Monthly Archives: June 2013

I am an Information Hoarder, and I am Powerless Over my Addiction

I have a disease. A cybernetic disease.

It’s called ‘information hoarding.’ There is no known cure…

Well, in so far as I don’t know what it is, anyway. I am the center of my own universe, so if I don’t know it, it is not known.

As a byproduct of my job, my inquisitive nature, and my lazy OCD (it’s a lot like normal OCD, just with a much lower threshold for difficulty — “wash my hands six times? That sounds hard. I think I’ll just make sure all my pens are pointing the same direction, thanks.”) I keep building up massive libraries of links that I have no idea what to do with. If somebody shows me something interesting, my first response isn’t “wow! Amazing!” it’s “you should send that to me.” I’m convinced I have a use for half of the things I see on the internet — and brother, if you’ve seen the internet, you realize how hilariously wrong that entire concept is. Being a columnist at Cracked means I have more of a potential use for information than some (I do have a very beefy column doc where I collect information that relates to a few dozen different premises I’m kicking around at any given point) but it doesn’t justify the kind of hoarding I do. If insane gifs and fringe scientific breakthroughs were empty pizza boxes and mason jars, I would be buried under a glass and cardboard avalanche of my own making. I use Dropbox, Instapaper, and Reddit saved links daily — that’s right: I utilize three different platforms just to hoard obscure facts about space and pop culture. And the worst part is that the hoarding instinct started getting in the way of utility. I don’t actually intake or share any of this information. Partly because I collect too much of it: I can’t possibly read everything I save in a given week. That’s madness! But I can’t lose it! What if I need it someday?!

And those are the exact words of the crazy cat lady trying to justify her collection of sweater catalogues to an impatient psychiatrist.

The other pitfall is that I end up not reading this stuff specifically because I have a means of saving it for later. Instapaper has become shorthand for “I will never, ever read this, but nice try!” Reddit’s saved links have become shorthand for “I don’t really watch videos on my phone, but if I did, I would probably watch this!” Dropbox has become shorthand for “remember to feel guilty later that you don’t have the patience to read through an entire academic paper.” I browse and save more information than ever before, and I feel like I’m taking in less of it every day.

But today, I’m doing something about it. I am done with Reddit. No more Instapaper. I need Dropbox for work, but that’s the extent of its function. If I want to read about science, I’m going to have to manually check my science bookmarks and actually scan through (or at least glance at the headlines and pretend to understand very basic summaries of) the articles there. I am no longer going to fool myself into thinking that a gif of a Chinese man crashing a scooter into a ditch will somehow further my career. I am probably still going to be a lazy and ignorant piece of shit, but god damn it – I’m at least going to be lazy and ignorant myself, instead of relegating my lazy ignorance to technology.

Who’s with me?!

N…nobody? This is the ultimate first world problem, and I should alternate between shutting up and feeling bad about my priorities? Oh, all right then. I’ll get started promptly.

E3, DRM, and Celebrating the Temporary Lack of Searing Ball Pain


Some of this was culled from and inspired by a few updates on my Twitter Feed. Apologies if you find it repetitious.

Holy shit, you guys: Did you hear the news from E3? Sony is going to keep doing the same thing they’ve always done! Fuck yes, celebration time: Not all of gaming is not going to slide further down the maw of the DRM Sarlacc. Break out the bubbly!

Isn’t that sad? This extraordinary sense of relief at simply not being completely fucked over? We’ve officially stopped focusing on and rewarding promising new features, and instead rejoice at the preservation of the status quo. DRM has so completely inundated our lives that the mere prospect of it not invading further is cause for a fucking party. It has wormed its way into our movies, books, games and gaming services to an unacceptable degree. I fully believe that artists should be supported and paid for their work — I’m one of those bastards, after all — but at what point did intellectual property become the bad guy? The abstract stance that you should not steal media is sound. You’re an idiot if you argue that. If you don’t support creators, they will stop creating. They cannot subsist on your good feelings. The joy of your audience cannot be exchanged at the Safeway for Hot Pockets and beer. But I just want to know who proposed, with a straight face, that the solution to IP theft is not to let anybody own media at all.

“People are stealing our books!”
“Well, sir, we can’t just stop releasing them…”
“That’s exactly what we’ll do! No more releases! Now they have to make an appointment, come into our office, and sit in a monitored white room while they read, completely naked. They will not be allowed to take any materials out, and we’ll charge them for the privilege!”

And not only did the corporations not laugh that guy out of the room, they gave him a promotion and a corner office. DRM has slipped so subtly into our everyday lives, that we’re only shaken out of our stupor by the extraordinary: The Xbox One literally proposed to monitor our living room with spy cameras connected to the internet. Then they kindly offered to do away with the concept of ownership, and threw in persistent connectivity requirements as well. They stopped just shy of offering to kick all of our puppies for us – you know, save us the muscle strain of doing it ourselves. These kinds of restrictions would be a dealbreaker for a free, ad-supported game service – and they’re proposing it for a console that costs you $500.

If you guys like being abused so much, I know dominatrices that charge way less than that just to stomp on your balls for a few hours.

But all was not lost: After Microsoft was done spitting in gamer’s mouths so much that we nearly drowned in hate-saliva, Sony came out and kindly, graciously offered not to add further injury. Seriously, it’s weird that Sony’s “features” were mostly just the absence of threats…

ps4

“Still own things you buy! No always on connection! Will not actively try to bang your mom! Your console will not chase you into the bathroom and yell slurred threats through the door! It will NOT give you Hepatitis! No always-on camera monitoring your living room! NOT ENVENOMED!”

If you don’t think that approach is absurd, try it out in the real world. Take Sony’s lead on job interviews: Instead of talking up qualifications, just point out that you won’t set the place on fire. If they ask for your references, give them names of strangers off the street and tell the interviewee to ask if any of them have been assaulted by you. When the answers come back “no,” say “see? I don’t randomly beat pedestrians!” Then, to really sell your case, point out that the last guy they interviewed was a convicted murderer. “Sure, I killed a guy one time, but I’ve never been convicted!”

If it seems odd that I’m giving Sony shit for bragging about not being evil, while going comparatively light on Microsoft’s full descent into supervillainy, that’s probably because I assume the Xbox just committed brand suicide. Or at least I hope it did. I may complain, but ultimately I don’t have any passionate feelings against the Xbox One, because I know they’ve already cemented my decision: I won’t be buying it. End of story. If I do buy a console, it’ll be something different. Playstation, or Nintendo, or somebody else wanting to fill the gap. It’s only if the Xbox One sells really well that I’ll be disturbed. If anybody actually buys one of these things and proudly sets it up in their living room, happily forfeiting the right to own or use their stuff while simultaneously forking over objectively large amounts of money, corporations will know they can get away with anything. I can avoid the XBOne, but if it succeeds and proves the concept is sound, others may follow suit to the point that non-ownership and constant surveillance becomes the norm.

But hey: Sony’s still out there, if not being the good guy, then at least not being the worst guy. Of course, amid all the cries of relief, you may have missed that they’re allowing third party developers to institute their own DRM – which you’ll note is a step backwards from the current console market.

“But it’s such a small step,” we whisper, tears of joy streaming down our face, “compared to the giant boot to the face Xbox offered!”

Don’t get me wrong, I know Sony is just caving a little to pressures from major publishers. And though I do not intend to own their console at any point in the future either (I was a console gamer all my life, but switched to PC recently precisely for these sorts of concerns), I am still abstractly relieved that it’s not on Xbox’s level of fuckery. But still: The state of gaming is a little worse, all around, and here we are rejoicing that the loss of ownership rights isn’t as bad as it could have been.

But hey, Watch Dogs looks rad. So I guess tumbling head first into a consumer dystopia is all worth it.

Oh, right and I guess Nintendo probably exists still.

Horror and the Role of the Audience

ds2

 

You may have noticed I’ve been thinking about horror a lot lately. I don’t know if what I’m writing is a straight up horror novel, but the concept has gotten in my head, regardless. I find myself analyzing it over and over again, trying to figure what works, and why it works.

Horror hardly ever works on me as intended. My wife is something of a pansy, so I can’t often watch horror – even zombies, who aren’t so much horror any more, as they are fill-in chainsaw fodder. But for some reason, she’s all right with horror games. She actually enjoys watching me play them. We made it through the entirety of Resident Evil 4 together like that: Her internetting or knitting or interknitting while I mowed down thousands of ethnic stereotypes in the name of generic white guy justice.

Now I’m playing Dead Space 2, but I always wait until she’s around so we can go through it together. I’ve found something strange when she watches me play: The experience is actually, if not scaring me, then at least disconcerting me a bit. Even stranger because, although Dead Space 2 is well put together, it’s certainly no masterpiece. Lots of cheap jump scares, unrelated noises, repeating enemies. It’s not scaring me because of its content, but because of its audience.

My wife.

Because she’s jumping, flinching, swearing and occasionally screaming — we’re talking a long, sustained fear-shriek that she made me promise to never tell anybody about — her behavior is influencing me. It gives me stakes. It’s triggering the protection matrix in my brain. I’m scared because my wife is here, and she’s scared, so I better get my shit together in case these necromorphs make it out of the TV.

I can play the same game by myself, in the dark, and nothing. It’s just a game. I’m jogging leisurely around space stations, casually mowing down undead aliens like it’s a nuisance. On my way to a meeting, necromorphs, no time to goof off today. But play it in the middle of the day in a well lit living room with my wife, and it’s a horror experience again.

That concept extends beyond gaming, too: I love horror movies. Seen more than I can count. But one hasn’t actually scared me, in the slightest, since the American remake of The Ring. That was an all right flick, yeah, but nothing outstanding. For raw, pale little kid terror, the Japanese version of The Grudge was way better.

So why did The Ring scare me? Because I watched it in a room full of friends – it was the last horror film I can remember that I viewed in a group scenario.

The group is scared.

You are a member of the group.

Protect the group!

The uncontrollable empathetic connection of a room full of friends augmented, if not outright created the fear scenario. I wonder what this says for horror books? I feel like they’re generally considered more effective in the genre than most other mediums. Horror books are widely perceived as scarier than horror movies or TV shows. But that’s all backwards, isn’t it? We can share every other media experience as it occurs except for books. We can watch movies together; we can play, or at least watch somebody else play, horror games together; we can go to an art gallery with friends and observe the works as a group. But reading books is a solitary experience. I suppose there are audiobooks and author readings — but that feels like different media than pure reading.

Somehow, in books, we recover the sensation of being lost in a strange and alien world, all alone. And it’s terrifying. But we don’t get quite as lost in games and movies. The fear response is weakened. We need the group, or some other raised stakes, to recover the experience.

 

Why do we instinctively laugh after a good scare?

Why are comedy and horror so tightly bound together?

From Army of Darkness to Cabin in the Woods to Wong’s John Dies series — no genre meshes as well with comedy as horror seems to. That’s strange, isn’t it? On the surface, they seem like totally different beasts. One is designed to make you laugh; the other, scream. One wants you to relax and have a good time; the other wants to jack up your nervous system and induce artificial anxiety. But comedic horror isn’t a new thing we’re doing to try to dissect the genre: Every Friday the 13th movie had a few jokes in it, hell – beyond the first one, Freddy Krueger was basically a terrible ’90s improv comic that murdered people in their sleep (much like Bob Sagat).

This comedy/horror connection has been on my mind lately, because I’m in the midst of writing another novel right now. It’s fairly hard to define: It definitely has a grounding in sci-fi, but there are some very heavy elements of horror as well. And because I don’t know how to be entirely serious anymore, in any situation – I’d probably fart in an ambulance just to get a cheap laugh before I die – there’s humor mixed in there, too. If I had to stomp its pleading face into the genre-hole, I guess this would be a ‘thriller’ book. Regardless, what I’m finding is that the best comedic sections come right along with, or immediately after the best horror sections. They’re using each other like a set-up and punchline. I think it’s because there’s a very fine line between the two ostensibly wildly different genres. A line comprised of terrible, unspeakable, heart-rending things. On on side of the line, there’s pure, bloody terror. But just a few inches away on the other side, there’s nothing but knee-slappin’ and chuckles.

Standing directly on that line, of course, are clowns.

No, seriously: That’s why clowns are so effectively scary. If you don’t get anywhere near the terror line with a clown, you end up with harmless Ronald McDonald types. Nobody is genuinely scared of Ronald McDonald (when the character is pulled off as intended, I mean — not counting those tweaked, intentionally scary cosplays you find on the internet). A totally normal clown isn’t scary to anybody without a severe phobia. When you go beyond the terror line, you wind up with characters like Pennywise, who’s an evil, child-murdering sewer-clown/spider.

Straddle the line just right, however, and you start preying on a kind of psychological glitch. Something you laugh at because it’s too terrifying. Too overwrought. The danger can’t be real. The best example of this is Rob Corddry on Children’s Hospital:

rob

He’s supposed to be a Patch Adams type character, so he’s always in clown make-up, for the kids. But he’s also a surgeon, and he just wipes his bloody hands on his scrubs — so in every single scene he’s dressed in clown make-up with two giant blood-stains on the front of his shirt. Every single other doctor is meticulously clean. And they’re standing in the room, interacting with a smiling, bloody clown. He’s so far beyond terrifying that it’s funny again.

Why is that? Why does circumnavigating the horror-world put us back in chuckle-town? Is it a threat matrix thing? Do we laugh because the threat is too overblown to be real, and we need a means to diffuse the fear? Do we laugh because the threat was obviously fake, and we’re embarrassed at the presence of the fear?

I don’t want to spoil anything for a book I’m not even done writing yet, but this is relevant to me because I’m adapting parts of it from stuff I’ve done in my columns. Little bits and pieces, odd passages and minor characters I’ve slipped into the column over the years. I’ve always had a plan for these things, and tried them out as comedy for practice while I sketched this larger idea out in my head. The weird part is, I’m not stealing any of the outright comedic aspects from my humor column: I’m pulling horror. I’ve just managed to lace a lot of disturbing passages into my articles over the years that were all masquerading as comedy. I always pushed them just a little too far. Defused the situation. Let the threat dissolve and leave only a fine residue of funny. Now I’m reworking them, pulling them back just a little bit, and finding that they are indeed fairly effective as horror.

We’re such delicate machines.

Media Elitism: Why Games are Just as Important as Books

Kurt Vonnegut once said that if you want to be a writer, major in engineering. Well, that’s paraphrasing. I’m sure his actual quote involved much more ennui and possibly a crude drawing of a butthole, but the point still stands. If you want to write, do something else.

If you study writing and literature all day, you’re probably not going to want come home to do more of it on your off hours. That’s first hand experience: I’ve never written or read (recreationally) less than when I was an English major. I was a waiter for five years, and when I came home you could not pay me to deal with food. Not to cook it, not to serve it, not even to sit down and eat it – I’d shovel something into my guts as fast as possible, while standing up, in the kitchen, just to get a good solid calorie base to drink away the shame and fury. I worked in IT Support for a few years, and I did not come home to sit on the computer; I shoveled something into my guts as fast as possible to get a good solid calorie base to – you know what? This isn’t about my “drinking problem.”

It’s about distraction, variety, and the importance of diversifying your passions. I’m a professional writer these days, and am lucky enough to make my living solely through the discussion, dissection, modification and creation of writing. And yet here I am, on my off hours, writing a blog about writing while also writing my own book.

Do as I say, not as I do. Actually, you probably shouldn’t even do as I say. Just…maybe take it under advisement and run it by a lawyer before following through on it.

By making writing and reading my day job, night job and hobby, I frequently run the risk of stalling out. I don’t get writer’s block, just because I recognize it for what it is – a form of stage fright that’s only overcome by action – but I do get burnt out. If you’ve read my Cracked columns, you’ll notice I talk about two non-writing related things quite a bit: Video games, and motorcycles. These are the things that get me unstuck. This post is not about my motorcycle, mostly because it’s sunny out and I’m going to ride it just as soon as I finish this post. So that leaves one thing…

Video games engage a different type of thinking. Writing is active, detail-oriented and cerebral. All qualifiers than can arguably be applied to any “good” video game. But the method of interaction couldn’t be more different. In gaming, you’re either engaging in somebody else’s narrative, or creating very crude narratives of your own that usually involve nothing more complex than applying semi-trucks to crowded shopping malls while wearing a clown costume. A common critique of video games is that, like television, they don’t spark your imagination as strongly as books. There are exceptions to the rule of course – I played Scribblenauts recently, and that game’s entire central mechanic is imagination – but I actually agree with the general statement. Video games require less imagination. This is necessary for me. It’s part of their appeal: Games give me a structure — a set of rules, mechanics and controls that can be manipulated toward a purpose. Any creativity lies only in my use of those controls inside of that structure. It’s the opposite of writing, where I invent the structure, create the mechanics and embody the controls.

There’s nothing wrong with passivity.

There’s no offense that need be taken if somebody says that video games require less creativity or imagination than books – your brain works in myriad ways. It has different parts for different things: A part that does books, a part that does games, a part that does period accurate historical slash fiction. It’s a complicated machine. Using only one of those parts atrophies the others. If you constantly and only inhabit worlds that you create with your own mind, you forget what it is to inhabit worlds created by the minds of others. If you only inhabit those other worlds through one medium — writing, film, gaming — you’re neglecting all the other forms of interaction at your own creative peril. Sometimes it’s helpful to experience a different role. Taking control of the hero rather than just watching him might give you insight on motivation; to watch the hero rather than imagine her might give you insight on her sensory experience; to imagine the hero rather than have them drawn out for you by graphics engines or cast by Hollywood producers might allow you to put elements of yourself in them, and help you better empathize with their plight.

Media elitism, like all elitism, hinders you. It pigeon-holes you and narrows your field of view. You’re not better if you’re a reader. You’re not better if you’re a film buff. You’re not better if you’re a gamer. If somebody tells you to pick up a book, suggest they pick up a game. And vice versa. You might both be better for it. Or at least you might come unstuck a bit.

Here’s a butthole and some ennui:

All the great artists are dead.

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