“The Overprotected Kid” – via The Atlantic

[blockquote source=”\”The Overprotected Kid\” – via The Atlantic“]If a 10-year-old lit a fire at an American playground, someone would call the police and the kid would be taken for counseling. At the Land, spontaneous fires are a frequent occurrence. The park is staffed by professionally trained “playworkers,” who keep a close eye on the kids but don’t intervene all that much. Claire Griffiths, the manager of the Land, describes her job as “loitering with intent.”[/blockquote]

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Where I grew up, there was a creek with an abandoned old wooden truck bed. You could leave it as-is and pretend it was a boat or a chariot or a landspeeder. If you flipped it on its side, it became a shelter or a clubhouse. There was a forest about a mile’s walk away with a pond that had snakes and fish and bugs. I once disturbed a wasps’ nest and got stung three times. Cried all the way home. It was all pretty awesome.

“Family Guy” Attempts A Marginally-Less Suck-Ass Episode

Homer Simpson, Peter Griffin, and Bob Belcher are in a World War One-style biplane. Homer is pointing back at Bob.
Image from the footage of the Simpsons/Family Guy episode, previewed at the San Diego Comicon.

Here’s five minutes of footage from the upcoming “Family Guy”/”Simpsons” crossover episode.

It includes another swipe at “Bob’s Burgers.” Viz:

Homer: “What’s he doing here?”

Peter: “Oh, we gotta carry him because he can’t fly on his own. We let that other guy try, and look what happened:”

[Cut to Cleveland Brown (from the failed “Family Guy” spinoff) lawn-darting his plane into the ground.]

I hate “Family Guy.” I hate it because it’s sexist, it’s racist, and it’s lazy. But I won’t get into that here; instead, I’ll point you to this episode of my podcast, where I talk about my feelings about the show in depth.

No, today, I’m talking about my astonishment at how frequently a show that’s this bad, this derivative, this lazy, and this disposable goes out of its way to say that a much, much better show isn’t very good.

Did “Family Guy” really once say that there are only one or two truly funny “Monty Python” sketches? It inspires me to stop and respond:

“But…’Monty Python’ revolutionized comedy. Many of its jokes and sketches have entered the international cultural lexicon. Even forty years later, few people seem to think that their material is dated or that their reputation is overrated. Generations of comedians, novelists, and screenwriters cite Python as a major influence. All right?

“And now, ‘Family Guy’, let’s talk about what your show has contributed to comedy. … ……. … …… Oh! Your writers are so lazy that the phrase ‘Manatee Joke’ is universally-understood to refer to your style of just stringing random concepts together instead of taking the time to write something with any relevance, context, or creativity…”

A joke like this one gets on my nerves. “Family Guy” is pushing its luck. H. Jon Benjamin (voice of Bob) and the rest of the show’s team are obviously OK with this, which ends the argument on whether or not it’s an appropriate joke. Still, why have a blog if you’re not going to use it to publicly cluck your tongue at personal petty annoyances?

“Bob’s Burgers” is one of my favorite shows on TV. I love it primarily for the only reasons that matter: because it’s funny and each episode is filled with visual delight.

After that? I love “Bob’s Burgers” because everyone on that show tries so hard, in shot after shot and story beat after story beat. It’s clear that they absolutely give a damn about the product they’re producing. When I’m done watching an episode for the second or third time, I marvel that there was an easy way and a hard way to write and animate what I’ve just seen…and each and every time, they went with the hard way.

There’s a great example from this season’s two-part season finale, “Wharf Horse.” The story can’t move into its final act until two characters to talk exposition for about thirty seconds. But thirty seconds of conversation is boring, so the director had these two characters talk while riding a roller coaster.

That’s…that’s definitely the hard way to do that. Right? I’m not an animator.

I wanted to embed the scene here. Alas, the YouTube community that can normally be counted on to post copyrighted content in a timely fashion without the slightest care about helping creators to put food on their children has failed me. So instead of the “Wharf Horse” scene, I’ll embed another example of this show’s work ethic. Fox’s “Cosmos” series forced all of their regular Sunday night animation to air an hour earlier for two whole months. The producers of “Bob’s Burgers” needed to get the word out.

Here’s how they did that:

The hard way. And so, the show’s fans have been given this little gem that continues to entertain long after “Cosmos” has wrapped up its run.

I especially appreciate the effort the show takes to create grounded, believable characters and situations.

Bob Belcher owns a burger place, and runs it with his wife, Linda. Their three kids (Tina, Louise, and Gene) help out. These five characters aren’t there just to hurl lazy zingers at each other: they’re connected by real relationships. That’s the hard way: write a scene in which the needs of comedy are met (and usually exceeded), and yet there are things that the characters cannot and will not do, because that’s not who they are.

Louise (the one who always wears the bunny ears) enjoys creating chaos in any situation, but she won’t undermine or hurt her brother or her sister. And when she’s about to go too far, she’s usually held back and corrected by her two parents…people who are actual adults and who exercise real authority. In most other shows (including live-action sitcoms) parents treat their kids like colleagues. Moreover, while both of Louise’s parents love and care about her, she has a different relationship with Bob than she has with Linda.

Another example: why is Bob’s business just treading water? In a lazier show, Bob would be incompetent, or the family would constantly be doing things that create disaster. By Season Three, the show would have mostly forgotten what Bob even does for a living. And (honestly) if it’s funny, what’s the complaint?

But “Bob’s Burgers” makes a more ambitious choice: Bob is a terrific chef with a lot of skill and creativity. His restaurant is struggling because it’s located in a strip of middlebrow businesses adjacent to a beachside amusement arcade. This isn’t an area where people come for a Burger Of The Day infused with saffron. They come here on the Fourth of July hoping to see a bunch of people try to eat more than 62 hot dogs in 12 minutes.

“Bob’s Burgers” is written with a grounded reality. It’s harder to do, but they can create and play off of a lot more tension, and the resolutions to storylines can be much more satisfying for the audience. They can do things that a “silly” show (and I use that word to describe a genre, not as a slam) can’t.

In the episode “Topsy,” Tina is participating in Louise’s science fair demonstration. Louise being Louise, she’s subverted her assigned subject of “Thomas Edison” into an attack against everything that her substitute science teacher stands for. He’s an Edison reenactor at the science museum, and refused to let her just re-use her papier-mache volcano from last year. She’s going to “electrocute” Topsy the elephant (to be played by Tina) in front of all of the students and parents, replaying the publicity stunt that Edison staged to “prove” that a competing electrical system was dangerous. Tina will be fine, Louise promises, because the yoga mat she’ll be standing on will insulate her from the tens of thousands of volts being thrown off by the big Van de Graf generator behind her. A tech runthrough of the scene suggests that she’ll be killed horribly.

The show can get a lot of laughs and build a lot of tension from Tina’s panic. The climax of the show, when it appears that yup, everything’s gone horribly wrong, has impact. Sure, we know that “Bob’s Burgers” isn’t going to kill off Tina, and because this is animation, she can be knocked unconscious and wake up a few minutes later with smoking hair but otherwise OK.

But get this: we don’t want to see Tina get hurt. Not even for laughs! There’s a few seconds in which Bob and Linda and Louise are shouting and rushing to the stage where Tina is slumped to the ground and we’re right on the same emotional page as those characters. And when it turns out that Tina was just acting, our relief is genuine.

“Silly” shows can’t achieve that. We’ve become absolutely numb to the irrational, unmotivated, and utterly insane amounts of physical and emotional cruelty that the “Family Guy” characters inflict on Meg Griffin in nearly every episode. It’s OK that “Family Guy” doesn’t make us care about a character, but when the show becomes so oblivious to the laziness of this gag that it can’t even make us laugh, that’s a problem.

Meanwhile, we appreciate Tina’s quiet heroicism; we’re glad that Louise realizes that her natural inclination to stir the pot caused her to almost do something she never would have forgiven herself for; we admire Gene’s talent and think that he’s one of those weird kids whose weirdness leads him in positive directions. We want good things for all of these kids.

I’m tuning in week after week for so many reasons. One of them is that I legitimately care about these characters. “Bob’s Burgers” does things the hard way and that‘s the payoff. These episodes resonate; they’re memorable. People will be talking about “Topsy” for as long as we’ve been talking about the “Planet Of The Apes” musical in “The Simpsons.”

In 12 seasons, has “Family Guy” created even one classic bit? Yes, that’s the payoff of laziness.

I’ve been praising the show’s writing, so it’s time for a shoutout to the work ethic of the animators and directors. “The Simpsons” starts almost every episode with a new couch gag. And in a period of the show’s history in which too many people dismiss this show for just phoning it in, let’s give “The Simpsons” its due for airing exciting, unexpected, and sometimes even experimental animation into prime-time.

The equivalent on “Bob’s Burgers” is the end-credits animation. Thirty seconds of totally unnecessary work, often backed by new, original music. They’re always good, but one end-credit sequence stands out for me:

Megan Mullally sells the holy hell out of the song…and just look at that animation! What a performance the artists created! It’s an exquisite parody of that theatrical style of singer/songwriter stage performance. It cracks me up every single time. And I marvel that the “Bob’s Burgers” crew puts so much effort into crafting these little jewels. They’re fully aware that Netflix, Hulu, or the local FOX affiliate is likely to electronically shrink this scene down to postage-stamp size to try to sell you on another show. This didn’t stop the “Bob’s Burgers” animators from having the singer tap and flex her left foot for added emphasis.

Yes, I’m fully on board with “Bob’s Burgers.” My favorite kind of relationship with a show is one of absolute trust. It happens when a show surprises and delights me on such a consistent basis that my “critical, wary consumer” eye has been completely obliterated. I no longer look at the plate or ask “what’s in this dish?”…I just dig right in and abandon myself to joy and new experiences. I would eat goat brains if it were served by “Bob’s Burgers.”

I feel a bit defensive when I talk about my feelings about “Family Guy.” Such negativity! And if I guess if I were a better person, I wouldn’t waste any time talking about things I don’t like.

So I must attach a disclaimer. The only thing required of “Family Guy” is to entertain an audience, and its ongoing success proves that it’s doing its job well. FOX doesn’t need to apologize for airing it, its fans don’t need to apologize for liking it, and Seth Macfarlane doesn’t need to apologize for making it. Macfarlane’s “Ted” was a monster success, indicating that he’s no one-hit-wonder, either. Credit must be paid.

And let’s also acknowledge that the jokes against “Bob’s Burgers” are likely meant in good humor. The show pokes fun at itself in the crossover promo clip as well as during its own shows.

(Which shows a healthy self-awareness but please oh please: instead of winking to the camera about how lazy your jokes are, could you just, you know, try to do better?)

Peter Griffin angrily lifts Lucy Van Pelt off the ground by her hair. She is bloody, bruised, and crying. Griffin prepares to continue the savage beating as a shocked Charlie Brown stands by.

I note this with proper respect.

Then I remember the episode in which 40-year-old Peter Griffin beats the holy hell out of a defenseless seven-year-old girl, despite her blood and tears and cries of helpless pain and shock. The scene goes on for so long and stretches so far beyond the needs of the joke that I can’t help but wonder if the director of this episode has some sort of fetish about seeing little girls being nearly beaten to death. Further, she’s a legendary character created by one of the most creative, influential, and hard-working artists of the 20th century.

Which makes me think “‘Family Guy’ can go **** itself” all over again.

On Letterman: “MacArthur Park”

Why did the CBS Orchestra pack the Ed Sullivan Theater stage with 33 musicians and play a five and a half minute version of “MacArthur Park“? Because recently, Letterman was driving around with his son and the satellite radio played this song so many times in a row that the kid screamed “No more caaaaaake!!!”

So, to simultaneously please and annoy his son, Dave asked Paul if the band could do the song on the show. This video encapsulates so much of what I love about the Letterman show. That they could do something so silly and so complicated (and expensive) just because Dave thought it was a funny idea. And: that they have a band that can do damned near anything.

Here’s a coincidence for you: earlier on Monday, a friend of mine and I were talking about late-night talk shows and he praised The Roots as being every bit as good as The CBS Orchestra.

I didn’t disagree with him per se. But I had to raise the point that Late Show With David Letterman presents The CBS Orchestra with many, many more opportunities to show their range and talent than The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon creates for its band, and they’ve had 30 years in which to show off. The band doesn’t just play the show out to commercial and back again. They’re also the house band. Over the past thirty years, they’ve backed up every style and genre and generation of musical guest. I hope The Roots are given the same opportunities (because they’re a terrific band) but I doubt it. It’s a shame, because in their Late Night and Late Show incarnations, Paul Shaffer’s band has proven an immense range and depth of skills.

Here they are, backing up Sammy Davis Jr. as a jazz quartet:

And here they are backing up Mandy Patinkin, playing a Depression-era classic. Stick with it as it builds, all the way to the end:

Backing up Warren Zevon in his final public performance, a goddamn heartbreaking version of “Mutineer”:

Sorry, yes, that’s a huge downer. Hey! Here they are, rocking all the hell the way out with Bruce Springsteen:

Yes, good point…Paul Shaffer assembled his band around the needs of 60s and 70s rock, pop and funk, so that’s well within their wheelhouse. Fine. How about opera? How about a special Top Ten list in which they have to play ten opera pieces?

I wondered if the show might have decided to keep it simple and just hire in a small group of recital musicians with experience in this repertoire, and stuck them behind the scrim. The show often does that when there’s a Broadway performance…the show’s regular musicians are just a few blocks away, so it just makes sense. Well, not only does Renee Fleming seem to be getting her cues from the usual bandstand, but this non-official version includes a cutaway to the band, which shows that the CBS Orchestra is playing appropriate instruments. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Will Lee playing an upright bass on the show before.

Backing up Will Smith for an unexpected extended performance of the smooth hip-hop “Summertime”:

Could the band play classic Broadway if they had to? Sure thing:

Speaking of Kristen Chenoweth, I don’t think Paul Shaffer knew that she was going to sing during her interview, what she was going to sing, or that she was going to sing it in such an unusual key. Nonetheless:

And speaking of spontaneity. Dave was so pleased by The Orwells that he asked them to encore the song as they rolled credits. Well, their guitarist had ripped out his strings during the finale, and the rest of the band didn’t really do anything with the request…so the CBS Orchestra (on hearing the song once, likely) jumped in and performed the encore themselves:

But let’s finish off with something we rarely get to see: the band just playing. Here’s a clip of the music they play during the commercials. I’ve been fortunate enough to see the show in person four or five times over the years and I can attest that the band interstitials are easily as entertaining as the rest of the show. I hope that before Letterman ends his run, he does a whole show of just the band playing:

“Good heavens, Andy!” you would comment, if this blog allowed you to shame me in public comments. “You wasted a lot of time this morning building this list of clips, didn’t you?”

Nope! The Letterman show has had so many fantastic musical moments that I could pluck almost all of these out of an existing YouTube playlist. The others were easy to find because my favorite musical segments of the show stand out just as sharply for me as my favorite interview and comedy moments.

So add this to the list of things I’m dearly going to miss when Letterman retires: getting to hear this phenomenal band on a nightly basis. I’ve read that each of them are busy musicians outside the show, so I don’t suppose there’s much chance of them putting together a tour in 2015. But if they do…wow, that’s gotta be the easiest $77.50 I ever spent!

The Greatest Gadget Ad Of All Time?

Here’s Sir Laurence Olivier’s commercial for the Polaroid SX-70 camera. This ad is 40 years old and the entire product category became obsolete over a decade ago.

But be honest: right now, you want an SX-70.

Why? Because you are men and women of taste, it’s a hell of a product, and a hell of a commercial. Sir Larry presents an attractive and compact slab of what looks like fine metal and leather and holy crap it just transformed into a camera! I wonder where the film goes did he just slide ten frames of film into it as easily as putting bread in a toaster?!

(Recall that this was a time when people loaded 35mm SLR cameras by dropping a cartridge into one end of the thing and then pulling the film acrossssss to a takeup reel and carrrrrefully making sure the holes engaged with the sprockets and…etc.)

The SX-70 even sounds great when taking a photo, emitting a satisfying thclack of a shutter followed by a whirring of gears and motors that set about their work with care and precision. But how do the photos you mean that’s not a trick it really does just sort of appear in front of your eyes?!?

More gadget ads ought to be exactly like this. In a short span of time, it puts on a magic show. There’s nothing vague or oracular about it. Nothing smug, no “concept,” and Polaroid wasn’t touting this as an “aspirational” or “disruptive” product. The message is simple. Here’s an awesome camera. If you take pictures, you want to more about the SX-70.

And because this is 1973, this means physically transporting yourself to a place where they have a stock of cameras and the equipment necessary to swap them for your money immediately. This was good for Polaroid. Once you hold an SX-70, you’re kind of doomed.

I know from experience. I own two SX-70 cameras. When I got home from the MIT Flea Market with this prize, I rummaged through my closet to look for a lens brush so I could spiff it up…and then I found the other SX-70 that I bought at another Flea two or three years earlier. Thankfully, I paid flea-market prices for both. But yes, all cower and quake before the seductive powers of intensely-well-designed technology.

And I haven’t even mentioned the perfection of hiring Sir Larry. It was great casting, and speaks well of the company’s faith in the product. He lends an air of affirmation, credibility, and sophistication to the SX-70 through his presence. But his words are straightforward ad copy that anybody could have read. If the camera were a lesser product, Polaroid would have had Larry talk about fine-tooled leather and classical craftsmanship and the feel of superb engineering in one’s hands, like that of a fine timepiece or a hand-built luxury car, et cetera.

My thanks to pal Harry McCracken for bringing it to my attention. I clicked into Technologizer for his tribute to James Garner’s Polaroid commercials (rest in peace) (James Garner and Polaroid) and I was soon engrossed in his tribute to the SX-70. You ought to go read it.

Followup, Of Sorts

Many Twitter responses to yesterday’s post about sorting problems:

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the end, it’s probably best to remind ourselves that the whole concept of “order,” as we perceive it, is merely a layer of artificial augmented reality that our brains came up with. If we realized that everything’s that’s ever happened and every will happen is random, and that there’s no plan for anything in the universe, we’d probably all just freak right the hell out and forget to eat those sugars and proteins that our brains like so much.

These Tweets and others jarred a memory loose. I actually did solve my comic book database’s sorting problem, by creating multiple “Title” fields to serve multiple purposes. The record for an issue of “Avengers West Coast” had:

  1. A field containing the title as it should appear when printed (“Avengers West Coast”)
  2. A field containing the title as it should appear in a super-condensed multi-column report (“AVENWC”)
  3. A field used exclusively for sorting purposes (“West Coast Avengers”)

Yes, this was another book that Marvel renamed midway through its run. But by sorting on the third field, Issue #47 of Avengers West Coast Volume 2 naturally followed issue #46 of West Coast Avengers Volume 2 without any trouble.

I was quite proud to have figured that out. It also informs my philosophy that sometimes, we delay the discovery of a great solution to a problem by insisting that it be simple and elegant. In Game Boy terms: we’re playing Tetris, and we’re so determined to set up a move that clears four rows at once that we pass up dull, but effective, drops of one row or two. I remember the moment late at night, in front of my DOS machine (hey, it was the late Eighties), when I realized that all of this extra Turbo Pascal code (hey, it was the late Eighties) I’d been writing to compress title strings and alias one title onto another just a big waste of my time and the CPU’s.

This is making me nostalgic for the days when I had some sort of huge programming project to work on..code that I build, maintain, and enhance for years and years, just for my own use and my own pleasure. My first big project was an Apple II operating system. My second was the comic book database. My last one was the CMS and desktop app that ran my blog from the mid-Nineties until 2007 or so. Since then, all I’ve done are little one-off AppleScript, Ruby and Perl scripts to help me finish simple, repetitive tasks quickly.

Maybe this is my way of nudging myself to start to learn Swift in earnest, beyond the usual “Jackdaws love my big sphinx of quartz”-style test app I build when I need to test a language or a development environment.

iOS app development has always intimidated me, though. It feels like I shouldn’t look back after a year’s worth of effort and only then realize that I could have made a million dollars if I’d spent that time writing a different kind of app.

A Less-Definite Article

“The.” Such a meaningless word. Such a cause of trouble for those of us who rely on the alphabet.

Take a look at my iTunes library. What’s the name of the band that originally recorded “Hey Jude”?

You say you know. I’m telling you that you don’t. I always have to take a guess at it…if I’m looking for it in my iTunes library. Thanks to the plurality of early iTunes users who submitted CD track listings to the CDDB while stoned, the Beatles catalogue is split between three different bands:

“The Beatles”

“Beatles”

and

“Beatles, The”.

And why, yes, this does completely **** up browsability! I’m forced to weed these things out and fix them manually.

The “the” problem screws lots of things up. It’s “Spider-Man,” not “The Spider-Man.” But purists will insist that it’s supposed to be “The Batman.” And as big a fan of this band as I am, I’m not 100% sure if it’s “Foo Fighters” or “The Foo Fighters” until I consult a canonical source.

(Usually, I call up Dave Grohl. “How the hell did you get this number?” he shouts. “You know perfectly goddamned well that the court order forbids you from ever calling me or any other member of Foo Fighters!” And there’s my answer.)

All of this is simply part of our daily burden as free-thinking members of this planet’s alpha species. It’s on my mind tonight thanks to a conversation that Marco Arment has been having on Twitter about how his lovely new podcatcher app sorts show titles.

I don’t think that’s the right way to go. I’m looking at my list of podcast subscriptions and I reckon that by this scheme, about a third of the shows I regularly listen to will be clumped under “T.” I reckon that this is why so many music apps (like Google Play Music) will display “The Beatles” but sort it as though the band name starts with “B”. I reckon if I use the word “reckon” a third and fourth time and point that out, it’ll sound like I used it over and over again to be entertaining, when in truth, I was just lazy.

If you’re a stickler, you could just say “common rules of indexing command that ‘the’ be treated as though it were the last word in a business name or title.”

(Go on and check out the Chicago Manual Of Style’s Q&A page about alphabetizing. It’s a hoot, and reminds me that if I took a job as a librarian, I’d last about three weeks before I shot myself in the foot to get a discharge stateside.)

But all of this skips over the real point, when designing software. Rules should be damned: the choice just has to make sense and it has to be consistent. The developer needs to ask “where will people expect to find ‘The Beatles’?” and act accordingly.

At some point, he or she just has to make the choice that feels right. Then, send baby out into traffic and see how well that choice works.

This is a good example of what I think of as a “big endian/little endian” problem. These terms have nothing to do with how data is stored in address space; I’m referring to the original Jonathan Swift idea of a society in which people who slice open their hard-boiled eggs from the little end can’t understand the people who slice them open from the big end because, obviously, their way is totally the right way to do this. The other way seems so bizarre that those people might as well be of some other species or something.

So: you can argue endlessly about the “right” way. But it’s almost (not quite) an arbitrary choice. By trying to satisfy people who will never agree with the “other” way of doing things, you’ll just screw things up for everyone. It’s best to just have a point of view and stick with it until user feedback makes you second-guess your choice.

Alphabetizing things will never work smoothly, anyway.

John Hodgman and Jesse Thorn refer to their show as “The Judge John Hodgman Podcast” on-mic, but it’s canonically listed without the definite article. Where do I find Elvis Mitchell’s swell entertainment interview show, “The Treatment“? Is it under “T” for “Treatment,” or “T” for “The”?

Trick question! Both words start with the letter “T”!

AHA! DOUBLE trick-question! Because it’s listed as “KCRW’s ‘The Treatment'”!

My mental eye paints White-Out over the “The” in a podcast title almost every time. But I never think of my favorite podcast as anything other than “The Bugle.”

This sort of problem goes way, way back. When I was a kid, Marvel Comics inflicted the first of what would become a decades-long string of abusive editorial decisions by renaming the comic “Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man” as “Spectacular Spider-Man.” Well, crap. Now where do I file these issues? I checked the indica. Marvel didn’t start a new numbering scheme and this was still Volume 1.

Nerdy kids who grew up in the Eighties are united by two traumatic events that affected all of us: “Spectacular Spider-Man,” and the Challenger disaster. I am convinced that if I were to send a one hundred item questionnaire to 500 comic book fans, the answer to Question 1 (“How did you choose to sort your Spectacular Spider-Man comics?”) would let me predict the answers to many questions about the respondent’s views on politics and ethics, after all 500 sets of answers were submitted to proper analysis.

(My introduction to formal data structures came when I wrote an app to keep track of my comics. Through high school and college, I solved so many problems and added so many features to it. But I never figured out an elegant way to handle a comic that runs for 131 consecutively-numbered issues across three or four titles.)

What I’m saying is that alphabetizing things is a big mess…maybe the biggest mess there is, if ranked as a ratio of “how difficult this problem is” to  “how difficult it appears to be.” I always expect, and hope, that “the” is invisible for sorting purposes…but I can forgive a developer for doing what makes sense to him or her.

All of this reminds me of a brilliant name for a band, which I came up with when I was a teen: “Miscellaneous M.” It guaranteed that the band would get its own divider in every store’s CD department even if it only released one album. The only way this scheme could possibly fail would have been if the entire market for physical media were to collapse over a short period of time.

The Soda Protocols

(One of the greatest culinary experiences of my entire life: drinking bottles of real-sugar Coke in Belize after two or three hours of hiking around.)

 

“Daddy’s magic thinking juice.” This is how I often describe the bottles and cans in my fridge, much to the confusion of friends and family.

“I didn’t know you even had kids,” they reply, cautiously. “Nor that your shame over your escalating drinking problem is so great that you choose to conceal its scale behind a code phrase.”

Well, neither thing is true. Alcohol consumption is often linked to parenthood (particularly during one’s frolicky teen years) but I only have a nodding relationship to both concepts. No, I describe my onhand inventory of soda that way because over the course of a long writing day, a glass of something fizzy and tasty helps to grease the gears of productivity. In fact, when the final deadline of a book project is less than two weeks away, my blood is about 20% phosphoric acid.

Is this a healthy habit? Oh, absolutely. I have zero back problems and have never been killed by one of those deep-vein thrombosis deals. I fix my doctor with a steely gaze and insist that it’s all thanks to my compulsive need to get up out of my chair every 45 minutes and walking to the kitchen to fix another drink.

But my powers of creativity and self-deception have limits. Back in my Twenties, I foresaw that drinking a couple of 12-packs of Coke every week was a career-limiting strategy. I instituted a new mission rule: no sugared sodas inside the house. I switched to Diet.

That was the only change I made to my Soda Protocols until recently, when I started to feel like it was time to tinker with them. Chalk it up to my entering my “long haul” years. Due to poor planning, I didn’t die in my youth with the final pages of my unpublished but soon-to-be-universally-acknowledged masterpiece crumpled in my cold hands. Onward to Plan B, then: start making choices with my longterm health in mind.

What’s the problem with my soda consumption? Is there a problem?

I’m not sure, so I’ve been playing with the variables. I switched to ginger ales and citrus flavors for a month because I was curious to see if the caffeine in my sodas was screwing me up in some way. I suffered no withdrawal symptoms (despite what years sitcom evidence predicted) and mmmmaybe I was falling asleep faster. It was an interesting data point if not a eureka result.

Okay, but what are those artificial sweeteners doing to me? “There’s no sound scientific evidence that any of the artificial sweeteners approved for use in the U.S. cause cancer or other serious health problems,” says the Mayo Clinic. Okey-doke! That’s good enough for me. But I was intrigued by something Alton Brown said in his podcast: he thinks artificial sweeteners are the devil because even if they have no primary ill effects on your health, they reinforce the brain’s desire for sweet-tasting things.

In any event, it was worth giving up artificial sweeteners for a while, too. As with the caffeine thing, it was as much an experiment in self-control as anything else. I try to be on guard against compulsive behavior. Am I drinking this Diet Dr. Pepper because I genuinely enjoy it, or is it just something I’ve programmed myself to pour into a glass a few times a day?

In the end, all of this experimentation has left me disappointed. I had hoped that a month after eliminating this thing or that thing, my typing speed would increase by 20% and/or I’d finally get the hang of the “wet on wet” painting techniques of your leading TV art instructors. Nope! All I got out of any of this is the reassurance that I’m not chemically or psychologically addicted to any of this stuff (okay, that’s a win) and the knowledge that in some vague way, I might be making better longterm health choices. Even if that’s true, I won’t be able to blow out the candles on my 80th birthday cake and claim that it was because I kicked Coke to the curb in all of its hoary forms.

That’s the disappointing thing about most healthy living decisions. At least when you play a video game, you shoot open a chest, a first aid kit tumbles out, you walk over it and presto! The dingus in the corner of the screen tells you that you can now afford to get shot four more times. I suspect that this is why people would rather spend hours drinking orange soda in front of a video game instead of exercising. We need a system of scorekeeping for real life, don’t we? Unless God hands me a numerical score at the end of my life to show me what I “won” by changing my drinking habits, all I have to go on is faith.

(I know: He’s a big fan of Faith. It strengthens character and also saves Him a crapload of bookkeeping.)

Well, the experiment phase is over. I’ve made three sweeping changes to my Soda Protocols:

  1. The default home beverage is now “seltzer.” Either flavored, or enhanced through the manual addition of natural lemon or lime juice. It has no caffeine and no artificial sweeteners. I actually prefer the clean taste to the vague chemical-ey notes present in even a good cola-war-battle-hardened diet soda.
  2. I have lifted the household ban on sweetened soda. The Experiment Phase proved that I’m not a compulsive drinker, so I trust myself. But! Sweetened soda is to be consumed as though it were alcohol. One small glass, perhaps once a day.
  3. Soda should be sweetened with real sugar, if at all possible. I’m letting sugared soda back into my life so that I can savor and enjoy it as a rare (-ish) treat, instead of guzzling it like water. I don’t know what to make about all of the anti-corn-syrup fuss out there. But I do know that I prefer the taste of natural sugar (it adds a peppery snap). If this it going to be a treat, let’s make it a treat, yes? I’m swapping out the diet stuff because it doesn’t taste as good as this, and I’m agreeing to drink far less of it as a tradeoff.

We seem to be living in a new Enlightened Age of real sugar colas. Pepsi seems to have made the “Throwback” flavor a regular item; on top of that, they’re promoting three new “real sugar” flavors as a summer promotion. Why the holy hell doesn’t Coke jump on the bandwagon, too? We love cane sugar-sweetened Coke so much that we’re willing to import the stuff from exotic foreign nations, such as Mexico and Costco! The fact that there isn’t a domestic variant trademarked as “Coke Refresco” proves that The Coca-Cola Company is a society in a state of chaos. The company should be annexed by a neighbor and run by a colonial governor until such time as they are once again capable of self-rule.

(It’s the humanitarian thing to do. Blackberry watched the iPhone sweep in and take over the phone market, and yet they still refuse to make phones out of real cane sugar. I’d hate to see that same sad fate befall Coca-Cola.)

On the subject of Pepsi Throwback: it was a one-off summer promotion that was so successful that Pepsi just decided to keep it around. The first time I encountered it, I bought the one remaining 12-pack of cane-sugar Dr Pepper in the store display and holy mother of God, it was some of the tastiest stuff I ever drank. This was years ago and I swear to you that every time – every time – I see a 12-pack of Throwback Pepsi, I instinctively check to see if there’s any Heritage Dr Pepper. Make it a regular damn product!

We’re Americans! The only thing we like better than sugar is a super special kind of sugar that lets us congratulate ourselves for our discerning taste and superiority!

Super (-ish) Moon

I shot the supermoon tonight in my backyard. If the Moon is going to be accommodating enough to get a little bit closer to my camera, then I really shouldn’t look a gift satellite in the mouth, should I?

I find that the Moon is a most agreeable subject. It’s much more patient with the hobbyist photographer than the Blue Angels. The Moon has places to go, yes…but it’s in no hurry to get there and it’s willing to indulge the local paparazzi.

My consumer zoom tops out at a sensible 200mm which is fine if your subject is somewhat nearer than 240,000 miles from the focal plane but less than optimal if you want to take a photo of anything orbiting the planet. I don’t need an ultratelephoto lens (or a telescope with a camera adapter). I only want one. And I only want one a couple of times a year…like right now!

Amazon’s drone-delivery system (if real) is brilliant. I’m in my backyard and seeing this little white circle in my viewfinder. I could unpocket my phone, tap a few buttons, and then a half an hour later…RZZZZZZZZZZZZ! A quartet of quadrocopters with a net slung between them drops a Celestron gently onto the grass, next to my tripod. That’s the way to do it! Lock me into the sale at the moment of need, before I realize that this is a silly impulse and an unnecessary expenditure.

I’ve never owned a telescope. I suppose that these days, we use better technology for looking at the heavens: the Internet. Awesome (in the literal sense) collections of imagery collected by the latest generation of spacecraft observatories are right there to be found. Much of it is nicely collected in apps and services, like Google Sky.

I’m sure that I’m not getting the same visceral excitement that I’d experience by peeping at this stuff through an optical viewfinder. But I must swallow my pride and confess that the Hubble, Chandra, Spitzer space telescopes et al (and the people who click the buttons) are way better at finding and photographing interesting things up there than I am.

(It also doesn’t involve freezing one’s butt off when a comet is passing by at an awkward time of the year.)

Besides, the Moon isn’t like the Space Shuttle. There are a million photos of Endeavour, but only a few that capture the orbiter the way I saw it, conveying the emotions that I felt when seeing it. The Moon just hangs there, like the Mona Lisa. Once you’ve seen it, it’s hard to think of something new to do with the thing.

I still have “Milky Way galaxy” on my photographic bucket list, though. It’s a tough problem to solve. I’d need to go somewhere with no light pollution. That’s not a big problem. I’m actually intimidated by being interrupted by angry people with guns and flashlights wondering what the hell I’m doing in the middle of their field. One day, maybe, I’ll find an astronomy group and make a trek out on a good night. Is it BYOB, or do they have a cooler with an honor bar?

Another brilliant startup idea

I’m going to need some investors (also, people who know how to build a really good app and how to create and maintain mission-critical messaging infrastructure). Because I have had one of those Can’t Possibly Miss ideas.

You’d like to turn off your phone during off-hours. But there’s always a chance that you’ll miss a message that genuinely can’t wait. And if you leave it on and tell people only to contact you in case of emergency, the definition of the word “emergency” tends to fall seriously out of sync and then, there you are, in an expensive restaurant, telling someone that if the office printer is out of paper, and there’s none in the storeroom, then maybe they should go out to OfficeMax or something.

To solve this problem, I’ve come with a new messaging app: “Message Against The House,” or MATHmessage.

Here’s how it works. Your whole phone works the same way it always did. But when you don’t wish to be disturbed, you launch MATHmessage. It sends all phone calls to voice mail and mutes all alerts created by other messaging apps. Until you turn MATHmessage off, it’s the only source of incoming messages…either messages transported by the app network itself, or with the app as a go-between for voice and text.

When someone attempts to message you, they get an automated response. The message has been received correctly and is being held in quarantine. MATHmessage will not alert the user and display the message until the sender places the sum of $100 in escrow. All they have to do is tap a button to authorize the hold of funds.

Once the payment is confirmed, the app releases the message to the recipient. If the recipient thinks that this message really was worth having to excuse themselves from a family wedding, then he or she taps the thumbs-up button and the sender gets their $100 back. If not, then the money goes to a charity, randomly-selected from a list of 50 that the recipient approved when they installed the app.

(Minus a small transaction fee that supports the MATHmessage service and lets me buy a couple of Teslas.)

See? It’s brilliant. It forces the sender to wager his or her own cash against the question “Will the recipient agree that my message was worth their time at attention, during a time when they asked not to be disturbed?” Hence the name: they’re betting $100 against the house, aka my goldmine of a messaging service.

I guess an arbitration process will be necessary. Otherwise, recipients could choose to just be jerks (albeit jerks who want each of their incoming messages to generate $100 for a cancer-related charity). I have no set plan for this, but I imagine it’ll be a variation on the Instant Replay rule. There has to be some additional skin in the game to prevent people from just asking for arbitration every single damn time.

Mere details. The core concept is perfect: the idea is to force the sender to put some skin in the game before they try to get in touch with you at a time when they’ve been told you don’t want to be disturbed. “Your kid has been taken to the emergency room” – justified. “I know we’re meeting tomorrow at 10, but I wanted to make sure you had my latest thoughts before I left the office for the day” – that’s going to cost you a hundred bucks.

After a successful soft-launch of MATHmessage, we offer a companion product for restaurants and theaters. MATHmessage users who don’t wish to be disturbed except in an emergency use the app to scan a QR code at the maître d’ station.

What happens next:

  1. The escrow amount doubles to $200.
  2. Incoming messages are encrypted and held by an iPad at the maître d’ station.
  3. The recipient’s phone never receives any alerts under any circumstances. The app activates an iBeacon-like feature that allows a restaurant staffperson to locate the MATHmessage user via a directional app on the iPad.
  4. The message is released securely and privately to the user by bringing the two devices in contact with each other, and then deleted securely from the iPad.
  5. Upon successful delivery of the message, the restaurant receives a fixed dollar amount regardless of its disposition.
  6. This mode automatically turns off when you pass by the iBeacon that’ mounted mezuzah-style on the restaurant’s doorway.

This idea can be applied to all sorts of public spaces in which patron use of phones is to be discouraged. A blanket ban on phone usage can be applied and enforced while still allowing those with a legitimate interest in emergency communications (presidents or dictators of the more popular nations, anyone employed to keep reality-show participants from getting any sort of attention) to remain on the grid without disturbing the experience for other patrons. Theaters, for example, can simply intercept MATHmessages and only make them available for retrieval inside the lobby, during intermission.

Thank you, Dragons. I am now prepared to hold open this empty pillowcase for as long as you desire to throw bundles of $100 bills into it. I have brought nineteen of them and I’m not sure that’ll be enough.

Asked Potato

I’m sure that everyone who ever launched a creative project in earnest and barely scratched 5% of their Kickstarter goal is looking at the Potato Salad project with a certain amount of nun-tripping frustration. The project is to make a bowl of potato salad. The founder was looking for $10. As of this writing, he’s raised $38,804, with 25 days left in the campaign.

I’m not going to make fun of Zack Danger Brown. No no no. I have nothing but bemused admiration for his achievement. He’s like Lindberg, only without the ties to Hitler. He’s accomplished something amazing and downright inspirational: he’s accumulated enough money for a down payment on a house, off the back of a silly idea that doesn’t have any ulterior motive other than whimsy. It’d be lovely if he swung this project over to “donating money to community food banks,” but he’s under no moral obligation to do so. And he isn’t defrauding a single person.

But let’s see him follow through on the rewards he’s promised to his backers. “A bite of the potato salad”? My first thought was to buy thousands of little packets of mayo, salt, and pepper, hire someone to make little packets of dried potato flakes, then hire someone else to throw ’em into envelopes and mail them out. Or can he get away with claiming that “a bite of the potato salad” does not include travel and accommodations to the place where the potato salad will be made?)

My second thought was that if Mel Brooks had a grandson who wanted to get into the movie business and was eager to trade off of the family name, he’d do a rebooted version of “The Producers” and call it “The Kickstarters.”

Aside: it’s definitely time for the world to treat the phrase “Springtime For Hitler” as a catchphrase. It means “Any project that can only fail if it succeeds beyond even the most optimistic projections of its creators.” Such as a connected app that serves a valuable function that people are willing to pay for, BUT can’t possibly scale up. It can sustain itself with 5000 users, it can make a decent living for its creators at 50,000 users, but with 500,000 users, the company goes out of business.

(Usage: “MarinarApp had the ‘should I add more basil to this red sauce?’ solutionspace all to itself. But they failed to attract angel funding. Without the ability to buy more server capacity to handle all of the incoming photos, or hire more chefs to screen those photos and punch in a BasilMeter™ score, the service inevitably Springtime For Hitlered.”)

So let’s all sit back and see how all of this plays out.

My third thought?

Thank God this didn’t happen ten or fifteen years ago. Those were dark days, when early-middle-aged movie executives were desperate to prove to middle-middle-aged senior executives that they were spunky fresh-thinkers with their thumbs on the zeitgeist and please please please there’s no need to fire them and replace them with younger people. Creators of silly blogs were getting movie offers left and right.

If that kind of thinking were still in place, Twerking Cinnamon Challenge Potato Salad Party would be a “go” picture.

 

Fireworks Tip

This one caused minor burns & @Maile_wilson's clothe... on Twitpic

I waffled on the “Should I go to the town Fourth Of July fireworks?” decision long enough that the decision became a simple one, if you follow. At which point I was able to tell myself that staying at home was the best plan all along. I’m frustrated by poor signal-to-noise when it comes to travel and excursions. Fireworks are thirty minutes of fun, bookended by an hour of milling around with nothing to do on side and an hour of being stuck in traffic on the other side. That’s the price of getting to and leaving a small patch of land that’s being targeted by thousands of other like-minded individuals.

So here I am: close enough to hear the booms, and nowhere near enough to see the lights.

But I made a nifty discovery just now. I came upon a July 4 blog post with an animated GIF image of real fireworks. And what do you know? The sounds and the image sync up realistically.

Which is to say that they don’t sync up at all. It’s just like being there!

It’s actually kind of uncanny. I’m guessing that my brain is flipping the “Real” indicator light because the sound is a more important convincer than the visual. I get to see video and photos of fireworks year-round. But the CRACKLE and SSSSSSS and BOOOM is one of those “You had to be there” experiences, what with the bass response.

I’ll have to remember this trick. Perhaps next year, I’ll drive to the very edge of the parking nightmare, open up my 15″ notebook, sit through the whole thing, and then be one of the first people to throw the car into reverse and make it out of the apocalyptic exodus of people carrying beach chairs, coolers, and kids who won’t stop screaming until they’re thoroughly convinced that the world didn’t just end.

The Bears Want To Eat Her

Here’s what happened with Windows 8, in one sentence: Microsoft asked too much of its users.

I could write thousands of words more on the subject, and come to think of it…I have. It’s a complicated subject. Microsoft needed to make Windows relevant in a new, multitouch world, and with an installed user base consisting roughly of (everybody who uses a computer) – (Macs + Linux), adoption of W8 was never going to be instantaneous. Historically, Microsoft has always had three major editions of Windows in play at once: the newest one, which everyone who buys a new PC runs; the one before that, which runs on the majority of PCs because IT departments have certified it and users have been trained on it; and then the one before that, because many people and companies are desperate cheapskates who’d rather cover up a desktop’s Packard-Bell logo with tape than consider springing $500 for a new computer that isn’t made of sticks and animal hides.

See, I didn’t say “Microsoft asked too much” as a slam against Windows 8. It just illustrates a problem that’s faced by big companies with popular products and a large installed customer base. For many (even most) Windows users, the amount of effort required to get spun up with the changes Microsoft made didn’t seem worth the benefits of staying up-to-date…particularly with such a high cost of admission.

Tonight, it suddenly occurred to me that this same problem is the reason why my comic book buying has gradually tailed down to almost nil. It’s not a reaction to the quality of their books. They’ve just…made it too hard.

DC keeps rebooting things. A few years ago, they decided to restart the entire DC Universe from Day One. I don’t think that’s a dumb idea; done right, it’s a helpful bit of periodic housecleaning. “The DC Universe” is a 75-year-old machine with thousands of moving parts, with new characters and concepts bodged in here and there throughout. A reboot lets the company’s editors and writers rebuild everything so all of these pieces fit together harmoniously. But: I honestly have no idea who most of these characters are any more, and they move around in a world where I don’t instinctively understand the laws of physics.

I need to read lots of comics before I can get my bearings back…and I don’t even know where to start. It’s not an insurmountable challenge but do I want to even bother? Particularly after hearing that DC is going to perform another screwy system-wide time-leap at the end of the year?

My obstacle with Marvel is that I have no idea how to get a single unit of story from them. Stories start in the middle and they’re resolved later (sometimes after months) in another book entirely. Marvel’s “Avengers” books are such a mess that they often include a little chart of what books you need to buy and what order you need to read them in. Good lord!

Or, the story is all carbs and no protein. “I’ve just had a shattering revelation that will fundamentally change my relationships with the most trusted people in my life!” a character exclaims in Issue #3. Issue 4, 5, 6 go by without any hints about what that revelation was, and what effects it had. To learn that, I’m supposed to go to that character’s solo book. But which one? He’s got four. I’m left with a series that describes a sequence of events but delivers no story.

Overall, Marvel comics make me feel like Dr. Hackenbush in “A Day At The Races,” getting scammed at the racetrack. He’s trying to buy a tip on a horse. But every piece of paper Chico’s character sells him is no good unless he buys another piece of paper that explains what the other one means. The tip is in code; the codebook requires the use of a second codebook; the second codebook requires information only available in a breeders’ guide…hilarity ensues! Because it’s Hackenbush who has to dish out for all of these books, and not me.

I rarely get to the end of a Marvel comic and feel like the curtain has closed and the lights in the theater have come up. It’s frustrating and unsatisfying. And Marvel isn’t entirely immune to DC’s troubles, either. Marvel’s story continuity is deeply contaminated with characters who are someone’s son in an alternate-reality, but a future alternate reality, from an Earth that’s a parallel-Earth to the Earth of that alternate reality, who traveled back in time to reach this character who turns out to be a clone of a robot of…

ENOUGH!!!!!

See what I mean? I just want to get a single, satisfying unit of entertainment. When I was a kid, I could get that by just buying and reading the issues of a series, in numerical sequence. Years later, I could get it by waiting for a story arc to be collected into a trade paperback.

Now? It’s just too hard. I have to do lots of research to get myself oriented and then track a story across many titles to get the whole story.

(This would all be bad enough even if each comic (which just takes 15 minutes to read) didn’t cost $4. Now it costs a fortune to get that Beginning, Middle, and End. How many of these stories are worth $68?)

Reading comics requires a lot of work, a lot of money, and a lot of faith that the work and the money will pay off by the end.

Which isn’t to say that there’s no reason for a sane person to read comics. I suppose it might still be worth the effort to me if all of this were still new. And of course, there are still tiny islands inside DC and Marvel that are free from this kind of madness…to say nothing of the other publishers.

I guess it’s just easier to let go of something I used to love after I’ve worked out the reasons why it no longer makes me happy.

“I’m surrounded by bears and other animals that want to eat me,” says Sue Aikens, one of the regulars featured in National Geographic Channel’s reality series “Life Below Zero.” “And I don’t want them to.”

She’s not using a metaphor. She lives all alone in an isolated camp in the Arctic.

I love this (paraphrased) quote because it’s brilliant storytelling in just two lines. You instantly know the characters, the situation, and the stakes. It wouldn’t be half as effective if it were surrounded by tinsel and flashing lights and clouds of purple smoke. It’s an aspirational ideal of simplicity for all authors.

When an author tries to obscure a solid premise or doesn’t stick to the basic path of “Beginning, middle, end end” I wonder if it’s an artistic choice or if it’s a sign that they doesn’t know how to make something good out of something simple and clear.

Kotaku: $900 Blade Runner Gun Looks Totally Worth It

Kotaku: “$900 Blade Runner Gun Looks Totally Worth It”.

Having read the article and seen the pictures, I have absolutely no argument whatsoever with that headline.

What is it about movie props that triggers the lizard/monkey/Ferengi parts of our brains? Our powers of critical thought abandon us, replaced with a clear, single urge: WANT.

(“Our” = “geeks”; but I feel I know you well enough to just assume you’re one of us.)

The Blade Runner blaster is just…I have no words. I support all measures of gun control except for those that would make it difficult for me, personally, to own this gun, specifically.

What a marvel of design! It should have received its own Oscar. How do you design a prop that has a clear, familiar function but is emphatically from a future world that includes flying cars and replicants? This blaster reflects the fact that gun technology might change in 50 years, but a cop’s relationship with his or her gun will stay the same. It can’t look like the remote control for your smart sous vide machine. This weapon needs to reassure the user (and communicate to its target) of its ability to project lethal, irrevocable force.

It’s badass without going overboard, is what I’m saying. If I were a movie bad guy, I wouldn’t worry too much about a hitman who draws a chromed revolver festooned with redundant tri-color laser sights and custom “angel of justice” grips. That’s the kind of gun that you’d give to a cop played by Hasselhoff.

But the Blade Runner blaster! Clearly, a weapon fit for a Harrison!

The above photo reflects a fact that I have the right kind of friends. Namely: the kind who might show up at a dinner party with the Blade Runner blaster replica she just bought. This isn’t the model mentioned in the Kotaku article. It’s a garage prop, I think, handmade by someone who’s such a big fan of that prop that they wanted to make one for themselves, and who got so good at it that they made a few for others to defray the expenses.

Of course, the most famous of the Blade Runner blaster-obsessives is Adam Savage. His name is so tightly bound to this prop that when you type “Adam Savage” into Google, “…Blade Runner” is the first autocomplete.

Watch the video. It’s a fascinating look at how obsessive these prop fans and rebuilders are (he said, quickly adding that “obsessive” isn’t always a negative thing). It delights me to think of a “Star Wars” propmaker assembling Han Solo’s blaster out of handfuls of whatever components they had around the workshop, checking their final work, and then thinking “forty years from now, hundreds of people will band together to try to figure out which component from which model kit or plumbing assembly I used for this detail.”

It’s just an intense level of commitment. Replicating an old prop is often like trying to replicate a Jackson Pollock painting. All Pollock needed to do was splatter paint where he felt it needed to go. The forger needs to put exactly that color paint in exactly the same spot on the canvas in exactly the same way as he did.

Screen Shot 2014-06-20 at 12.37.28 PM

I’ve asked myself if I’m as fond of any one movie prop as Adam is about this blaster. My instinctive answer is “the deep-dive helmets from ‘The Abyss‘.”

“The Abyss” doesn’t take place on an Earth that’s unrecognizably different from our own. But the prop designers’ challenge was much greater than the one faced by the “Blade Runner” crew. All of actors performed their underwater scenes themselves, for real, in a forty foot tank. So the priorities for the dive helmets were, in order of importance:

  1. Keep the actors alive.
  2. Be comfortable enough to wear every day during months of shooting.
  3. Allow the actors to act.
  4. Look real cool.

I’m dazzled by the engineering challenge. “Allow the actors to act” was a big deal for James Cameron. It meant that these helmets needed to achieve the first two goals while still allowing the camera to see the actors’ faces and hear their voices. Another director would have just had the actors loop all of their dialogue back in later, instead of capturing it live on-set. But then, I suppose another director would have thought “we’ll do the underwater scenes with a combination of stunt divers and principal actors on a dry effects stage” instead of “Obviously, we’re going to buy an abandoned nuclear power facility, convert the retaining vessel into the world’s largest and deepest underwater shooting set, and get all of our actors certified with ‘master’ dive ratings.”

Though “The Abyss” was notably one of the toughest shoots in film history, it would have been even harder on the actors if two of their three primary instruments — their faces and their voices — were taken away by a face mask that obscures their expressions and by a technical need to create a vocal performance weeks or months after creating the physical performance.

And yet, the designers achieved the “look real cool” thing. These helmets weren’t fiddly movie props. They were sturdy, functional dive equipment built to the same standards as working production hardware.

Would I spend years trying to build my own “Abyss” helmet, like Adam Savage and other prop replicators? Naw. But I’m cheered to think that if one came up at auction, the bidding wouldn’t be nearly as competitive as the bloodbath that ended with the $270,000 sale of an original Blade Runner blaster.

It’d likely still sell for way more than I could afford, but at least it would be a dollar figure that I could easily translate into units of work. “Twelve columns. I write twelve extra columns that I otherwise wouldn’t — this helmet’s gotta give me topics for at least two — and it’s paid for.” It’d be a nice little fantasy. But no, no, not even then.

I think an Abyss dive helmet on a display shelf in my living room would mock me every time I got back home. “Congratulations on being soooooo careful with money that you didn’t cave in to temptation and buy that $7 takeout burrito for dinner today. Really. Your folks would be so proud. Oh, they still think I’m just a piece of interesting junk that you picked up at the MIT Flea Market for $12, right?”

But…the Blade Runner replica is different! It has LEDs! It’s…it’s a tech item! I’m practically obligated to acquire one for a review, right?

(I bet the maker is one of those selfish stinkers that don’t loan things out, either.)

(…)

(Perhaps I should get a burrito for dinner tonight.)

Like an X-Prize for boozehounds

DNA Lounge is putting together a robotic bartender competition. Competing robots will be judged on all good things. Does it make good drinks? Does it do it with a certain style and grace? Is it “Full-Assed,” in the sense that it’s a robot that makes drinks without a full pit crew hovering over it constantly? And: “Extra consideration will be given for terrible ideas and Mad Science.”

As DNA Lounge is located in San Francisco. This is a part of the country where a kitchen drawer is most likely to contain an Arduino board and a few stepper motors. I am therefore optimistic that the competition will draw a great many highly beautiful, functional, and obliquely dangerous competitors.

(Given how rapidly robot battle competitions flourished in the Bay Area back in the Nineties, one hopes that this robot bartender competition will finally produce an end-to-end solution: robots will get robots drunk, and then they’ll fight each other.)

Mystery Portrait May Be a Lost Raphael

Mystery Portrait May Be a Lost Raphael.

Has Peter Silverman done it again?

He’s the art expert who spotted a nifty portrait of a young woman in Renaissance-style clothing, which had been attributed (and priced) as a mid-ninth-century work from an unknown German artist, and bought it on the hunch that it was actually authentic Renaissance…and possibly drawn by Leonardo da Vinci.

He amassed a body of expert opinion, scientific analysis, and old-fashioned detective work to defend the case that he’d discovered previously unknown da Vinci (and that his $21,850 purchase was actually worth upwards of a hundred million). It’s a great story and you should read the book he wrote about it, or watch the PBS NOVA special.

In the book, he describes a peculiar passion for hunting down mis-attributed works. Now he claims that a $50,000 portrait he bought in April is actually a Raphael.

My initial reaction: “Cool.” This is precisely the sort of story that makes for great reading: buried treasure, hanging in plain sight, waiting to be claimed by the first person to look harder and think “Heyyyy…”

Second reaction: “Aw, crap…this is precisely the sort of story that some basic-cable network will try to turn into a reality series.” Round up a couple of colorful characters, spend a few months hammering them into reality TV stars (odd facial hair, labored nicknames, hire them an office assistant with a complicated personal life…the works) and then stage a series of “finds” for ’em.