Monday, January 30, 2006

750 things Mr. Welch can no longer do in a RPG

J'aime Wells, soon to escape from Rutgers Philosophy, has started up a new blog of her own. She inaugerates with an interesting post about comics expanding beyond the adolescent male demographic.

She recently sent me a link to 213 Things Skippy Can't Do -- for those who don't know, it's a list of things a soldier tried to do but got told not to since he's a soldier now and higher ranking sorts don't like to see soldiers doing anything besides cleaning stuff.

The rather mundane thing I remember not being able to do was put my hands in my uniform pockets. Not quite sure what purpose those pockets had..., a festering cesspool of bitter vitriol spewed about roleplaying games, has posted a likewise hilarious, albeit in-joke riddled list of 750 things Mr. Welch can no longer do in a RPG. If you've played Dungeons & Dragons and their ilk you'll recognize much of the behavior. If you haven't, the list will reinforce all your stereotypes and introduce you to a few new ones.

Thursday, January 26, 2006


“He didn’t think windmills were monsters, he just hated windmills.” -- Lars Eighner, regarding Tim Barrus.

That (terrificly quotable) quote is from this article in the LA Weekly arguing that the very white (and often angry) Tim Barrus is pretending to be Navajo Indian, Nasdijj, writer of several critically acclaimed memoirs. Nasdijj claimed to have fetal alcohol syndrome and had to bury two of his own adopted, Navajo children, who died from fetal alcohol syndrome -- but just happened to exhibit symptoms more similar to the hydrocephalia suffered by Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian writer, Sherman Alexie.

Needless to say, this sort of thing is getting a little more attention due to James Frey's memoir-worthy ordeal.

"Not that it matters, but most of what follows is true." -- from the beginning of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, by William Goldman

It's the "not that it matters" part that I'm curious about. I think Oprah wants to express something similar when she says:

"But the underlying message of redemption in James Frey's memoir still resonates with me, and I know it resonates with millions of other people who have read this book."

There's a sub-plot in another of my favorite films, A Bridge Too Far, also by Goldman. In this sequence a tough staff sergeant, played by James Caan, promises a nervous young lieutenant that the LT wouldn't die. Lo and behold, the LT drifts off target during the parachuting and lands in German occupied territory. James Caan then commandeers a jeep, races into the woods, recovers the LT's broken body, and drives out of the woods while dodging German gunfire.

He then takes the LT to a medical officer, who refuses to do anything since the kid's already dead (or close enough). The guy who could win a Rollerball match all by himself when the coproate powers were trying to do him in won't have any of that and pulls a pistol on the medical officer. Med officer then discovers that the kid is alive, and can be saved, and essentially lets James Caan go.

I thought that scene was the most significant flaw in an otherwise terrific film -- just way too corny and cliche.

Later I discovered it was actually true.

Which makes it fucking amazing.

That's where I disagree with Goldman's quote. Truth transforms the hackneyed into the fucking amazing.

I'm never amazed by fiction. I know you just make up anything you want. So you've got to go for something else, something more subtle to engage me and make your life lesson (or whatever other piss you're trying to sell) actually resonate. Usually, it requires more work and talent.

I do appreciate one truth James Frey understood, and has revealed to a nation thirsty for a new kind of honesty:

Regardless of your audience's politics, it's okay to lie if your message is anti-drug.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Endurance Horror

Over the last couple days I caught Saw and The Devil's Rejects on DVD and Hostel in the theater.

I've seen occasionally comments that Hostel, for example, is torture porn--oddly, not so much in reviews, even fairly respectable ones.

What these films have in common is advertising that pitches them as torture porn -- so intense (-ly gory) that you'll barely be able to watch them. I watched Saw first and was frankly surprised at how little gore there was (the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake was the hardest endurance horror film for me to watch). The intensity of the film was mostly emotional--much more like Asian horror such as Audition or Old Boy. Saw kept the suspense on high through the whole picture and worked the best of my endruance horror week.

The torture porn label is inaccurate for these films not just because they're actually better put together than that -- but because it doesn't accurately describe the kind of emotion these films are trying to evoke.

The slashers of the 80s actually fit the horror-porn model better--typically they'd include some meandering scenes of attractive teeenagers, a short suspense build, then paid off the suspense with an inventive kill scene. We were meant to be entertained by the innovativeness, and perhaps even humor, of the method of the kill.

Saw and it's kind of film is very different, more endurance horror. They subject us early to horrible scenes of punishment, or take you right to the edge of seeing the mangling, and we're squirming in our seats, looking away from the screen, and maybe peeking through our fingers. It's like a Sour Patch Kid, hard to take but for some reason we're drawn to endure the flavor.

Unlike the slasher, the torture scene is not the payoff, it's the setup. We're thankful when the torture ends, but it doesn't end in a big scene. Instead the torture underlines the threat the main character faces in the remainder of the film. Later the suspense will be a lot more severe since we (the audience) desperately don't want to see the main character suffer, not only out of empathy but also simply because it's painful to us.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Speaking of Utilitarianism...

Now I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country. -- Patton.

Speaking of utilitarianism, I wonder who did the math that recommended the drone airstrike that took out 18 villagers in order to kill 4 al Qaeda members. Pakistan is playing up the fact that there was a key bomb expert in the group, given that al-Zawahri wasn't there after all and that maybe this thing might damage popular Pakistani support for the CIA.

I rather suspect the math doesn't favor this sort of thing even if you're 100% certain that al-Zawahri was there and I wonder how many fresh, new Pakistani key bomb experts were made of those 18 villagers' friends and relatives.

The ugly fact of this is that even the brutality calculus militates against this sort of decision--so it's just slop. Seems that after 1918 we might have figured out that wars of attrition are ugly and ineffectual, and that body counts are what you resort to when you've run out of ideas but want to look like you're doing something.

I included the Patton quote at the top because it's wrong. You win wars by destroying your opponent's ability to fight--in conventional wars by seizing strategic terrain and destroying industry. Killing angry people just creates more angry people.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

The Brutality Calculus

Utilitarianism can be condensed into the statement:

The right action is the action that produces the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

As a credo, it works well in many situations, but famously runs up against other key principles in hypothetical situations, such as being forced to murder an innocent person in order to save many lives (perhaps by preventing a riot).

We also have what are sometimes called Kantian intuitions. These intuitions say that we should not use people as if they were mere tools in order achieve other goods, even if those goods are much greater in scope.

In real life (as opposed to philosophy classrooms and Star Trek episodes), these principles don’t come into conflict too often. However…

Chile appears likely to elect its first woman leader (make that, elected), Michelle Bachelet, a moderate socialist. The country has come a long way since Pinochet, and is now considered the region’s “most stable economy”, with “one of Latin America’s lowest poverty rates”.

While not as monstrous, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan also went through long periods of fascism, during which their economies developed, and have emerged as nations with free market economies (tempered by greater or lesser social programs) and strong democratic institutions.

It looks like both China and Russia are also making the transition from centrally planned economies run by authoritarian regimes to free market economies with democratic institutions (we hope at least):

Post Soviet Russia shifted quickly to democratic institutions, then followed with free market reforms. Since then, Russia’s economy has suffered from extensive volatility. It now appears that Putin is rolling back many of the democratic reforms, and his popularity is soaring.

China retains its non-democratic government, but now wedded to an expanding free market. I’m not sure, in fact, what differentiates China’s free market communism from the capitalist fascism of pre-1980s Taiwan. We’re also still waiting to see if democratic reforms are coming, though I believe the growth of an educated middle class that comes with free market capitalism brings about democracy, whether or not the people in charge want it.

From the above, it appears that the most efficient method of transition from an authoritarian government to a free market democracy involves going through an initial phase of capitalist fascism, then bringing in the political reforms later. And, for my liberal-minded friends, remember that not only are these countries transitioning to democracies, but they’re often more liberal-socialist than the United States.

Too bad for you if you happen to be radically minded and living during the transitional period. Of course, if Russia’s example holds for other nations, listening to our Kantian intuitions might result in this generation suffering under economic chaos, criminal rule, then having to go through a capitalist fascism phase anyway.

It does seem that there are some counter-examples:

  • Czechoslovakia’s transition was smooth and fast without needing the fascism phase.
  • Hungary seems to be doing well now.
  • And Argentina doesn’t seem to have benefited much from its fascism.

If, however, the transition via fascism method is so much more efficient than the alternatives that it outweighs Kantian reasons to ensure liberty first, then we end up with some counter-intuitive, even scary results:

President Bush should trim back on the whole “freedom is on the march” thing. Freedom should sit on the bench, while the people get busy opening their own businesses, exporting and importing stuff, and sending their kids overseas to get engineering degrees then come back and open LCD manufacturing plants – all the while, unfortunately, making damn sure not to say anything that would irritate their leaders.

In fact, Saddam’s regime was just the kind of fascism we too often supported in the past, but which seemed to turn out well despite our blundering. Had the U.S. spent the 90s palling up to Saddam, while making clear the limits of his leash, then left him in charge and removed the sanctions, then Iraq might have developed significant free market institutions and eventually morphed into the kind of democracy we see in the Asian tigers.

That might be cold comfort, though, to Ms... President Bachelet and the others who were tortured on the road to freedom.

Friday, January 13, 2006

There's No "I" in COMEDY

At Dave's request I'm posting another quote from my lonely comedy, which I'll go ahead and give the title for -- Tyrant High School:

It's a shame the baboon bubble burst.

Comedy is one place where I think writing in teams is particularly beneficial. When I wrote this one I just threw everything in if I thought it might be funny -- and a fair bit of it falls flat I suspect. Some parts I still laugh at, but other places induce a few cringes. However, if you have a few people working together you can verify each gag, in addition to squeezing out a few more good jokes.

I don't think this applies as much to other genres and more story-based comedies (like rom-coms and most theatrical comedies) since movie stories require more focus: finding a central through line and sticking to it. When you get multiple people on a project at the same time, everyone wants to include their own notions, and too often this results in an unfocused and meandering plot.

But who cares if the plot meanders in Airplane! or Monty Python and the Holy Grail? I'm too busy laughing.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Toxic Memes

I've been tagged with Fun Joel's meme by Dave and Richard. This is actually somewhat relevant to my recent work. BTW Richard, Tina the llama seems to spend all her time walking in front of the text I'm trying to read on your blog; I've heard that a possible solution involves tasty mesquite flavoring and also nets you a free rug.

ONE (1) earliest film-related memory:

What’s Up Doc? - My dad took me to this and we couldn’t stop laughing on the way home in the car. In fact, 30-some years later we can still mention scenes from this and crack up.

TWO (2) favorite lines from movies:

“A man’s got to know his limitations.” - Magnum Force
“Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room.” - Dr. Strangelove

THREE (3) jobs you'd do if you could not work in the "biz":

  • Theoretical Physics
  • Computer Game Programmer
  • Pilot

FOUR (4) jobs you actually have held outside the industry:

  • Parking-lot-in-desert sweeper
  • Person who tells customers that “no, we cannot give a discount for not including the mouse and keyboard” since the company didn’t want to admit that the mouse and keyboard cost maybe a grand total of $1.55
  • Nonsense disseminator and evaluator
  • One article published in Dragon Magazine for a massive 5 cents/word, 3 times the RPG publishing industry average, w00+!

THREE (3) book authors I like:

  • Alan Moore
  • Stephen King
  • Clive Barker

TWO (2) movies you'd like to remake or properties you'd like to adapt:

Terminator 3: Not only did the actual one completely nullify the theme and purpose of Terminator 2, but the setting is also perfect for a fascinating story. Might it occur to people that the Terminators in the first two movies and John’s dad come from a future that doesn’t exist? What other sorts of things might come back from futures that don’t exist? The possibilities are downright scary and mind-bending.

The Chronicles of Amber: Mostly so that I can listen to all my friends tell me how their choices for who should play who is so much better than what would actually turn out.

ONE (1) screenwriter you think is underrated:

The screenplays I’ve read have all been both pretty good and pretty famous and I’d just be talking out my ass if I made a judgment based on a film since God knows what the original screenplay looked like, so I’m just going to duck this one.

THREE (3) people I'm tagging to answer this meme next:

I think the entire crowd has been tagged already so I’ll just go for broke: William Goldman, Shane Black, and Raymond Chandler.

What is your favorite line of dialogue you have ever written?

This one was added by Scott and struck me as a particularly fun question. I'll go for one from my single comedy:

We categorically reject the colonialist attempt to interfere with our cultural heritage of footbaby, basketbaby, and rollerbaby.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The Law Dude

Former flat-mate Dan Nazer has been proclaimed a:

" law expert..." --

This is due, in part, to his article titled The Tragicomedy of the Surfers' Commons in the Deakin Law Review. In true academic fashion, this has already sparked a debate in the comments section on Dan's blog.

You can't buy branding like that. I can already see late-night ads on local TV with THE LAW DUDE in Copperplate Gothic Bold.

Unfortunately, I don't think The Law Dude would be able to pull off the angry "I will FIGHT for YOU!" attitude that seems prevalent in local lawyers' advertising, nor the "You need to work with a lawyer who has earned your trust by being seen surrounded by faux-leather bound books on TV for many years" angle.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Jon Stewart, the new Johnny Carson?

Jon Stewart (of the Daily Show, just in case someone out there doesn't have cable) has been tagged to host the Oscars. This struck me as a great choice, but I had thought that he might back off because his other job keeps him pretty busy.

I shouldn't have thought that would be a problem, because the reason I believed he'd be great for the job were the similarities I saw between him and Johnny Carson, and Carson certainly hosted it a few times.

Stewart's ability to handle a wide variety of interviewees, and the everyman tone to much of his humor on the Daily Show -- after all, he primarily works by boggling, along with the rest of us, at the antics the staff reports -- remind me a lot of Carson. One difference is that Carson toned down whatever liberalism he felt. However, Stewart is capable of even-handed lambasting as well -- and we might even see more of that balance after the next election, which would also be right about the time that some 11:30 network slots open up.

I wonder if NBC approached Stewart about taking over the Tonight Show. On a purely prudential basis, they ought to have -- but they might have worried that Conan O'Brien would hear about it and jump ship, and there's no guarantee that Stewart wouldn't want to stick on Comedy Central where he can interview obscure political scientists all he wants.

That said, if CBS wanted to finally win the late night slot, I'm confident Stewart should be the guy -- because I think he can achieve the broad appeal of a Carson: he's actually funny; his sense of humor isn't too offbeat; and his politics are close enough to mainstream (given that he is, after all, that rarity: an intellectual media personality).

His show is already moving into the position of launching the comedy careers that Saturday Night Live used to dominate -- and, certainly, a few people got their start on Carson.