being said, I don't have the same qualms about writing a blog post about this sandwich because there's space here to give it the description it deserves, and trust me, it deserves it.

It's sort of a strange thing that so many people have the same impulse to tweet about what they're eating, I suppose. But if you think about it, eating is one of those primary social things that humans do, and I guess it makes sense that people would want to try to force that into social networking somehow. It just doesn't come through the same in 140 characters, though. They should come up with a better way for people to eat together over the internet. "Google Food". That would be a great new project for them. For anyone trying to transition real-world social networks onto the internet, eating would be a good place to start.


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