Thursday, October 27, 2011

Games As Art: PBS Off Book

Just a quick post to share this sweet video that I found over on Kotaku. It's the latest in a series called "Off Book" by PBS Arts, and it features a number of people in the video game industry talking about why they see video games as an artistic medium. They raise some interesting points, particularly about the meaning of interaction and emotional inspiration, that are great contributions to the ongoing debate about games as art. Plus they describe Portal in a way that I completely hadn't considered but that is so interesting it makes me want to go back and play that incredible game all over again for the umpteenth time. That alone would make the video worth posting, but here it's just a minor point in the larger discussion.

One thing in the video I found particularly interesting was the description of the Jason Rohr's game Passage. The basic gist is that the game presents a world that you are free to explore, but only for a short time before your character dies; in that time you can get a partner who explores with you, but eventually dies shortly before you do. The concept and execution are simple and yet the game invites an emotional reaction by emphasizing a sense of the impermanence and unimportance of human existence. This use of interactivity to present an emotional concept is an elegant demonstration of the potential/truth of games as art, and demands further investigation. I'll see if I can get my hands on a copy of Passage, it sounds like a short but worthwhile experience/experiment.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Big Picture: Frankenstein Conquers the World

Over the summer I started watching a weekly video series called "The Big Picture" over at The Escapist. Basically the gist of the videos is that one of the Escapist's regular contributors, MovieBob, has free range to rant about whatever strikes his fancy each week. Topics have ranged from a set on Hollywood History to the revolution in animation that is encapsulated in Yogi Bear's collar (seriously, watch that one, it's AMAZING). 

Considering that content description and the fact that the series' subtitle is "A Hard Look At All Things Geek," it's really no surprise the videos strike my fancy more often than not. I've been planning to feature an episode here on the blog, and I think last week's installment presents the perfect conflux of MovieBob's style with a number of my personal interests. I hope you enjoy The Big Picture: Frankenstein Conquers the World.

Ok, now that you've seen that I want to present a quick commentary on why I selected that video in particular. First and foremost it's about a movie I have never seen, and one that features Frankenstein's monster no less. This immediately piques my interest since Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is one of my all-time favourite novels, and I love to explore its various adaptations (even though most of them are kinda crap). I realize now that I haven't talked about Frankenstein at all on this blog, and perhaps that's something I need to rectify in the near future... Regardless though, that fact alone has me curious, but the hits don't stop coming. On top of that the movie is made by Toho of freaking Godzilla fame, and I've made no secret of my love for all things big, radioactive, and green.

So the movie features a giant, radioactive monster that's (inexplicably) referred to as Frankenstein stomping around Japan and generally acting like everyone's (read: my) favourite king of the monsters. That's more than enough to sell me, but wait! There's more! MovieBob rightly tells us how this is one of the only movies to really dive right into the darker aspects of Japan's 20th century history, featuring not only their alliance with the Nazis in WWII but also the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima as major plot points. Holy shit! 

I've mentioned before how one of the reasons I find Godzilla so interesting is the fact that he's more or less a cinematic manifestation of the social/cultural/political/psychological scars left on the Japanese populace by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These are some of the darkest moments in modern history and the orignal Gojira was a clear attempt to negotiate the literal and figurative damage done. Regardless of the increasingly ridiculous and irreverent latter films in the series (although I would argue they build off the initial framework in interesting ways) that first movie dealt with some very serious subject matter via metaphor, leaving the real context off-screen in the hearts and minds of the audience.
Frankenstein Conquers the World eschews subtlety altogether and dives head-first into the historical fray. The movie not only deals with the bombing of Hiroshima as a historical fact and incorporates it as an integral plot point, it moreover depicts this event on film. Seriously! You saw the video above, you know as much as I do, even MovieBob is stunned by this choice. On the one hand this honestly doesn't sound nearly as tasteful or clever as the approach taken in the Godzilla franchise; there the idea of nuclear power was the plot rather than merely an event driving it forward, and the actual history was respectfully left to the audience to remember. On the other hand, Frankenstein Conquers the World is unique in its explicit response to such a horrifying event a scant two decades after it actually occurred! The movie was made in 1965 so the damage done was still very much fresh in the minds of the Japanese populace, and yet Frankenstein seems to use the event as a mere justification for getting a dude to stomp around miniature sets. Hell, the bombings are (rightfully) still a touchy subject, so it's incredible to think that they were depicted on film at all so shortly after occurring, and moreover that they were used in such a (seemingly) irreverent way.

So Frankenstein Conquers the World has shot right to the top of my "To Watch" list, number one with a bullet! I don't expect it to be deep, artistic, or even good for that matter, but I do expect it to be an "interesting" take on Frankenstein and a uniquely explicit look at Japan's response to the bombing of Hiroshima. I expect it'll play on a lot of the themes and concepts that I find so captivating about the Godzilla franchise, albeit a little less tastefully. Finally, I expect to have a good time enjoying some classic "MAN-IN-SUIT" action (Frankenstein fights Baragon!!!).

This post ended up being more about Godzilla (again) than about The Big Picture or even Frankenstein, but I think it served its purpose. I wanted to give a shout out to one of my new favourite video series and also talk about a movie that I really want to see, and I'm always happy to talk about Godzilla. Plus now I have a few new post ideas in the bank. Anyway, take my advice and check out The Big Picture, it's pretty damn awesome (again I specifically recommend the one about Yogi Bear's collar). And if you've seen Frankenstein Conquers the World or have a different opinion on Godzilla or whatever then, as always, let me know in the comments.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Never Thought I'd Be Afraid of a Graphics Editing Program

At the recent MAX 2011 fest (what the...), Adobe unveiled a prototype for an upcoming feature in Photoshop: unblurring. I tried to sum up how this new technology works but Geekosystem's Eric Limer does so better than I ever could have: "The algorithm actually calculates the movement of the camera during the time the shutter was open and uses it to retroactively correct the blurring that occurred. Impressive."

Fuck yeah that's impressive! It's like the future is now, and without any shitty motion controls!

Watch the video below for the announcement. Listen carefully to the crowd and you can hear the astounded cries of "That's impossible!" and "Holy shit!" and "Witch! Burn it! Burn the witch!"

(Via Geekosystem)

Monday, October 10, 2011

India's $35 USD Tablet Computer

In Hindi the word "aakash" means "sky"
A few days ago news hit about the release of the Aakash tablet, a computer that costs less than $35 USD per unit to manufacture. The idea behind the computer is to introduce modern communications technologies into India's rural communities, and specifically to facilitate the education of children living in poverty. At a press conference for the release of the computer, Indian Human Resources Development Minister Kapil Sibal announced, "Today we reach to the sky and demonstrate what is possible ... Let me send a message, not just to our children but the children of the world ... This is for all those who are marginalized."

Initially envisioned as a $10 solar-powered device, the Aakash is nevertheless an incredible technological achievement. The computer offers a colour touchscreen, 2 GB of internal memory that's expandable via an internal microSD card reader, 256 MB of RAM, and two USB slots. In terms of software the tablet runs off a version of Android 2.2 and features word processing, web browsing, video conferencing, and multimedia capabilities. 

I'm no expert but given the $35 production cost (and price point for students and teachers) I am positively flabbergasted by those stats. On the one hand it really drives home the disparity between production and consumer costs of devices made by certain popular electronics producers. On the other hand, it's an admirable humanitarian gesture on the parts of both developer DataWind and the Indian government (granted I'm ignoring a multitude of potential/probable ulterior motivations, but lets just focus on the warm and fuzzy aspects of this news for a moment, shall we?).

(Via reddit)

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Some thoughts on the "decline" of men

William J. Bennett's recent opinion piece on, "Why men are in trouble," is an interesting read. The gist of the article seems to be that men aren't so obviously/distinctly the dominant sex anymore, and that's a bad thing. Today's "men" spend too much time playing video games, watching movies, listening to music, and generally enjoying an extended adolescence. We've lost sight of the values of marriage and religion and are out of touch with "Masculinity."

Even if we ignore the egregious problems with Bennett's basic premise, a cursory glance at his "evidence" shows a textbook example in how to skew statistics. He complains that "Women's earnings grew 44% in real dollars from 1970 to 2007, compared with 6% growth for men," as if this clearly demonstrates that men aren't upwardly mobile enough anymore. It's not like that stat (if it's accurate) could be a result of general societal trends leaning towards the correction of gross gender inequalities. Oh no! It's most certainly an indication that the new generation isn't manly enough to make sure it's earning more money than women. Bennett admits that "Men still maintain a majority of the highest paid and most powerful occupations," but warns that "women are catching them and will soon be passing them if this trend continues." Heaven forbid!

Speaking of which, apparently we men are also losing the piety contest: Bennett notes that only "39% of men reported attending church regularly in 2010, compared to 47% of women." Those uppity women-folk are starting to catch up with us here in the corporeal world, and if we don't man-up soon they'll have a stranglehold on the sweet hereafter as well! 

Moreover, Bennett says that if we don't believe his stats we should listen to the "many young women" he's apparently spoken with, all of whom are "asking, 'Where are the decent single men?'" I'd hazard a guess that such fabled 'good guys' are somewhere with the kinds of women who wouldn't give Bennett the time of day, but that's just me. It boggles the mind to think that Bennett took a few poor women's dating woes as evidence of the "tragic" decline of patriarchal values, yet that seems to be the implication.

But Bennett's all-star line-up of "evidence" doesn't stop there: he goes on to cite Hanna Rosin's "seminal article, 'The End of Men'" (which actually might be where he cribbed many of his stats). Rosin asserts that women are taking over traditionally male-dominated roles, and Bennett takes this as a sign of a multi-generational failure in masculinity. He (again) blames video games for distracting young men and disrupting their sense of what it means to be a man, and furthermore accuses their fathers of failing in their Platonic duty to raise "Men." In a clever move that I assume is meant as a subtle rejection of Bennett's argument, has included a link in his piece to another article by Rosin entitled "Are women leaving men behind?" There she makes clear that her point is not "feminist gloating" but rather an empiric societal shift.
It's not any kind of value judgment. It just is. Women are in so many ways filling the roles that men traditionally filled ... I talk about the "end of men" not to make [men] feel hopeless and doomed to failure, but to open their eyes to the idea that gender roles are more fluid than ever, and that they do not have to fill some particular expectation. If you are prepared for it, then the end of a particular kind of macho can be a relief, not a curse.
Clearly Bennett sees the decline of traditional masculinity as a sign of the apocalypse, and to be honest that's not exactly surprising. He's an old white guy with a successful career behind him and so it makes perfect sense that he supports the "historical" dominance of the patriarchy. I'm making a wild generalization, granted, and I should clarify that I don't think that Bennett or all old white guys are horrifyingly sexist or anything like that. I'm just not surprised that Bennett's in support of traditional masculinity because it significantly informed the world in which he was able to become so successful. 

My real problem with the article is that it asserts that male dominance is over and explicitly says that's a bad thing. It's ludicrous to think that women have suddenly taken over and are now beating men in the gender war or somesuch nonsense. There continues to be widespread gender inequality in society (and I'm really only talking about North America here), especially when you start talking about career opportunities and professional earnings. Hell, the very fact that a major website like is willing to host this kind of argument is itself a sign that traditional masculinity and patriarchal values are still deeply imbedded in our society. That's not meant as an individualized criticism of (again I don't think they agree with Bennett). Rather the fact that it's worthy of posting (because he's a successful, influential person) is indicative of a larger framework of values.

Bennett cites some (assumably) valid statistics about how conditions are improving for women but takes them as signs that the very foundations of society are crumbling before our eyes. Implicit in that analysis are the beliefs that men should be in charge, that traditional male dominance over women is a good thing, and that the position and benefits men have enjoyed in the past are right. These are repugnant beliefs that I am not willing to accept, and Bennett takes them for granted, assuming them as natural principles. He doesn't even bother to make them explicit as ideology because he does not see them as such. That is among the many problems with his position, and with the larger value set that he is representing when he talks about what he believes it means to be a man.

Anyway, that's all the rant I have in me right now. Not sure if this had much of a point beyond calling out Bennett's argument as abhorrent. For the record, I'm not even sure why I bother getting angry about/critiquing this kind of nonsense. I suppose it's productive insofar as it's a mouthpiece for my personal politics, but beyond that... who knows? Feel free to let me know what you think in the comments.

(Via Kotaku, oddly enough)

(10/8/11: Minor gramatical edits because I'm sloppy sometimes)