The Alabaster Sock

We Will Fight the Threat with Fighting

Archive for August, 2010

Robots!

Posted by Matt on August 29, 2010

Behold: The Festo AirPenguin!

And that’s not all!

(Thanks to This interview with William Gibson for linking to the The Best Things)

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Posted by Matt on August 28, 2010

Here is a post about CBC (I’d also check the previous three posts, all on the same subject, as well)

I for one completely agree with the assessment: the CBC gets FREE money, maybe not as much as they used to, but it’s still there; they are a government institution, and a well-established apart of the country’s cultural fabric. That said, why are they such big pussies when it comes to making new shows? They are almost as conservative (and the margin of difference grows shorter every year it seems) as the for-profit channels, who also get free money, but for different reasons. And as Henshaw points out, that means that NOTHING ever gets funded; if the channel that’s not supposed to worry about ratings as much (although it sounds like the recently-departed tyrant who ran the corporation pushed for the opposite) doesn’t feel like funding Canadian-made shows, why would the ones who DO care about ratings?

CBC TV has been drifting into irrelevance for the past few years, although thankfully radio and web news have been able to maintain some level of quality during the same timeframe (I must say, however, I guess I’m one of the few who isn’t up in arms about the shift on CBC Radio 2 from classical to contemporary). I do hope that something will be improved when the new regime is brought in. But with the federal government constantly finding new ways to make the CBC feel less welcome, I won’t count on it.

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Posted by Matt on August 23, 2010

I usually have a hard time just sitting down and watching a lot of something. There’s a lot of TV series out there I’d probably like that I just haven’t gotten to watching, for example. I hope to rectify this soon enough.

I guess I’m starting with Mr. Show, the cult classic sketch comedy from the mid to late 90s. I’ve spent the past two weeks watching all 30 episodes, and I can easily understand why it’s received the lofty position it has. It’s a truly ambitious show, shooting for something far greater than the average show of its type, while at the same time embracing the most absurdist comedy possibly (now put that on the back of the DVD case!)

Although it fluctuates wildly throughout the series, the structure is really what struck me the most. It was fun to see all the scenes transition into each other (which is something that posting Youtube videos of scenes can’t truly capture, although that isn’t stopping me from posting them) and how they connect in other ways, especially in earlier seasons where each episode had a central theme (not the ones that did away with them for the most part, season 4 especially, really suffered significantly from it). The thing about most sketch comedies in the SNL mold is that entire episodes mean very little; this is, of course, why entire shows are never called ‘the best’, while individual sketches are (the other major issue being the sheer volume). Mr. Show, by being both more conscious of structuring an entire half-hour and being much smaller, is able to avoid this, and this feels much stronger overall as a show rather than as a sketch-producing machine (for more and better insight into the strengths of Mr.Show‘s individual episodes, read The AV Club’s weekly retrospective.)

Of course, the sketches themselves probably wouldn’t be nearly as funny if the actors weren’t up to snuff. As the ‘With Bob and David’ part of the title would suggest, most of the comedy is in the hands of Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, who are able to pull it off pretty much all the time. Their delivery and ability to inhabit the weird characters they always end up playing (Cross is great at playing shills and annoying salesman, while Odenkirk always seems to find a point in each episode to wear a fake mustache and old-timey clothes while using funny-sounding accents). But they also found a great supporting cast as well: Tom Kenny, Jill Talley, John Ennis, and Jay Johnson and the others recurring cast (including infrequent appearances by the likes of pre-infamy Jack Black and Sarah Silverman) are all crucial to each sketch. The cast is always willing to give their roles that extra push that the scripts demand, and are sometimes even able to get as much comedy possible out of even the weakest idea.

And the other thing that makes Mr. Show stand out is its ability to push each scene to its limit and pull hilarious new directions out of nowhere. Rather than simply rest on one funny idea, they will branch out, or completely subvert it, or just go all-out bonkers. This is also one of the things that appealed to me personally: anything that go in such silly, surreal direction on a dime gets thumbs up from me.





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Posted by Matt on August 10, 2010

Mid-90s arcade games presents RAP:

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Posted by Matt on August 5, 2010

I’ve written about portable device publishing before, and have been generally quite supportive of it. It provides a new venue for people to get their work out, especially stuff like comics and other periodicals which are often seen as ‘disposable’, and even stuff like TV shows. They even allow for an expansion in how all these things can be made, creating all sorts of new possibilities.

But it now occurs to me that there is a fundamental problem with these devices: their stores, and the content available on them, is highly controlled. On one hand, this means that there will be almost no really harmful or really dismal quality apps clogging the store; I am certainly not against editorial control. But then I read stuff like this and this (let alone something like this) [And before the three of you reading this get mad -I’m not intentionally focusing only on Apple, but merely posting the major cases of recent months], it really seems that this go far beyond just making sure the quality is up to snuff, especially when you’re dealing with major corporations who police their image compulsively. Other major corporations seem to do just fine under these conditions, but everyone else? They have neither the resources nor the influence to win a fight unless they are able to raise a ruckus online, as some have. But that still leaves a major problem: for all the formatting wonders that device distribution has, the level of control exerted by the companies who run the stores is simply too great for their to be any real feeling of artistic freedom on them.

There are alternatives, though, that could arise as people learn how to use the technology, especially how to integrate the Internet and the devices. During a media class not that long ago, my professor brought up an interesting: the attempts by publishers to find alternative formats and selling methods is muddled when you bring in things like the iPad, where their store is a separate, incompatible entity from the one they established online (which one can access easily on the iPad as well, but won’t take advantage of the format). This essentially forces readers to either choose one or the other, or buy the thing twice. There has to be a better way.

So, when it comes to publishing, I think there will be a point where publishers will need to learn how to best combine these two. They may not need to choose one or the other as their sole market, but I see no reason why someone can’t try to figure out a way to make it so that their online service can download a device-friendly version; one formatted slightly differently, so that it looks more in-line with what someone would expect on an iPhone or Android. Maybe it won’t be as advanced as the ones sold exclusively through the store, lacking many of the punchy effects and interactivity (although who is to say they won’t eventually figure out how to do that?), but at the very least they’ll have a product that people can enjoy reading on both a home computer and a portable device. Plus, this means they’ll have control of their own application, free from the review process that could shut them out for arbitrary reasons.

Please note that I’m no tech-head, so the actual possibility of this is beyond my knowledge. Maybe this all just a pie-in-the-sky fantasy, like expecting my laptop to one day dispense root beer and tell me it loves me. But, hey, at least it might get people thinking. Maybe.

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Posted by Matt on August 5, 2010

One of the things that frustrates me about the standard-issue arguments about religion is how myopic they almost inevitably are. Usually, there tends to be two ‘sides’: some nebulous form of Christianity, and non-believers. Christianity serves to represent religious belief as a whole, which is of course very much a product of the western origins of these conversations. There are often variations on these two sides: sometimes the Christians are casual, sometimes they are fervent; sometimes the non-believer is agnostic, and will repeatedly bring up how they don’t dismiss the possibility of the supernatural, even if they show no reason to believe in it. But aside from the intensity of the debate, these don’t really alter the fundamental problems with the argument.

One of the maxims of the elder gods of the online atheist community (places like Pharyngula) is that there is no point in debating the hardcore religious defenders, the fundamentalists especially. They have no actual argument, no desire to argue any point, but will revel in their inner huckster and just try to sell their religion to the audience via emotional pleas and instilling guilt, alongside the usual ad hominem and out-and-out lying. There is no reason for any intelligent person to enter into such a debate, which exists merely to give their opponent an advertising opportunity. So, for the most part, the kinds of public debates you often see between well-known unbelievers and believers are little more than elaborate pitches to the audience, where the better snake oil salesman is the winner, not the one who uses, you know, facts.

This alone stifles actual attempts to inform, as well as permeates that myopic view of the debate, as it’s almost always an atheist with several major books about how much they don’t believe in God, and either a true Christian nut or some pencil-neck Catholic nebbish whose never had his passive-aggressive newspaper columns challenged. As I’ve said, I know this is because most of these debates occur in the west, where Christianity is the dominant religion and the thing that immediately comes to everyone’s mind when someone says ‘religion’. But religion is far more complicated than these black and white arguments would imply, even within the context of Christianity. How can one say that the argument of the religious representative in this debates really represents religion, when his particular belief in God doesn’t even square with the other people who believe in the same God? This is the reason ‘arguments’ like Pascal’s Wager are so utterly worthless on their face: it’s not that one could simply believe in God, or not believe in God; there are countless gods one could believe in, and countless ways to believe in any of those gods. It is NOT simply atheism vs. Christianity.

This is what leads me to think that there is very little reason for unbelievers to try to argue against religion, and should instead let religion argue itself into oblivion. The fact is, although you can present the logical argument for why one should avoid believing in any of the permutations of religious belief, it won’t matter to the person you’re arguing with, or the audience. Most people believe in a certain religion for reasons that aren’t logical or something that could be easily debated: culture, family, social relationships, subjective emotional reasons, etc. At some point (mostly through the misuse of education), some will go on to concoct bogus ‘logic’ to defend their belief, but it still all comes down to a subjective, often heavily societal-based, origin for their religious beliefs. Considering this, the best one can do is simply provide facts about what we know about the nature of the universe and call out extreme cases where religious incursions cause direct harm (which ranges from violent extremism to more local, social problems like the gay marriage debate). They don’t really need to ‘prove’ religion wrong, nor is it a particularly easy or worthwhile task.

No, if someone wants to challenge people’s beliefs, there is simply no better argument against religion than religion itself. Simply put, the multitude of mutually-exclusive belief systems, all coexisting all over the world, and each entirely convinced of its own status as the sole truth, will likely make someone question their beliefs at an equal, if maybe slightly greater, rate than the arguments against belief entirely. Why do they believe that they can only find salvation through Jesus Christ, and not that they should pray to Lord Krishna, or that life is part of the cycle that must be broken through following the example of the Buddha? Because of the way the religion argument is framed, very few are ever confronted with this question, which I think is fundamental to either reaffirming their own religious belief for whatever reason way they imagine, or really getting them to think about why. And no matter the conclusion, at least they know a little bit more about the nature of belief.

Of course, even getting that far can be difficult. Aside from western arrogance, one of the reasons other religious beliefs are never brought up is because the religious side of the equation (as established, whatever brand of Christianity they found a volunteer from that week) are often completely dismissive of beliefs other than their own. The other religions might as be speaking gibberish about rainbows and Martians. I even find it among atheists: for whatever reason, the beliefs of Mormons are somehow less believable than those of mainstream Christianity, for example. It just doesn’t make sense to me: it’s like arguing whether Star Wars or Godzilla is more ‘fake’. There may be more or less harmful proclamations within their scripture, but that has nothing to do with whether or not the religion is more ‘real’ than another. If you think they’re all fake, what does it matter?

These are the difficulties of this line of reasoning, although really, at the point where someone will dismiss someone else’s god or belief in god while continuing their own, there is likely no argument that could convince them to even consider looking at their beliefs critically.

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Posted by Matt on August 4, 2010

Because I’m sure you’re all wondering what I’ve been doing in my free time for the past month or so, and I because I actually want to do something different on here:

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
I finished it a month ago, after starting it last year and stopping after 300 pages (it was for a class). I felt really bad about not getting any further into it sooner, because I really quite liked it. I’ve now read two Rushdie novels (this and The Satanic Verses, his two most famous books), and I really quite like his style; his combination of the dream-like and the real world, his blending of the modern day and the old eastern mythologies, and his depictions of real human tragedy.
I think, for the most part, Midnight’s Children surpasses Satanic Verses for the first 60% of the book: while I find the ideas in both intriguing, the former was able to grab me more. Maybe it’s because Saleem is just a more likable protagonist than the two in Verses , who are both…kind of jerks. I also think the fantasy and ‘real’ elements of MC blended a bit more seamlessly, and was just a bit more fun to read. I will say, however, that Children featured some real squirm-inducing moments for me, which weren’t really present in the other book, even if it went in a much darker direction.
Which brings me to the one point that I felt Verses exceeded Children: the latter part of the book worked a lot better. The ending of Verses really saddled the lines between being sad, poignant, and then ends on a note of pitch-black comedy. Children, in contrast, kind of loses itself, feeling a bit rushed (which is even acknowledged in the meta-story), and kind of getting a little cute in the end with its metaphors and imagery. I would recommend reading both, as from them you get a good picture of Rushdie’s idea of the ‘Indian experience’ (both in the west and east). Plus, despite their flaws, they’re just really enjoyable reads.

Tommy
Quadrophenia

by The Who

Yes, it took me this long to get to The Who’s two ultra-famous rock operas. But I did get to them. So screw you all, invisible detractors.
I don’t know how much I have to say about these two; despite me really liking individual songs from both, I think I need to give them both another listen-through in order to definitively say how they cohere as albums. As for initial impressions though: both manage to contain lots of good music, despite the pretense of trying to tell a story possibly getting in the way (Quadrophenia especially). They also generally manage to avoid the problems that plague most concept albums, where the music is interrupted by often very very dull non-music stuff (Tommy has a few ‘character’ songs that are kind of weak, though). Quadrophenia is definitely my favorite of the two, and I think comes pretty close to Who’s Next for the title of best Who album.

Umbrella Academy: Dallas by Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba
One of the reasons I read the first Umbrella Academy was because all the comic sites I frequent repeatedly compared it to Grant Morrison’s run on Doom Patrol, which is possibly my favorite comics ever. And while there was clear influence from DP on it, it didn’t really ‘hit’ me as the true successor of that series. It was good; very entertaining and definitely something up my alley, but I didn’t really go as far with the comparison as others did.
Dallas changes that pretty quick. From the end of the first issue, with the introduction of the time-travelling ‘fixer’ group with its army of openly disposable minions and then Jules and Vincent from Pulp Fiction with cartoon animal heads, the comparison is now solidified. This entire story is real Grant Morrison territory stuff, bringing back a level of gleeful insanity that Morrison has sort of drifted away from recently while he fiddles around with Batman and other stuff I have no real interest in. But even though it really feels like a Doom Patrol extension it times, the book never feels like a rip-off; aside form Ba’s great art really getting at the profound weirdness of the entire world these characters inhabit, the tone of the book is entirely its own, as well, often feeling more in line with the kinetic hyperviolence of something like Scud: The Disposable Assassin than with the sort of creepy funhouse weirdness that one got from Doom Patrol.
So…yeah. If you like this sort of thing, and I most certainly do, this is probably your best bet. And it really is a worthwhile read, especially if you enjoy fun.

Pluto Volume 1 by Naoki Urasawa
This one’s been gnawing at me for a while, so I finally picked up the first volume. I’ve never been a big manga reader, so this was the first time I’ve ever sat down to read a full story in the format (I was able to pick up the whole right-to-left reading thing pretty quickly). But this one had an intriguing premise, and one that revolved around robots, one of my favorite things to read, write, watch, or think about. The fact that is a really good story about robots is a nice bonus.
First and foremost, Urasawa’s art really makes this book. There are a lot of quiet reactions, many of them from vaguely cartoonish-looking robots as well as humans, but the art really sells it. I also marveled at almost every depiction of the future world of the story; the design and detail are stunning.
The dialog, at first, seems a little melodramatic (it’s been a while since I’ve seen so many exclamation points in sentences), which I could easily chalk up either to the translation, or maybe just to the fact that it’s different from what I’m used to. The characters, however, are all interesting, especially as we delve deeper into their pasts; the history of the world and the interactions between the humans and robots is introduced slowly, but it constantly makes me want to know more; and finally, I really want to see the unraveling of the central mystery, not necessarily because I want to know about the thing itself, but because I want to see how all these things tie together in the end.
I think I’ll be sticking around for the other seven volumes; each one is a little decompressed, being serialized, so it actually doesn’t take very long to get through them.

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