Sunday, January 30, 2011

Olenka & the Autumn Lovers

This past weekend I visited Sackville, NB, and in case you didn't know it's a veritable hub of Canadian culture and general awesomeness. I went to see a Julie Doiron show (at a curling club!) and on the way I shared a car ride with silver-haired vixen named Olenka. The trip was pleasant enough, filled with laughter and good conversation, but little did I know the girl in the big fur hat had some serious talent in her. I checked out her MySpace page the first chance I got, and I really like what I'm hearing.

Olenka & the Autumn Lovers have a great sound that features stellar instrumentation and beautiful vocals as well as some of the best songwriting I've heard in ages. Olenka's lyrics are evocative, poignant, and concise, a rare combination that makes for great songs that leave you wanting more. Seriously, my only "complaint" is that the tracks are too short, I keep find myself wishing they would go on longer. But then I suppose it's a pretty minor criticism to say the songs are too to-the-point and effective in their brevity.

Check out Olenka & the Autumn Lovers, just by the stuff available online I can tell this is an act I'm going to keep an eye on. I'm including a stream of "Motel Blues," which boasts some of Olenka's best vocal and lyrical work. You should also check out the video above for "Mama's Bag" made by Southern Souls (another awesome new discovery for me, score!)

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Very Cool: MLB '11 Includes Mode for Disabled Gamers

Baseball and video games super-fan Hans Smith

Sony San Diego's upcoming MLB '11 will include an "Association for Disabled Virtual Athletes" mode that allows the game to be played using only one button. Basically the player controls batting or pitching and the computer handles things like fielding, running, etc. The point is to make the game accessible for gamers who are only able to use one button on the controller.

The idea came from a fan named Hans Smith, who has cerebral palsy. An apparent super-fan of baseball and video games, Smith contacted Sony a number of years ago to express his appreciation of the MLB: The Show series. The developers made an avatar for him and included it in MLB: The Show '10, and this year they're going a step farther by including the new mode Smith conceived. Now disabled players around the world will be able to enjoy the game like he does. has the full scoop, but I just wanted to give this story a nod. It's really great to see this kind of awareness and step towards inclusion by a major developer. I don't know enough about either sports games or disabled gamer issues to evaluate the mode, but its existence at all is a good sign. It seems difficult to imagine this type of mode being excluded from future releases, and eventually I'd hope to see it become a standard feature for all developers. But even if it's just a one off it's still a great move by Sony's San Diego studio.

In a related story, Kotaku reports that Forza 3 has won the 2010 Accessible Mainstream Game of the Year award. Given out by the AbleGamers Foundation, the self-explanatory award exists to promote awareness and accessibility in gaming. This year's winner, Forza 3, features a myriad of customizability options for disabled gamers, including an "auto-break" feature. This helps colour-blind gamers enjoy the game as normally the on-screen breaking guide is based on red and green coloured prompts. Additionally it allows the game to be fully playable using only two-buttons, as seen in the video below.

It's great to find out that there's an award promoting developers who include these kinds of accessibility options. It'll be interesting to hear if MLB '11 wins the award next year, and if not to find out what game beat them out. Just a really solid couple of mid-week stories that I felt were worth sharing.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Robert Burns Day

Happy Robbie Burns Day! To mark the occasion I want to honour two things I love: poetry and haggis. Scotland's famous sausage is one of my favourite meals, and no one appreciates it better than Mr. Burns did in his "Address to a Haggis." I'll let the verse speak for itself, and I hope you'll join me in enjoying some delicious haggis, neeps, and tatties sometime soon

Address To a Haggis

Burns Original
Standard English Translation

Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o' the puddin-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy of a grace
As lang's my arm.

The groaning trencher there ye fill,
Your hudies like a distant hill,
Your pin wad help to mend a mill
In time o' need,
While thro' your pores the dews distil
Like amber bead.

His knife see rustic Labour dight,
An' cut ye up wi' ready slight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like onie ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Warm-reeking, rich!

Then horn for horn, they stretch an' strive:
Deil tak the hindmost, on they drive,
Till a' their weel-swall'd kytes belyve
Are bent like drums;
Then auld Guidman, maist like to rive,
'Bethankit!' hums.

Is there that owre his French ragout,
Or olio that wad staw a sow,
Or fricassee wad mak her spew
Wi perfect scunner,
Looks down wi' sneering, scornfu' view
On sic a dinner?

Poor devil! see him owre his trash,
As fecl;ess as a wither'd rash,
His spindle shank a guid whip-lash,
His nieve a nit;
Tho' bluidy flood or field to dash,
O how unfit.

But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread,
Clap in his walie nieve a blade,
He'll make it whistle;
An' legs, an' arms, an' heads will sned
Like taps o' thrissle.

Ye pow'rs, wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o' fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware,
That jaups in luggies;
But if ye wish her gratfu' prayer,
Gie her a Haggis!

Fair full your honest, jolly face,
Great chieftain of the sausage race!
Above them all you take your place,
Stomach, tripe, or intestines:
Well are you worthy of a grace
As long as my arm.

The groaning trencher there you fill,
Your buttocks like a distant hill,
Your pin would help to mend a mill
In time of need,
While through your pores the dews distill
Like amber bead.

His knife see rustic Labour wipe,
And cut you up with ready slight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like any ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Warm steaming, rich!

Then spoon for spoon, the stretch and strive:
Devil take the hindmost, on they drive,
Till all their well swollen bellies by-and-by
Are bent like drums;
Then old Master of the house, most like to burst,
'The grace!' hums.

Is there that over his French ragout,
Or olio that would sicken a sow,
Or fricassee would make her throw-up
With perfect disgust,
Looks down with sneering, scornful view
On such a dinner?

Poor devil! see him over his trash,
As feeble as a withered rush,
His thin legs a good whip-lash,
His fist a nut;
Through bloody flood or field to dash,
O how unfit.

But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread,
Clap in his ample fist a blade,
He will make it whistle;
And legs, and arms, and heads will crop
Like tops of thistle.

You powers, who make mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill of fare,
Old Scotland want no watery ware,
That splashes in small wooden dishes;
But is you wish her grateful prayer,
Give her a Haggis!

(Via The World Burns Club)

Monday, January 24, 2011

Word of the Day: Perspicuous

I just came across the word "perspicuous" for the first time in my life. As the context did not make its meaning obvious I decided to look the word up in Webster's dictionary. This is what I found:


 adj \pər-ˈspi-kyə-wəs\

Definition of PERSPICUOUS

: plain to the understanding especially because of clarity and precision of presentation perspicuous argument>
So this puzzling new word, amusingly enough, is meant to connote clarity and ease of understanding. Not since "pedantic" or "resistentialism" have I been so amused by the meaning of a newfound word. I felt I just had to share. Enjoy, and have a great day.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Games As Art: The Ending of Red Dead Redemption

Author's note: I wrote most of this post back in June but failed to publish it. Then in the fall Rockstar released the Undead Nightmare DLC, causing me to return to the game and subsequently this article.

Note: Major spoilers for Red Dead Redemption

Rockstar Games's recent Red Dead Redemption is a sandbox-style game set in the old-west that players explore in the role of outlaw-turned-family-man John Marston. The game is comprised of a multitude of tropes and images from western films that the developers both lovingly recreate and actively critique using a post-revisionist lens. Red Dead presents Rockstar's most introspective examination of the violence that characterizes their games. This is particularly true of the infamous Grand Theft Auto series, which has garnered worldwide media attention for the freedom it gives players to commit depraved acts. Through Red Dead and the character of John Marston, whose story is explicitly one of redemption, Rockstar directly addresses the moral divide between their interactive fantasies and the often mundane reality we inhabit. Never is this made more clear than in the final missions of the game when players are given the unusual opportunity to reap the fruits of their labour by continuing to play beyond the climax through a sort of "ever after" sequence.

The bulk of Red Dead sees John Marston tracking down and executing his former gang members. Government men have abducted his wife and child and in order to get them back John has to do the law men's dirty work. When players finally eliminate the last of the outlaws they witness the Marston family reunion and then continue to play through a series of domestic missions as the characters begin to put their lives back together. Objectives in these missions include herding cattle, delivering grain, and scaring crows away, all of which are a far cry from hunting down bandits. The real meat of this section is the introduction of John's teenage son, Jack, and the development of that relationship.

Jack admires his father's gun-slinging ways, much to John's dismay. The boy is enamoured with romantic fantasies from the novels he reads, and he wants to "be a man" like his father by going on adventures and fighting bad guys. Many of the missions in this section of the game boil down to reverse tutorials whereby the player teaches Jack how to complete basic day-to-day activities on the family farm. John uses these lessons as an opportunity to try and dissuade the boy from choosing a life like the one he had, explaining that gun-slinging and murder are neither moral nor admirable.

John's interactions with his son present an overt dialogue about the nature of violence and the differences between a normal life and a fictionalized dramatic one. Jack repeatedly glorifies fictional accounts of "heroics" in the wild west, including killing and vengeance like that which characterized earlier sections of the game. The boy complains that the menial tasks of farm-life are boring, and John responds that reality isn't like the stories in adventure novels. He tells his son that it's easy to enjoy exciting tales because they excite the imagination, but that people tend to hate actual drama because it's frightening, dangerous, and unpredictable. John tries to teach John how to appreciate their everyday activities despite their subdued and repetitive nature, and his attempts compromise the final missions of the game.

Through this conversation between Marston and his son Rockstar directly addresses the expectation of and taste for violence in their games.

The developer anticipates the frustration of many gamers at the tutorial-esque missions at the conclusion of Red Dead, and Jack vocalizes their concerns with his demand for adventure. The boy is characterized as being obsessed with fiction, with his head more in his books than his real life. Over the course of the late-game missions, however, Jack comes to appreciate the value of commonplace activities and (after a close encounter with a grizzly bear) the relative safety of a "boring" life. By the final missions Jack begins to openly critique his father's propensity for guns and violence, and quips that he will write a story called "The Day John Marston Stops Shooting." Johns responds, "I don't think that'll sell, people like shooting in them things," and thereby gives voice to the developers responsible for games so often criticized for their violence.

Through Red Dead, Rockstar actively engages in the moral debate about violence in video games. Never is this more apparent than in the conversations between John and Jack, in which the developer adresses the depravity of the game's content. However the dialogue also draws attention to the differences between fantasy and reality, and the state of commercial entertainment. Rockstar's stance is less a defence and more an indictment of the audience, not going as far as to blame players for the violence in gaming narratives but definitely acknowledging their role in its propagation. The morality and politics thus embedded so deeply in Red Dead's narrative make it much more than just another violent game from the developers of Grand Theft Auto. This discussion is just one more reason why Red Dead Redemption is a fantastic game, firmly rooted in the tradition of revisionist Western cinema and well worth your time.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

More Thoughts on The Social Network

When I reviewed The Social Network I focused a lot on the movie's incredible score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. I said then and still think now that the music is one of the most unique and memorable aspects of the film, adding to if not defining the sense of impending doom that pervades throughout. After posting the review I received a number of complaints for focusing too much on the music, and also for not mentioning Aaron Sorkin's script. I want to take a quick moment to address a few of those concerns.

With regards to my focus on The Social Network's soundtrack, I maintain that it is among the most original and emotive scores in recent memory. The music stands on its own and gracefully improves the film, and moreover is itself improved by its relationship with the visuals. It will be a damn shame if it doesn't win the Academy Award (or is absurdly disqualified for its use of Edvard Greig's "In The Hall of the Mountain King"). Still don't believe me? Fine, don't take my word for it, check out a recent article over at /Film on what the opening scene could have been. You'll recall that the final cut uses Reznor's chilling "Hand Covers Bruise" to juxtaposition naïveté and dread right from the start. Well evidently the original choices for the soundtrack included Paul Young's "Love of the Common People" and Elvis Costello's "Beyond Belief." I think it's safe to say we ended up with the best option.

Finally, on the subject of the script, I did not mean to sell Aaron Sorkin short. I consider him to be one of the finest contemporary screen writers and I always thoroughly enjoy his work. The only reasons I failed to mention him in my review were that I was working with a tight word limit and, frankly, I didn't think The Social Network was his best work. The dialogue is great, don't get me wrong, but I really felt that Sorkin had delivered better material in the past. To a certain extent I still feel this way, but having seen the movie again over the holidays I will admit that the script is better than I initially thought. More than that the film as a whole actually got better with multiple viewings, but the dialogue in particular impressed me more than the first time around. It's quick witted in a way that is completely unnatural but never so much so that it feels that way and draws you out of the experience. I still don't think it's Sorkin's finest work, but that just speaks to his great potential.

On that note, I want to leave you with a scene from The West Wing, a show that consistently demonstrated Sorkin's incredible talent for dialogue. Annoyingly I can't embed the scene but follow this link to watch it in all its awesomeness. For the uninitiated, this scene comes at the end of the first episode and shows the first introduction of the President, played by Martin Sheen. It's a longer clip but totally worth watching. Sheen's "I am the lord they god" speech still blows me away every time I watch it, it's just so fucking brilliant. Enjoy.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

True Grit

I should start this review with the disclaimer that I have never read Charles Portis' novel or seen its 1969 film adaptation starring John Wayne. With that said, I thought the Coen Brothers' True Grit was one of the best movies I saw in 2010.

True Grit is told from the perspective of Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a young girl attempting to track down her father's killer. As the film begins she tells us that "Nothing comes free in this life," and at the end she says, "Time just gets away from us." These maxims bookend a story that is appropriately matter-of-fact in its presentation. Despite what the trailers may have led you to believe, True Grit is neither a heroic western (like the John Wayne version) nor a poetic musing on the human history (like No Country For Old Men). It's actually much more similar to the Coen Brothers' absurdist comedy, Burn After Reading. There are moments of both heroism and horrifying violence but True Grit shows it all with a sardonic wit that takes similar pleasure in victory and tragedy alike. The result is a film that feels strangely and refreshingly realistic in its depiction of the "wild" west.

For a movie that is ostensibly about a manhunt, True Grit spends an awful lot of time showing people arguing about bargains. As one character memorably says, "I do not entertain hypotheticals, the world as it is is vexing enough," and indeed a good portion of the film is dedicated to the sorting out of facts. We see debates about everything from bullet trajectories to obscure legal concepts like replevin, and at all times the answer lies in the minutiae. Similarly detail oriented are the few occurrences of violence in the film, all of which are unflinchingly realistic and shown entirely onscreen. In a world where nothing is certain, True Grit makes it clear that the devil is most certainly in the details.

Yet in spite of this focus, the film is remarkably relativist in its morals. Characters talk about "the Law" a lot but rarely are we shown much in the way of justice. Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) is supposed to be a US Marshal, but he is accused of killing men in cold blood and admits to bank robbery; La Boeuf (Matt Damon) is a seemingly incompetent Texas Ranger who sexually harasses and physically assaults the 14 year old Ross. Despite their flaws, however, these men become heroic in the eyes of Ross and through her the audience: Rooster's irreverent attitude towards violence and death is the source of much laughter, as are La Boeuf's feeble attempts to be a knight in shining armour. Interestingly this benevolent characterization is also extended to the villainous "Lucky" Ned (Barry Pepper), who likewise charms the viewer through his interactions with Ross. Not so much that we don't cheer for Rooster in their inevitable duel, but enough to be noticeably unusual.

True Grit juxtaposes a story about its own details with a truly complex understanding of morality, and the effect of this mixture of elements is a film that feels true-to-life in a way few others have achieved. All of the characters are remarkably human in their strengths and flaws alike, and the story's detail-oriented telling makes it all the more believable. Even the climactic gun battle is shot so that it feels more like a documentary than a John Wayne movie, and the maxims that bookend the film make it clear that this sense of realism is exactly the point. True Grit tells us that life is sometimes cruel and always short but that in and of itself is no tragedy; the movie treats existence as a unrestricted mess that we all share with no value but what we ourselves make. This objective approach is what makes True Grit seem so real, so accurate in its portrayal of human interactions. As a result the film is amusing, horrifying, and uplifting all at the same time, and tells a story that is compelling for its very humanity.

The Coen Brothers' True Grit is a great cinematic achievement that should not be missed.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Welcome to Max Rambles 3.0

Update: The fancy new aesthetic is now matched by a fancy new domain name! Max Rambles can now be found at It just keeps getting better!

Ahoy! What you see before you is the new and improved version of Max Rambles! I've been saying there would new things around here for a while now, and with this update I'm officially making good on that promise.

No longer are my thoughts constrained by a Blogger template. Gone is the oft-complained-about white text on black background design. No more will my website be comparable to an old Geocities page!

You might find yourself asking, why 3.0? Well dear reader, it's a little known fact that Max Rambles actually began as a lowly LiveJournal page. Yeah yeah, I know it's embarrassing, but those days are long gone now and look how far the site has come! In the beginning it was just a place for me to develop my non-academic thoughts while I was still in undergrad. The more coherent pieces were published publicly on the off chance that someone might stumble across the site and bother to read its contents. Eventually I started posting some of the better stuff on Facebook and got a decent response. The result was the birth of the old Max Rambles page that you knew and had a love-hate relationship with. Now I've taken the next step and transformed the site into something that's actually aesthetically pleasing!

I would like to give a shout out and thank you to Sarah over at Textual Relations. She maintains a fantastic blog and has an incredible eye for web design, and the new Max Rambles would not have been possible without her considerable efforts. I strongly recommend you check out her site. Your eyes are forever indebted to her, that much is certain.

Stay tuned for more posts as I continue to try to work this into my law school schedule. I've already off to a strong start for 2011 and I intend to keep up the momentum for as long as possible. The goal is to keep up with content that at least matches the presentation in terms of quality. Thanks for reading and putting up with my archaic aesthetic for so long, and bookmark this space for the many updates to come! I promise I'll continue to make it all worth it.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Anal Retentive Ramblings: Using Two Spaces Between Sentences

I was sitting in bed hungover on this fine Saturday morning, perusing reddit's top links, when I came across an interesting article over at Slate. Technology columnist Farhad Manjoo's "Space Invaders" is a great tirade against the use of two spaces between sentences. Considering that I'm not a typographer it's kind of a strange thing to get frustrated by, granted, but the practice has always irked me. I can't tell you how many papers I've edited where the bulk of my effort has been dedicated to deleting fucking extra spaces. It is beyond relieving to find that I'm not alone in my frustration, and furthermore to be vindicated in my writing habits.

Manjoo gives an excellent breakdown of where the mistake came from, how it continues to be propagated, and why it's just plain wrong. Unsurprisingly it's of the same origin as the QWERTY curse, namely sloppy answers to the physical problems with early typewriters. This video from Daily Cup of Tech gives a decent breakdown on the historical details:

The point is that using two spaces between sentences is wrong. It's an obsolete solution to a problem we no longer have and yet people persist with it under the misconception that doing so is proper writing technique. It isn't, so stop. End of discussion.

Now if I can just find a good article that justifies the oxford comma...

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Quick Comment: Quebec Students Attracted to English

Teachers in Quebec are wondering why so many students in the province decide to switch to English after high-school. They've actually commissioned a study to try and determine the reasoning behind the mysterious phenomenon.

Quick guess: it's because they want to make money.

Granted I'm just hypothesizing without any real facts to stand on, but the correlation between things young people want and cost seems pretty clear. It makes sense that young people would want to have a decent grasp of both French and English since bilingualism is unequivocally an opportunity providing asset. Unless you want to pigeonhole yourself in a career that is exclusive to Quebec, learning English is just a good way to give yourself options. To me the statistics don't signal a general departure from French language/culture, as the Quebec teachers seem to see it. Rather this says that Quebec youths are cognizant of the realities of Canadian business and don't want to be sold short. They want to speak English so they can compete with the rest of the country instead of becoming isolated in an insular province.

What riles me is the predictable reactionary call to extend mandatory French schooling past high school. Of course any validation of the English language is immediately a threat to Quebec culture and should be regulated out of existence. It's not as though that logic is exactly what creates a turn towards English at the earliest opportunity possible. The only thing accomplished by prohibiting English teaching is to hold back Quebecois youth from being able to work at the same level as the rest of the country. It's regressive thinking that is outdated and foolhardy and it does nothing to improve matters for the province of Quebec.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Reaction to Gabrielle Gifford, Sarah Palin, and Christina Taylor Green

A brief recap for those who haven't heard:

March 2010 - Sarah Palin released an image that listed the names of Democratic Representatives who voted for health care reform in Republican districts. The image further showed a map of the United States with gun crosshairs over the districts of each of the named House Democrats, and advised her supporters to "Take A Stand."

January 8, 2011 - Gabrielle Gifford, the Democratic Representative from Arizona, was shot point-blank in the head by one Jared Lee Loughner. Six other people were killed by the gunman, and 13 were injured. Gifford was among the House Democrats "targeted" on Palin's map.

I don't really want to get into the details of the actual event. Frankly I just don't feel that I'm well enough informed to do so, and there are many sources available online that are better suited to the task. If you would like more information about the assassination attempt on Gabrielle Gifford you can check out some of these sites, or do a Google search. What I would like to talk about is a particular reaction to the news that popped up online.

Independent blogger Obama London was tracking the posts on Sarah Palin's Facebook page following the attack on Gifford, and they noticed something incredible. While the page moderators scrambled to remove posts criticizing Palin and blaming her for the shooting, one commenter posted something beyond abhorrent that the moderators chose not to take down. The post read:

"It's ok. Christina Taylor Green was probably going to end up a left wing bleeding heart liberal anyway. Hey, as 'they' say, what would you do if you had the chance to kill Hitler as a kid? Exactly."

For clarification, Christina Taylor Green was among the six people killed by the gunman who attacked Gifford. Green was nine years old.

I'm not sure what there really is say about that comment individually. It's clearly the product of an extremist with little thought as to the impact of their statement. The author is clearly an aberrant who represents nothing by their own misguided sense of reality. However, that in addition to the discourse that has arisen over the shooting itself give rise to a larger point about the 'us-and-them' mentality that pervades American politics.

In the wake of Gifford's shooting, politicians and commentators alike have sought to push the blame to the other side. On the left side there is the argument that the right needs to stop using violent rhetoric to incite their supporters, as well as the argument that the American gun culture (enshrined by the right) is to blame. Both are valid points. On the other hand, the right (specifically Rush Limbaugh) is accusing the left of shifting the blame away from shooter Jared Lee Loughner in order to make a political point. While it deliberately skirts the issue, there is some misguided truth to that argument too.

The problem is that all of these arguments fail to address the antagonistic atmosphere of American politics that engenders attitudes like the one that approved the death of Christina Taylor Green. The person responsible for that disgusting and reprehensible comment has been so indoctrinated by an us-versus-them mentality that they actually see the death of a child as a good thing, a victory even. All it takes is the thought that Green would grow up to support the other side and suddenly she is an enemy, comparable to the leader of the Nazi Party. Those who are playing the blame game (on the right and left alike) are doing nothing to dispel the culture of hostility that is behind these kinds of attitudes, rather they are encouraging it.

Sarah Palin and the right wing generally are not responsible for the attack on Gabrielle Gifford. Even the crosshairs map, which strains the limits of political discourse and verges on inciting violence, does not direct voters to go out and kill House Democrats. Certainly Palin and her representatives should have exercised more caution, common sense, and compassion before posting such a repugnant piece of political garbage. This critique could be extended generally to the entire spectrum of right wing rhetoricians, and some are soberly acknowledging this fact. However none of this puts blood on their hands, as so many are saying online. Jared Lee Loughner is an individual who is clearly deranged, and no one but him is responsible for his actions. Everyone else should just be united in shock, horror, and sadness at this terrible tragedy.

I wish Gabrielle Gifford and her family the best in this difficult time. My deepest sympathies to the families of the six people killed during the shooting, including Christina Taylor Green.

Update: I just found a video of Jon Stewart saying some very intelligent things on this topic