Sunday, December 7, 2008

Rogue Leaders




Congratulations are due my old friend, colleague, and all-around top man Rob Smith on the publication of his book Rogue Leaders: The Story of LucasArts, just released by Chronicle Books. It's a gorgeous coffee-table edition that tells the tale of George Lucas' videogame company, and represents the culmination of almost two years' effort by Rob.

And it's a distinct honor for me to be named in the Author's Acknowledgments on the back page. Too kind of you, sir.

Plus: Check out the very bottom of the book cover. How freakin' cool is it for Rob to have his author credit right next to "Foreword by George Lucas"? Answer: completely cool.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Election Night -- victory and defeat


CBS News and FOX had both called Ohio for Obama by the time I left the office at 7:30. The presidential race was over; on the way out the door, I passed by our African-American security guard, who was staring at the election returns on the front-desk computer. I said to him, "It's a helluva thing," and he grinned and said "It is."

I made my way into San Francisco to the Westin St. Francis Hotel, where the "No on 8" campaign had set up its election-night headquarters. Among friends equally gripped by hope for the moment, I watched Obama's victory speech on a jumbo screen and felt for the first time in my life the call of a real national leader, in a moment when we badly needed one.

(A little old man, Spanish or Italian, wandered in and obviously couldn't speak a word of English or read a word on the TV screen. He asked me, with hopeful eyes, a single mangled word: "Oh-bama?" And when I nodded a comforting "yes," he lit up and walked back out of the room, deeply satisfied.)

I listened to Obama's speech in the grip of powerful emotions, and I don't have much to say or write about those emotions just now -- I was reminded earlier today of Frederick Douglass, who upon witnessing the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation declared that it was "hardly a day for prose" -- but I do want to relay how mixed the feelings were in that ballroom at the Westin St. Francis.


Because Obama's speech was quickly followed by the early returns on California's Prop 8, amending the state constitution to deny the right of marriage to same-sex couples. And even though only 5% of precincts had reported, I understood (along with all of the professional political operatives in the room) that the 56% support rate indicated a crushing blow to the hopes of Californians seeking equal protection under the law.

It will be interesting to tell people decades down the road exactly where I was the night America elected its first president of color -- in a hotel ballroom among hundreds of gay men and women and their straight friends who watched Obama in hope that the discriminatory legislation being passed in California that same evening could eventually be undone, overcome with the same kind of cathartic redemption. Someday. Hopefully soon.


In any case, Union Square was filled with jubilant San Franciscans, and we joined them. We got ourselves good wine at the Four Seasons bar. After eight breathless years, it was time to exhale.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Voting



In a previous election year (2000, to be exact), I asked my friend Ariana for her political philosophy. She quoted Gandhi: "Non-cooperation with evil." That's what I had in mind as I cast my ballot today, at the reassuringly packed County Registrar. Here's hoping for a brighter day -- for example, Wednesday.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

David Sedaris @ SF Opera House


There is one category of literature that has always escaped my appreciation -- the humorous memoir. I just don't "get it." Maybe it's presumptuous of me, but it's never seemed like much of an accomplishment to set one's absurd stories down on paper and trumpet them as somehow more compelling than (say) the absurd stories you hear every day from everyone that you know. I hear a lot of good stories day in and day out; my attitude is that you'd better have some damn good stories to justify my shelling out bucks when I've got plenty of friends and acquaintances who can regale me with entertaining stories for free.

David Sedaris is the bestselling memoir author whose wit has been compared to Mark Twain. Now, that's some f---in' praise you don't want to be throwing around lightly. After all, Twain is the guy who wrote, "Clothes make the man; naked people have little or no influence on society.")
I've heard Sedaris read numerous times on NPR and never really got much out of his stories; he always seemed more like Jerry Seinfeld than Mark Twain..."observational" humor about the foibles of family and friends. Sedaris adds florid language to Seinfeld's mundane insights, and the result is a literary elevation of Jerry's episode-intro sketches. But that's just one man's opinion; the fact is, Sedaris sells more books than just about anyone other than Oprah Winfrey, and lots of my friends swear by him.

So I finally took the opportunity to see one of his live performances at the Opera House, where he read a series of essays about mundane events that culminated in -- brace for it -- a lengthy description of a shopping trip he made to Costco.

In fact, I thought it was telling that the funniest bits of his performance were his re-tellings of jokes other people had told him. (Like the couple he met on a book tour, a Hindu man and his Jewish wife, who joyfully declared that they were "the Hin-jews.")

That's good stuff.

But maybe I'm just a playa-hater...I may well be the one NPR-listener in America who just doesn't get it.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Adventures with Rob Baker

Photo essay time.

Rob T. Baker, Esquire: My old friend (and esteemed counsel for MGM) is a helluva guy from my brief tenure as an L.A. resident. In town for a Sigur Ros concert, Rob crashed with me for the weekend and we had a blast, drinking and eating our way through Berkeley and San Francisco. The photo below says it all about Rob -- this is not a posed shot, but rather a candid glimpse of an inspired guy making inspired points, his train of thought made somehow more commanding by the presence of an artfully gripped cigarette.



Speaking of Sigur Ros: I went to the show (at Berkeley's Greek Theatre) knowing nothing about the band. Here's what you need to know: They're from Iceland, and the singer sings in a falsetto in a gibberish language he invented himself...which he calls Hopelandic. With his usual gusto, Rob described their sound as "the lament of the sole Heaven's Gate eunuch who missed the Hale-Bopp comet." It was definitely a crazy show, but indisputably memorable, and it culminated in a beautiful crescendo that I happened to capture with my trusty iPhone camera:


...Noted in Berkeley:
It's been a while since I've had the pleasure of visiting Henry's bar (in the lobby of the Hotel Durant in Berkeley), so I took the opportunity of Rob's visit to drop in there. In my trip to the loo, I happened upon this wonderful Berkeley tribute to arch-rival Stanford:


The city:
This was some days later, during a quick detour off of the Bay Bridge onto Treasure Island. I got a view of San Francisco that I rarely get to appreciate and took the opportunity to frame an image of a city that never ceases to charm me. This is a place to be.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

New York and "Falling Man"


I landed in New York City last Wednesday evening, with just enough time to get to the W Hotel near Times Square and get a bite and a drink before bed. I was up at 7AM local (which was 4AM according to my nervous system) for a pair of business meetings and then caught a late-afternoon flight back to San Francisco. This is the fourth or fifth time I've made an overnight business trip to New York, with absolutely no time to see or do anything interesting in the city. In fact, the only reason I've been to the Empire State Building is because I was walking down the street between meetings and happened to look up and realize that I was standing right in front of it.

I usually come into Manhattan from JFK via the Williamsburg Bridge, which affords a sparkling view of the skyline where once I might have observed the twin towers.

They're gone now, of course. I never got a chance to see them. My first trip to New York wasn't until a few years after what Islamists euphemistically call "the planes operation."

I took a book along with me for the flight home, and the book was Don DeLillo's Falling Man, our greatest novelist's sad meditation on 9/11. I read it front to back over the course of the flight. As usual, the author casts no judgments about our times, offers no political opinion. He makes precise and haunting observations, and leaves it at that.

There won't ever be a time that I look out from the backseat of a cab traversing the Williamsburg Bridge at night to see the New York skyline lit up and don't imagine the towers, in the spot on the southwestern tip of the island where they once stood. There is a skyline in the mind that is more permanent.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Petraeus for President


I want Obama to win this election. I've donated hundreds of dollars to his campaign. Not because I'm particularly impressed with his resume, but because I'm deeply shocked by the Bush II Era and want to do whatever is in my meager power to help make an authoritative political break with his "legacy." I have no idea what kind of leader Obama is going to make, but he'll be a statement to ourselves and to the world that America is turning the page on a sorry eight years.

But the fact is...I have deep doubts about whether a one-term senator with zero military/foreign-policy experience is up for the challenges ahead. Obama is a brilliant guy who gives inspiring speeches and advocates sensible policies. That's a start, I suppose. But I fear that what we really need in our next commander-in-chief is...well...a commander-in-chief.

Consider:

Guerrilla wars. August was the most lethal month for NATO soldiers in Afghanistan since we first got underway in 2001. It's now almost seven years on, and while a friendly government is nominally in control of an increasingly violence-wracked Kabul, the tribal regions are dominated by the Taliban and these dudes aren't playing around. We crave soft drinks and videogames; they crave martyrdom. We're in a death struggle with these hombres, and recent history does not offer much consolation for what it takes to beat them at this game.

A nuclear Iran. It's not that I worry about Iran ever using the nuke. They won't. However, the mere fact that they have nukes means that we won't be able to fuck with them when they do things like, oh, say, conduct terror operations all over the world, or flex their muscles in dominating the Persian Gulf oil lanes. With the Bomb in hand, they will be able to turn the Gulf into their own private sphere of influence and we will be helpless to challenge them -- held entirely in check by their membership in the club of nations that can blow one of your cities to kingdom-come. Remember the Cold War? I sure do, believe me. Here we go again, only we won't be matched up against atheist bureaucrats this time -- we'll be matched up against apocalypse-obsessed Islamists. Sound like fun?

Pakistan. Little-known fact -- there's already a nuclear power shooting at U.S. troops. Right now! Pakistan's civilian government is barely in charge of its own military and (ultra-powerful, as well as ultra-fundamentalist) intelligence service. The whole government narrowly missed being blown to smithereens the other night. And this country has the bomb already. Its senior nuclear scientists sat in a cave with Osama bin Laden advising him on how to develop nuclear weapons. Swell.

A resurgent, militarist Russia. Why move on to new Cold Wars when our old nemesis Russia is still fully up to the task? Putin is still large and in charge of the Kremlin, and his recent ball-stomping of Georgia was proof that Russia still thinks of itself as a military power with muscles that need the occasional workout. With massive oil reserves on the line in the Caspian Sea region and fragile democracies on the line at Russia's borders, we're entering a whole new era of percolating conflict with the big bear.

I could go on -- Chinese cyber-warfare teams; instability and power struggles within the Saudi royal regime; the ever-looming threat of al-Qaeda "spectaculars"; and of course, this small matter of the Iraq war.

All of which brings me to David Petraeus, U.S. Army general.

Long story short: Petraeus is the best of a new breed of military intellectual -- the soldier-scholar. He holds a Ph.D. in international relations from Princeton. A lifelong student of counterinsurgency. In a training exercise in 1979 he was accidentally shot in the chest by a new recruit; he was discharged from the hospital days later after doing 50 push-ups in front of his surgeon.

Most importantly, Petraeus has been one of the rare officers to leave success in his wake everywhere he's operated in the war zone of Iraq. As commander of the 101st Airborne Division he oversaw a pacified city of Mosul while the rest of the country burned in revolt against our occupation. Employing a civil-affairs approach to counterinsurgency, he won the loyalty of local tribal chiefs and forged broad local alliances against terrorist cells. Along the way, even the fiercest critics of the Iraq occupation gave Petraeus credit as the leader who "did it right."

So I'm just going to throw this out there: let's draft Petraeus for president. The framers of our Constitution envisioned the president primarily as a civilian commander-in-chief for the armed forces, who would have a secondary role to play in checking-and-balancing congressional legislation. Given the global political situation, I'm willing to set aside lesser concerns and invest the presidency in someone who can smartly handle the high volume of killing that the U.S. is going to have to conduct in the years to come. PETRAEUS IN 2008.

Wait...what's that you say? He's a conservative Republican? Shit. Never mind.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Rock Band 2 -- a band review



The band: Hello, We're Bob

The lineup: Greg "The Vede" Vederman on vocals, Kristen Salvatore on drums, "Stormin" Norman Chan on guitar, and "Young" Jeremy Williams on bass.

The venue: The Pacifica home of Maximum PC editor-in-chief Will Smith, his delightful wife Gina, and their poop-eating dog Chloe Bananas. (No joke, Chloe Bananas literally ate her own poop during the party.)

The review: Hello, We're Bob are a testament to the verve of the budding Pacifica rock scene, demonstrating a keen grasp of showmanship and better-than-average Rock Band chops. I would rate their debut performance somewhere above Radiohead but somewhere below The Pixies. Since each of the band members can be traced (like me) to the editorial staff at PC Gamer magazine, you'd expect a certain level of rhythm-game ability, but dare I say that Hello, We're Bob manages to transcend the typical "college try" musicianship one normally associates with party bands.

The highs: Norman shredding the guitar on Expert while barely missing a note. Bonus points for the fact that this was our first-ever crack at Rock Band 2 and thus all-new, all-foreign songs, few of which tripped him up. Kristen, a legit drummer, acquits herself admirably on the digital skins.

The lows: Not enough Eighties hair-metal songs to take full advantage of Vederman's hilarious ability to hit the power-falsetto. Jeremy accidentally paused the set at one point.

Bottom line: Hello, We're Bob is definitely a band to keep tabs on, and by "tabs" I mean you should drink a lot of beer if you end up at a party where they're the entertainment. Oh, and Rock Band 2 is great fun, but I work for EA now, so you probably saw that coming.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Trannyshack Kiss-Off


Haven't had a chance to post this until today, since I've been busy with the new gig, but here was a hilarious Saturday night out last weekend.

I accompanied a small gang of friends to the final edition of Trannyshack, a long-running San Francisco drag show. After running every week for the last 12 years, it was finally shutting down so that its creator and emcee (the witty and fashionable Heklina) can take a break. Saturday night's final show was billed as something of an all-star reunion, featuring many past winners of the show's celebrated Tranny-of-the-Year Award.

To my delight, the performances were more than just entertaining (though they were that, too) -- some were downright inspired. One act condensed the entire history of Madonna into a riotous 10-minute medley; a gal named Ana Matronic wowed the huge crowd with a sultry cabaret act; and the biologically-female Faux-Nique did a transvestite-ballet performance entirely en pointe in ballet shoes.

Having never before experienced San Francisco drag cabaret, I was very impressed. And, of course, I came away with a souvenir Trannyshack t-shirt, which I'm sure will go over well at my new office when I wear it this coming Friday.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Baseball Geekout Day


This week I had no job, no boss, nowhere to be and nothing to do -- which is exactly what I needed. Not starting at EA until Monday, it was time for an extended holiday of the mind, which could only mean one thing...baseball geekout.

So on Thursday, I got together with the illustrious Shawn Roberts, my former colleague at Future, and himself a noted baseball geek. The both of us having the day to waste, we hatched a two-part plan that we immediately entitled Baseball Geekout Day.

Part One: Ballgame. Meet up at Telephone Conglomerate Park to take in an early-afternoon Giants-Marlins game. Shawn scored a pair of sweet lower-box tickets.

Part Two: Strat-o-Matic Duel. Strat-o-Matic is a beyond-nerdy tabletop baseball game played entirely with statistical charts and dice. Shawn, like me, has had a lifelong obsession with the statistical universe surrounding the game of baseball, and, like me, has had a lifelong interest in stats-based tabletop simulations. It's a good thing he and I have other qualities, because if women saw us playing Strat-o-Matic Baseball, we'd be off their "boyfriend radar" forever.

After taking in a surprisingly entertaining ballgame, the two of us headed into ACME Chophouse, the fancy restaurant located inside the Giants stadium. We spread out our Strat-o-Matic charts all over the table, and out came a handful of dice (included the Holy Grail of nerdness -- a 20-sided die). And we played! While our servers scrunched up their faces in total confusion, we played a 2004 Athletics vs. 2004 Red Sox contest (Shawn seeing his A's through to a thrilling 6-4 victory), and then we made it a time-warping double-header by playing a 2001 Giants vs. 2001 A's matchup. (I'm pleased to say I evened the score, winning the second game 4-0 behind a sensational eight-inning performance from Jason Schmidt, who used to be good in 2001 but sucks eggs now.)

Shawn and I have always been like-minded comrades on the business front, and now that we're no longer co-workers, our true inner spaz can finally come out and "speak its name."

I declared this a highly successful Baseball Geekout Day and hopefully we can make time for more.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Buddha Jones reunion


Been a while since my last post, but I've been crazy-busy on some exciting new things -- major announcements soon if you haven't heard them already.

In the meantime, I've been making time for some fun diversions, not the least of which was a get-together with Dave Rees and Jeremy Williams, the two talented musicians who joined me in my first band, Buddha Jones. Back in 2000 -- before the Dubya years, can you believe it? -- we recorded a bunch of cute little songs and pressed an album that embarrasses me to this very day.

While not exactly a band that lit the world on fire -- our only performance was a party at Jeremy's house -- Buddha Jones was great fun for us and an educational first step in my own journey toward what would eventually be a full-scale, gig-playing rock band.

So it was great to get Dave and Jeremy back in a room for an afternoon to mess around with guitars, bass, a drum kit, and a digital four-track recorder. The illustrious Mr. Rees (pictured above) brings the mad guitar chops, Jeremy the percussion powers, while I contribute only the slightest hint of musical ability and a happy talent for the occasional catchy hook.

In the span of a few hours, we recorded:

An R&B "I wanna sex you up" type crooner. Hot stuff -- it even includes the line, "I love you girl, and wanna do you right." High hilarity, especially since I managed to more-or-less approximate the generic basso profundo pimp voice that makes those songs such enduring classics.

The frame for a pop-punk anthem. By "frame" I mean the chords and arrangement for a song, with placeholder vocal-gobbledygook in place of final lyrics. It's not exactly Green Day, but there's a hook there and a cool little tune if we ever return to it in earnest.

A hip-hop cover of The Roots' "Respond/React": What's this? An R&B pimpin' song and a cover of a rap classic? What can I say, we must have been in a mood to "keep it real." Real white, that is.

And, last but not least: A bona fide, nicely arranged acoustic folk-rock song with lyrics ready to go as soon as I can make time to get over to Jeremy's studio and record them. Buddha Jones back from the grave? I doubt it, but a rockin' fun Sunday in any case.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Steve Jobs makes a ding in the universe


When he was a young man and Apple was still just finding its legs, Steve Jobs told a TV reporter: "I want to make a ding in the universe." And you know what? He has.

This morning I made my way to my local San Francisco Apple store at 7:45 AM and found myself seventh in line to pick up a new iPhone. An hour later, I was the gleeful owner of a 3G iPhone with 16 gigs of memory. The ultimate fetish-totem of consumer electronics was at long last my own.

I have good friends who waited several hours in line to pick up an iPhone on the day of its release. (Jeremy, I'm looking at you.) I personally couldn't quite work up the energy to wait in a three-hour line at the mall on a Saturday, so I've been putting off my instant gratification and biding my time to strike when the lines might be a bit more manageable. Instinct said that today was the day, and sure enough, my wait was a mere 30 minutes.

I have to hand it to Mr. Jobs: there is surprise and delight waiting around every corner of the iPhone experience, and Apple has much to teach us about how companies can fulfill basic needs of their consumers (let's face it, we all need a cell phone) while "wow"-ing us with the extras we never knew we wanted.

Take, for example, the Major League Baseball application for the iPhone. For a mere $10, I can now receive video highlights of all baseball games minutes after the plays occur. My cellphone now connects me to the wide world of baseball in real-time, with video snippets of the important plays as they happen. That's all I've ever asked of the future: baseball highlights in real-time on my phone, wherever I am in the world. Forget flying cars, forget world peace, all I really want is video highlights of the Rangers-Indians game as they happen. Thank you, Apple!

(Here's my favorite story about Steve Jobs: after Apple fired him the first time around, he went to Italy, rented a bicycle, and spent two weeks pedaling around the hills of Tuscany. He had no hotels...he slept on hillsides, looking up at the stars at night. Just thinking; dreaming up his next move. Two weeks of aimless bicycling and sleeping under stars. There's a lesson to be learned there.)

Added bonus of iPhone ownership: the iPhone has a high-res camera in it, so the quality of my blog photos should be improving significantly. Sweetness!

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Karen Eng in America


Twelve years ago, in my first magazine job at PC Games, I became great friends with the estimable Karen Eng. Essayist, book editor, zine mogul, and currently writer for the United Nations Environment Programme, Karen was one of the first friends I made in the magazine industry. She's been distant for years, living in South America and now England, but she made a rare cameo in the Bay Area this week and I was lucky enough to grab a short visit with her in Berkeley today.

She and husband Ian have not aged a day in 12 years, which is deeply unfair when people like me have aged 20 years in the same timespan. But it couldn't happen to nicer folks, and their toddler Xoxo is a delightful-looking chip off the block. (I've never known the pronunciation of the name before...it's "Zozo." Maybe the kid will settle on "Pat" or something like that.)

Lots of great stories about Karen, but here's one that speaks volumes about her unique sense of humor. She had this great gag that she used to employ when we'd be driving to lunch or somewhere. I'd be at the wheel, Karen would be in the passenger seat, and when a car would pull up next to us at a red light, if it was a guy driving the other car he would inevitably look in at Karen. Whereupon she would freeze rigidly and assume the caricatured pose of a sex doll -- eyes wide open, mouth agape in an exaggerated "O," and arms straight out like Frankenstein. The reactions of the other drivers were pretty priceless.

It was great to see two old friends, and their tiny new addition. (I've known Ian the same 12 years, as they've been together the whole way -- who says true love is dead?) It's also good to know that one of my writer friends is actually putting her talents to world-saving use, for the UN of all places. Good on you, Karen -- and great to see you again.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Return of the Revenge of Son of the Eighties



This year we're getting new albums by both REM and Metallica -- with their songs available at launch as downloads for play in the "virtual band" videogame Rock Band.

If I needed further proof that I am no longer exactly "young," this is my proof.

Back in my tweens, REM and Metallica were bands with an edge. In the mid-Eighties, back when MTV had something of a cultural edge to it, you could argue that songs like "One" and "Orange Crush" were hard-hitting statements in defiance of things like government and commerce. Now cut to 2008 -- where I'm in my thirties, the band-members are all in their fifties, and their latest efforts will be available for $9.99 as download packs for plastic-guitar champions on the Xbox 360.

"It's the end of the world as we know it," to quote REM...and final evidence that my generation has officially lost its coolness.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Have fun at the Hague, Radovan!


It's easy to consider Osama bin Laden "the world's most wanted man" -- I dream of his capture with almost as much fervor as I dream about a World Series victory for the Giants -- but bin Laden's only got a few thousand dead to his "credit." Radovan Karadzic, on the other hand, has the blood of around 200,000 people on his hands, including 8,000 systematically murdered in the town of Srebrenica in 1995, killed on Karadzic's explicit orders. Concentration camps, "rape camps," and the artillery shelling of entire neighborhoods are all parts of his legacy.

After a life in disguise and a bizarre career as an alternative-medicine doctor, Karadzic has finally been arrested. It's downright surreal to see a former head of state -- Karadzic was the Bosnian Serb president -- reduced to a Santa Claus disguise and a job evangelizing the healing properties of plants. But no matter; his jig is up. He'll now be carted off to the Hague to face the most ghastly genocide charges since the Nuremberg trial.

With ethnic cleansing underway in the Sudan, sectarian killings commonplace in Iraq, and the architects of tribal massacres still in power in places like Rwanda and the Congo, it's heartening to see a genuine, Hitler-style practitioner of mass slaughter taken into custody. Because the only way to prevent future massacres is to introduce the very real specter of international tribunal -- we'll only discourage these psychos when it becomes apparent that there's at least a 50-50 chance that they'll have to stand trial in front of a wrathful world.

Here's a video of Karadzic bragging about reducing Sarajevo to ruins, while helping a Russian poet stitch an apartment building with high-powered rifle slugs. What a charmer.

Have a good time in the dock, Radovan. There's a lot of evil in this world, but evil took a kick in the nuts with your capture.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Heidi and Spencer: my brush with postmodernism


I have this theory that people are always making fun of. Here it goes: MTV's reality show The Hills is the most important TV show of our generation; indeed, it is our era's equivalent of a Gustave Flaubert novel.

The show is about vapid, gorgeous, seemingly mindless young rich kids in L.A. who pretty much do nothing besides shop, eat in nice restaurants, and navel-gaze...all of it rendered in monosyllabic dialogue.

A typical exchange goes something like this:

HEIDI: Umm, did you see Lauren at the club?
LO: Uhh, yeah.
HEIDI: Was she, like, saying stuff? About me? Or, like.
LO: Umm. No, she was like. We were there with a bunch of guys, and she was just. I guess maybe? We all...
HEIDI: That is so not. Just, not like, what you do.
LO: Oh, I know. Sort of just.
HEIDI: Because, you know?
LO: Want to go out tonight? Because, like, I just want to not deal.

On and on it goes, endlessly, episode after episode, for three entire seasons now. And I can't get enough of it. In fact, I own seasons one and two on DVD. Why, you ask? I'll tell you. Because there's something so true about this show -- despite its being a fake reality-show all about the fakest people our society can possible produce. It reflects our youth culture as a kind of savage mirror...and in that regard, reminds me of the great Flaubert, who set about in the mid-1800s to "write the moral history" of his own Parisian lost generation.

Wikipedia describes his landmark novel Sentimental Education quite well:

The characters of Sentimental Education are marked by capriciousness and self-interest...unable to decide on a profession and instead (living on) inheritance...Without their materialism and "instinctive worship of power", almost the entire cast would be completely rootless. Such was Flaubert's judgement of his times, and the continuing applicability of that cynicism goes a long way in explaining the novel's enduring appeal.

And that, folks, is as good a description of The Hills as any. The modern ironic twist is that The Hills is not the result of a novelist's calibrated "judgement of his times" -- it's just a record of what happens when we point cameras at rich kids in Los Angeles. The snake is eating its own tail, and producing a document that condemns our times every bit as ruthlessly as Flaubert did his own.

(It's worth noting that my interpretation of the show has popped up in some other places, though minus the specific Flaubert analogy -- most notably as the cover story of a recent Rolling Stone. So I'm not totally crazy here. Bottom line: this will be taught in university courses someday.)

Now for the punchline: on Wednesday, at a party in L.A. during the annual E3 games convention, I ran into Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt, the appalling couple with whom all Hills fans are the most fascinated. We watched a game demo together; I was within ten feet of them for the better part of half an hour. And I have to say, it was completely shocking to face these two in the stark light of actual reality. I've encountered plenty of celebrities before, but never have I experienced a dislocating "can this be real?" moment like this one. Because Spencer and Heidi (collectively known as "Speidi" in gossip circles) represent something far more powerful to me than mere celebrities -- to me they are living, breathing characters out of a Bret Easton Ellis novel, and standing next to them was a bit like glancing sideways in an elevator and discovering that a bloody-faced Patrick Bateman is in the elevator with you.

The party organizers had a camera crew shooting Speidi the entire time, and given where I was standing I'm positive that I ended up in some of the footage. And that's a surreal thought indeed; that somewhere, in the digital cutting-room of whoever edits that footage, I will be eternally embedded in a frame with Speidi, blending me at long last into the meta-fiction of postmodernism. Reality TV is coming for us all.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Another betrayal of "West Wing" ideals


My heroes are mainly fictional, and of those fictional heroes, roughly 80% of them are characters on The West Wing. Like all heroes -- real or fictitious -- the West Wingers taught me lots about life, the world, and how humans (certainly, Americans) should conduct themselves. And I can't help but wonder what they'd have made of the Senate's decision yesterday to broaden federal wiretapping powers.

Clarification: the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Now, I'm no lawyer -- I'm just a caveman. Your "iPhones" and "hybrid cars" confuse and frighten me. But I do know one thing: the Framers intended for Americans to be secure in their "papers" and "effects" from unwarranted search by their government…and by "unwarranted" they pretty specifically meant a pre-approved description of a bad guy.

Of course the Constitution is subject to interpretation. For example, the Second Amendment describes "a well-regulated militia." As my greatest West Wing hero Toby Ziegler points out, the Second Amendment does not describe "three guys in a Dodge Durango." Somewhere on the spectrum between the two, there is probably a reasonable compromise on gun ownership in this country.

But I'm pretty certain that the Framers never intended for the federal government to possess the power to eavesdrop without warrant (never mind probable cause) on American citizens. In fact, I'm pretty sure that if John Adams had received an advance copy of the July 11, 2008 New York Times and seen what was coming, he'd have just burned the whole government to the ground back then in 1791. (Of course, you would've had to explain to John Adams what "telecom surveillance" is…and "phones" too. But once you did explain all that, you can bet he'd be fucking pissed.)

And I'm pissed too, though not at the White House…I've come to expect this from those guys. My fury is reserved for the Democrats -- the congressional majority! -- who have once again rolled over out of fear of appearing "soft on national security." The Dems were swept into power in 2004 specifically to check this kind of recklessness.

And guess what, my fellow progressives…Barack Obama voted for this crap! He voted for it, and he'd have voted for it twice if he could. Because he's not "soft on terror," no no no…not with his convention coming up.

My brilliant friend Ryan Bradley once observed that there are two political parties in America -- "the pro-business party that's for abortion" and then "the pro-business party that's against abortion." Those were wise and troubling words, and now it looks like you can add another scary similarity between our two political "options": no regard whatsoever for our most basic liberties.

This would never have happened if Jed Bartlet were still president. That guy was a real Democrat…in the only place such a thing exists anymore, Make-Believe-Land.

Monday, July 7, 2008

"The Two Coreys" marathon


Because it's what she wanted to do, I spent the evening watching something like eight consecutive episodes of the reality show The Two Coreys over at my friend's house. If entertainment culture is a dying man crawling across a parched desert, then celeb-reality TV is the buzzard that is circling near him and waits patiently for a nibble.

It's a simple equation: Corey Feldman + Corey Haim + 2008 = Roman spectacle of terror.

The thing is, the Coreys were only quasi-heroes even back in the Eighties, and the whole point of this new TV show is for America to gaze at the tragic sight of "the teen-dreams that time forgot" -- in their mid-thirties now, looking the worse for wear, pale shadows of whatever cultural relevance they once possessed. Feldman spends his days pitching "celebrity road-trip" shows to reality-TV producers, while chain-smoking Haim (who looks like he's been through the same physical mangling as Mark Hamill) paces around an apartment bemoaning his lack of acting work. Since Haim looks like a pirate in a seedy pirate bar, he's probably going to be limited to roles in pirate movies.

Every reality-TV show is predicated on something vaguely creepy, and here it's the twisted, onion-layered relationship between two solipsistic child-stars-turned-punchlines. They see a couples therapist together, blame one another for the abuse they endured in their years of teenage stardom, and now scheme pathetically to out-do one another (including a tit-for-tat hiring of personal assistants).

I have to hope that the whole show is essentially a put-on, because in that case I could appreciate the joke. But I suspect this is actually a lot closer to the uncomfortable truth. America has discovered that celebrities really are as screwed up as the rest of us, except with more money -- and the B-listers out there seem to be lined up 100 deep for a chance to confirm this grimly fascinating truth. At least Feldman scored a hot wife and a swank house...Haim looks to be not far off from a job in pizza delivery. In any case, it's a sad sight to see these two pinning all their hopes on cameos in the direct-to-video Lost Boys sequel. With the rise of reality TV, the "quiet desperation" of American life is now getting most of the primetime slots on cable.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

On cricket




I'm back from England -- just in time to celebrate our nation shrugging those bastards off like fleas from a dog -- and I have to ask: Where has this sport been hiding all my life?

While I was in England, awake at 3 AM due to the time shift, I watched the first cricket match of my life on the TV in my hotel room. Previous to this, cricket had meant little more to me than a punchline when I wanted to make a joke about the English. A sport where the players wear white sweater-vests, taking multiple days to play a match, with breaks for tea and lunch, lends itself to Yankee ridicule.

But it turns out that cricket really is a spiritual father to baseball (my love for which is well-established) and offers an evolutionary glimpse at baseball's precursor. Indeed, baseball did evolve out of cricket, and cricket shares many of our game's pastoral pleasures and stately rhythms (some would say "boring" rhythms).

Plus, it turns out that cricket today has been streamlined and souped-up for the benefit of the unwashed masses such as myself. Now the most popular format is played in a single day, with teams in bright baseball-style uniforms. It looks almost snazzy. And the TV broadcasts are as slick and statistic-filled as any baseball telecast.

The match was awesome. It was England vs. New Zealand and five minutes on Wikipedia was plenty for me to learn all the rules. The match had drama, nuance, and the Olympic-style tension of international competition. Plus there were no tea breaks in this single-day format.

I was impressed, so upon my return to the U.S., I did a little reading into cricket and discovered that it once had strong roots here in the colonies. George Washington played cricket with his troops at Valley Forge. Americans played the first-ever international cricket test, when they played the hated Canadians in an early-19th century exhibition. And, according to some sources, the reason we call the president of the United States "the president" owes to cricket -- the founders didn't want to use an imperial title like "chancellor," so they settled on "president" because the term was in common use for the heads of colonial cricket clubs. John Adams is on record in the Congress saying that's why he favored the term "president" for the nation's chief executive.

Luckily, I've got some good English friends right here in the Bay Area who subscribe to mega-expensive satellite-TV packages so that they can watch all the cricket they want. Thanks to them, I'll be able to watch some more. How about that -- now I can be a fan of two boring bat-and-ball sports!

Friday, June 27, 2008

By "Chunnel" to Paris...

Yesterday I accomplished what Hitler never could -- a crossing of the English Channel. (Take that, Hitler!) Under the Channel by way of the Eurostar high-speed train, I'm now in lovely Paris (make that, lovely and huge Paris) for stage two of my whirlwind business trip.

Paris is an impressive place, and though I've only got 48 hours here, I've already got a sense of how much there really is to take in here; just on the cab ride between the train station and my hotel, I managed to put eyes on the Louvre, the cathedral at Notre Dame, the tomb of Moliere, and lots of croissants.

(A note on the cab ride: it was like a scene straight out of Ronin, with freakin' Jean Reno as the cabbie, racing through the streets of central Paris weaving in and out of traffic with literally inches separating us from high-speed collision at every turn. The man knew his trade!)

Business today and then I'll try to get to the cemetary at Montparnasse (where I'm staying, in the 6th arrondisement) so I can view the tombs of all the great French: Inspector Clouseau, Tintin, Madeline, and Pepe Lepieu. By random coincidence, my amigo Tom Anderson is in Paris for a music festival, so we'll try to hook up for dinner later.

I'll report again before I leave, to let you know whether or not I'm successful in my two major goals here, which are to start a sanitation strike (that one should be easy) and to cause the capitulation of the French military (a bit tougher, but still shouldn't be a huge problem.)

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Cheerio from England!

I'm writing this from picturesque Bath in the west England countryside. It's been a long day -- it began at 4PM Pacific time in San Francisco with a 10-hour flight to London. (Actually, a pretty cool flight; Virgin Atlantic provides an entertainment center at each seat, so I was able to watch Brit-coms, I Am Legend, and There Will Be Blood all in one trip, plus documentaries about the Royal Marine Commandos and Muscovite skinhead gangs).

I landed at Heathrow at 11AM Greenwich Mean Time, meaning that I basically sacrificed a night's worth of sleep heading eastward. I caught a Noon train at Paddington Station and ended up in Bath around 2:30PM, with a business meeting waiting for me in the morning. You can do the math -- I am now operating on roughly zero sleep over the past 24 hours, and I somehow have to make it another four or five hours before sleeping in order to get my bio-clock reset for tomorrow.

Now I've settled into my hotel (the MacDonald Bath Spa) to get some eats. The hotel has a colorful history; it was a frequent war-planning retreat for Winston Churchill and his WWII cabinet, and has also hosted such dignitaries as Halle Sellassie. I've already been down to the ultra-British "Colonnade Bar" for a glass of wine, and room service is on the way, so I'm going to watch some British "Deal or No Deal" and try to make it 'til dark for a proper night's sleep.

Then it's two whirlwind days of biz meetings and on to weekend in Paris, where I was hoping to see Lou Reed play (but it's sold out -- crap!). Updates as Internet access allows...

Monday, June 23, 2008

The boss's trove of occult reading


In a world of workplaces where everyone loathes their Boss, it's with great pleasure that I serve the president of my company. Mine is full of cool surprises, and his latest put a big smile on my face.

It started with a simple email to me: "I have something for you…Stop by." Down to the corner office I went, with zero idea of what might be in store, and when I poked my head in I found him grinning above a stack of bizarre-looking documents.

"I was cleaning house this weekend," he said, "and I was going to throw all of these out. But then I thought of you and decided I'd offer them up if you want them."

What he had on his desk was a cache of arcane documents from his days in London's conspiracy-underground scene – like myself, he's got an enthusiastic interest in the nutty, self-published underground of conspiracy theorists, magickal practitioners, visionaries, and doomsday cults. (He's the only other person I know who owns a recording of the audiotape made by the Jim Jones cult during its infamous mass suicide in Guyana.)

And here was a treasure-trove of Seventies- and Eighties-era mimeographs, booklets, and propaganda tracts, much of it impossible to find anymore. Among the gems:

A published archive of People's Temple documents containing mimeographs of incredible Jonestown records such as the contract members had to sign ("will treat heat and cold alike")…xerox of the cult's propaganda booklet ("Jonestown: A Model of Cooperation")…postcards produced by the cult…and a complete transcript of the "death tape."

Copies of "Rapid Eye" magazine, a newsletter of London arcanum, with one copy featuring an interview with William S. Burroughs that I'd never even heard of, much less read. Burroughs raps at length about the increase of random street violence he has noticed in New York lately, and details his personal-armament response to the terror.

And my favorite, a November 1988 news bulletin of the occultist punk band Psychik TV, including a mayhem-filled description of a "psychic attack" that the band endured which the band members believed was inflicted on them by the staff of DC Comics, as revenge for the band using the Superman logo without permission.

Terrific stuff all around, and some of it probably damn-near impossible to obtain anywhere. All he asked in return was a nice bottle of wine if I ever sell the stuff on eBay. Now that's a boss.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Dan on Russian soil -- kinda


I ended up at a cocktail party at the Russian consulate in San Francisco, which is -- according to international law -- technically sovereign Russian territory. I'm sure this doesn't stop Uncle Sam from bugging the holy crap out of the place, but hey, this is international relations. Of all the reasons for a cocktail party at the Casa de Putin, this was a party thrown by a Russian videogame company.


The consulate was full of miniature CIS flags and dour-looking diplomats in horribly bad suits. These guys all looked straight out of central casting; if you'd challenged me to pick the seven guys who were consulate diplomats out of the 100 people present at the party, I swear to God that I would've successfully picked all seven out of the lineup. Not that they made it hard for us; in a crowd of videogame-industry people, these Kremlin apparatchiks stood out like priests at a porn convention.


The comrades seemed genuinely delighted to be hosting a cocktail party with videogame folks. After all, their usual parties must be dismally dull affairs filled with semiconductor salesmen and trade representatives and the like. On this night, there were hot rent-a-blondes milling about and computer games to be played. Talk about diplomacy! And nothing warms the heart like seeing a Russian bureaucrat in a bad suit having the time of his life playing a racing game with a life-size steering wheel.


Passing by the security checkpoint where a grim young dude was stationed, I was tempted to walk up to him and say, "I wish to defect -- the knowledge I possess could advance the Soviet videogame industry by ten years." But I couldn't work up the nerve to try out the joke.


When I left the party, I was presented with an actual Russian babushka hat to keep as a gift. That's some hospitality! These guys aren't so bad...and watching their faces light up at the sight of videogames makes me wonder what that whole Cold War thing was all about anyway.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Presenting "Qore"


Huge news! I've been a bit radio-silent on this blog for a couple of weeks because I've been eyeball-deep in finishing a secret project that's been filling my plate for many months now. Yesterday, my company (Future US) finally made the joint announcement with SONY (our partner in the project) and I'm delighted to be able to share it with friends and family too.

Late last year when Future partnered with Sony to become the official media partner for the PlayStation brand, we dreamed up a new media product that would essentially be a "digital magazine" for games previews, screenshots, etc – downloaded through the PlayStation itself and controlled with the gamepad. I secured a little R&D funding from my bosses and went to work on a prototype with the very talented guys I manage in the Future Studios group.

The result is finally here: "Qore, Presented by the PLAYSTATION Network." You can get a video preview by following this link, but the short version is that it's a monthly downloadable program full of hi-def video previews, game footage, and lots of cool extras like hi-res screenshot galleries that you can scan-and-pan with your gamepad. Best of all, Sony is bundling the product with exclusive game demos and betas, starting with a major game called SOCOM: Confrontation.

Burger King, Universal Pictures, and several videogame publishers are already involved as advertisers. Sweet!

This is causing a nice stir in digital-media circles – profiles in the SF Chronicle, Wall Street Journal, L.A. Times etc -- and (particularly gratifying to me) it's also getting props from some of the leading venture-capital news sites, where "the next big thing" often finds a tough audience. If a blog like VentureBeat is impressed, then I'm a very happy camper.

Anyway, this is a big day for me, and I'm glad I'm finally able to unveil this project to the world. The gamers among you can look for it on a PlayStation 3 near you…

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Cutest videogame ever


It came from Japan...to make you giggle. Check out MLB Power Pros, a baseball game with the full MLB licenses (i.e. all the real teams and players) but rendered in the goofy, huge-eyed, Japanimation art style.

All the real players are completely recognizable by their details -- Manny Ramirez's dreadlocks, Eric Gagne's goggles, and Alex Rodriguez's eternally-frowning eyebrows are all present and distinguishable -- but in hilarious anime guise.

What's funniest about the game is that it's actually a very realistic baseball simulation. And in the famous tradition of Japanese sports games, there are soap operas running, too -- for example, each player has a "Motivation" rating that ebbs and flows based on how often you use him in the lineup. So you have to balance your optimal lineup choices with the need to get your backup players in often enough to stay Motivated.

Kudos to Japan for this delightful kiddie-ization of Major League Baseball. Too much fun.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Old book bonanza


This weekend I ended up picking through a rummage sale where I happened upon a trove of vintage war books. The price: $5 for all the books I could fit into a paper grocery bag. Check out this literary haul I walked away with:


A seven-volume, hardcover "History of the World War" published in 1918.
It reads like journalism, obviously being fresh off the signing of the Armistice, and it's filled with naive boasts about how the Allied victory has essentially ended war for all time, with democracy coming out the winner for eternity.

"American Guerrilla in the Phillippines"
First edition of a 1945 book by Ira Wolfert, chronicling the experience of U.S. Army commandos in the Phillippine campaign against the Japanese. Referring to the enemy as "Japs" throughout the book, it's a good example of a "sensational" contemporary military account -- written in the heat of the conflict and leaving the niceties for history to sort out later. It's illustrated with drawings that might have been cut from Boy's Life magazine or an early G.I. Joe comic...a book that was clearly marketed as an "adventure tale," if nominally a piece of war journalism.

"The Conquest of Civilization"
A 700-page 1926 hardcover by James Breasted, summarizing the military victories of Western civilizations dating back to the ancient Greeks. Interesting intellectual precursor to the work of Victor Davis Hanson, a Stanford professor who builds on Breasted's theory that the European democratic tradition is the ultimate explanation for the West's military effectiveness throughout history.

And the best:

A yearbook from the 1955-1956 cruise of the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany.
In mid-1955, the Oriskany (pictured above) sailed out of the port of Alameda for a year-long tour of East Asia, where its air group helped enforce the tenuous Korean War armistice. (The carrier had been produced at the very end of WWII, and saw combat during the Korean War.) This yearbook is just spectacular, with tons of photos from the cruise, including port calls in Yokohama, Manila, and Hong Kong. It's a great snapshot of the old-school Navy life, and must have previously belonged to a veteran of the cruise. This is a pretty precious document in my eyes...I'll give it a safe home.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Great Work Near-Immolation of '08


This photo was snapped from the office window 20 feet away from my desk, and indeed shows a huge brush fire eating up the hill right across Highway 101 from my office building. (This is in Northern California...my Southern California readers will know this highway as "The 101.") Since our office park is basically situated in a bowl of dry scrub, we figured there was a larger-than-zero chance that this blaze would ride the whipping winds and jump the freeway to incinerate us all.

Of course, work proceeds without skipping a beat, even as an inferno rages less than 300 yards away. All the on-ramps were closed at the highway, so there was nowhere for us to flee in any case...if worse had come to worse, our brilliant plan was to wade into the bay (which is just a short walk from the building) and literally swim for Oakland.

Fortunately it didn't come to that, as the state firefighting helicopters swooped in like a Bruce Willis movie (a cool one like Die Hard, not a crappy one like Hudson Hawk) and extinguished the blaze with some type of secret alien foam technology. I'm pretty sure these were the last Hueys not assigned to Iraq, so that was a bit of good fortune for us.

You can watch a 15-second video clip of our rescue here on YouTube, thanks to the miracle of real-time near-victim technology.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Mind control games...yes way!


This is my colleague Logan Decker, one of the editors on PC Gamer magazine, demonstrating the control of a videogame with his mind. I know, I know – that's what I thought at first, too. "Inconceivable!" But I do not think that word means what you think it means. Because this headset actually does allow Logan (or anyone else) to command a videogame with their thoughts.

Well, technically, it’s not thoughts that do the job, but bio-feedback. The headset's sensors are detecting tiny skin palpitations to determine when you're thinking "Fire!" (as in, to fire your weapon in the game). So as you move around the game world, your character shoots whenever you think about shooting. It's like the movie Firefox, but for real.

I'm a huge skeptic and at first I thought it was crap. But I was convinced when I directed Logan in a little experiment – I asked him to fire in three-shot bursts at my specific verbal command. As he ran around the game world, I would intermittently say "Now!" and sure enough his character would fire a three-shot burst at the instant I commanded. Then I mixed it up, asking for a five-shot burst, and Logan delivered a five-shot burst…without so much as a twitch of his finger.

Convinced and delighted, I began crowing patriotically about the genius of American science. Then I realized…"Hmm, this might not be American technology." So I gingerly asked if it was…but yes, it is! Hooray! Another landmark for good ol' American know-how…another edge in our looming war with the rest of human civilization!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Ballgame!


Finally! It took until May, but at long last I was able to make my way to my first game of the season, an A's-Rangers contest at Virus Protection Coliseum in Oakland.

Not to wax too pastoral about baseball, but there really is something rejuvenating about "taking in a game at the yard." I was feeling ill all day and almost canceled the ballgame plans, but the prospect of missing the game induced me to literally drag myself out of bed and take the queasiest BART ride of my life across the bay.

And you know what? I felt better almost as soon as I stepped off the train and saw the coliseum and all the fans streaming into the place. The sound of the P.A. announcer, the sight of ballplayers taking the field, the crack of the bat as the Rangers hit a quick three-run homer off of A's starter Greg Smith -- wait, actually that last part sucked. But it didn't suck, even though the A's played badly and lost...because the simple rhythms and pleasures of the game are constant and reassuring no matter what the outcome.

Stephen King once wrote that any day is a good day when at the end of it you can say, "There was baseball."

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Live-blogging = just not difficult

As I type these words, a colleague is arguing that it would be "a nightmare" for our editors to write small stories from a trade show, more or less in real-time as the event is unfolding. I couldn't agree less, which is why I'm live-blogging from the conference room in which we're having this very debate -- hoping to make a (somewhat childish) point that this stuff just isn't very hard to do.

The thing is, it's 2008 and any middle-schooler with a smartphone is more or less blog-casting their life globally in something close to real-time. If they can do it, then media professionals sure as hell had better be able to do it.

There? Was that so hard? Not really.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Iron Man = as bad as I dreamed


In my circles, I'm notorious for not liking superhero movies. Hated X-Men. Hated Spider-Man. Really hated Spider-Man 2, and didn't even bother with Spider-Man 3. Thought Transformers was horrible, and thought Daredevil was physically painful.

So nobody expected me to like Iron Man. I joined a few of the PC Gamer editors for a trip to the Metreon cineplex and I tried to keep an open mind – hey, I'm as big a fan of Robert Downey Jr.'s patter as anybody.

I made an extra preparatory effort: two stiff martinis at Jillian's Bar just before the movie started. I figured that a slight buzz would be just the thing to make Iron Man enjoyable.

Turns out that the martinis weren't enough. I was bored silly by the movie, which felt like a 90-minute opening act. The best thing I can say about it is that Downey was game, in a "What the hell, I may as well try to earn this $5 million check" sort of way. The final showdown with The Mechanized Lebowksi was laughable.

Then I saw today that the movie made over $100 million in its opening weekend, good enough to register as the tenth-biggest opening weekend in history, proving once again that the earth-annihilating asteroid cannot get here soon enough.

Best moment at the screening: When Jeff Bridges revealed his evil stripes, I said aloud "The Dude no longer abides!" and it got a good laugh from several moviegoers within earshot. Good to see that Lebowski humor still goes over well.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Shostakovich "Violin Concerto No. 1" at SF Symphony


Last night I took in Dmitri Shostakovich's "Violin Concerto No. 1" at the SF Symphony. The soloist on violin was Vadim Gluzman (pictured here), an absolute assassin of a violinist, who rose to the occasion of a concerto that demands virtuosic ability from its soloist.

I first became aware of Shostakovich when I found myself entranced by the opening music in Eyes Wide Shut. (In fairness, the footage on-screen was Nicole Kidman naked; the association might now be permanent in my mind, and thus the love of Shostakovich perhaps?) It's no accident that Kubrick chose this composer to score a story about the dissatisfaction simmering beneath the perfect veneer of an upscale married couple; Shostakovich composed his music under Soviet rule in the Thirties and Forties, and his works are superficially stately and beautiful (as demanded by Soviet authorities) but contain a barely repressed chaos.

At times, a Shostakovich composition can seem to be on the verge of flying off its own rails…in many ways he is the great underminer of all that's superficially pleasing about classical music... one of classical music's great postmodernists.

"Violin Concerto No. 1" runs about 35 minutes and can only be described as ferocious. After a slow, brooding opening movement, the orchestra uncorks the buildup and the violinist commences terrorizing. Violinists are actually prone to snapping bowstrings as they shred their instrument with Rachmaninoff-type intensity. There's a sense you're watching a violinist's high-wire act.

(Check out this YouTube video of a teenage Sayaka Shoji killing the final movement, if you want a taste of what the concerto sounds like and what it demands of its soloist.)

I normally can't relate to classical music...but unlike so many classical composers, Shostakovich wasn't spending his time attending balls and eating bonbons and trying to impress his local emperor-patron. Instead, Shostakovich was living in the gray cinderblock wasteland of Soviet Russia with Stalin writing nasty op-ed columns about his work…here was a composer who had to worry about a midnight train ride to Siberia, and his music sounds like it.

Fun note: Mr. Gluzman plays a Stradivarius violin made in 1690, which is on extended loan to him from the Stradivari Society. It's in very good hands.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

How to handle a GTA IV press request


On the eve of the latest release in this celebrated and vilified series, here's all you really need to know in order to handle 
a question about Grand Theft Auto from the press:

1) The question they all want to ask: "Aren't these games too violent for kids?"

2) The answer: "Yes. Hence the M rating for Mature. (click as you hang up)

I wish there were national headlines each time a new crime movie 
came out, saying "Is this movie too violent for kids?"

The unspoken implication: All videogames are for kids. And videogames twist kiddie minds.

Yet note that as videogames proliferated throughout the Nineties and 2000s, the rate of violent crime among American youths fell dramatically.

(Duke Ferris's excellent summary of the decline in youth crime 
as it paralleled the rise of 
videogames
; and here's a link to  the plummeting rate of violent crime in U.S. schools.)

Paris Hilton gets her head harpooned in the movie House of Wax and that earns no more outcry than some jokes on Talk Soup. Carjack somebody in a videogame and it's the front page of the New York Times.

All of which is to say that I'd wish the media would relax.
Gamers -- mature gamers, that is --love Grand Theft Auto for all the same reasons that they love gangster movies and 
Stephen King novels...y'know, all the things everyone loves.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Tito Ortiz's acting career




Former UFC champion Tito Ortiz says he wants to quit his mega-money career as a fighter in order to concentrate on acting. So what's he land for his first acting gig? He's got a bit role in his girlfriend Jenna Jameson's "mainstream debut," Zombie Strippers.

Way to go, Tito!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

It turns out that I have nothing in common with the Green Party

I've been experiencing Democrat Fatigue this year...an exhausted feeling that the party is going to continue wasting great talents like Barack Obama and botching what should be gimme elections. It's been bad enough lately that I decided to start looking into the Green Party as a possible new home. Then I went to the Green Party website, and discovered to my amazement -- after just a few minutes -- that I disagree with almost all of their politics.


I've now read their official Platform and I’ve judged most of it to be crazy. Listen to some of these crazy ideas:


“Federally mandated 30-hour work week”: This is a terrific idea if you don't mind our productivity falling behind Serbia's and our GNP crashing. Even crazier: the Greens’ proposal to pay workers for a 40-hour week by enacting a gargantuan “social dividend” tax. If crazy ideas were mountains, this idea is K2.

“Free, Federally-Provided Child Care for All”: Have you ever dealt with the DMV? Imagine a DMV for child care. Now imagine paying the taxes to support the DMV for someone else's child care. If crazy ideas were mountains, this idea is Mount Everest.

“Workplace Democracy”: I kid you not, the Green Party wants to make it federal law that any workplace with 10 or more workers gets to democratically elect its managers. If crazy ideas were mountains, this idea is so crazy that there is no earthly mountain big enough to represent its craziness – you would need to explore the deepest reaches of space to find a planet with a big enough mountain to represent this proposal.

“Abolish the CIA, NSA, and All US Agencies of Covert Warfare”: Yeah, because who needs the most important elements of 21st-century national defense? Not us, apparently. News flash: it’s going to take more than the Newark Police Department to monitor and disrupt hostile governments and substate terrorists. “US agencies of covert warfare” turn out to be pretty important when the chips are down…I’m all for safeguarding the Constitution in times of crisis, but abolishing our best friggin’ defense isn’t the solution to Guantanamo, folks.

And I won't even get started on their foreign policy, which is pretty much ripped straight out of Noam Chomsky.

All of which is to say, the Green Party and I are not a good fit. Maybe I will start the Mario Party.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Baseball Vegetable Day



No fooling around -- I vowed earlier this week to do nothing on Saturday but watch baseball on TV, and sure enough that is exactly what I'm doing. It began with the Giants-Cardinals at 10am PST, with a dynamite outing from Tim Lincecum (the only thing worth watching on this year's dreadful Giants team). There's a pitcher to love: 5'10, 170 pounds, looks about 16 years old, and is arguably the best pitcher in baseball. He looked great in a 3-0 Giants win.

Conveniently, the Giants game ended just minutes before the start of the 1pm Dodgers-Braves game on the FOX national telecast. I watched the Braves come from behind to defeat the hated/evil/terrorist Dodgers.

And what's this? Just as that game ends, the 4pm national WGN telecast of the White Sox-Rays game commences. Great chance to finally see this much-heralded lineup of Rays youngsters, featuring Evan Longoria (who signed a six-year contract at age 23 despite only playing six major-league games in his entire life).

Sum total: Three consecutive ballgames over nine consecutive hours, interrupted only by a little "Stargate SG-1." I've been in need of a battery-recharging day with our national pastime.

And lest anyone think this day is going to be completely wasted, I've got a swanky restaurant reservation for later, so Baseball Vegetable Day should at least have a classy end.

Paranoids w/ The Knife Hits @ Bender's, SF


Last night was the CD release show for my friend Elliott's band The Paranoids; I joined my co-workers J.T. and Tom to show support. As usual, the Paranoids made it very easy to
support them, playing a terrific show to a packed house.

The opening act (pictured here) was The Knife Hits, and I had a chance to chat with their guitarist at the bar before they went on. Also a Daniel, he hails from South Africa and did stints in London and Paris before "ending up here somehow." Outstanding. The Knife Hits were all right, though the vocalist dedicated one of their songs "to all the lovers out there," which earned the band an immediate -10 points on my rating scale.

(It turns out that Tom is another massive Kubrick aficionado, so we spent some time rapping about Michel Ciment's theory of the"implied trilogy" formed by Dr. Strangelove, 2001, and A Clockwork Orange. I don't get to do that too often! Tom had some essential words of appreciation when he said "Kubrick is..." and, lacking the words, simply concluded "...Kubrick is." Well put.)

Overheard at the bar: "Dude, I've got some bomb-ass shit.....but I've got to work all day tomorrow."

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Games, pizza, beer...this is not a bad career


Tuesday night in San Francisco -- after work, a bunch of us were invited by our old pal Doug at Valve Software come by Blondie's Bar & No Grill for a world-exclusive unveiling of the new map in Team Fortress 2, an awesome team-based shooter game that we play a lot of.

This is my idea of paradise: an open bar serving you whatever you want free of charge...towers of pizza boxes filled with North Beach Pizza pies for us to snarf...and two rows of computers where we could sit and play team-versus-team in one of the best games of all time.

Yes, this is what we do for a living. If you're a nerd (which I am), this is pretty tough to complain about. (Just get a load of the nerds in this photo...it's tragic.) As an added bonus, the PC Gamer team was in excellent form and we absolutely owned the opposition. (Nice work, Jeremy!)

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Wine countrying


Our world-renowned wine country is, like, an hour away from me, yet I'd never been. So this weekend I joined friends for a weekend excursion to vineyard-covered points north. I spent most of Saturday bouncing from winery to winery, where I learned quite a few things:

1. It's easy to get sloshed even when you're having only a mouthful of each wine. The trick is to taste five or six wines at each stop, so that you've imbibed the equivalent of a swimming pool's worth of wine over the course of the day. When we reached our last stop, Unti winery, I was variously described as "glassy-eyed," "quiet," and "done."

2. Wineries are great, even if you care nothing about the product. Consider: mankind has been producing wine by more or less the same process for thousands of years. The vineyards, the grapes, the vats, the barrels...all in service of a beverage. It appeals to both sides of me -- the side that appreciates a complex, structured, militaristic operation, and also the side that appreciates art and its creative variations. Winemaking is both worlds, plus the final product gets you buzzed. It's for me.

3. There is 80-year-old grape jelly. I had some at one of our stops. It tasted like...grape jelly.

4. Fourteen acres of vineyard (planted with chardonnay, merlot, and syrah) with a modular house on the property will run you a smooth $1.9 million. At least that's the asking price from Sotheby's.

Seems like exactly the kind of thing to blow 2 mil on if one has the 2 mil to blow on something.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Controversy in the Pope Room


We'd had a long day in software training. (Is there any other kind of day in software training?) There were 12 or so of us, filing out of the classroom at the end of the all-day session and ready to blow off steam. Luckily, we were on Bush Street downtown and there are plenty of steam-blowing choices within easy walking distance. After a couple of rounds at The Irish Bank, we made our way to Bucca di Beppo for dinner and several bottles of chianti.

Since our party was so big, the greeter seated us in the Pope Room, pictured above. It's exactly what it sounds like -- a round banquet room where all the decorations celebrate our two most recent pontiffs of the Catholic faith, the illustrious John Paul II and the more newly-minted Benedict XVI (seen here in the glass case atop our table).

After a few glasses of vino, I casually mentioned that the current pope had been a member of the Hitler Youth in his teenage years. No one believed me. I tried to explain that every German kid at the time was pretty much required to join the Hitler Youth, so there was no particular shame in Mr. Ratzenberger's membership. For a kid growing up in early-1940s Germany, the Hitler Youth was basically the Boy Scouts (if the Boy Scouts hated non-Aryans, that is). There's no evidence that the young Ratzenberger or anyone in his family were involved in any Nazi activity beyond dressing up in the uniforms and posing for creepy photographs. (For those of you who followed the link: yes, that's the pope.)

But it didn't matter; no one at the table was willing to accept my version of the pope's biography. So we all raised a toast to the pontiff and -- unless I'm just being paranoid -- I thought I saw his little plaster head slip me a sinister wink.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Bay Area politics in a nutshell


I snapped this in the Sunset district here in SF, walking back to my car after a late-night movie with some friends. (We saw "21," which is like "Rounders" except if "Rounders" was  really stinky.) I noticed this graffiti on the sidewalk in front of me, a perfect summary of this city's political life.

In the immortal words of Walter Sobchak, "at least it's an ethos."
 

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

My coach kicks ass on TV


The guy issuing the beatdown in this photo is Alex Serdyukov, my main MMA instructor at Gracie/Fairtex, where I train in the sport controversially known as "ultimate fighting." This week Alex earned himself a huge victory on national TV as a welterweight in World Extreme Cagefighting (a "feeder" subsidiary of the UFC). It's great fun to see one of your coaches handling business in front of thousands of spectators and a sizeable cable audience.

It bears mentioning that Alex is one of the many people who put the lie to the stereotype about
MMA being a "bloodsport" practiced by snarling barbarians. (Although, in fairness, Alex does
appear to be snarling in this photo.) A soft-spoken Russian immigrant, Alex earned himself a business-school degree before pursuing his pro fighting career. As a trainer, he follows the example of our mutual teachers in the Gracie family, emphasizing the application of calm, intelligence, and technique in a fight.

Alex has been a big part of my own training getting more sophisticated and productive. I'm a pretty decent jiu-jitsu player but I need work on becoming a better boxer and wrestler. Alex has been really helpful in correcting my bad fight habits and learning how to dictate a gameplan on somebody. He also cracks me up by shaking his head disapprovingly whenever someone claims to be tiring.

It turns out that mastering this sport is really hard -- who knew!? -- and it causes contusions and discoloration about the face and head; but it's also a lot of fun and downright satisfying when you're having the better
of it. There's something confidence-building about learning to stand "in the pocket" with an opponent (the pocket being the area right in front of him) and exposing yourself to damage in order to try doing some damage yourself. (It's what fighters euphemistically call "trading.")

If you get a chance to catch the replay of "WEC 33: Back to Vegas" on VERSUS Network, try and check out Alex's fight. And if it's your first experience watching MMA, try and keep an open mind about this highly misunderstood and highly awesome sport. (I sometimes wonder if I missed my calling as a defender of the sport. Playboy published my incensed letter-to-the-editor after they ran an ignorant article about it; I guess you can't count on Playboy for much, except a great reality TV show about Hefner's Bunny housemates.)

Friday, March 21, 2008

Star-struck by Lydia Millet


You don't know who Lydia Millet is. No one does. Except for the tiny readership that somehow managed to discover her surreal, satirical, and very moving fiction. Meeting this utterly obscure writer turned out to be a much bigger deal for me than meeting any of the big-wigs I've encountered in my work travels.

I recently read Millet's wonderful new novel, How the Dead Dream. The story of a young businessman who begins to face the huge issues of environmental catastrophe and species extinction, it definitely hit home with me. It also served as a reminder that great novels can come out of nowhere (in this case, from a staffer at the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson), and encouragement to get in gear finishing my latest manuscript.

Happily, Lydia was in town over the weekend for a night of author readings on the theme of "Catastrophe." It's hard to imagine an event more up my alley, so I swung by to pay her my respects for her terrific novel. The readings were held at Edinburgh Castle in San Francisco -- an absolute dive, it's basically the last place in SF (short of an illicit-massage joint) where you'd expect a gaggle of literary novelists to be reading on-stage. But there was actually a nice turnout of 30 or so people to hear the readings, most of which were kind of shitty...until they finally got around to Lydia.

She read a very funny selection from the book -- smart thinking, because when you're reading to a live audience, it probably pays to go with the laughs, as opposed to reading apocalyptic passages like everyone else was doing. She was clearly "the ringer" in this crop of writers, and earned an enthusiastic round of applause when she'd finished. She was standing by herself in the back of the space, so I headed over to her intending to say just a few smart phrases and then take off.

Of course, writers are the only people around whom I get totally starstruck and tongue-tied. Big famous actors, not a problem. Sports superstars, no biggie. Mega-business luminaries, ho-hum. Obscure literary novelist from Tucson? I fall completely to pieces. I said something like: "Hi Lydia I just wanted to thank you for a great book it really means a lot to me it had quite an impact I really hope you keep it up okay thanks bye."

She was very gracious and thanked me for coming out, and I made as dignified a retreat as was possible.

Then went home and wrote for five hours without a pause, because I hope someday soon to be one of those marginal novelists reading selections in a crappy dive bar in the city. Dare to dream!