Thursday, June 28, 2012

E3: Procrastination

At this point, it is safe to assume that Sony and Microsoft are not going to be releasing the next generation of consoles until the 2013 holiday season, which, in turn, means that I will likely wait until the first price drop in 2016 to bite the bullet and upgrade. And with rumors that the new systems will lockout used game sales, I may not buy a AAA game until 2018. To the future and beyond!

I hate to be a Nintendo pessimist but I am going to stick with my gut from the last E3 Conference. If the rumors are true and Apple releases a $200 7'' iPad this year, Nintendo is going to be in a precarious position. Such a device would not only imperil the touchscreen reliant WiiU but it would also be a substantial challenger to the 3DS. Nintendo cannot compete financially with Apple's mastery of the supply chain.

Should we start betting on which of the big three will fold on hardware production first? I'll put my money on Sony. But who knows? Maybe a Kickstarter campaign can keep the company afloat for a few more months.

Monday, June 04, 2012

The resident Joss Whedon expert weighs in on The Avengers

The year was 1997. The grade was ninth. The school was West High. The person was me, Mark.

On March 10 of that year, a little show called Buffy the Vampire Slayer premiered on a worthless, little-watched network. And I loved it. Enough that I recommended it to EVERYONE I know despite the constant eye rolls of my friends, family and coworkers.

Things changed. We graduated. People went to liberal arts colleges and learned about things that maybe didn't help them get jobs (stereotypically) and maybe a few things that did help them get jobs. But they became more open-minded about important things. And as their intelligence and open-mindedness grew, they came to love Buffy and the so-called "Scoopy Gang." The same was a little true of Buffy's existential spin-off, Angel.

Years later, another show premiered that nobody watched or listen to my recommendations about. It was called Firefly.

Then the same thing happened much later with a show called Dollhouse. Actually, I didn't recommend it as much because it wasn't quite as well put together and took about seven episodes to find its legs. But still.

Also, Dr. Horrible. I can totally sing along to that.

And, with a few exceptions, this was the true history of what actually happened as far as I remember it.

Point is, I'm a Joss Whedon fan. I'm one of the few people who have watched, from beginning to end, the runs of all of his TV shows as they aired. I've also watched every movie he's directed. Which now stands at two. And I'll see the Shakespeare thing as soon as it's released.

Now, on to the actual meat of this post: The Avengers or, as I have called it, Iron Man 3: Iron Man and Friends.

Well, the reason I haven't written this post before is because I really don't have anything to say about it. I think it was incredibly well-written and was the strongest Disney's Marvel Studios films movie so far. That being said, the Marvel movies aren't exactly philosophical heavyweights. I enjoy them like crazy, but I never walk away pondering what it all means. Or even wanting to watch them again.

And this movie was the perfect combination of light Whedon-ism—Thor saying "he's adopted," Captain America getting the reference and Iron Man saying almost anything—with a heavy dose of the standard Marvel superhero storyline—emergence, set back, regrouping and victory. (The sequel formula is status quo, set back, enhancement and victory.)

The most important thing about The Avengers is that Joss Whedon should have earned the opportunity to do whatever he wants.


Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Ask the resident Whedon expert.

Okay Mark. I have given you plenty of time to catch The Avengers. How do you think everybody's second favorite Wesleyan alumnus did with this billion dollar colossus? Did it still have the indelible stamp of the Buffy auteur? Was it enough to forgive the atrocity that was Alien: Resurrection?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

As Each Tucked String Tells

Chairlift, Doug Fir, 04/08/12

Something is my favorite record of the moment and the band was nothing less than crushworthy live. Even Nell was smitten by the end of the show.

Bear In Heaven, Mississippi Studios, 04/12/12

A bit flat compared to their last tour. Maybe their newest album needs a little more time to percolate. Or maybe nothing was quite as unexpected as their cover of Lindstrøm & Christabelle's "Lovesick." Or maybe it was simply the lack of mustache.

Elvis Costello, Arlene Schnitzer, 04/13/12

We were out of our element. Our graying Gen X row mates were swapping stories about seeing Costello before I was born. The Spectacular Spinning Wheel was even more intimidating: I have a passing familiarity with Costello's albums but his repertoire is just massive. Elvis, donning a carnivalesque top hat and walking stick, was just as charming as you might imagine: spinning yarns before ripping through Chuck Berry covers and dutifully playing just about every hit you would expect (including eleventh hour additions of "Oliver's Army" and "What's So Funny"). Yet what struck me most were the quieter moments. Like a small set backed solely by piano. Or how a fairly raucous crowd went absolutely silent when Costello stepped away from the microphone to do an encore acoustic performance of "Slow Drag with Josephine." Now that's showmanship.

School of Seven Bells, Doug Fir, 04/22/12

Surprisingly not well attended. Last time I caught the band at Bumbershoot, School of Seven Bells played to a packed house and seemed on the verge of breaking into the big time. Perhaps the culprit is a somewhat lackluster review of their latest album from a notable online music publication, which is a shame as SVIIB has became a formidable live presence. The band's newest incarnation finds them no longer hiding behind their keyboards and splendid visuals but instead embracing a more traditional rock staging to powerful effect (although, I do miss the drum machines). In particular, "Low Times" - like Junior Boys's "Under The Sun" - absolutely killed live and should anchor set lists for tours to come.

Coldplay, Rose Garden, 04/24/12

Chris Martin reminds me of Tom Cruise in that they both have a relentless desire to please. The concert was a full frontal charm offensive: Heart-shaped confetti canons. Beach balls dropping from the rafters. Blinking wristbands so the crowd could feel just as much a part of the spectacle. Martin himself was drenched with sweat after only a few songs from his guileless pandering to the audience. He went so far as to thank all of us for braving the mundane hassles that mar the arena show experience (traffic, babysitters). Even Coldplay's new material is just as radiantly dayglo neon as their stage set. This was a setlist designed to woo daughters and grandmothers alike. But like Cruise in Collateral, Coldplay are better when they play against type ("Daylight" & "Talk"). Yet their only foray into "darker" material was a bizarrely stilted version of "God Put A Smile Upon Your Face." Not surprisingly, the ill-conceived X&Y was all but abandoned with the exception of "Fix You" which - surprisingly - got the loudest applause of the evening. Still, I got a healthy dose of A Rush Of Blood To The Head so I can't complain. Plus my parents paid for this one. Natch!

M83, Roseland, 04/25/12

The Roseland is the first all-ages venue that I have seen M83 play in so I was surprised by how much Hurry Up, We're Dreaming has been embraced by this younger generation (again, the likely culprit is a certain music publication anointing "Midnight City" the best single of last year). At first, I was a bit curmudgeonly with these whippersnappers. They didn't have to suffer through a decade long prohibition of the synthesizer. They didn't sacrifice to buy import M83 CDs at a premium. They didn't have to fly across the country to see one of M83's first US performances. Instead, they picked up "Reunion" for 99 cents off iTunes just before M83's fifth (!) concert in Portland in the past four years. Hell, even their moms aren't old enough to remember grunge. But M83 is the music of eternal youth so when the show started all was forgiven/forgotten and I was even able to teach those youngins a thing or two about dancing your way to the front of the crowd.

DJ Shadow, Wonder Ballroom, 04/26/12

The concert was a bit of a game time decision for me. As long time lurkers of the blog (all none of you) might remember, DJ Shadow has been on my bucket list since Live! In Tune and on Time captured him at the peak of his game. Private Press is one of my favorite records - the kind of album that can forgive a lot of missteps - but his latest diminishing returns output had me worried that his show would be the equivalent of seeing Creedence Clearwater Revisited at the country fair hoping they only play the hits. DJ Shadow did reward my loyalty with a few older cuts but the setlist in general tended to shun his introspective material in favor of pummeling beats to pander to the unholy hippie-dupstep alliance. The Shadowsphere was impressive but electronic artists seem to be using increasingly complex visual displays to compensate for the lack of performative elements at their live shows (or maybe just to justify higher ticket prices). Squarepusher and Amon Tobin await in the wings.

Jacaszek, Holocene, 04/29/12

Jacaszek simply played his latest album, Elegia, track by track -- which, in and of itself, was not necessarily a bad thing. After all, that record is gorgeous. Still, it does take away one of the simple pleasures of the concert experience: the anticipation of what will wind up on the setlist. Regardless, I feel fortunate to live in a city that can attract a niche electronic-tinged Modern Classical artist from Poland.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

A Link To The Past

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D

Cultural nostalgia is a curious emotion, particularly for antiquated forms of technology. Washed out and overexposed digital camera filters. The artificial crackle on a FLAC file to simulate the experience of listening to a vinyl record. Blu-rays with faux distortion to emulate a VCR losing its tracking. This strange yearning for the imperfections from earlier days.

As I imagine it is with all gamers of my generation, I feel these nostalgia pangs most acutely from all things 8/16-bit [for example, Google's April Fools Day prank Google Quest]. I even harbor a certain amount of affection for the jagged polygons and low resolution textures of the Nintendo 64. Curiously though, I never feel compelled to replay games from the fifth generation of consoles.

The Gameboy Advanced and Nintendo DS will always be fondly remembered because they provided a platform for entire genres endangered by the transition to 3D. In a way, SNES games will never feel outdated because they represent an antediluvian art -- an evolutionary line run dry. Quite simply, they just don't make them like they used to. In contrast, the Nintendo 3DS has a harder sell as emulated Nintendo 64 games are just inchoate versions of contemporary blockbusters hamstrung by technical limitations (fog, anyone?).

The 2D side-scrolling platformer arguably reached its apex in 1997 with Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. The best 3D shooter is always waiting to be published. Why play Turok: Dinosaur Hunter when you can just wait for Halo 4?

With this in mind, The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time 3D plays a subtle game of revisionist history. As I started playing it, I was shocked by how good it looked and how well it played. It wasn't until I was cruising through the notorious Water Temple that I realized that Nintendo had not only upped the texture cache but had also altered the art direction to make the dungeon more easily navigable. It is a bizarre hyper-nostalgia: an uncanny feeling that maybe the past was actually better than you had remember it.

Yet what strikes me most 15 years later is how empty Hyrule Field feels now. In 1996, it was exhilarating to have the freedom to explore such a vast space. In 2012, it just seems like a waste of time.

Grade: B+

Friday, April 13, 2012

Kickstart my heart

Kickstarter is interesting. It's kind of a toothless microloan economy where you exchange a return for a preorder for a consumer good. I first heard about it through my new Twitter hero, Bryan Lee O'Malley. (You may know him from such classic Graphic Novels as Lost at Sea. Oh, and something or someone called Scott Pilgram.)

Politics and philosophy aside, I actually think that is one of its strengths now. Kickstarter gives talented designers an opportunity to fund and create a well-designed or unique product that may not otherwise have enough mainstream appeal for the average investor.

Basically, you decide to "fund" the project if you like. Depending on how much money you give, you'll get different reward tiers. Usually, the first tier is a preorder for the product. The lower, super expensive tiers... Well. You'll just have to find some highlights on your own.

Here are two products I'm thinking about right "funding" right now.

Pebble is an E-paper watch. Besides being a cool-looking watch, the Pebble ties in to your iPhone via Bluetooth and allows you to control music, view certain alerts and, potentially, do a lot of other cool things through apps. It could be mine in black for as little as $115, or in one of four colors for $125.

An odder project, that better exemplifies what makes Kickstarter cool, is the Berlin Boombox. It's a cardboard "Boombox" that you put together using a do-it-yourself kit. It's not a dock, really, because it uses a coaxial stereo cable. And it's like $60 to get an actual cardboard boombox, which is a lot for something that probably has $10–15 worth of components. ($5, strangely, gets you a "mixtape" by one of the creator's DJ friends.) But it looks pretty cool.


Tuesday, April 10, 2012


I would consider myself a fairly savvy denizen of the internet but having been on a Mac OSX platform for the better part of the last decade, I have become a bit lazy when it comes to computer security. I trawl the deep web with nary a concern for viruses or malware. Even my phishing spidey sense has started to atrophy.

A few weeks ago, I received a text informing me that I had won a $50 dollar gift card to [REDACTED]. I haven't shopped at [REDACTED] in over a year but a recent New York Times article discussed how [REDACTED] was using predicative technology to lure shoppers so my brain made the leap that maybe this was one of their new promotions. Or, my brain continued to rationalize, maybe my parents had entered my number in some contest and simply never bothered to tell me. As I was getting ready to send a response, it finally dawned on me that our last sacred bastion, the cell phone, had finally been conquered by spammer barbarians.

I was further humbled by the latest news about the Mac specific trojan Flashback. For the past few weeks as I surfed the web, a pop up would appear pestering me to update Adobe Flash. The first few times, I didn't even bother reading it; I saw the Adobe logo and just swatted it down like some pesky fly. But after the umpteenth time, my patience reservoir was exhausted and I blindly hit update. Thus as I read an article detailing how Flashback baited users by masquerading as a Flash installer, my heart dropped. I had secretly laughed at all those suckers who fell for MacDefender, yet here I was scraping humble pie off of the floor like some common n00b. My mind raced as thought of all of the websites I was going to have to change my password on. Yet by some mysterious grace, I had been spared: when I ran the defaults read command in Terminal, my computer came up clean. It turns out it actually had been Adobe all along.

I guess it's better to be lucky than smart.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

A Hole in the Wallet

In a surprising karmic upset, EA won the dubious honor of "Worst Company In America" from a former Mark's favorite links site The Consumerist. Americans must be suffering from outrage fatigue in other sectors of the economy: I guess we are already inured to Ticketmaster's "Convenience Fees" and AT&T charging $20 a month for the luxury of sending 37 byte texts across their immaculate SMM network.

Digital Rights Management has always been a way of life for PC gaming but the rise of $10 "online passes" and on-disc "downloadable content" in the name of combating piracy and used game sales is a new phenomenon for console gaming. The disillusionment of the gamerati must have reached a fever pitch right before the Consumerist vote when a "press leak" revealed that next generation consoles will lock out used game sales by locking content to a single account. I can only assume this was a strategic release of information to gauge customer dissatisfaction. EA, the corporate juggernaut whose own terrible DRM network Origin was recently heckled at a games expo, bore the brunt of this when it looked like its anti-consumer nickel-and-diming was going to be institutionalized by Sony and Microsoft. [Don't even get me started on what EA is doing in the iOS ecosystem.]

Or maybe I am just reading a little too deeply into the tea leaves. Maybe nerds are just upset that EA botched the ending to their precious Mass Effect franchise.