Live and Direct

Thursday, August 25, 2005

View of Ry

View of Ry
Originally uploaded by Trevor_.
On a much lighter note, my mom was in town for a couple of weeks, and we got a chance to do and see a lot that we'd be meaning to get around to but hadn't. It was especially good for Sara, since she got a chance to see more of Denmark than the mean streets of Copenhagen. One highlight was a trip to the main peninsula, Jutland, to visit my friends Steen and Jonna. They are the parents in the family that I lived with as an exchange student back in '87. The town where they live, Ry, is in the middle of probably the most beautiful part of Denmark. They took us out for dinner, and the next day we went to a living history museum of traditional Danish town life. It was great. Click on the picture to see all the pics.

Not exactly the reassurance I was looking for

The Gentleman Marks both sent me additional links on the peak oil issue. However, what I was really hoping for was a reassuring note from a credible source pointing out how I and my likewise concerned peers have overlooked "Obvious Counterargument X." Instead, both links suggest that I'm not entirely off my rocker about this.

I also recently read that there has been a slight, anecdotal rise of violent crime and theft around gas stations in apparent correlation with rising gas prices, up to over $3.00 in some place in California, I'm told. To paraphrase Tin Foil Hat, Americans seem to think we have a constitutional right to cheap gas. It's in there somewhere, isn't it? Maybe it's in the Bill of Rights, somewhere around the part about guns.

Of course, most of the rest of the world has been paying these gas prices for decades. According to CNN/Money, gas prices in Denmark are around $5.93 per gallon. Yikes! I would imagine those kinds of prices might make even Arnie rethink his Hummer. Of course, the point is not the price of gas, but how expensive gas is likely to effect an economy that has come to rely upon getting it cheaply, like the US has since the 70s.

In all of this, George Miller is suddenly starting to look a lot more prophetic than kooky. Of course, as a kid, I longed for a Road Warrior future, since I figured I'd be pretty good with a crossbow. However, age and a career that involves sitting on my ass all day has convinced me that I'm a lot more likely to end up like the nerdy guy and his girlfriend who get assaulted by bikers than I am to be Lord Humongous.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Peak Oil

Originally uploaded by joygantic.
Joygantic blogged this picture recently, and while I get the joke, in truth, I'm pretty worried about peak oil. Normally, I'm skeptical about these kinds of doomsday scenarios: I don't believe in the Rapture, I didn't stockpile water and Cheerios before Y2K, and I have calmly ignored Nostradamus. But when people like this start to argue that we're headed for trouble, well, I get nervous.

I remember having a conversation with my Dad, who worked in and amongst the petroleum industry his entire career, in which he calmly discussed the fact that the petrochemical industry was not a good place to be starting a career because the oil reserves were on the decline. And this was in the early 90s. AKA, "BH" or "Before Hummer."

Sara and I were talking not too long ago, wondering which issues our children will think we were idiots for not anticipating. Is peak oil the big one? Tell me what you think. I'm considering never moving back to the US unless y'all start building railroads.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

And while we're on the topic of games

Thanks to Mark D. for this link from The Economist on the recent furor over Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. In case you haven't been following along, the GTA series is one of the most successful game franchises in industry history, specializing in the crime/action genre of gaming. Technically, one of its major breakthroughs was the development of a free-roaming universe in which the player can wander around and engage the environment, chosing to follow missions and advance the game narrative at their will. Content-wise, the game took things a step further in the way of "mature content," as players are able to solicit prostitutes, buy and sell drugs, and as per the title, jack cars and go on high-speed chases. In GTA:SA, you play Carl Johnson, a young, black man who returns to his neighborhood in a fictionalized south-central LA. You guide him through missions as he builds up his drug business, eliminates rivals, pulls of a stunning variety of crimes, and becomes a major drug crimelord.

Recently, with the release of the PC-version of the game, some enterprising hackers found a way to unlock hidden mini-games that included a clothed simulation of sex between CJ and a prostitute. To be clear, these mini-games were not intended to be found, and are different from "easter eggs," which are included with the full intention of being found by gamers using secret codes, etc. The hack, labeled "Hot Coffee," requires the user to break into the game in the same way that you would hack into a secure website. The mini-games, to my understanding, were left in the code but "turned off," meaning that there were no ways to access the code through regular game-play. "Turned off" code happens a lot more than people outside the industry realize. The code behind any game is often like a very messy stack of cards, a stack in which certain cards are glued together in unpredictable ways. Trying to take out one section of code can have unpredictable results in the game, leading to bugs that are difficult to find during playtesting and often expensive and nervewracking to fix when you do (often at the last minute possible). Sara can tell you stories of me disappearing for days during playtesting because of minor changes to the game resulting in radically unpredictable bugs.

So rather than removing the code, they hid it in a way that nobody should have been able to access it. Of course, somebody found it, released the hack, and provided various politicians and other politically-motivated parties their opportunity to make an easy gesture. Most notable was Hillary Clinton, who has asked for increased regulation and fines for videogames.

The thing that bugs me about all of this is that there are already significant, self-imposed regulations of the game industry in place, ones that mirror those found in the film and music industries. The game was already rated M for Mature because of its suggestive and violent content, similar to an R rating for films, and couldn't be purchased without an adult. The uproar has led RockStar games to change the rating to Adults Only, practically a first in the industry. They're also facing some class-action suits, have seen their game banned in Australia, removed from the shelves of most major videogame outlets, and have been forced to re-release a version of the game without the hidden content. All of this costs time and money, which granted, RockStar has plenty. Who knows, all of this may be a media manipulation on RockStar's part. They've not shied away from courting controversy to date.

But to make clear, the hidden mini-games, of which only the population that has purchased the game in PC version (the hack doesn't work on consoles that I'm aware of) and which can only be accessed by downloading an illegal hack, don't even show the characters naked. They're fully clothed! As far as sexual content, if this were a film, it would merit a PG-13 rating at most. However, Clinton, et al, seem to be arguing that videogames as a medium have some greater level of influence over their audiences and therefore merit harsher regulation.

The Economist essay does a good job of pointing out the inconclusive results of any study of game influence on player behavior, as well as hypocrisy of leveling disproportional critique at one medium that is already policing itself. It also points out the obvious fact that this kind of politically opportunistic "controversy" has accompanied every major creative medium since the origins of drama and poetry in Aristotle's day. It's close to an eternal truth that parents won't understand what they didn't grow up with. But what I think is most important in the essay is its inclusion of the fact that most game players, 43%, fall between the ages of 18 and and 49. Up until this point, I still had some lingering respect for Hillary Clinton, but my sense is that she and her political cohorts on this issue still can't imagine that adults exist who play these games and are also able to understand the inherent double-standard being imposed on the videogame industry. Clinton is making what she seems to see as an easy play for the middle here. Unfortunately for Hillary, 18 is also the age at which people get the vote. I'm crossing my fingers that this comes back to haunt her.

Dungeons & Dragons Will Steal Your Soul

I was poking around on Metafilter and came across this link to a Jack Chick booklet about Dungeons & Dragons from back in the day. It brought back a flood of memories from growing up weird in rural Utah. I got introduced to D&D by a friend when I was about twelve, and I pretty much lost myself to it until I was about seventeen. I still played regularly into my early twenties, left all that aside, and then ended up playing role-playing games again in Seattle with a group of graduate students, artists, and other misfits. The ageing hipster in me wants to pretend it all never happened, but the complete dork-o-tron in me still misses it.

In particular, it reminded me of a story from when I was about thirteen. A traveling Mormon speaker came to Grantsville to speak about the evils of popular culture. And I mean, evils. His claim to fame was that he had supposedly written the theme song for The Flintstones, but was bilked of his millions by unsavory Hollywood types. This experience led him to question the entertainment industry, and his investigations had revealed to him that popular culture was inspired by the Devil. In addition to the typical backmasking conspiracies, hidden messages in names like KISS, WASP, Styx, etc., he also had a long rant about how Dungeons & Dragons would lead kids to dabble in the occult and eventually suicide pacts with the dark side, which was a common fear in the 80s. Imagine that you've spent your entire life having adults tell you that evil is real, that it is palpable, and that it is after you. Then they pull the rug out by telling you that your favorite hobby is just one big Slippery Slide to Hell.

It pretty much freaked my shit right out.

In a one-on-one question and answer session afterward, I asked him if this was true of all role-playing games or just Dungeons & Dragons. He put his hand on my shoulder and said,

"I think you already know in your heart what is true."

As an adult, I know this to be the kind of bullshit answer you give kids when you have no idea what they're talking about, but at the time, it was a heavy burden on my conscience. So I bought two of his lecture cassette tapes and listened to them at home. They didn't say much more about role-playing games than what he's said in his sermon. But there was one that dealt in depth with the terrors of popular music. On the tape, he included a snippet of the Sex Pistol's "Anarchy in the UK" and deciphered the lyrics.

Even at thirteen, I couldn't really see the connection between anarchy in the UK and the Devil in Grantsville. But the music sounded...


I went out and bought a copy the next time I got to a decent record store. I listened to it over and over. In the coming years, I got more and more into punk music, bought albums by the Dead Kennedys, FEAR, Black Flag, and everything else I could get my hands on. I never once worshiped the Devil, though I did throw the horns at an Iron Maiden concert once. Mostly, I learned to question petty authority and mock cardboard prophets.

So in a way, Dungeons & Dragons led me to become a smartass and an iconoclast, which is, I'm sure, not what the preacher had in mind. I can't remember the guys name, but I wish I still had the tapes. They'd make great samples.

Friday, August 05, 2005

My Favorite TV Chef

I'm not sure if most of you who read this blog are able to get BBC Food, but it's become my favorite channel. We only get it in the mornings here, after which it switches over to a Danish channel, but most days I'm glued to the TV until noon, watching various cooking shows. This shows you how demanding my current schedule is.

At any rate, I've done a full reversal on Ainsley Harriott. I used to think he was an idiot when he was doing this show, which required him to act like a very loud, very drunk queen without the benefit of actually being gay. But I really think he's found his forum with Ready Steady Cook. The premise of the show is that two celebrity chefs come on, each is teamed up with a non-chef guest of varying level of skill, and are challenged to complete a meal based on ingredients brought by the guest, usually purchased for under ten pounds British. Oh, and they have twenty minutes to do it. The audience then votes on which meal looks seems most delicious.

Techniques tend toward stovetop preparations, broiling, steaming, and other time-saving tricks, so you tend to see a lot of soups, deep fries, curries, etc., as well as quick breads and other straightforward dishes with few preparation steps. But that's kind of the cool thing about the show; there's a new twist on every show, and you see some unexpected ingredients (at least for my American palate) like duck breast, various kinds of fish like plaice and monkfish, pheasant, venison, and rabbit. But once you've gotten the basic techniques down, you can usually replicate most of the dishes with a quick trip to the store, given an occasional substitution. Of course every once in a while, a chef will throw a curveball like quick souffles and the like, but after having seen a few of those come off okay in under twenty minutes, I'm tempted to try my hand at one.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Burning Man

Usually at this time of the year, Sara and I would be preparing for Burning Man. Between settling into to a new job, a new country, and a new financial situation, it just isn't possible for us to go this year. I expected to miss my annual ritual more than I actually am; I've gone every year since 1999, and it's played a major role in my life. At Burning Man in past years, I've celebrated the end of a nasty divorce, the beginning of new relationships and friendships, and the uncertainties of being single. I've seen my best friends get engaged, met the friends and significant others of people I've known for years, and best of all, last year Sara and I got engaged ourselves as the Man burned in the background. I've done and seen things I don't expect to do or see anywhere else in my life, and had a few adventures that just don't make sense anywhere else but the playa, so much so that until now, I've never tried to write about Burning Man or why it's important to me. All in all, Burning Man has been good to me. I truly think it has made me a better person.

So I'm surprised that I'm not more upset to be missing it this year. Part of my feelings might be tempered by the knowledge that most of my playa posse won't be returning this year either. Last year was a good one, hard to beat, and generally, my friends and I are reaching the age where other kinds of adventures, like houses and investments, foreign travel, or financial security seem equally attractive.

But I think Mark put it best when he suggests that the event is really about people, the ones you don't get to see otherwise during the year and the ones you see regularly but don't always get the time to say the things you really want to say. And this much I know: come Burn night, we'll all be thinking of each other, whereever we are.