Jeff James

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The 2013 Academy Awards ceremony was last night, February 24th, and critics both amateur and professional are weighing in with various post-ceremony reactions. There weren’t any huge upsets – Argo won Best Picture, as the buzz had predicted – and most commentators agree that Seth McFarlane relied on too much crass humor and approached the ceremony as if it was a roast instead of a celebration.

However, the most lingering controversy originated from outside the event, when The Onion’s Twitter account tweeted (and later deleted) a joke that referred to nine-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis as a “c—”.

The Onion quickly posted an out-of-character apology from their CEO first thing this morning, but memories are long on the internet, and there are some people who will never forgive them for this incident.

The interesting thing is that The Onion has a long history of posting edgy satire, but as far as I know, this is the only time they’ve ever chosen to publicly apologize for one of their jokes missing the mark.

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Last year I bought a giant wall calendar that I used to track my writing habits. I used a green check to indicate days when I wrote, and red checks on days that I didn’t. I bought the calendar a few months into the year, so one of the first things I did was put red checks through those months. This was not a good beginning.

I ended up writing only intermittently, usually one or two days here and there followed by weeks of nothing. Lots of red Xs, easy to see from across the room. It didn’t take long before I only updated the calendar occasionally, and usually only to add a bunch of red Xs. I did have success late in the year when I wrote a story and had it accepted for publication, but after that I struggled with all of my follow-up work, and pretty soon I stopped updating the calendar at all. It was clear that my system wasn’t working.

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The Witcher 2

Last night I played The Witcher 2 for several hours by accident.

I’d just re-installed the game on my Mac Mini’s Bootcamp partition after realizing that I could free up space by reformatting a spare external drive. I sat down at the computer to make sure everything was up to date and running properly and ended up getting sucked into the game.

Freeing up disk space was actually kind of a huge deal because until recently I could either have The Witcher 2 installed (it takes up most of the partition with its 21gb install) or I could install a handful of games in Steam. When your hard drive is always about to run out of storage space it definitely puts a damper on things.

Now, however, I have more than a dozen games installed – most of them purchased during the 2012 Steam Winter Sale – and I’m starting to get excited about the possibilities of PC gaming. The best part is that a significant number of the games I’ve bought recently are compatible with Macs and actually play quite well on my Macbook Air (even if it does tend to run hot and loud the entire time I’m playing).

A number of factors have combined to pique my interest in PC (and Mac) gaming. Right now we’re in a lull between AAA console game releases, so I’m already on the lookout for something new to play. However, I’m not really that excited about the inevitable next generation consoles. The Wii U landed with a thud, and I’m having a hard time believing that Sony and Microsoft are going to come up with anything particularly impressive, especially considering the fact that they’re probably betting on Kinect and Move more than I’d like.

Dragon Age: Origins

Additionally, it seems clear that digital distribution will become more and more prominent in future console generations. I find myself buying more and more digital content, and I could definitely foresee a future where I buy all of my games digitally.

That said, what I really want to see on consoles is a business model similar to what Steam already delivers today – deep discounts and regular sales. Steam’s pricing makes it more than competitive with both used games and piracy.

Unfortunately, I have a feeling that Microsoft and Sony will never quite catch on to the Steam model, so why wait? Instead, why not hitch my wagon to Steam wholeheartedly and invest in a full-fledged gaming PC instead of a next-generation console? The initial investment will probably be slightly higher, but a well-built system should hopefully have more flexibility and longevity.

I’m already impressed with the results I get running games on my current systems. I’ve played several hours of both Dragon Age: Origins and The Witcher on the Air, and when I want to play a Windows-only game, I switch over to Bootcamp on the Mini (there is a Mac version of The Witcher 2, but it claims the Mini’s specs aren’t good enough). It only stands to reason that a dedicated gaming box would improve my results.

I will admit that I am hesitant to pay full retail price ($59.99) for a digital game, but that might change over time, especially with a dedicated system. Until then, I can always just wait around for the next crazy sale on Steam.

OK Computer B&W

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the passage of time, mostly because I just turned thirty and that is supposed to Mean Something.

One thing that struck me recently is that this year marks the fifteenth anniversary of Radiohead’s OK Computer, which is literally half a lifetime ago.

I can’t quite wrap my head around it.

OK Computer was a complete revelation when I first heard it back in 1997. You could draw a line and separate my experiences with music into the years before and the years after I heard it.

In the years before, I mostly listened to what I heard on the radio or on MTV. My dad had great taste in music, and I followed his cues. I listened to Casey Casum’s Top 40 while mowing the lawn. I enjoyed music, but I never really thought about it that much.

As I grew older, I started slowly branching out and defining my own taste. I made a GeoCities fan site for The Fountains of Wayne after their debut album was released. I distinctly remember buying Beck’s Odelay and REM’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi during a trip to Borders. I heard Ben Folds Five late at night on the radio when I should have been asleep, tracked down a copy of Whatever And Ever Amen at the library and dubbed a copy to casette. On the opposite side of the casette I dubbed London Calling by The Clash. I starting watching 120 Minutes and reading record reviews. I listened to Pavement’s first album, but didn’t quite get it.

OK Computer was different, though. After I bought it, I stuck it in my CD player and didn’t take it out for six months. I listened to that album daily. Sometimes several times a day. Sometimes several times in a row. One time I sat in bed listening to it on repeat and fell asleep with my eyes open.

No other album has ever grabbed me so thoroughly and refused to let go. I listened to that album until the CD was too scratched to play and I had to buy another. I was obsessed with Radiohead. I scoured CD bins for their singles and rarities, and no price was too high for a few tossed-off b-sides. I looked forward to nothing more than the premiere of the newest Radiohead music video.

OK Computer marked my transition from music listener to music lover.

Following Radiohead through all of their ups and downs only broadened and deepened my appreciation of music in general. Their experimentation led to my willingness to experiment and listen to genres of music I never thought I would enjoy. A few years after OK Computer came the advent of file sharing, and my musical tastes exploded in the face of so many options. It only got more eclectic from there.

In fact, I feel certain that my fifteen-year-old self would find some of my current favorite bands unlistenable or bizarre.

Of course, I sometimes wish I could go back to a time when an album could hold my attention for months at a time. Nowadays my attention span is much shorter. No album stays in rotation for very long. I’ve heard so much that it is rare when new music surprises me.

I also no longer feel quite the same way about Radiohead. They’ve made some fantastic music since OK Computer, but they’ve also made some terrible music, and it’s clear they had a hard time following up what is generally considered their masterpiece. To be honest, I rarely listen to them now.

Even still, I feel certain that I will always have a deeply personal connection to OK Computer. Maybe someday I’ll find another piece of music that means as much to me.

I won’t be holding my breath, though.

For now I think I’ll focus on trying not to think about how old I will be when the 25th anniversary rolls around.

I finished playing Heavy Rain last night, and it got me thinking about plot twists and their function in storytelling. Heavy Rain is a game that places itself firmly in the “thriller movie” genre, for better or worse.

It’s great at building tension and getting you to care about the characters you meet and control, but it falls into the trap that undermines so many thrillers, namely that its endgame centers around a “shocking” reveal that doesn’t actually make any logical sense.

(Just a quick warning: this rest of this post will contain spoilers about movies that are old enough I will assume everyone has seen them. There will be no Heavy Rain spoilers, however.)

The problem with plot twists, see, is that by nature they should make you jump out of your seat or gasp in horror. You’d never expect that [CHARACTER NAME] was the killer in Heavy Rain, after all, and you are of course horrified that you empathized with the character while playing. That’s the root of the problem, though; in order to make the twist ending truly surprising, the game’s writers decided to fill the story with red herrings and give no real concrete clues about the real killer’s identity. They didn’t want you to figure it out ahead of time, after all.

I think this is why very few storytellers can pull off a truly stunning twist that holds up under scrutiny. If a writer works to make her story internally consistent, she may layer in too many readable clues and people will write off the twist as “predictable” and feel cheated. The easiest shortcut to making a completely unpredictable twist, then, is to make that twist completely illogical or at odds with everything leading up to it. This will at least ensure a visceral shock in the moment, but ultimately… the audience just feel cheated in the light of day. Six of one, half dozen of the other.

There are the occasional successful twists, of course: The Sixth Sense, Fight Club, and The Usual Suspects come to mind. From what I can remember of the first two, clues to predict the twist were layered in throughout both movies. If you go back and re-watch them a second time, knowing the twist reveals the story rather than undermining it. Of course, there may be those of you out there who figured out the twists halfway through because of the clues.

The Usual Suspects treads in kind of dangerous territory, however, in that its twist ending makes you question why everything you just watched even matters. If the entire movie is a lie told by Kevin Spacey’s character, why should I even care what happened? I think what helps Usual Suspects is that it is such a well-made movie we forgive it for playing with such a hackneyed trope. It’s rare that “it was all just a dream!” is used as anything but a cheap gag.

I think the best twists are often so subtle you may not even realize they are there. I would argue that Minority Report has a twist ending, for example, although everyone who saw it with me disagreed with my perspective. My argument was that when Tom Cruise’s character is arrested and put into cold storage, everything that happens after that is a dream, thus explaining why he is rescued and everything works out positively for the characters. The end of the movie doesn’t pull back the curtain and reveal this, however, so it is entirely up for interpretation. The only clues you are given are a few lines from the jailer character about whether his charges dream while they are in storage.

In any case, I’d love to play another game in the style of Heavy Rain, if only the makers could be convinced to forego the showy twists of thriller movies and focus on things like character development and an internally consistent story. Surely there is a way to work in shocking reveals without causing massive inconsistencies and plot holes.

Just got caught up reading a very lengthy (and contentious) comment thread over at Making Light regarding Amazon vs. Macmillan and eBooks in general, and it got me thinking. One of the commenters puts forth the idea that eBooks are the ultimate future of reading, and that those silly old things made out of paper will disappear into history shortly enough once eReaders make it big.

I see a couple of problems with this. First off, the 250 unread books currently looming on my bookshelves beg to differ. They sure aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Same with the millions of books in new and used book stores and libraries. The commenter theorizes that non-electronic books are going to become collector’s items for folks (like me) who just can’t let go of physical books and want to live in the past.

The problem with this, though, is that the argument is completely backwards. eReaders are the luxury item. The people who are most interested in eReaders are people who read a LOT because they see the attraction of carrying around 100s of books in their pockets and also because they think they can justify the sticker price. I definitely know that if I took the plunge and dropped several hundred dollars on an eReader any time soon that I’d feel the need to buy all my new books on that platform to justify the cost.

Of course, it seems to me that I’m a rarity in that I think I could read enough to justify spending that much. I bet most people wouldn’t see the attraction. Why spend several hundred dollars on an eReader when you can just go to a used book store and pick up a beaten-up paperback for $3 or run over to the library and spend nothing at all? That definitely makes wayyyy more sense for the folks who only read half a dozen books a year, tops.

No, the way I see it, eReaders are more like blu-ray than anything else – and I say that as someone who owns and loves his blu-ray player. Blu-rays are a luxury. $5 bargain bin DVDs from Wal-mart are surely more than good enough for 9 out of 10 people, even those who have 42-inch HDTVs. Hell, there are probably still people out there making regular use of their VCRs – it would not surprise me in the least. eReaders are for the folks who care about having the most they can possibly get out of a piece of technology and who are willing to drop several hundred dollars to get it.

(One odd point the commenter also tries to make is that people don’t really care about typesetting or design, but it seems like the people who pay so much for a reading experience would be the ones most likely to care about how something is presented, no?)

My theory (that I have just come up with this morning) is that eReaders will only become ubiquitous when they are either free or so cheap that you could lose one on a camping trip and not worry about it. Or spill an entire cup of coffee on and keep using (definitely a case where printed books are still the winner). Once it is no longer a big deal to replace your broken eReader, then it’ll be believable that someone who only reads the new Stephanie Plum novels when they come out would consider picking one up. We may very well eventually get to that point, but I think it’ll take a lot to get there, and there are some things that physical books will always do better.

For example, there will always be people like me, who love the feel and smell of a good book in your hands while you read it, who obsess about cover art design and love books as pieces of art that you can experience. I also love the fact that I can loan my books to friends or walk into a used book store and sell them back. It may be possible that someday you will be able to do almost all of those things with eBooks, but it seems like things we take for granted when it comes to physical media are prevented by DRM or considered piracy when it comes to digital media.

I any case, I may someday look back at this post and laugh while I clutch an iPad crammed full of 1000s of books, but I doubt it. I have no plans to buy one at this time. I’m open to receiving it as a gift, though… nudge nudge wink wink!

P.S. I almost forgot to mention – it seems like the folks espousing eBooks the most also think they’ll mean a future where self-publishing is the norm. These people are certifiably insane. I want proofreading and copyediting, and I want someone to tell the jackass who thinks he wrote the Great American Novel that no, it’s actually a complete piece of shit that nobody wants to read. No creative work should be made in a vacuum.

Jenny Lewis vs. Rilo Kiley

A bit of background: although I enjoy Rilo Kiley’s music, I’ve never been a huge fan. They are a nice little indie band that does quirk and usually does it fairly well. I have several of their albums, but I haven’t listened to them much recently.

The first time I heard their most recent album, “Under the Blacklight”, I was turned off pretty quickly and ended up deleting it from my hard drive. From that first impression, it seemed clear that they had decided to jettison everything intimate and quirky about their sound in an effort to make it big in the mainstream, and I found the results lacking.

As for Jenny Lewis, I enjoyed her first album under her own name, thought it was a nice change of pace, but, again, I didn’t think it was anything earth-shattering. It seemed more like Neko Case-lite with a girl group spin. It’s one of those albums that I appreciate but never listened to that much or that often. However, when her second album, “Acid Tongue”, came out, I listened to a few samples and was immediately hooked. I bought it pretty promptly and it’s not only in heavy rotation, it’s easily one of my most favorite albums of the year.

After listening to Acid Tongue a few dozen times, I started wondering if I had written off Under the Blacklight unfairly, so I decided to give it another spin and see if there were any hidden gems I missed the first time around. To make a long story short, there are definitely some pretty amazing songs on the album, but they’re the exception to the rule. Although my first impression was harsh, it wasn’t too far off base.

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The Lost and Heroes casts, side by side

Heroes continues to occupy my mind this week. I think that’s another good sign that it’s a show worth watching. The shows that I end up removing from my recording schedule are the ones that I don’t care about, that I don’t miss when they’re gone.

Heroes, lurching monster that is is, is still compelling enough that it keeps me rehashing its convoluted story-lines around the metaphorical water-cooler we call the internet.

Accordingly, something that has been occupying my mind this week is the giant influence that Lost has had on network TV in general and Heroes in particular. Heroes is one of several shows that were created in the wake of the initial huge (and unexpected) success of Lost. Suddenly every network had its own ensemble show with complex story-lines, flashbacks, and the occasional hint of science-fictional doings. Most of these shows disappeared fairly quickly.

Off the top of my head, I’m pretty sure that Heroes is the only “post-Lost” show still on the air. I qualify it as a “post-Lost” show simply because its debt to Lost is right out there, front-and-center. However, rather than outgrowing its debts and influences over time and coming into its own, Heroes seems to be slowly collapsing under the weight of its creative debts. There are a few aspects of the show that seem particularly drawn from Lost, for better or worse, and I’ll break them down after the jump.

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First off: a disclaimer. I’m going to discuss this week’s Heroes episode in my post, so if you’re spoiler averse, please stop reading now.

With that out of the way, I think those of us who are current on the newest season of Heroes can all safely agree that the show is a complete mess. By the same token, I think if you are current on the show, it’s because there’s still something about it that keeps you hooked and ready for the next episode. It’s almost as if it has some kind of charisma that makes you want to forgive its plot-holes and serious lapses in writing.

It’s why I keep watching, and keep hoping that the writing will rise above the current level and the writers will avoid any serious lapses in logic or character motivation. I have a feeling I will continue to get my hopes up only to have them dashed yet again.

This week’s episode, “Villains”, was a particularly good example. It focused entirely on a flashback seen through the eyes of a “dream-walking” Hiro. It was nice to have an episode that centered on characterization as opposed to express-train “save the world” plotlines, but at the same time it only introduced more serious logical lapses to an already overstuffed storyline.

Considering how this season has been received in the press and by fans, this episode felt like a last-ditch effort to remind the folks at home about the good times from season one. A number of familiar plot points from the first season were revisited and fleshed out from new perspectives. For the most part these details weren’t much more than filler, but one storyline did at least have an interesting premise, namely that Sylar’s descent into murder and mayhem wasn’t entirely his own doing.

Essentially the roles are reversed here, with Noah Bennett as the manipulative Company man (“villain”) who wants Sylar to keep killing so that they can study him, and Sylar as the relative innocent (“hero”) who truly regrets his initial act of violence and tries to commit suicide out of guilt. Sylar is a fascinating character, and I do like seeing more of his backstory, but I do wish that it didn’t have to come at the cost of the imposing air of menace he cultivated throughout seasons one and two. That isn’t my biggest problem with this storyline, however; my real issue is with the involvement of Kristen Bell’s character, Elle.

In this flashback storyline, we are told that Bennet and Elle partnered together to study Sylar. Elle was sent in undercover to draw him out of his shell by befriending him. She has second thoughts, however, and begins to have sympathy for Sylar as they become close, and she asks Bennett to back off.

The big disconnect is that when we meet Elle for the first time in season two, she is a daddy’s girl and an immature mess, completely sheltered and reliant on The Company for everything. In her scenes here, she seems much more in-control and mature, not to mention moral. In addition to that complete change in character, there are scenes later in season two where Elle saves several characters from a rampaging Sylar. I don’t have the episode in front of me to watch, but from what I remember there wasn’t even a hint of a shared history when they confronted each other.

You could, perhaps, explain some of this away as a case of a serious mind-wipe or manipulation performed on Elle so that she doesn’t remember what happened with Sylar, but that seems like a lazy explanation for what is, on the whole, half-assed writing. This particular storyline felt like it had some potential to be interesting, but it barely stands up to any kind of scrutiny. Overall, this week’s episode amounted to nothing more than plotholes interrupted by filler.

In conclusion, I think Heroes is best appreciated when you don’t analyze it too closely. I liked this week’s episode a lot more when I first started writing this post, and my opinion seriously went downhill from there. Doesn’t mean I’m going to stop watching, though. Shameful, really…

I’m continually fascinated by the process of book cover designs and redesigns. I actually follow several blogs that focus on nothing but the subject of new book cover designs, often comparing hardback to paperback and US to UK or international versions. It’s really interesting how books are sold in completely different ways in different countries. Re-released versions are also alternately fascinating and disappointing, depending on the thinking behind the updated version. Here’s a good example:

The Diamond Age, Old vs. New

On the left is an earlier cover for The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson. The cover on the right is for a version re-released this year to coincide with Stephenson’s upcoming book, Anathem. For some reason all of Stephenson’s books (except for the Baroque Cycle) are being re-released with covers that match the style of Anathem: a shadowy figure, lit from behind and walking or running through a doorway at the end of a long hall or large space.

It’s kind of bizarre, especially since the new cover makes The Diamond Age look more like a Jason Bourne book than a post-cyberpunk / steampunk / fantasy novel about a girl and the virtual world that exists in her diary. The old cover may be a bit dated and “of its time”, but I think it does a much better job of communicating what the book is actually about, with its juxtaposition of rusty gears and amorphous 3D imagery.

If you’re interested in checking out a few good blogs focusing on book cover designs, here’s my reading list:

  1. The Book Design Review
  2. …by Henry Sene Yee Design
  3. Book Covers Anonymous
  4. Caustic Cover Critic