Archive for February, 2014


Loners

I find myself drawn to loners for some reason. I’m not sure why, exactly. It’s not out of pity, or some moral desire to make sure that everyone has a friend. But for whatever reason, I seem to find myself becoming friends with people who don’t have many other friends on a semi-regular basis.

And you know what? I regret it almost every time.

My friendships with these people tend to all have similar trajectories, and can be summarized in four phases.

 

Phase One – The Meeting 

The meeting invariably happens when I notice someone doing something amusing and/or interesting. Maybe they’re photocopying their tie. Maybe they’re tossing a baseball into the air and hitting it with a tennis racket. Who knows. Stupid things, but so far removed from the realm of normalcy that I can’t help but approach them and ask questions. By this point I really should know how to recognize the warning signs and walk away. Perhaps I’m not as smart as I’d like to think I am.

Phase Two – The Friendship

Following our initial meeting, I’ll deem the person to be someone worth spending time around. We’ll become friends. We’ll hang out. During this period I’ll sometimes notice my new friend being insulted by one of the many people who don’t like them. When this happens, I’ll step in to defend them. And I often think to myself “I don’t understand why anyone would dislike this person. They’re so cool!” 

Phase Three – The Realization 

And then I figure it out. It sounds harsh, but when a lot of people don’t like a person there’s usually a good reason for it. And in a single moment, comprehension will dawn on me. “So this is why no one likes this person!” My friend will do or say something so stupid, so bizarre, or so horrendous that it causes me to completely change my mind about them. And I’ll feel the blood drain from my face as I realize that I’ve made a terrible mistake.

These are moments that I remember for a long time. 10 years ago one friend blurted out, rather loudly “Since when did girls start to grow boobs?” And he pronounced the word “boobs” oddly. More like “bewbs”. I laughed awkwardly, but this only encouraged him, and he repeated himself even louder: “Since when did girls start to grow bewbs?” I cringed, and in that moment I realized why I was this person’s only real friend.

Another time, I was riding the bus with a new friend. We were chatting with a third party, and he was telling us about his plans for the future. I nodded politely, but my soon-to-be ex-friend had a different reaction. She went with “That sounds really boring.” And in that moment I realized why she had no friends – she was really mean-spirited, or socially inept, or both.

In rare occasions the discovery occurs over a period of time. One person I knew had this habit of asking me “how are you?” twice in the same greeting. She’d start a conversation with “Hey, how are you?”, to which I’d typically reply “Not bad, and yourself?” Anyone else on earth would have replied with “Good”, and then the conversation proper would have begun. But not this girl. She insisted on replying with “I’m alright, how about you?” And this wasn’t something that happened once or twice, but almost every single time we spoke. I know it sounds like a minor thing, but it drove me absolutely bananas. Eventually I concluded that I couldn’t be friends with someone who I wanted to strangle every time she asked “How are you?”

Phase Four – Distancing

Once I’ve realized how wrong I was about the person, I start to backpedal. Hard. The goal is to start putting distance between myself and the person as quickly as possible, before we grow any closer together.

I know it sounds terrible, but I’d like to point out that there’s a difference between dropping friends because other people don’t like them and dropping friends because you don’t like them. This is the latter.

Getting rid of these people is easier said than done. Because these people were short on friends to begin with, they tend to be clingy. Having just gained a new friend, they’re determined to do everything in their power to hold onto me. And once they begin to sense that my attitude towards them is shifting, they grip on even tighter. They’ll start trying too hard to be funny around me. They’ll start following me around in hallways. And that just has the effect of annoying me more. The resulting situation is not unlike this episode of Untalkative Bunny.

It takes a while, but eventually they tend to get the hint and descend back into the hole from whence they came. The status quo is restored, and everyone carries on with their lives – albeit with a little bit more guilt on my part and a little bit more anger on theirs.

 

I guess the moral of the story, if you can call it that, is that you’re better off leaving the loners be. If you don’t know why someone doesn’t have many friends, perhaps it’s best not to find out.

Having said that, my nature is what it is. I suspect I’ll make the same mistake again within six months.

Twitch Plays Pokemon

Normally I refrain from commenting on Internet phenomena because of how fleeting and unimportant they are, but this is one of the most incredible things I’ve seen on the Internet in all my many years of browsing.

If you’ve been on Reddit, Imgur, Tumblr, or virtually any other image sharing site on the Internet over the past 12 days, you’ll have noticed a thousandfold increase in the number of strange Pokemon images cropping up. You might have seen nonsensical phrases such as “All hail Lord Helix” or “Bird Jesus” floating about. Heck, even if you’ve stuck to good old wholesome CNN or BBC you won’t have missed this entirely.

But let’s say you’ve been living under a rock. Let me explain what this is about.

Twitch is a site focused on streaming video game footage. People play video games while other people watch online. Boring, right?

But 13 days ago,  someone decided to throw a wrench into the gears by launching something called Twitch Plays Pokemon. There’s no way for me to explain this without showing you it, so click here and you’ll be directed to the site – just be aware that if you’re stumbling upon this blog more than a few days after its been published, that link might be dead. What you’ll get is a live stream of a playthrough of Pokemon Red Version, but with a few twists. The first twist is that you the viewer can actually control the player character. The way it works is simple – just type a command into the chat box in the right. Typing “Up” will move the character one space up. “Right” will move the character one space right. “B” will act as though the Game Boy’s B Button has been pushed. Et cetera. It’s a pretty cool concept. But there’s more.

The thing is, it’s not just you controlling the game. At any given moment there are anywhere from 30,000 to 70,000 players inputting commands at the same time. The game will process the commands one at a time. The result is a social experiment to see if hundreds of thousands of gamers from around the world can come together to beat a 16 year old game.

Common sense would indicate that this experiment is doomed to fail. I’ve been playing video games for many years, and I can tell you that it’s damned near impossible to play a game when one other person is messing with your controller, much less seventy thousand – and even less so when some of those 70,000 are just inputting random commands for fun. And indeed, the character’s movements have proven to be spastic at the best of times. Dara O’Briain’s performance here comes to mind.

Heck, even the person who set this thing up didn’t think that much progress could be made.

But here’s the kicker: Progress is being made. Somehow, thousands of players from the four corners of the earth have found a way to coordinate their commands and make slow but steady progress through the game. They’ve now acquired seven badges, and are on the verge of obtaining the 8th. For those of you with no Pokemon experience, this places them at roughly 80% of the way through the game. Eighty percent. With seventy thousand people at the helm? That’s incredible. That’s astounding. That’s mindboggling. I never would have thought it possible. With the distance the character has to traverse in order to complete the game, and so many points at which the character must follow an exact route, I didn’t think very much progress could be made at all.

Some perspective on this progress is necessary, of course. This is a game which ordinarily takes 25-30 hours to complete, and can be completed much quicker than that if you’ve played the game before. Right now, Twitch Plays Pokemon has been running for 319 hours. So yes, progress is painfully slow. Occasionally I’ll close the screen and reopen it an hour later to find that the character has just moved from one side of the room to another. Simple tasks which would take the average player mere seconds to complete can take hours.

And yet, like a colony of ants, the army of players continues to move forward towards its collective goal.

Co-operative video games are nothing new. Gamers have been uniting to achieve a common goal since the early 1980s. But nothing approaching this scale has ever been attempted or achieved. It’s a truly international effort – America goes to sleep and hands to torch to Europe, who then hands it over to Australia, and then back to America the next day.

In the history of video games, this is completely without precedent. If this game is completed – and at the current rate of progress it could be completed by the weekend – it will be an accomplishment of monumental proportions, and a landmark event in Internet and video game history. I will be watching with great eagerness.

RANT #24: Movies

I’m one of the most movie illiterate people you’ll ever meet. Go ahead, think of a movie that everyone has seen. Odds are I haven’t seen it.

I think there are a few reasons for this. The first is that I’m not terribly fond of going to movie theatres. The idea of going out and sitting in a dark room with people whispering and slurping drinks and munching on popcorn and pulling out their phones to text people doesn’t appeal to me all that much.

So I decide to skip the theatres and wait for the DVD to come out. But that takes a few months, and by then I’ve forgotten all about it.

That’s only one piece of the puzzle though. Another reason is that I’m ambivalent at best towards most actors. To be honest, I couldn’t even tell you what most actors look like. Especially the female ones. I mean, I know a few. Cameron Diaz, I’d recognize her. Zooey Deschanel, okay. But it’s a short list. I couldn’t tell you what Jennifer Lopez looks like without Googling it. I think I’d be really good at bringing celebrities with big egos down to earth, because if you put them all in a room with me I’d stare blankly at them and ask “So what’s your name?” But I digress. The point being, actors and actresses rarely, if ever, make any kind of impact on me.

The most important reason behind my general apathy towards movies is a very simple one:

I just don’t find movies to be a very captivating medium of entertainment. I find movies less captivating than TV, less captivating than video games, and yes, less captivating than a good old-fashioned book. And I’ll tell you why.

Reason #1: I Don’t Care About People I Just Met 

(That’s right, subheadings. Law school must be getting to me.)

I find it very difficult to care about the characters I meet in movies.  The reason? I’ve just met them an hour ago!

If you find out that a person you chatted with at a party for about an hour had a heart attack and died, you’d be surprised. Saddened, even. But you wouldn’t be emotionally devastated, would you? For me, the same logic applies to movies. I just find it hard to care about Jack sinking into the depths of the Atlantic when I didn’t even know he existed a few hours ago.

I can see two ways around this. The first is that you make every movie ten hours long. Of course, that’s a horrible idea.

My other idea makes more sense. What if you took movies, made them ten or twenty or a hundred hours long, and divided them up so that they were released gradually ? This would allow people to become familiar with the characters over the course of weeks or months or even years, and they’d come to actually care about the characters! You could call each of these showings an “episode”. And then to make it even more convenient, you could allow people to watch these “episodes” within their homes by broadcasting them at the same time every week! Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

…You see what I’m saying here, right?

See, TV characters are easier to care about because you do get to know them over an extended period of time. The world went berserk after the last episode of Breaking Bad, and do you know why? Because over the course of five years and fifty hours worth of episodes people came to give a shit about the characters. Movies just can’t do that.

Video games grab you in a similar way. A solid role playing game will take you anywhere from 25 to 80 hours to complete. If you play for two hours per day, you could be occupied for a month or more. And over the course of that month, you get to help the characters develop both their skills and their personalities. One thing that sets video games apart is that sometimes you are the main character. And when you see a character that you created in your own image and nurtured for 50 hours get run through with a lance, trust me, you care. Movies can’t achieve that level of immersion.

Books too can hold your attention for days or weeks, depending on the length of the book and how much free time you have. And just like with TV shows and video games, you become familiar with the characters over a period of time. Books have the unique advantage of giving the reader omniscience; in many cases the reader is privy to all of the main character’s innermost thoughts and feelings. Although movies will occasionally provide the viewer with some internal monologue, it’s impossible (and impractical) for a movie to attempt to provide the viewer with the same level of detail that books often provide to their readers. If movies tried to do this, they’d all be ten hours long – and they’d still have to cut details out.

Reason #2: No Control

The second reason why movies can’t hold a candle to other forms of entertainment is that they allow the viewer the least amount of control. When watching a movie, your power is limited to pushing the pause button to go grab some chips, rewinding to catch a line you missed, and stopping the movie altogether.  You are a completely passive observer, with virtually no control over what you see in front of you. You can’t control the plot, you can’t control the setting, and you have almost no control over the pacing.

TV is similarly limited here. However, the one advantage that TV has over movies is that it offers the viewer some control over pace. A viewer can choose whether or not to watch just one more episode before bed, whereas this is less practical with movies, which are designed to be viewed in a single sitting. Obviously this only applies to TV show episodes which have already aired (as the viewer is powerless to choose to watch an episode which does not premiere until next Tuesday), but it still puts TV just slightly ahead of movies in terms of control.

Books are next in line on the spectrum. True, they give you no control over the plot (except for those choose-your-own-adventure novels I suppose). They do however give you a fair bit of control over both the pacing and the setting. How books allow you to control pacing should be obvious – you can choose to read a book over the course of a single day, or over a number of weeks. But how does one control the setting of books? Doesn’t the author tell you what the setting is?

Well, no. Sure, the author can give you a sense of setting, but ultimately the novel’s world is a product of your mind. The best example of this might be Harry Potter. Think back, way back, to a time before the movies existed. How did the inside of Hogwarts look to you? I know it’s difficult to remember – it’s been a long time, and the movies have come along and told you what Hogwarts looks like – but I can guarantee you that your Hogwarts looked different from mine. What about the Forbidden Forest? Or Diagon Alley? Or the Leaky Cauldron? Rowling did a remarkable job of creating these settings, but ultimately it was your mind that made them real.

The same applies to characters. What Harry looked like to you before Radcliffe came along was likely different from what he looked like to me or to anyone else. That’s the magic of books; they give you the pieces with which to construct entire galaxies.

It’s barely worth stating that video games give you more control than movies because it’s self-evident. When you’re playing video games, you tend to be holding some form of controller in your hand, right? There’s a clue in the name.  Beyond that, many video games give you the power to influence the plot, which no other form of entertainment does. You as the player get to choose how to achieve your objective. Sometimes you even get to choose what your objective will be. Will you defend the Third Reich or overthrow it? Restore order to the city, or rule it with an iron fist? Serve a god, or destroy him?

Video games also give you a unique amount of control over the characters. Depending on the game, you can control a character’s name, appearance, personality, skills, actions, gender, and yes, sexual orientation. No other form of entertainment comes close to giving you that level of control, and certainly not movies.

Now, I’d meant to have a third subheading, but I’ve realized that it would be better as a standalone entry some other time than as part of this blog, so I’m going to stop here.

It’s not that I don’t find movies appealing at all. There are plenty of exceptions, most of which are animated and/or Pixar-related. But in general, movies just don’t hold all that much magic for me. Given the choice, I’d much rather slowly absorb five seasons of a TV show, or crack open good book, or lose myself in a video game. But that’s just me. Given the multi-billion dollar film industry that still exists, I’m clearly in the minority.