Saturday, December 31, 2016

Silver linings

I won't beat around the bush, 2016 was a bad year. I refuse to believe that it is just media coverage, this was a bad year. But there were a few things this year I really liked (mostly entertainment stuff for the purposes of this Post) and got me through, so I want to talk about them.

The first thing is actually tied to an early unfortunate event, and that is Blackstar by David Bowie. I remember the moment I read about his death. I had "Lazarus" playing on Spotify when the Rolling Stone headline showed up on my Twitter feed. If you haven't heard the song, it is Bowie's song that kind of acknowledges mortality. That's been read into plenty, but at least I've had something to listen to from the get go.
I really can't mention 2016 without mentioning Kanye's new album. I adored The Life of Pablo by Kanye West. I've written about Kanye already and recent events have shown some interesting turns in his persona, but Pablo gave me a lot to identify with and lean on for strength. Also, just go ahead and lump his concert in there because I'll remember that little trip with Grace for years to come.
I actually saw quite a few concerts in the second half of my year. After I saw Kanye, I also got to see MC Lars, a longtime favorite of mine. He was every bit as nice as I could have hoped and the show with Mega Ran and mc chris was high octane and unique.
This year I had the habit of getting tickets to concerts as Christmas presents, the final show I went to was a Christmas show from Trans Siberian Orchestra. They make an incredible spectacle, but the highlight for me was when they had a tiger change into a dragon change into an attack helicopter. I still don't know why they did that, but that has yet to affect the degree to which I care.

The next thing I loved was the new Coen Brothers movie Hail, Caesar! which really shouldn't be a surprise. It's on HBO at the moment, and that's good because it's hard to explain all the reasons I like this venture without ruining a lot of things, not by killing plot points, just really cool and odd jokes. If nothing else, the sheer amount of incredible names should speak about why I'd be so thrilled by a period movie like this.
Sandwiched between the album and the tour, I binged some serious TV and I have to say, Netflix had a good years. Bojack Horseman has been going strong for a few years, but that blend of flippant humor with serious and potent commentaries on sensitive issues (i.e. mental illness, abortion, nontraditional relationships) is something that I can't get enough of. Also, I didn't expect to like Stranger Things, but there are few things made that so perfectly fit with what I live. I know I'm not from the 80s, but I don't care. Just as I liked the setting of Hail Caesar! I adore that aesthetic that permeates so many things I love.
The other source of TV that entered my life was HBO. My family never paid for the cable subscription. We still don't. But I subscribe to HBO Now so I've gotten to enjoy what they've put out, and it has been some wonderful stuff. I enjoyed Westworld and Veep but my favorite has to be Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. I'm impressed with the sheer variety they can produce and there has yet to be a time I could not get out of a funk with those three magic letters.

Before I say anything here, I must acknowledge that I've been playing a lot of older games this year. For instance, I've only recently gotten into Skyrim. Not the remastered on on consoles. The PC version. No special mods. I just finally found what makes it fun. If you want to know what has had a major emotional impact, look to Spec Ops: The Line. It incredibly subverts expectations to show what war is like. To be fair, I haven't been to war. I probably never will. But I definitely can understand the stress there. That's just the beginning of my list of older games I liked this year.
Another thing that was incredibly cheery was Stardew Valley. I love that game. I have never experienced something that so easily made me feel comfortable. When I think about the gameplay itself or the story, there's nothing all that impressive. But the loop always makes me feel productive and relaxed. When paired with the incomparable soundtrack, it's basically a digital blanket I can cuddle into.
In terms of time sinks, there has been little that could compare in my life to Sid Meier's Civilization series, and Civ VI is not an exception. I don't know if I like it as much as IV yet, and I certainly haven't spent as much time with it. But its on its way. That could easily get to be my most played game. Full stop, It's going through the roof as we speak. Twenty hours in a week, thanks to winter break. Life is sad sometimes.

I need to give a shout out to my phone here. I'm on my own phone plan now, and I adore the phone I have for it. While I don't have the brand new OnePlus 3T, that wasn't announced until a few weeks after I got mine, but I don't care. I love my OnePlus 3. In our society, our phones have gotten to be an expression of who we are. My iPhone was fine, but I think this represents who I am better. It's a smart buy when considering value. It's unique because no one else has it. That's my problem with Apple products. They all blend in. They look nice, but boring. Where my phone is concerned I want to feel unique, and it is.

I can't mention Stranger Things, Westworld and trashing on Apple without thinking about the person who spurred me to watch it, my wonderful girlfriend Allie. I try to keep an air of professionalism with this silly blog and not directly address her, but she is definitely my favorite thing about 2016. I'm not an easy person to be with, but she seems to be sticking it out. She leaves for Canada soon, but I know I'm the luckiest guy in the world to have her. She makes me happy. I love her, and she's my favorite thing of the year.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Post fact

I remember a particularly nasty moment during the 2012 election. At least, it was nasty for me. I shared a quote supporting President Obama and the conservative faction of my family did take well. Too young to realize my mistake, I watched as the comments spiraled out of control with assertions of an adherence to Islam. Watching the discussion grow increasingly racist and angry (the latter on both sides) I had a moment of sadness to see that people I has always seen as good and loving were showing a much uglier side of their personality.
I quickly deleted the post and thought I could just let it lie. Just some people learning to use the Internet and a lot of buried prejudice. 2016 proved me wrong. Because 2016 has sucked. We've lost artists like David Bowie, Prince, Phife Dawg, George Michael, Carrie Fisher, and Debbie Reynolds. Still, the death I will mourn for years to come has been fact. I'm not sure facts exist anymore.
Of course I mean that in a metaphorical sense, 1+1=2, I live in the United States of America, and tea is made from leaves. Those facts were and remain true. But the truth is becoming politicized. This country just elected the largest proponent of the Birther myth. When confronted about his proclamations of (racist) lies against the president he made a claim that Clinton started it. His evidence? A story with no backing. That is becoming acceptable. There is no evidence for that claim, but Trump's supporters proselytized it none the less. This trust has gone on to pose a greater threat.
Votes and numbers are the definition of objective. There is no arguing that 7 is larger than 3, that is a fundamental truth to the world, but we aren't seeing that right now. I am not challenging that Trump legitimately won the election, by the rules, he did. But he lost the popular vote. That is numerical fact. But he still claims that is not the case because evidently a large amount of votes were cast illegally. There is absolutely no grounds for this. There has never been any evidence of large scale fraudulent voting in this country, but the only account I can think of from this election was a woman from Des Moines trying to vote for Trump twice. Beyond that there is nothing to account for a gap of three million votes. The truth is that he lost the popular vote by a significant amount, but that doesn't seem to matter. Once again, his supporters believe what he says.
I don't think this willingness to go with false information is new, nor is it exclusive to the other side of the aisle. Psychological phenomena such as conformation bias show that we are all easily susceptible to lies that would confirm our current beliefs. That holds true regardless of opinions, beliefs, intelligence, and basically every other factor that makes someone an individual. I'd site the Red Scare and the associated blacklistings throughout Hollywood as examples of people of every sort going crazy when they heard scary, albeit false, stories about a scary force creeping into the country. The problem is that it is getting ever easier to foul the country.
To any Republicans who have made it this far, know that I truly do respect you, your opinions, and your party as a whole, but Trump has made himself a really easy target here. He would tweet statistics and graphs from made up institutions. And that spread fake information from a seemingly legitimate source. I've written before about how fake news can look real, but in the McCarthy era, people got their news from verifiable newspapers, radio, and television programs. To make any of these required significant financial investments, technical know-how, and people to stake their names that they were telling the truth. Sure, yellow journalism was a real problem, but it was minor at most. Now, anyone can say anything and make it look just as legitimate as The New York Times.
Since the Red Scare, the Republican Party has always prided itself on its patriotism and the perceived disloyalty of the pinko Democrats to the Republic. Where Republicans criticize my party for political correctness, I would observe a devotion to patriotic correctness. Any information that might propose something that suggests a flaw in belief of what America is needs to be destroyed. That bias is hurting us. Information no longer needs to be correct to be suggested, so, do we really have fact any more?

Friday, December 23, 2016

A galaxy of possibilities: the promise of Rogue One

With the arrival of The Force Awakens, I was thrilled to see back into my favorite end of the universe. I won't say that it was perfect, I understand the argument that Ray & company basically recycled good parts of previous entries in the franchise, but there was still enough to look to justify six trips to the theater on my part. Okay, maybe not justify, but at least satisfy. There's a whole argument about how this actually falls in the tradition of Star Wars cyclical nature. So let's not talk about that right now, let's talk about why I'm super excited by Rogue One.
Rogue One is easily better than the prequels, but that is a low bar to leap. My personal rankings (from worst to best) would go: Attack of the Clones, Phantom Menace, Revenge of the Sith, Rogue One, New Hope, Force Awakens, Return of the Jedi, and Empire Strikes Back. So, the brief adventures of Jyn (Felicity Jones) didn't rock my world. Why am I writing about it? Because I love Star Wars and now I have a lot of hope for the future of the series beyond the central canon.
Member when Star Wars had a widely sprawling canon across multiple mediums? If you do, you almost certainly member when Disney reset the whole canon of the series beyond the films. Well, now we're getting more non-movie additions, but there is still a massive graveyard of stories (mostly books and video games) that can still be drawn upon. Now, there is a chance to introduce them to the canon on a larger scale.
In spite of the fact that many Star Wars books (i.e. Darth Plagueis) and video games (i.e. Knights of the Old Republic) had great and well crafted stories, most people never paid attention because that was a bridge too far into nerdiness. If the Marvel movies, also under the helm of Disney, have proven anything, it's that movies can make the really obscure and nerdy the very definition of mainstream.
The galaxy of Star Wars is (or at least was) far more consistent than the one from Stan Lee, but no less interesting. Still, I talk more about Marvel's movies, just because the films have made it an easier discussion point. That's where I can see Star Wars going.
I don't want the stories to be churned out, but having a self contained story gives the universe a chance to produce more stories. A lot of the novels are games aren't Star Wars in much but name and aesthetic, but that's just fine by me. If that makes my favorite genre more wide and accessible to more people spurring more information and more discussion for me, that's awesome. Is it possible this will go horribly wrong? Yup. Is it possible we'll see more prequel-esque movies? Uh-huh. Is it possible we'll get a Jar Jar Binks spin off? I choose not to think of it. But Rogue One gives me hope for future installments, especially with Donald Glover cast as young Lando.

Monday, December 19, 2016


What's the best way to follow up a post about how advertisements are poisoning the young mind of my sister? A post about why we should all allow ads. Let me be clear, I don't like ads. I find them unpleasant at best, and toxic to our collective conscious at worst. So, why am I okay with them?
The internet might be the most incredible thing mankind has ever made. Not an original statement by any means, but I think it is worth reminding us all about how cool it is that a large amount of wires have enabled every member of the human family to contact each other and learn anything. This digital revolution has upended the world in the name of freedom, but we can't expect the cost to also be free.
Of course we pay for an internet connection. We pay for wires to our house or else we pay for data from a wireless provider, but we have developed a certain expectation of free services online. Google, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, and a host of other free services are all available to anyone for free. Technically.
We don't see the magic behind the veil, but all of these services are run by massive companies with huge amounts of infrastructure, and long payrolls of valuable employees. They need to make money and keep the whole operation afloat somehow. There are two ways to do this, either pay outright for a service like Netflix, or get it for free like, well, like pretty much everything else.
To make their service free, most websites, especially social networks and news outlets run ads to us. I don't like it either, but I want access to these things and I have to pay with either money or by being exposed to ads, and I'd rather just see the ads. It would seem most people agree with me.
For evidence look at the success of free Facebook vs. the flop of freemium Ello. Or look at the success of mostly online news outlets like Huff Post vs. the struggles of print magazines. Consumers expect that these services should not cost money. If we want these services to stay around, we need to provide something in return. That's the big issue I want to address here.
Adblockers like the simply named Ad Block Plus can make the internet virtually ad free. I'd be lying if I said I hadn't tried them out, and I would blaspheme to say the internet didn't look a lot nicer that way. But I uninstalled because I don't want to give up my highly limited funds.
A good deal of sites that I frequent, Wired, South Park Studios, among others, can detect the use of ad blocking software and make it a lot more difficult to use the website. Some would complain that this is unfair, but I actually think this is generous. I want to get free stuff, the fact that Comedy Central will let me watch the newest episodes of South Park without paying is kind of amazing. By the principle of bulk order, a lot of people watching that make them a couple cents will let this continue. Or I could go pay for the season. This leads to what I think of as the Spotify option.
Spotify has two options, the free version which has limited features, or the unlocked premium version. If you want to pay money and skip ads, along with other features, you pay money. If you don't want to pay, you can just hear ads in your Kanye/Katy Perry playlists. Either way, the service can continue. This really outlines the ultimate choice we as digital citizens are left with.
Option 1: Pay up. This is simple, but I would argue that fragmenting the internet is bad for the overall health and ideology that underlie the internet. But it's an option that exists.
Option 2: Stop blocking ads. I don't want this either, it feels like the man is winning and that almost causes me physical pain. The use of ad blocking has been on the rise, and I want to keep my access to things without paying. That doesn't work if too many people don't buy in with me, and it takes a lot of people.
Even in an altruistic world where people will work for free, it costs money to even just run the minimal task of keeping the servers on. I don't want to see the ads, but let's all just grit our teeth for the collective good.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Child Cannibalism: Consumerism Devouring my Sister

I am a strong believer in the merits of technology. When I was a little kid, my mom was (and is) staunchly against computers, mostly on principle. And by principle I mean a deathly fear of change. One might think such circumstances would produce a technophobe. In my case, that is not true.
Though our home lacked a computer, I couldn't be insulated from computers, and that only had limited exposure only made me more interested. Maybe that's part of the reason for my time spent as a computer engineering student, and it is certainly responsible for my obsession with gadgets. So if it isn't obvious, I'm a big proponent of technology for education and benefiting society in a myriad of other ways. Today, something happened that dampened my optimism.
Earlier this year, I bought my youngest sister Stella a tablet. Nothing fancy, just a cheap little Lenovo. In my mind, this was a fun present that would open up educational stuff to her with some occasional games for long car rides. That worst case scenario would render her a gamer with a better understanding of the basics of technology than I did at her age. If only.
With Christmas break rolling around, I've been spending a lot of time with Stella, and it is great. At school I really miss getting to be a hero for breathing and playing the Mr. Scrooge game with her. While I spent a good portion of last Christmas break and the summer like this, that isn't what she wants anymore. She is devoted to YouTube Kids.
I'm not judging watching YouTube, I think there's some really good content on there and frankly can't stand the majority of current "family" shows. Pair that with a fostering of DIY ethics for a lot of creators, YouTube's something I don't have any inherent qualms with. Then I saw what she was watching, and I felt kind of gross.
This is all content curated for Stella's age group, so nothing that even registers PG, The gross part is that Stella is enchanted by ads. I understand that to have free content, some adds are necessary, that's fine. But she will watch hours and hours of videos of toy unboxings and channels that just talk about how cool the new Frozen grab bags are so cool. The voices are pandering, and I really had trouble believing that this many adults would be so enchanted with these products.
So, it was time to dig. It is important to note that the YouTube Kids app doesn't allow easy access to description or comment sections, so I had to go and find some of these videos in my Chrome browser. Upon the slightest scrutiny it turned out that, almost without exception, they were made by people being paid to pretend they are really, really into Shopkins, just like every kid should be. The internet has made finding ads a lot more confusing. Sure, some stick out and a lot go unnoticed due to the popularity of ad-blocking software. What if the content that drives internet traffic is, to some degree, an ad?
Paid content in mainstream media is nothing new, but there have always been federal regulations that require disclosure that the content is being paid for. So if you read a review someone was paid to write for a product on Amazon, they are required to disclose any financial gains, including a free product, in the words. Videos don't work the same.
On YouTube, there only has to be a disclosure in the description. No one, child content creator or otherwise, makes a point to mention this in a video, so its always in the description. Personally, I already think this is kind of deceptive for adults. Kids? That's a whole other ball game.
As previously mentioned, it's hard to get to that description through the app to begin with. Even if a kid figures out, it probably wouldn't make a difference. Stella is a smart kid. Really smart. Still, like most 5-year-old people, she can't read. Assuming that the population of her age group is on the same or lower levels, getting to the description doesn't make a difference, they can't read it. This is unfair on multiple levels.
For those who don't know, I listen to podcasts semi-obsessively and one of my favorites is "Stuff You Should Know." Recently, Josh and Chuck ran through some information about advertising to kids, and that is some really, really gross stuff.
Until the Reagan administration, advertising to kids was heavily regulated, but then laissez-faire took over, and the next thing you know there are full length shows that are basically ads. Adults can differentiate, but children can't. No, literally. Studies show that until around the age of 12 the human mind can literally not differentiate between the fun toons they were just enjoying with some Cap'n Crunch and the products people want to shove down their throats. Their mouths are wide open to these early stages of consumerism.
Most of the videos Stella watches are for licensed products, Disney Princesses and Trolls in particular. They found a devious way to sell a lot of these, grab bags. I won't pretend I don't understand part of the fun of collecting, I had my own obsessions with Pokemon and Yu Gi Oh cards, but I think that's different.
Maybe it's my old man deep down already getting angsty about the kids threatening to step on my lawn, but this seems more dubious. Those cards were part of a game and encouraged trading and social behaviors. That's why I still like TCGs. These have no purpose beyond growing a horde, and Stella knows so much about them. When I opened a Zapdos card, I knew it was special because I knew that was a cool character that was hard to find. Thanks to her videos, Stella knows specifics of rarity and and class of these little figures. And because there is no way to know what is in the bag ahead of time. So she always wants more.
Here is where I will differentiate consumerism as a problem. Full disclosure, it's a drug I still struggle with, but this seems like purchasing for the sake of purchasing. I had a lot of cards, but they were for a game. I had books, but I read them. I had movies, but I watched them. Now, the toys go unplayed with, collectible heirlooms for kids. Many would argue that they make them happy, so who cares. I understand that, but that is going somewhere really scary.
It wasn't until the beginning of the summer I really started to rage against the machine and reduce my possessions, and I realize now that it was probably because I was groomed by Pokemon cards, even though I really do hold to the belief that it was more innocent and valuable. This is really the same model, but much, much more potent. When I was advertised to, I didn't realize it, but I hadn't been trained to seek it out. Maybe I'm just worried about the kids of today, but I want it to be clear that I do not blame them, they don't know it's happening.
I understand that we live in a mostly capitalist society, and so some of these issues are unavoidable. But every segment of every industry seem to be collaborating to make the next generation wonderful at buying crap they don't need or necessarily want until they see a very enthusiastic description online. It's the same as its always been, just a lot worse. It's taking advantage of people to make a profit. That's not okay.
What's worse? I have no idea how to fix this mess. We can try to teach kids about how to identify ads, but who knows how effective that would be? Even if it worked, that's still consumerism, just a bit smarter consumerism. It doesn't get to the central issue of this sociological tumor. And it makes me really sad. This is why I'm liberal. I'm not nearly as worried about Big Brother watching me as I am society selling its soul for a few trinkets.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Post traumatic love, or an apology to those close to me

It's hard to deal with mental problems. It's harder to learn to live in a way that I can heal. Hardest of all is seeing how it affects the people I love.
There is more than one way in which I can feel guilty for this, I think the best people who can best exemplify this are my parents and my girlfriend.
As I've previously written, I've become increasingly independent recently but that's not our of nowhere. I've always been painfully aware that I am the oldest child of 5. My parents never did anything to pressure or shame me in any way, but was always reminded that I had to set a strong example for my siblings.
No one ever told me I was at risk of being actively shamed, and like most young men I wanted nothing more than to make my dad proud, but I've had to find a somewhat unconventional way about it.
My dad is the kind of man America has long taken pride in. As a hard-working man in the construction industry, my personality as an anxious book worm was never wonderfully compatible. Meanwhile, my mom was the apple pie dream as the impossibly supportive woman every young person deserves to have. With a strong foundation, it wouldn't make sense to have a son that is virtually. But I'm not.
I'm human. I make mistakes. I do the best I can. But everything that happens to me negatively, no matter how large or small, feels like I'm bringing shame to the family. As long as I do my best, they don't care, but sometimes my best doesn't feel like enough. I know what my best can be. My best wouldn't cause me pain, and bring my parents stress. So, even if it is not my fault, I can't tell them anything, even if they could help. And I know that hurts the people who love me. To find out that someone you love wouldn't let you help them is almost worse than having something wrong with you. So I want to tell the people who care about me, but I don't want to make anyone embarrassed to be associated with me, or else cause them pain.
That leads to my girlfriend. I love her. I lover her and I am so lucky to be in a committed relationship with here. I don't actually like calling her my girlfriend because I feel like that doesn't adequately express the strength of my feelings for her. I'm grateful for her love and support, but I need it from her for the worst reasons.
With my history, I can't help but have some rough moments triggered. Trusting is hard. Vulnerability is scary. It isn't easy to open up, but I really can't help myself with her. She's the reason I understand the term "falling in love." It's scary and fast and sudden and you can't stop it, but I really don't want to anyway.
There is so much for me to share with her, and sometimes I can't control when it comes out. A simple text, a touch of the hand, or just a bit of post traumatic stress can break me to tears, or go off about the horrible things that have happened to me as an explanation of why I'm so messed up and hard to love.
But she sticks around. I may not be a smart man, but I know I'm lucky to be loved. Maybe that's what's really so wonderful about love. Deep down, we're all scared and a feeling little bit unworthy. Regardless, we choose to love. We choose to care for each other. That's kind of the most amazing thing I can think of.
So maybe I have some problems, and maybe I will make things hard or sad for the people I love and who love me. But that's why we're all stuck on this big mud ball.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Go West(world) Young Man

I'm finally on the hip edge of TV with HBO's Westworld, and I have to say, it blew me away. There are a lot of issues the first season raised that I plan to talk write about later, like the representation of identity and self, but today I want to talk about my favorite character, Dolores. Let me just throw a quick spoiler warning here.
When I started Westworld, I was expecting Dolores to follow a very archtypical path of female empowerment, but even in the first episode I saw that would not be the case. If there's one thing the show excels at, it's subverting expectations. Maybe that is why I felt my initial pull toward Dolores, the writers made it clear from the beginning that she was intended for something special.
When I first started discussing favorite characters with my girlfriend, who I also watched a significant portion of the series with, she suggested that it's because Dolores is hot. I won't deny that Evan Rachel Wood is a very good looking woman, but I don't think that's it. I think it's because I can identify with her character.
One of the things that has often held women back in entertainment is the male gaze. Almost all entertainment is made to please young men. Not only has that given an unfortunate homogeneity to entertainment, the perception has been that men can only identify with strong characters (read straight white guys). I am thrilled to report that Dolores definitely disproves such a conceit.
Many, myself included, might point out that I'm not an overly masculine figure to begin with. That is true, but Dolores remains a strong character. While she does become more empowered over time, there is never a point where the farmer's daughter isn't ready to go. This is your last spoiler warning before I go to some major plot points.
Maybe I'm just stupid, but one of the craziest realizations for me was that not all subplots in the show were happening in the same time, I certainly didn't expect William to be the Man in Black. Assuming I wasn't the only one, the reveal of Dolores bouncing all over the timeline caught me off guard at the same time that a mirror was held to my face.
I've talked a bit about my post traumatic stress, but one of the (admittedly stereotypical) manifestations can be traumatic flashbacks. If something negative and familiar hits me, I can be transported to a bad place, with almost no way to hold on. For now.
The way humans work reminds me a great deal of how robots work, just more complex. That's why the representation of androids on Westworld grips me so thoroughly. My thoughts tend to align with those of Arnold. As far as I am concerned, they are sentient beings just as much as any human is, the means of controlling them are a little more obvious.
Hard determinism is a bit off-putting, but I can't deny that the philosophy holds truth to me. As I've previously written, the way humans work is essentially an incredibly complex series of electrical pulses and chemical reactions, the hosts are just a bit more obvious.
Mae gets out of this loop by altering her code, I'd make an analogy to medication, and Dolores finds freedom with the help of another; which I'd compare to therapy. The strength and capabilities are deep in her to overcome and become a great person, or lead a revolution, she just needs to change some things, and move past some old scars.
Can I beat my demons just like Dolores shot Ford (seriously, what?)? Not yet. But I'm getting there. I just need to change a few lines of code in me.