Category: Games

Not My Batman

I've been talking about fanboys and entitlement. It's kind of amazing the extent to which fans can be territorial and proprietary about characters they don't actually own or control.

To wit: you've probably heard the phrase "That's not my Batman."

The wonderful thing about Batman is that he is, quite possibly, the most versatile superhero in all of comics. (The most versatile supervillain, on the other hand, is Dr. Doom, and Chris Sims did a great job of laying out the reasons why in a recent column.) He's been around for close on 75 years and has, in that time, appeared in virtually every kind of story. You've probably got a "your Batman", the one you consider definitive and canonical -- and it's probably the one from when you were a kid. I'm no exception -- more on that in a moment.

I saw an Amazon review of the Arkham Asylum game that gave us this great bit of That's Not My Batman:

No, this is not the BAM, WHAM, KA-POW batman you saw David West in and it's not the weird new batman from Batman the Brave and the Bold cartoon and that is such a relief !!
This is the TRUE Batman, the one Bob Kane had in his mind even in the late 30's[.]

Yes, who could forget the famous Batman TV series starring David West? It was a huge departure from the TRUE Batman who Bob Kane had in his mind in the late 1930's -- you know, the one who wore a red costume, wings, and a domino mask, and was called Bird-Man, because that was Bob Kane's pitch until Bill Finger suggested some changes. (There's more on the origins of Batman at Dial B for Blog, and I strongly recommend the book Men of Tomorrow by Gerard Jones.)

Of course, the funny thing is that the guy who wrote the script to Batman: Arkham Asylum, Paul Dini, also gave us the following exchange (on Batman: The Brave and the Bold, the one with "that weird new Batman" -- specifically, in the episode Legends of the Dark Mite):

I always felt Batman was best-suited in the role of gritty urban crime detective, but now you guys have him up against SANTAS?  And EASTER BUNNIES?  I'm sorry -- but that's not my Batman!
Batman's rich history allows him to be interpreted in a multitude of ways.  To be sure, this is a lighter incarnation, but it's certainly no less valid and true to the character's roots as the tortured avenger crying out for Mommy and Daddy.

(You can see the clip on YouTube, too, but the uploader prevents embedding.)

Because Dini doesn't just understand that there's more than one "valid" interpretation of Batman, he excels at jumping between them. He's a true chameleon like few Batman scribes in the character's history -- Grant Morrison springs to mind, as does Bill Finger himself, who wrote everything from Batman's earliest appearances and origin story to a two-part episode of that "BAM, WHAM, KA-POW" TV series with Adam "My Name is Not Even Remotely Similar to David" West.

And the funny thing is, playing Arkham Asylum, I've realized something: this isn't my Batman.

He sounds exactly like my Batman. And the Joker sounds exactly like my Joker. And the writing sure sounds a lot like my Batman too.

But it's meaner. It's more violent. An asylum littered with the bodies of murdered security guards. Batman himself sticks to the "no killing" rule in this version (unlike, say, the Burton movies), but he's brutal. The game features fetishistic slow-motion beatdowns that look like something out of the Watchmen movie; Batman may not kill, but he snaps bones and smothers perps until they lose consciousness.

Don't get me wrong -- I like the game. It plays fantastically; it's expertly designed, fun as hell, and it fits Batman -- at least, a version of Batman.

I guess that's what this comes down to: I can recognize a Batman as Not My Batman and still enjoy and appreciate it.

PC Gamer's Dilemma

Well, I finally got me an Xbox 360.

It was free. My fiancée got a new computer with one of those student "comes with a free Xbox" deals.

Here's the thing: I've got a pretty solid gaming rig. And another pretty solid media rig. So I haven't felt much need for Xboxin' up to this point.

The advantages and drawbacks of PC gaming are pretty well-documented. A PC can support crazy high-end hardware, but while the games are cheaper the gear is more expensive and fiddly and there's a whole lot that can go wrong.

Me, I'm something like a niche of a niche of a niche of a niche -- I run Linux on a Mac Pro as my primary OS and keep Windows around for gaming.

This is pretty cool when it works. But here's the thing: even a good Apple makes for a pretty crummy gaming system.

Last year I bought a pretty high-end Nvidia card. ATI has better Mac support, but I've had nothing but headaches trying to get ATI cards working with Linux. Nvidia's always run smoother for me -- galling considering their total lack of cooperation with Linux and the open-source community, but true.

But it's not an officially-supported card. It works under OSX (as of 10.7.3) but it's not entirely reliable under Windows -- when it gets taxed too heavily, I get a bluescreen.

It happened a few times when I played through Witcher 2, but, perversely, it's given me more trouble on Mass Effect 2 -- a game I had no trouble playing through with all the settings maxed out on a lower-end (but officially-Apple-supported) ATI card.

I thought it might be a heating problem but it occurs, consistently, even when I crank up all my system fans with third-party software.

The game worked fine up until Omega, and then started BSoDing randomly. I managed to recruit Garrus in-between crashes, but by the time it came around to Mordin's quest I couldn't get past loading the corridor.

I could just try some other missions, but seriously, you want me to put off getting Mordin? Hell no.

I've found, from searching, that this appears to be a fairly common problem with ME2, even among people not running eccentric hardware configurations such as mine. And I've found a few suggested fixes, but none have worked for me.

I've tried running the game under WINE on both OSX and Ubuntu. Under OSX it plods (I suspect my helper card may be to blame; maybe I'll try disabling it to make sure my higher-end card is the only one the system's putting a load on); under Ubuntu it runs fine up until the menu screen but then doesn't respond to mouse clicks or keystrokes (other than system stuff like Alt-Tab or Alt-F4). I haven't turned up any other reports of this same problem, so I can't find a fix -- maybe one of these days I'll try a full clean install and see if it still does it. Nuke my WINE settings too if I have to. (Or maybe I could set it up on my fiancée's new computer...)

Needless to say, I haven't tried Mass Effect 3 yet.

And that's before we get into all the DRM bullshit plaguing the PC platform.

Never played Batman: Arkham Asylum, largely because of the SecuROM/GFWL/Steamworks Katamari of Sucktitude. Similarly, I gave Dragon Age 2 a miss once I heard reports of people unable to authenticate their legally-purchased games because they'd been banned from BioWare's forums for saying mean things about EA. (Which obviously totally disproves that EA deserves to be called names.)

It's a great damn time to be a PC gamer for a lot of reasons -- a huge indie scene supported by the likes of Steam and the Humble Indie Bundle, with both pushing more gaming on OSX and even Linux -- but it's a lousy time for other reasons.

Anyway. Now I've got an Xbox. All else being equal, I still prefer to play games on the PC, but for cases where the Xbox has less restrictive DRM (like Arkham Asylum) or titles that aren't available on PC (like Red Dead Redemption) or just shit I can get for under five bucks (like a used copy of Gears of War I just picked up), well, it's kinda cool to have one.


Playing: Batman: Arkham Asylum.

Monkeys Aren't Donkeys

Something that always bothered me:

Okay. So Cranky Kong is supposed to be the original Donkey Kong, right? Except now he's old and cantankerous and has a long white beard.

Except here's the problem: Donkey Kong was released in 1981. Donkey Kong Country was released in 1994.

Now, I'm no expert on anthropomorphic video game gorilla physiology. But it seems to me that thirteen years is a bit of a short time to shrivel up and grow a long white beard. (And that's without even considering DK's appearance in the 1994 Donkey Kong remake just months earlier, looking perfectly healthy.)

I guess that, of all the places to draw a line in the sand for suspension of disbelief in a game about anthropomorphic, barrel-hucking gorillas, "How did that one get so old so fast?" seems rather an arbitrary place for it. But dammit, it bugged me.

And it gets worse: Donkey Kong Country Returns, released in 2010, a full 16 years after the original DKC (and 14 after DKC3) -- nobody has visibly aged. Donkey Kong, Cranky Kong, and all the rest look exactly the same as they did in 1994. 1981-1994: dramatic visible aging. 1994-2010: no aging whatsoever.

Unless -- and here's my theory -- the original Donkey Kong died of old age, the Cranky Kong in DKCR is actually the 16-bit Donkey Kong now old and decrepit, and the Donkey Kong you're playing as is actually...a now-fully-grown Kiddy Kong.

Course, then you still have to explain Diddy, Funky, and the rest of the Kong family.

Anyway. Here's the trailer for Wreck-It Ralph. Which, while not technically a movie about Donkey Kong, appears to be a much-better-thought-out story of Donkey Kong's journey from villain to hero than the Donkey Kong Country series.

Zappa's Senate Testimony

Frank Zappa speaks to the Senate on the subject of labeling records for mature content, September 19, 1985. He doesn't really start in until about 3:30.

Transcript (via downlode.org; I've lifted HTML tags for formatting, not just the text, and hope I haven't overstepped):

Mr. Zappa. My name is Frank Zappa. This is my attorney Larry Stein from Los Angeles. Can you hear me?

The Chairman. If you could speak very directly and clearly into the microphone, I would appreciate it.

Mr. Zappa. My name is Frank Zappa. This is my attorney Larry Stein.

The statement that I prepared, that I sent you 100 copies of, is five pages long, so I have shortened it down and am going to read a condensed version of it.

Certain things have happened. I have been listening to the event in the other room and have heard conflicting reports as to whether or not people in this committee want legislation. I understand that Mr. Hollings does from his comments. Is that correct?

The CHAIRMAN. I think you had better concentrate on your testimony, rather than asking questions.

Mr. ZAPPA. The reason I need to ask it, because I have to change something in my testimony if there is not a clearcut version of whether or not legislation is what is being discussed here.

The Chairman. Do the best you can, because I do not think anybody here can characterize Senator Hollings” position.

Mr. ZAPPA. I will carry on with the issue, then.

Senator Exon. Mr. Chairman, I might help him out just a little bit. I might make a statement. This is one Senator that might be interested in legislation and/or regulation to some extent, recognizing the problems with the right of free expression.

I have previously expressed views that I do not believe I should be telling other people what they have to listen to. I really believe that the suggestion made by the original panel was some kind of an arrangement for voluntarily policing this in the music industry as the correct way to go.

If it will help you out in your testimony, I might join Senator Hollings or others in some kind of legislation and/or regulation, unless the free enterprise system, both the producers and you as the performers, see fit to clean up your act.

Mr. ZAPPA. OK, thank you.

The First thing I would like to do, because I know there is some foreign press involved here and they might not understand what the issue is about, one of the things the issue is about is the First Amendment to the Constitution, and it is short and I would like to read it so they will understand. It says:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

That is for reference.

These are my personal observations and opinions. They are addressed to the PMRC [Parents’ Music Resource Centre] as well as this committee. I speak on behalf of no group or professional organization.

The PMRC proposal is an ill-conceived piece of nonsense which fails to deliver any real benefits to children, infringes the civil liberties of people who are not children, and promises to keep the courts busy for years, dealing with the interpretational and enforcemental problems inherent in the proposal’s design.

It is my understanding that, in law, First Amendment Issues are decided with a preference for the least restrictive alternative. In this context, the PMRC’s demands are the equivalent of treating dandruff by decapitation.

No one has forced Mrs. Baker or Mrs. Gore to bring Prince or Sheena Easton into their homes. Thanks to the Constitution, they are free to buy other forms of music for their children. Apparently, they insist on purchasing the works of contemporary recording artists in order to support a personal illusion of aerobic sophistication. Ladies, please be advised: The $8.98 purchase price does not entitle you to a kiss on the foot from the composer or performer in exchange for a spin on the family Victrola. Taken as a whole, the complete list of PMRC demands reads like an instruction manual for some sinister kind of “toilet training program” to house-break all composers and performers because of the lyrics of a few. Ladies, how dare you?

The ladies’ shame must be shared by the bosses at the major labels who, through the RIAA, chose to bargain away the rights of composers, performers, and retailers in order to pass H.R. 2911, The Blank Tape Tax: A private tax levied by an industry on consumers for the benefit of a select group within that industry.

Is this a consumer issue? You bet it is. PMRC spokesperson, Kandy Stroud, announced to millions of fascinated viewers on last Friday’s ABC Nightline debate that Senator Gore, a man she described as “A friend of the music industry,” is co-sponsor of something she referred to as “anti-piracy legislation”. Is this the same tax bill with a nicer name?

The major record labels need to have H.R. 2911 whiz through a few committees before anybody smells a rat. One of them is chaired by Senator Thurmond. Is it a coincidence that Mrs. Thurmond is affiliated with the PMRC?

I cannot say she’s a member, because the PMRC has no members. Their secretary told me on the phone last Friday that the PMRC has no members, only founders. I asked how many other District of Columbia wives are nonmembers of an organization that raises money by mail, has a tax-exempt status, and seems intent on running the Constitution of the United States through the family paper-shredder. I asked her if it was a cult. Finally, she said she couldn’t give me an answer and that she had to call their lawyer.

While the wife of the Secretary of the Treasury recites “Gonna drive my love inside you” and Senator Gore’s wife talks about “Bondage!” and “oral sex at gunpoint” on the CBS Evening News, people in high places work on a tax bill that is so ridiculous, the only way to sneak it through is to keep the public’s mind on something else: “Porn rock”.

Is the basic issue morality? Is it mental health? Is it an issue at all? The PMRC has created a lot of confusion with improper comparisons between song lyrics, videos, record packaging, radio broadcasting, and live performances. These are all different mediums, and the people who work in them have the right to conduct their business without trade-restraining legislation, whipped up like an instant pudding by The Wives of Big Brother.

Is it proper that the husband of a PMRC nonmember/founder/person sits on any committee considering business pertaining to the Blank Tape Tax or his wife’s lobbying organization? Can any committee thus constituted “find facts” in a fair and unbiased manner? This committee has three that we know about: Senator Danforth, Senator Packwood, and Senator Gore. For some reason, they seem to feel there is no conflict of interest involved.

The PMRC promotes their program as a harmless type of consumer information service providing “guidelines” which will assist baffled parents in the determination of the “suitability” of records listened to by “very young children”. The methods they propose have several unfortunately [sic] side effects, not the least of which is the reduction of all American Music, recorded and live, to the intellectual level of a Saturday morning cartoon show.

Children in the vulnerable age bracket have a natural love for music. If, as a parent, you believe they should be exposed to something more uplifting than “Sugar Walls,” support Music Appreciation programs in schools. Why have you not considered your child’s need for consumer information? Music Appreciation costs very little compared to sports expenditures. Your children have a right to know that something besides pop music exists.

lt is unfortunate that the PMRC would rather dispense governmentally sanitized heavy metal music than something more uplifting. Is this an indication of PMRC’s personal taste, or just another manifestation of the low priority this administration has placed on education for the arts in America?

The answer, of course, is neither. You cannot distract people from thinking about an unfair tax by talking about Music Appreciation. For that you need sex, and lots of it.

The establishment of a rating system, voluntary or otherwise, opens the door to an endless parade of Moral Quality Control Programs based on “Things Certain Christians Don’t Like”. What if the next bunch of Washington Wives demands a large yellow “J” on all material written or performed by Jews, in order to save helpless children from exposure to concealed Zionist doctrine?

Record ratings are frequently compared to film ratings. Apart from the quantitative difference, there is another that is more important: People who act in films are hired to pretend. No matter how the film is rated, it won’t hurt them personally.

Since many musicians write and perform their own material and stand by it as their art (whether you like it or not), an imposed rating will stigmatize them as individuals. How long before composers and performers are told to wear a festive little PMRC arm band with their scarlet letter on it?

Bad facts make bad law, and people who write bad laws are, in my opinion, more dangerous than songwriters who celebrate sexuality. Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religious Thought, and the Right to Due Process for composers, performers and retailers are imperiled if the PMRC and the major labels consummate this nasty bargain.

Are we expected to give up article 1 so the big guys can collect an extra dollar on every blank tape and 10 to 25% on tape recorders? What is going on here? Do we get to vote on this tax? Do we get to vote on this tax? I think that this whole matter has gotten completely blown out of proportion, and I agree with Senator Exon that there is a very dubious reason for having this event. I also agree with Senator Exon that you should not be wasting time on stuff like this, because from the beginning I have sensed that it is somebody’s hobby project.

Now, I have done a number of interviews on television. People keep saying, can you not take a few steps in their direction, can you not sympathize, can you not empathize? I do more than that at this point. I have got an idea for a way to stop all this stuff and a way to give parents what they really want, which is information, accurate information as to what is inside the album, without providing a stigma for the musicians who have played on the album or the people who sing it or the people who wrote it. And I think that if you listen carefully to this idea that it might just get by all of the constitutional problems and everything else.

As far as I am concerned, I have no objection to having all of the lyrics placed on the album routinely, all the time. But there is a little problem. Record companies do not own the right automatically to take these lyrics, because they are owned by a publishing company.

So, just as all the rest of the PMRC proposals would cost money, this would cost money too, because the record companies would need — they should not be forced to bear the cost, the extra expenditure to the publisher, to print those lyrics.

If you consider that the public needs to be warned about the contents of the records, what better way than to let them see exactly what the songs say? That way you do not have to put any kind of subjective rating on the record. You do not have to call it R, X, D/A, anything. You can read it for yourself.

But in order for it to work properly, the lyrics should be on a uniform kind of a sheet. Maybe even the Government could print those sheets. Maybe it should even be paid for by the Government, if the Government is interested in making sure that people have consumer information in this regard.

And you also have to realize that if a person buys the record and takes it out of the store, once it is out of the store you can’t return it if you read the lyrics at home and decide that little Johnny is not supposed to have it.

I think that that should at least be considered, and the idea of imposing these ratings on live concerts, on the albums, asking record companies to reevaluate or drop or violate contracts that they already have with artists should be thrown out.

That is all I have to say.

The Chairman. Thank you very much, Mr. Zappa. You understand that the previous witnesses were not asking for legislation. And I do not know, I cannot speak for Senator Hollings, but I think the prevailing view here is that nobody is asking for legislation.

The question is just focusing on what a lot of people perceive to be a problem, and you have indicated that you at least understand that there is another point of view. But there are people that think that parents should have some knowledge of what goes into their home.

Mr. ZAPPA. All along my objection has been with the tactics used by these people in order to achieve the goal. I just think the tactics have been really bad, and the whole premise of their proposal -- they were badly advised in terms of record business law, they were badly advised in terms of practicality. or they would have known that certain things do not work mechanically with what they suggest.

The CHAIRMAN. Senator Gore.

Senator GORE. Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.

I found your statement very interesting and, although I disagree with some of the statements that you make and have made on other occasions, I have been a fan of your music, believe it or not. I respect you as a true original and a tremendously talented musician.

Your suggestion of printing the lyrics on the album is a very interesting one. The PMRC at one point said they would propose either a rating or warning, or printing all the lyrics on the album. The record companies came back and said they did not want to do that.

I think a lot of people agree with your suggestion that one easy way to solve this problem for parents would be to put the actual words there, so that parents could see them. In fact, the National Association of Broadcasters made exactly the same request of the record companies.

I think your suggestion is an intriguing one and might really be a solution for the problem.

Mr. ZAPPA. You have to understand that it does cost money, because you cannot expect publishers to automatically give up that right, which is a right for them. Somebody is going to have to reimburse the publishers, the record industry.

Without trying to mess up the album jacket art, it should be a sheet of paper that is slipped inside the shrink-wrap, so that when you take it out you can still have a complete album package. So there is going to be some extra cost for printing it.

But as long as people realize that for this kind of consumer safety you are going to spend some money and as long as you can find a way to pay for it, I think that would be the best way to let people know.

Senator GORE. I do not disagree with that at all. And the separate sheet would also solve the problem with cassettes as well, because you do not have the space for words on the cassette packs.

Mr. ZAPPA. There would have to be a little accordion-fold.

Senator GORE. I have listened to you a number of times on this issue, and I guess the statement that I want to get from you is whether or not you feel this concern is legitimate.

You feel very strongly about your position, and I understand that. You are very articulate and forceful.

But occasionally you give the impression that you think parents are just silly to be concerned at all.

Mr. ZAPPA. No; that is not an accurate impression.

Senator GORE. Well, please clarify it, then.

Mr. ZAPPA. First of all, I think it is the parents’ concern; it is not the Government’s concern.

Senator GORE. The PMRC agrees with you on that.

Mr. ZAPPA. Well. that does not come across in the way they have been speaking. The whole drift that I have gotten, based upon the media blitz that has attended the PMRC and its rise to infamy, is that they have a special plan, and it has smelled like legislation up until now.

There are too many things that look like hidden agendas involved with this. And I am a parent. I have got four children. Two of them are here. I want them to grow up in a country where they can think what they want to think, be what they want to be, and not what somebody’s wife or somebody in Government makes them be.

I do not want to have that and I do not think you do either.

Senator GORE. OK. But now you are back on the issue of Government involvement. Let me say briefly on this point that the PMRC says repeatedly no legislation, no regulation, no Governnient action. It certainly sounded clear to me.

And as far as a hidden agenda, I do not see one, hear one, or know of one.

Mr. ZAPPA. OK, let me tell you why I have drawn these conclusions. First of all, they may say, we are not interested in legislation. But there are others who are, and because of their project bad things have happened in this country in the industry.

I believe there is actually some liability. Look at this. You have a situation where, even if you go for the lyric printed thing in the record, because of the tendency among Americans to be copycats -- one guy commits a murder, you get a copycat murder-now you’ve got copycat censors.

You get a very bad situation in San Antonio, TX, right now where they are trying to pass PMRC-type individual ratings and attach them to live concerts, with the mayor down there trying to make a national reputation by putting San Antonio on the map as the first city in the United States to have these regulations, against the suggestion of the city attorney, who says, I do not think this is constitutional.

But you know, there is this fervor to get in and do even more and even more.

And the other thing, the PMRC starts off talking about lyrics, but when they take it over into other realms they start talking about the videos. In fact, you misspoke yourself at the beginning in your introduction when you were talking about the music does this, the music does that. There is a distinct difference between those notes and chords and the baseline [sic — error in Congressional report] and the rhythm that support the words and the lyrics.

I do not know whether you really are talking about controlling the type of music.

The CHAIRMAN. The lyrics.

Mr. ZAPPA. So specifically we are talking about lyrics. It began with lyrics. But even looking at the PMRC fundraising letter, in the last paragraph at the bottom of the page it starts looking like it is branching into other areas, when it says: “We realize that this material has pervaded other aspects of society.” And it is like what, you are going to fix it all for me?

Senator GORE. No. I think the PMRC’s acknowledging some of the statements by some of their critics who say: Well, why single out the music industry.

Do I understand that you do believe that there is a legitimate concern here?

Mr. ZAPPA. But the legitimate concern is a matter of taste for the individual parent and how much sexual information that parent wants to give their child, at what age, at what time, in what quantity, OK. And I think that, because there is a tendency in the United States to hide sex, which I think is an unhealthy thing to do. and many parents do not give their children good sexual education, in spite of the fact that little books for kids are available, and other parents demand that sexual education be taken out of school, it makes the child vulnerable, because if you do not have something rational to compare it to when you see or hear about something that is aberrated you do not perceive it as an aberration.

Senator GORE. OK, I have run out of time.

Thank vou, Mr. Chairman.

The CHAIRMAN. Senator Rockefeller.

Senator ROCKEFELLER. No questions, Mr. Chairnan.

The CHAIRMAN. Senator Gorton.

Senator GORTON. Mr. Zappa, I am astounded at the courtesy and soft-voiced nature of the comments of my friend, the Senator from Tennessee. I can only say that I found your statement to be boorish, incredibly and insensitively insulting to the people that were here previously; that you could manage to give the first amendment of the Constitution of the United States a bad name, if I felt that you had the slightest understanding of it, which I do not.

You do not have the slightest understanding of the difference between Government action and private action, and you have certainly destroyed any case you might otherwise have had with this Senator.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Mr. ZAPPA. Is this private action?

The CHAIRMAN. Senator Exon.

Senator EXON. Mr. Chairman, thank you very much.

Mr. Zappa, let me say that I was surprised that Senator Gore knew and liked your music. I must confess that I have never heard any of your music, to my knowledge.

Mr. ZAPPA. I would be more than happy to recite my lyrics to you.

Senator EXON. Can we forgo that?

Senator GORE. You have probably never heard of the Mothers of Invention.

Senator EXON. I have heard of Glen Miller and Mitch Miller. Did you ever perform with them?

Mr. ZAPPA. As a matter of fact, I took music lessons in grade school from Mitch Miller’s brother.

Senator EXON. That is the first sign of hope we have had in this hearing.

Let us try and get down to a fundamental question here that I would like to ask you, Mr. Zappa. Do you believe that parents have the right and the obligation to mold the psychological development of their children?

Mr. ZAPPA. Yes, I think they have that right, and I also think they have that obligation.

Senator EXON. Do you see any extreme difficulty in carrying out those obligations for a parent by material falling into the hands of their children over which thely have little or no control?

Mr. ZAPPA. Well, one of the things that has been brought up before is talking about very young children getting access to the material that they have been showing here today. And what I have said to that in the past is a teenager may go into a record store unescorted with $8.98 in his pocket, but very young children do not.

If they go into a record store, the $8.98 is in mom or dad’s pocket, and they can always say, Johnny, buy a book. They can say, Johnny, buy instrumental music; there is some nice classical music for you here; why do you not listen to that.

The parent can ask or guide the child in another direction, away from Sheena Easton, Prince, or whoever else you have been complaining about. There is always that possibility.

Senator EXON. As I understand it from your testimony — and once again, I want to emphasize that I see nothing wrong whatsoever; in fact, I salute the ladies for bringing this to the attention of the public as best they see fit. I think you could tell from my testimony that I tend to agree with them.

I want to be very careful that we do not overstep our bounds and try and — and I emphasize once again — tell somebody else what they should see. I am primarily worried about children.

It seems to me from your statement that you have no obligation — or no objection whatsoever to printing lyrics, if that would be legally possible, or from a standpoint of having the room to do that, on records or tapes. Is that not what you said?

Mr. ZAPPA. I think it would be advisable for two reasons. One, it gives people one of the things that they have been asking for. It gives them that type of consumer protection because, if you can read the English language and you can see the lyrics on the back, you have no excuse for complaning if you take the record out of the store.

And also, I think that the record industry has been damaged and it has been given a very bad rap by this whole situation because it has been indicated, or people have attempted to indicate, that there is so much of this kind of material that people object to in the industry, that that is what the industry is.

It is not bad at all. Some of the albums that have been selected for abuse here are obscure. Some of them are already several years old. And I think that a lot of deep digging was done in order to come up with the song about anal vapors or whatever it was that they were talking about before.

Senator EXON. If I understand you, you would be in support of printing the lyrics, but you are adamantly opposed to any kind of a rating system?

Mr. ZAPPA. I am opposed to the rating system because, as I said, if you put a rating on the record it goes directly to the character of the person who made the record, whereas if you rate a film, a guy who is in the film has been hired as an actor. He is pretending. You rate the film, whatever it is, it does not hurt him.

But whether you like what is on the record or not, the guy who made it, that is his art and to stigmatize him is unfair.

Senator EXON. Well, likewise, if you are primarily concerned about the artists, is it not true that for many many years, we have had ratings of movies with indications as to the sexual content of movies and that has been, as near as I can tell, a voluntary action on the part of the actors in the movies and the producers of the movies and the distributors?

That seems to have worked reasonably well. What is wrong with that?

Mr. ZAPPA. Well, first of all, it replaced something that was far more restrictive, which was the Hayes Office. And as far as that being voluntary, there are people who wish they did not have to rate their films. They still object to rating their films, but the reason the ratings go on is because if they are not rated they will not get distributed or shown in theaters. So there is a little bit of pressure involved, but still there is no stigma.

Senator EXON. The Government does not require that. The point I am trying to make is — and while I think these hearings should not have been held if we are not considering legislation or regulations at this time, I emphasized earlier that they might follow.

I simply want to say to you that I suspect that, unless the industry “clears up their act” — and I use that in quotes again — there is likely to be legislation. And it seems to me that it would not be too far removed from reality or too offensive to anyone if you could follow the general guidelines, right, wrong, or indifferent, that are now in place with regard to the movie industry.

Mr. ZAPPA. Well, I would object to that. I think first of all, I believe it was you who asked the question of Mrs. Gore whether there was any other indication on the album as to the contents. And I would say that a buzzsaw blade between a guy’s legs on the album cover is a good indication that it is not for little Johnny.

Senator EXON. I do not believe I asked her that question, but the point you made is a good one, because if that should not go to little minds I think there should be at least some minimal activity or attempt on the part of the producers and distributors, and indeed possibly the performers, to see that that does not get to that little mind.

Mr. Chairman, thank you very much.

The CHAIRMAN. Senator Hollings.

Senator HOLLINGS. Mr. Zappa, I apologize for coming back in late, but I am just hearing the latter part of it. I hear that you say that perhaps we could print the words, and I think that is a good suggestion, but it is unfair to have albums rated.

Now, it is not considered unfair in the movie industry, and I want you to elaborate. I do not want to belabor you, but why is it unfair? I mean, it is accurate, is it not?

Mr. ZAPPA. Well, I do not know whether it is accurate, because sometimes they have trouble deciding how a film gets to be an X or an R or whatever. And you have two problems. One is the quantity of material, 325 films per year versus 25,000 4-minute songs per year, OK.

You also have a problem that an album is a compilation of different types of cuts. If one song on the album is sexually explicit and all the rest of it sounds like Pat Boone, what do you get on the album? How are you going to rate it?

There are little technical difficulties here, and and you have the problem of having somebody in the position of deciding what’s good, what’s bad, what’s talking about the devil, what is too violent, and the rest of that stuff.

But the point I made before is that when you rate the album you are rating the individual, because he takes personal responsibility for the music; and in the movies, the actors who are performing in the movie, it does not hurt them.

Senator HOLLINGS. Well, very good. I think the actual printing of the content itself is perhaps even better than the rating. Let everyone else decide.

Mr. ZAPPA. I think you should leave it up to the parents, because not all parents want to keep their children totally ignorant.

Senator HOLLINGS. Well, you and I would differ on what is ignorance and education, I can see that. But if it was there, they could see what they were buying and I think that is a step in the right direction.

As Senator Exon has pointed out, the primary movers in this particular regard are not looking for legislation or regulations, which is our function. To be perfectly candid with you, I would look for regulations or some kind of legislation, if it could be constitutionally accomplished, unless of course we have these initiatives from the industry itself.

I think your suggestion is a good one. If you print those words, that would go a long way toward satisfying everyone’s objections.

Mr. ZAPPA. All we have to do is find out how it is going to be paid for.

Senator HOLLINGS. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

The CHAIRMAN. Senator Hawkins.

Senator HAWKINS. Mr. Zappa, you suy you have four children?

Mr. ZAPPA. Yes, four children.

Senator HAWKINS. Have you ever purchased toys for those children?

Mr. ZAPPA. No; my wife does.

Senator HAWKINS. Well, I might tell you that if you were to go in a toy store — which is very educational for fathers, by the way; it is not a maternal responsibility to buy toys for children — that you may look on the box and the box says, this is suitable for 5 to 7 years of age, or 8 to 15, or 15 and above, to give you some guidance for a toy for a child.

Do you object to that?

Mr. ZAPPA. In a way I do, because that means that somebody in an office someplace is making a decision about how smart my child is.

Senator HAWKINS. I would be interested to see what toys your kids ever had.

Mr. ZAPPA. Why would you be interested?

Senator HAWKINS. Just as a point of interest.

Mr. ZAPPA. Well, come on over to the house. I will show them to you.

Senator HAWKINS. I might do that.

Do you make a profit from sales of rock records?

Mr. ZAPPA. Yes.

Senator HAWKINS. So you do make a profit from the sales of rock records?

Mr. ZAPPA. Yes.

Senator HAWKINS. Thank you. I think that statement tells the story to this committee. Thank you.

The CHAIRMAN. Mr. Zappa, thank you very much for your testimony.

Mr. ZAPPA. Thank you.

I've read this a number of times throughout my life, and am always struck by just how intelligent it is. Zappa doesn't pull punches; he's biting and sarcastic -- but he also addresses the problem, the proposal, what's wrong with it, why music is distinct from film (over and over and over again, because the Senators clearly are not fucking listening to him), and a sensible alternative solution. He also lays out what he thinks the RIAA's ulterior motives might be, and makes an appeal for better music education in the bargain.

The Senators -- well, Gore comes off the best; a little on the obsequious side but reasonable and conciliatory.

Gorton (I loved him as the Riddler) comes off the worst; he contributes absolutely nothing to the debate and, as all reactionaries inevitably do, simply takes a moment to say something condescending to his obvious intellectual superior.

(In The Real Frank Zappa Book, Frank adds that Gorton is wrong and that in fact he got an A in high school civics.)

Exon -- who, as Zappa notes in the book, is not exactly the most liberal guy (and indeed would continue to push legislation for government censorship, sponsoring the Communications Decency Act of 1996) -- also comes across as fairly reasonable, agreeing with Frank's fundamental point that making the lyrics available to buyers is preferable to a ratings system.

So where'd we end up?

Well, there was no legislation, and no ratings system.

But lyrics were never visibly included with albums either.

As "compromise" there was a voluntary, vague "PARENTAL ADVISORY: EXPLICIT LYRICS" sticker.

Eventually, physical media gave way to digital, and, thanks in large part to fans who just don't give a fuck about copyright, it is totally trivial to look up the lyrics to virtually any song.

But the argument persists, of course.

I headlined my first Zappa post "As True Now", and unfortunately time flows like a river and history repeats. Video games are the boogeyman now, and the same damn-fool arguments keep rearing their ugly heads: "Well, a child can just walk into a store and buy a copy of Grand Theft Auto!"

Though that's calmed down since Brown v EMA, where the Supreme Court soundly rejected the notion of government regulation of violent video games.

And here's the funny thing: the closest recent analogue I can think of to Zappa's Senate testimony...is the words of the Justices themselves in oral arguments.

Sotomayor referenced Bugs Bunny and Spock. Kagan mentioned that her clerks had grown up playing Mortal Kombat and seemed to have turned out all right. Scalia -- God. I am not president of Scalia's fan club, so it pains me to say he fucking hit it out of the park. Hell, he even used Zappa's response to that hypothetical I just mentioned:

JUSTICE SCALIA: Not too many 13-year-olds walk in with a $50 bill, do they?

Even Breyer's dissent was well-reasoned. He's got a point: it is absurd that the government can restrict the sale of magazines that show nipples but not video games that show decapitation. He and I are absolutely agreed on that point -- we just disagree on what conclusion it implies.

Basically, we've got eight Justices who made intelligent, insightful arguments in Brown v EMA, and one who appears prominently in a Google search for "Long Dong Silver".

Well, the fight continues and it'll continue through whatever the hell medium is the next boogeyman. And while it's sad that Zappa is no longer with us to argue eloquently for common sense, I think history shows that common sense always wins out in the end.

Migraine

Stayed home from work today with a migraine. One of the worst of my damn life -- no nausea with this one, fortunately, at least, not at first, but just this awful skull-crushing agony as if a thousand Thetans were pounding at the inside of my skull trying to ec-scape.

Woke me up at about 3:15 AM, too, which to the best of my recollection is a first. I've often woken up in the morning with a migraine, but seldom in the middle of the night. I was covered in sweat, too; don't know if that's some new and exciting feature of the migraine, or if I was running a fever, or just because I live in Tempe, Arizona and it is June and our lows are around 80 degrees this time of year.

Got up at 6, called in, popped a prescription migraine pill (with codeine!), and went back to bed for a fitful in-and-out-of-consciousness "sleep" until about 11 AM.

(Tangentially: I had a job, a couple of years ago, where some middle-management fuckwit had the bright idea of combining the sick line with the help desk. One day I called in and, hours later, got a call from work asking where the hell I was -- I explained that I'd called in, but apparently the help desk hadn't gotten around to my ticket yet. I came in the next day to discover that my ticket had finally been submitted at 4:45 PM, which, as you might suppose, is not the optimal time to let an office know that a worker will not be coming in today. Like, I think by 4:45, they've probably worked that out.

Best of all, I was then randomly selected to fill out a survey about how satisfied I was with my interaction with the help desk.

I made a point of not raking the tech over the coals -- I noted that help desk techs have a lot on their plate and often poor mechanisms for prioritizing their tickets; if you've ever worked help desk I don't need to tell you that nobody ever submits a ticket as low- or medium-priority -- and said that trying to combine the sick line with the help desk line was a fundamentally bad idea.)

Anyway. Ate some instant ramen, washed another codeine down with a few cups of coffee, and that managed to knock the headache down from "I can barely move" to "dull, ever-present throbbing". And I don't know if it was the codeine, the caffeine, or the pain, but by this point my coordination was completely shot.

Then I fired up the ol' Nintendo.

There's something I learned, around the age of 12 or 13: playing video games helps with the pain.

My mom and my grandparents didn't really buy that, and I suppose under the circumstances I can't blame them -- I was, after all, saying I had a migraine, and then staying home from school and playing video games all day.

But now there's research backing what I understood intuitively as a child: video games have an anesthetic effect. In recent years there have been studies in distraction therapy suggesting that video games have a real and measurable impact on pain management. (For one example: Applications of virtual reality for pain management in burn-injured patients, via the NIH, 2009. There have been other studies besides.)

I find that quieter games tend to be a bit better. And games that don't have a lot of text, because reading makes my head hurt.

I also tend to gravitate toward the familiar, stuff from when I was a kid -- Super Mario World and the like -- and I suspect there's a "comfort food" aspect to this. Though, on the other hand, SMW requires twitch reflexes, and when my reflexes are scrambled by codeine and caffeine it can be a much more frustrating game -- which doesn't help with pain.

Knowing that, today I started with Xenoblade. It's not too heavy on the text, I'm over-leveled enough that it's pretty low-key and not difficult or frustrating, and it doesn't require much in the way of hand-eye coordination or precise movements. (Well, most of it doesn't. Fuck you, Valak Mountain.)

But what it does have is big, vertigo-inducing vistas. Fuck. I was about three minutes in before I started getting nauseous and had to turn it off. Don't know if that's the migraine or the codeine, but I popped a motion sickness pill and decided to try Super Mario World after all.

I picked up my save from the last time I had a migraine and worked my way through Twin Bridges. So I guess my reflexes weren't completely shot.

Then I had a hot bath.

Now here's a question: what the fuck is up with bathtubs?

The standard American bathtub is a rectangle, and it's, what, four and a half, five feet long? And its deepest point is where your fucking feet go.

Who came up with that shit?

I'm actually kinda curious: were bathtubs designed this way because of the belief that baths are for children and teeny-tiny elfin women, or is it that only children and teeny-tiny elfin women take baths because no average-sized human adult can fucking fit in one comfortably?

Decided not to shave afterward. Still jittery. Just because I have the wherewithal to abandon Yoshi to a tragic fate on my way to Soda Lake doesn't mean I trust myself to run sharp objects across my face.

Anyhow. Guess my point is, "staying home playing video games" isn't always as much fun as it sounds. Sometimes it doesn't mean you're slacking. Sometimes it means you're doing everything you can to deal with excruciating pain.

All things considered I'd much rather have gone to work. Because aside from the "excruciating pain" thing, I don't get sick pay, and I'll spend tomorrow playing catchup.

So it goes, I guess.

Even Superer

You know what would be great?

A version of Super Mario World that added all the cool shit from the Advance version (different physics for Luigi, randomly-colored Yoshis throughout the game) without any of the bullshit (voices, completely game-breaking extra point of damage).

Wonder if there's a hack out there.

Thad Doesn't Review The Avengers

Here's the thing: I'm boycotting The Avengers.

It was Steve Bissette who convinced me, in a blog post last summer just following the summary judgement against Jack Kirby's heirs. After that judgement it looks like the heirs will never receive their due through the legal system, and the court of public opinion is their last recourse. I haven't bought Kirby-derived Marvel product since.

People have argued this one up and down, and done it well -- James Sturm, David Brothers, Chris Roberson, Heidi MacDonald, Steve Bissette again -- so I'm not going to go into an extensive retread just at this moment. But to summarize:

Yes, Jack Kirby is dead. No, his children didn't write or draw those comics. Neither did Bob Iger or Roy Disney III, both of whom stand to make massive bank on this movie and both of whom are in the position of making a lot of money on this movie because of who they are related to. Captain America should be in the public domain by now, but he's not, again thanks to Disney.

Marvel gives Stan Lee a million dollars a year. His contract stipulates that if he dies before his wife, then she (who also did not write or draw any of those comics) will continue to get a million dollars a year until she dies.

Kirby should have gotten the same deal Lee did. And if he had, he would have left his money to his children.

Never mind the rights questions and the work-for-hire versus spec questions. (Personally I believe Kirby did at least some of his work on spec, and Marvel "lost" the evidence among the thousands of pages of art they contractually agreed to return to him and then didn't. But again, never mind that for now.) Just giving some form of compensation to the Kirby heirs at this point would be a step toward rectifying the injustices Marvel did to Kirby over the course of his life. Plus, as Kurt Busiek recently noted, if Marvel (and DC for that matter) started retroactively applying their current standard contracts to past creators, people like the Kirby heirs and Gary Friedrich would spend less time suing them and more time promoting their movies.

Anyway, here's the other thing: last night somebody handed me a free ticket to go see The Avengers, and I realized that yes, this was a loophole in my boycott. If I don't pay to see it, I'm not supporting it.

Now granted, Marvel/Disney/Viacom/whoever paid for my ticket, and it was part of a marketing strategy -- word-of-mouth, buzz, what-have-you. So here's my thinking: if I talk about the movie, then they've accomplished their goal, and I've broken my boycott.

So I'm not going to talk about the movie. If I say I liked it, then I'm doing just what Disney wants me to. If I say I hated it, then that misses the point -- then I'm suggesting people shouldn't see it because it's a bad movie, not for ethical reasons. If you choose not to see a bad movie, that's not actually a boycott. (I remember lots of people in various comments sections saying they would boycott Ghost Rider 2 over Marvel's treatment of Gary Friedrich -- I reminded them that it's only a boycott if they had planned on seeing the movie in the first place.)

But yeah, I saw it. And I'm going to talk about my moviegoing experience.

I suppose you could argue that I'm still giving them what they want, if you really believe there's no such thing as bad publicity and any mention of the movie is good for them...but, well, read on.


The movie was at 7 PM, and my fiancée and I arrived before 5. She'd eaten and I hadn't, so she grabbed us a spot in line while I found the nearest place to grab a slice of pizza.

The slice I bought was mediocre and I would probably not go back. I felt particularly disapponted inasmuch as the theater is a couple of blocks from my favorite pizza place ever, but I didn't have the time or the money for that spot.

(Tangentially, several nights before I'd had a dream where I was lost in the New York subway system trying to find a good slice of pizza. Because yes, of course you can find a slice of pizza on any given corner in Manhattan, but I was trying to find a really good place. I am sure that this is a metaphor for something.)

So anyway, I got back and grabbed my 3D glasses and my spot in line. I love my fiancée but I think I may have to fire her from holding-my-place-in-line duty. Holding someone's place in line requires more than just waving him over when he walks in; you also need to make sure that you leave enough room around you for a human adult to stand comfortably in.

And so began the hours-long wait in line. It went about how these things usually go: standing in line sucks, but you're there with other people who share a common interest. I was next to a kid who had just read Knightfall and gushed about it while describing The Brave and the Bold as "unwatchably terrible" -- well, at least he's a kid who's enthusiastic about comics.

'Round about 5:45, a manager came up to the line and announced that no cameras would be allowed in the theater.

Including camera phones.

IE, a thing that every single fucking person carries in their pocket, because this is two thousand and goddamn twelve.

Now, I know that this completely fucking boneheaded policy was Disney's and/or Viacom's fault, not the theater's. But what is the theater's fault is that they waited until we'd been in line for an hour to tell us. Yes, as it turns out it was written on our tickets -- in an illegibly-tiny, illegibly-antialiased font way down at the bottom —, but how the hell hard is it to post signage and tell the guy at the door to let everyone know as they come in?

So I went back to the car, along with at least one person from every single group in line. Fortunately, this allowed the line to rearrange itself in a way so that I actually had room to stand comfortably when I got back. And hey, it could have been worse -- as I discovered when the line started moving, the guys who got there first had to stand in a really cramped spot, next to lighted movie posters that gave off a noticeable amount of heat.

And then came the wands.

They didn't pat us down, at least, but there were actually people in suits outside the theater entrance who wanded us to make sure we didn't have cell phones on us.

Let me fucking tell you something, Disney and Viacom.

Captain America did not go to war and punch Hitler in the goddamn face so that he could wake up 70 years later in an America where people have to pass through security to see a goddamn movie.

All so that somebody wouldn't record a 3D movie with their fucking phone and post it on the Internet. Because that would really hurt this movie's business, I'm sure.

Well, the good news is it totally worked and nobody managed to sneak a camera into any of the screenings and post the movie on the Internet within a matter of houohhhhh I'm just messin' with you guys, of fucking course somebody did. I checked this morning, just for curiosity's sake, and yes, surprising absolutely no one, a bootleg cam video of the movie is now readily available on the Internet.

What, you mean irritating and inconveniencing law-abiding customers didn't actually stop anyone from pirating something? I sure never would have guessed that from every single time anyone has tried it, ever!

Anyway. After the wanding we were admitted into a theater that really was not big enough for the size of the crowd. I'm given to understand they opened a second one -- which means we would have gotten better seats if we'd shown up later, because as it was we wound up way too damn close to the screen. (We were in the second row. We were told the first row was reserved for press. If the people who wound up sitting there were press, they must have been there for their high school paper.)

The seats sucked, but on the whole I was surprised to find that they didn't really suck any more for a 3D movie than they would have for a 2D one. There was a sense that the whole thing was hovering above us, and of course since you are actually looking at a plane, yes, shapes distort depending on your viewing angle. And there were bits where the screen had some single massive object filling it that made my eyes cross. But still, I don't think it was any worse than if I'd watched a regular movie from that seat. The problem isn't 3D, it's poor theater design.

All in all, I would say the theatergoing experience left a lot to be desired, and I'm certainly going to remember it the next time I think about attending a prerelease screening -- or even a popular new release.

But I will say one good thing about it: it's the only time this century I've gone to a movie and nobody in the audience had a damn phone.


There's been some talk about credits over the last few days -- an interviewer asked Stan Lee why Jack Kirby wasn't credited in the movie and Stan gave the kind of tone-deaf response he often makes when people ask him questions about credit: he actually said "In what way would his name appear?" (He added that "it's mentioned in every comic book; it says 'By Stan Lee and Jack Kirby'"; I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he's referring to the original comics that Jack actually co-wrote and drew with him, because no, Jack does not get a creator credit on most of the current Marvel books.) I know Stan doesn't make these decisions (anymore), but I think he should have responded with "Well, that doesn't sound right; I'll ask around and see what I can do."

People have pointed out since that Kirby's name is in the credits. I didn't see it, but I think it was probably in the "special thanks" section 2/3 of the way down; the credits went by fast and the only names I caught there were Millar, Hitch, and Lieber. (And I'm certainly not saying those names don't belong there, mind; Lieber co-created Iron Man, and this movie is largely adapted from Millar and Hitch's The Ultimates -- indeed, I read an interview where Millar says they're not getting any compensation from the movie and if that's true I think it's outrageous.)

At any rate, my point is, I didn't see Kirby's name in the credits, and I was looking for it.

So, to answer Stan's question, "In what way would his name appear?" Well, Spider-Man had a big "Created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko" credit right at the beginning, and I think the Marvel Studios movies should have the same thing. I realize that Avengers, in particular, has a lot more creator credits, but I don't care; I still think they should be up onscreen in the opening titles, every one of 'em.

(An alternative idea, that I know could never actually happen but would like to see: in the end credits you get a prominent credit for each of the leads. The Iron Man helmet with Downey's name, the shield with Evans's, and so on. You could couple those with creator credits. Prominent, middle-of-the-screen credit saying "ROBERT DOWNEY JR.", and then, lower down and in smaller type, "Iron Man created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Larry Lieber, and Don Heck". Then the big "CHRIS EVANS", with a smaller "Captain America created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby". And so on down the line. No, this would never happen in real life, because I am talking about messing with the top-billed actors' credits, but...a man can dream.)


Playing: Xenoblade
Reading: The Neverending Story
Drinking: Lumberyard IPA. It was on sale at my local liquor store, and I checked the label only to discover that "Lumberyard" is actually the Beaver Street Brewery, my old college watering hole. It tastes like the good ol' days. And hops.

Adventures in Home Audio

I'm not what you'd call an audiophile, but I know what I like.

I've got an HTPC I use as my primary media box. And for the past two and a half years, my surround sound speakers have been a set of Creative Inspire 5300's connected to it. They're perfectly good PC speakers (and were $80 when they were new), but as far as home theater, they're a bit lacking.

So, after months of research and scanning for deals, I got me a receiver and a new set of 5.1 speakers.

The receiver is the Onkyo HT-RC360, which Fry's had marked down from $550 to $300 for Presidents' Day. Now, three things:

  1. I have been keeping an eye on Dealzmodo, TechDealDigger, and TechBargains for months looking for a deal like this -- and none of them had this deal listed. This discovery was entirely the result of my deciding, on a whim, to check the Fry's site. Which is even more notable because
  2. I had been at Fry's, looking for a good deal on a receiver, the previous day, and not seen this. I know they had it in stock, because I picked it up in-store, but it hadn't been on display, nor had I seen it listed in the newspaper clippings upfront listing their weekend deals.
  3. Oh, and of course three days later the Sony equivalent got marked down to $215 on Amazon. But that's okay; this is the sort of thing you come to accept as inevitable in any kind of major hardware purchase, and anyway from the reviews the Onkyo sounds like the better device.

Talking of reviews, I couldn't find any professional ones of the RC360, which made me nervous. But I gathered from Cnet that it's roughly equivalent to the TX-NR609. I'd been looking at the 509, but its lack of OSD and HDMI upscaling gave me pause. Those features aren't make-or-break, but with the RC360 marked down to $300, it was only $75 more than the 509 -- plus it's got 7.1 support. For that price, I may as well buy something a little better and more future-proof.

I had also noted that most of the demo rooms at Fry's used NR509 mixers. While I don't always credit Fry's employees as the best judges of what makes a good product demo (the first thing you see when you walk in the front door is an expensive bigscreen plasma TV inexplicably playing a movie at an eye-searing 240Hz), I thought this was probably significant.

And while I was nervous about buying a speaker set I hadn't actually tested in the store, ultimately Cnet's review of the Monoprice 8247 won me over. The short version: you can get better speakers, but only if you pay four times as much. (An aside: I stopped reading news.com.com some time ago after their reporting became indistinguishable from the trolls in the comments section -- I was going to say "except with better spelling", but nevermind -- but their reviews section continues to be pretty great.)

Anyhow, the speakers came in and I wired them up. It's not pretty just yet -- for now the rear speakers are just sitting on end tables, with their cables blue-taped to the wall, but in the next few weeks I plan to get somebody over to run cable through the attic and mount them properly on the wall. (I'd run the cable myself, but asthma tends to limit one's desire for attic-related adventures.)

One minor gripe: the Monoprice page for the speakers recommends pin-type speaker plugs, but the wire-in-back type I ordered from them is too long; it won't fit in a speaker that's lying flat. It should work fine in one that's wall-mounted, and maybe the wire-in-side type will fit. I might try ordering a couple of those the next time I get something from them, though $2 speaker plugs aren't really worth ordering by themselves. So, bare wire for now -- not like I can hear the difference.

Once I got everything hooked up and configured, I fired up Back in the USSR to verify that the speakers were working, and then straight to the Bridge of Khazad-Dûm scene in Fellowship of the Ring. (This was the point at which my fiancée came out of the bedroom to complain that I was making the house shake. I like to think this was her way of saying "Great job on purchasing and setting up an awesome sound system, Honey!")

Image: The remote, with its many and oddly-labeled input buttons From there I hooked up the rest of my various devices. The Onkyo remote has the now-typical problem of a shitload of different inputs with sometimes arbitrary names -- "GAME" works fine for the component switch connected to my Wii and PS2 (another aside: I wish the thing had more component inputs so I wouldn't need a component switch at all -- but obviously analog is on its way out and I'm sure in a few years I'll have enough HDMI devices that I will be grateful for the emphasis on the new input over the old), but, absent anything resembling "HTPC", I have my HTPC connected under "BD/DVD". My seldom-used DVD/VCR combo is under "VCR/DVR", and my TV audio is connected to "TV/CD", which inexplicably is not the same button as "TV"; the "TV" button can't actually be assigned to any audio input. (I guess people connecting the audio output of their TV into an input on the receiver are probably a rarity; most people have cable boxes which they can connect to the receiver and then output to the TV. But I don't have cable TV, and we sometimes watch broadcast TV. Such people do exist!)

Also: this receiver is the only appliance I have ever bought that came with a GPL compliance notice in the box. This is one more piece of good news on future-proofing: my old TV is no longer supported, its firmware is no longer updated, and it has some annoying bugs (namely, every time it can't tune a channel in it drops it, meaning you effectively have to rerun the channel search every time you move the damn antenna -- again, developers just do not even consider people who watch over-the-air TV at this point). The Onkyo receiver not only supports more features and inputs than I need, its use of open-source software means it can continue to be updated even after its official end-of-life (unless, of course, there are some kind of TiVoization shenanigans at work).

Speaking of my 2005-vintage TV, it's probably the next major piece of equipment I'd like to replace, but it does have one feature I like: an "Automatic" zoom that will upsize the picture beyond the standard 4:3/16:9/"super zoom" presets and zoom the picture until there is no black border anywhere. This is especially useful for the PSP, which outputs games at a weird little 480x272 format that appears as a tiny little windowboxed picture even under most zoom presets. Unfortunately, the receiver's upscaling messes with the TV's "Automatic" zoom; it'll resize the PSP picture vertically, but that still leaves it pillarboxed and vertically stretched. That left me back at wiring the component output of the PSP directly to the TV and leaving the audio hooked into the receiver -- this largely defeats the purpose of upscaling since I'm back to switching TV inputs for different devices, but that is, of course, a minor inconvenience.

And that, incidentally, is the draw of upscaling for me -- I don't really expect the filters to increase my picture quality, but it does mean I don't have to switch from HDMI to Component 1 to Component 2 to whatever on my TV. (Actually, talking of quality, there were visible vertical lines on the PS2 picture -- but I couldn't see them from the couch, and I'm not sure if that's the fault of the receiver or the connection. I've had the PS2 and the cable for some time and I think the connection must be worn, as when I first turned the PS2 on I got audio but no picture; I wiggled the connector in the back and that's when I got a picture with faint lines on it.)

Now I've gotta figure out what to do with those Creative speakers. I'd like to hook them up to my desktop, but Apple is allergic to standards, and you can't actually get analog surround to work on a Mac without some kind of adapter.


Playing: Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together. You know what else the receiver has? A shitload of presets for audio levels. It doesn't just have a preset for games, it has different presets for different genres -- RPG, Action, etc.

Reading: The Light Fantastic

Final Fantasy 7, Fourteen Years Later

The thing that surprised me most, on a replay of FF7 after lo these many years was, you know, it's actually pretty good. Not the best game ever, not even the best Final Fantasy -- hell, not even the best Final Fantasy released in a six-month period --, but pretty good.

It's easy to scoff at it in hindsight, probably because it's not nearly as good as some people claim it is. And frankly I'm embarrassed by my own youthful enthusiasm for it. But, truth be told, it's a good game. And it's not really logically consistent to love 6 and hate 7, because 7 is so clearly a refinement of 6. Amnesiac hero reluctantly joins underground organization fighting an evil, technocratic Empire that is extracting the spirits of a dead, magical race into glowing stones to use for its own nefarious purposes? Yeah, that sounds pretty familiar. The leader of the Empire is killed by a psychopath who is the product of one of its magical infusion experiments gone wrong, and who then becomes the Big Bad? Check. The key to saving the world is a mysterious girl who escaped from the empire's lab and turns out to be the daughter of a human and one of the aforementioned magical race? Mhm. Even the environments and the music are awfully familiar.

Which I suppose in itself could be taken as a knock against FF7 -- it hits a lot of the same beats as its predecessor. But this is Final Fantasy we're talking about. It's not like FF6 was fresh and new -- if you squint, the above plot summary isn't too far off from FF4's, either. And truth be told, 7 does some things better than 6.

It's easy to lose sight of in a flashy, forty-hour game, but, at least in places, FF7 shows a remarkable economy of storytelling. Take President Shinra -- for the first act of the game, he's the presumptive villain, and he makes a hell of an impression. But in truth he only appears in two scenes, I can count his lines of dialogue on my hands, and then he's promptly killed, offscreen, by a character you've never seen and have only heard of in rumors.

That's a pretty far cry from Kefka and Gestahl, really. Kefka is clearly the game's villain from the get-go, and you know sooner or later he's going to take out the Emperor. As for Gestahl, he doesn't get a lot of development but he's in a few scenes and you get a decent sense of who he is.

With Shinra, by contrast, you get a sense of who he is with very minimal information. It's quite well done. And then he's killed just a few hours in, by somebody who hasn't even been introduced yet. That's a shock -- and the presentation, the darkened halls filled with blood, is pretty unexpected too.

The key difference between Shinra and Gestahl -- and the key difference between their respective empires, and arguably between the settings of the two games -- is that Gestahl is an actual head of state, while Shinra is a CEO. The Mayor of Midgar only briefly appears in the game, and makes it very clear that he's a powerless figurehead. The man who runs the reactors rules the world. Forget the motorcycles, that's the most modern thing about FF7.

Shinra's also utterly ruthless and calculating. He wipes out an entire slum and blames it on the terrorists who have been sabotaging his reactors.

(It does fall apart a bit in the Corel flashback. Barrett convinces the people of his town to sell out to Shinra -- and then Shinra burns down the town anyway? I really have no idea how that serves the plot at all. It's not even there to fill the "hero's hometown gets burned down" box on JRPG Bingo, because by that point in the game Sephiroth's already burned Nibelheim, in a different flashback.)

Rufus makes an interesting contrast to his father. For all his initial talk about ruling by fear, his death is a contrast to his father's: the elder Shinra dies after destroying Sector 7; the younger dies saving Midgar. He doesn't have to be there; he could have evacuated, and he chose not to. His deeds redeem him, even if he's still not a very nice person -- and even if Midgar ends up destroyed anyway.

But probably the best example of FF7's skill in economical storytelling is the destruction of Sector 7 and the deaths of Biggs, Wedge, and Jessie. Sure, they're the requisite Star Wars-named fodder characters (Romanized correctly here for the first time!), and no, they don't have that much screentime, but you grow to like them in that short time. You learn just enough about their hopes and their doubts -- Wedge's guilt over the civilian casualties, Jessie's nervousness about her forged ID cards -- to feel for them. And Wedge is a legitimately fantastic example of a character whose personality is communicated visually, through his model and his body language. Which of course starts to bleed into my previous post and the observation that simple, iconic images can convey a whole lot to an audience.

There's a point where the uniqueness of gaming comes into the Sector 7 collapse, too. Sure, killing a bunch of poor people and blaming it on the hero is stock Bond Villain stuff, but this is different: the first opportunity you get to do a little bit of free exploration is Sector 7. You wander around, you meet people, you slowly get introduced to the world of the game there. It's not that the villagers have gotten too much more complicated since welcoming you to Coneria and warning you that the Fire Fiend will burn everything up, but they have little stories and personalities -- hell, the building designs have more character than the people, but the bottom line is that you get a feel for Sector 7 that you don't get for most fodder locations. (Contrast with FF6: Kefka's murder of the population of Doma establishes him as a very bad man, but you're not emotionally invested in Doma or in anyone there except Cyan and his family.) In short, a couple of lines of dialogue, some atmospheric design, and the proper placement in a game's narrative and presentation can really make a minor location stand out.

Oh, and the steel beam through the playground is as subtle as a chainsaw to the face, but it's definitely a memorable image.

And while the game can get awfully overbearing in places, it has some deep themes that are presented without being harped on. Of course the whole thing revolves around Japan's complex relationship with nuclear power -- something thrown into stark relief as I replayed it a few months ago when the Fukushima meltdown was in the news -- and it makes Barrett's team the ostensible heroes, but there are shades of gray there. Barrett is well-meaning, and perhaps the character with the purest motives in the game (leave a better world for the little girl he's adopted) -- but he's also a revenge-obsessed terrorist who gets a lot of people killed, most of them innocent and some of them his own team. And he's easily the most sanctimonious character in the game -- he rants constantly about saving the planet from the monsters who are sucking its lifeblood to generate power, and the game respects our intelligence enough not to point out the irony that he's a former coal miner.

Interface

It's not just the story that feels like an update of FF6; the actual gameplay is really quite similar too. Materia's not so far off from Espers -- the main difference is that it makes the characters even more interchangeable -- and the game is similarly unbalanced. It's still trivial to produce a party that will take the last boss out in a round or two; the game ups his stats a bit if you're at level 98 or 99, but it doesn't really make for a challenge.

There are challenges, of course, for advanced characters -- Huge Materia and the Weapons -- and in this sense, the game is better-rounded than FF6. The biggest problem is that, for the most part, they suck. On my latest play-through, I probably spent about ten hours grinding on Magic Pots and Movers, and for what? Spammy, unsatisfying battles with the Weapons, and a bunch of Master Materia I didn't need.

Seriously, if I ever try to beat Ruby and Emerald on a future playthrough, or get any Master Materia (with the possible exception of yellow), just give me a quick smack in the back of the head. It's stupid and it's a waste of time. And the Arena's not much better.

...but back to the interface. If you don't bother with all the side crap, it's pretty neat! And while weapons and armor have been simplified way down from 6, they complement the Materia system nicely. Do you optimize for equipment stats, for number of Materia slots, for number of linked Materia slots, or Materia growth?

And the Blue Materia are pretty neat too. Added Effect/Hades was always a favorite, and Phoenix/Final Attack is clever if overkill.

Where FF7 runs into its biggest gameplay problems is in simply interacting with the world. It's an early 3D game, and it's obvious that the team was still trying to figure out how to realize the Final Fantasy rules in that context.

This is most apparent in the field. There is a stunning variety of detailed backgrounds in the game. The trouble is that they're low-resolution, low-color prerenders, and much of the time it's difficult to figure out simple things like where you can walk and where you can't.

Image: Train yard
Can anybody tell me where the fuck I'm supposed to go on this screen?

There's a toggle you can use to show points of interest, but it's not very useful.

And battle's not much better. In classic Final Fantasy style, it consists of your party in one line and the enemy party in another line, but, for the first time, the characters actually move across the screen when they attack each other -- and the devs thought it would be a good idea to compensate for that by adding movement tracking to the battle interface.

They were wrong.

Say I'm trying to attack a monster, and it moves across the screen while I'm trying to point at it. Well, suddenly it's not where it was a second ago, and I have to move the pointer around to get to it. And probably wind up pointing at my own party somewhere in the process. Or, the reverse -- I'm trying to heal or buff one of my party members, and she jumps across the screen. (Actually it's a pain in the ass to target your own party members even when they're standing still, because the game can't seem to decide whether they're arranged left-right or up-down.)

All of which is just needlessly complicated, seemed-like-a-good-idea naivete. Changing the graphical presentation should not have actually changed the controls! FF7's battle interface is functionally identical to the previous six games'; it should play exactly the same even though it looks different. So that monster's not actually standing in his spot when I point at it? It doesn't matter; if I point at where he was standing a half-second ago it should still target him!

Music

The music in this one is just superb; it's legitimately one of the best original soundtracks in gaming history. Can you remember the first time you heard the boss theme? I can.

If I have one complaint, it's that you can pretty clearly hear Uematsu recycling the same themes at this point in the series -- Aeris's theme sounds a lot like Celes's theme, and they both bear a more-than-passing resemblance to Fanfare for the Common Man.

On the other hand, it's hard to fault Uematsu for retreading musical themes when the game retreads so many story themes -- you can't really blame him for making the Mako Plant sound like Vector when it looks so damn much like Vector too.

Ultimately, I can't take too many points off Uematsu for experimenting with the same riffs throughout the years. Charting his career through the series, it's the story of a guy learning his craft and learning new tools as they develop -- in his chiptune days, he was a programmer as much as a composer. The very first thing you hear in the very first 16-bit Final Fantasy is an extended version of the Prelude theme from the preceding three games. The first thing you hear in 7 is that theme again, this time with harp and vocals.

The move to the PS1 hardware had almost as profound an effect on the audio of the Final Fantasy series as the video. It allowed Uematsu a wide-open world to compose in MIDI, and, in a couple of cases, to use Redbook audio as well. FF6 had already involved some long, complex pieces that went on quite awhile before looping back to the start (Terra's overworld theme being the best example), but 7 had many more. And with instrument samples, the MIDI sounded less artificial than the chiptunes of yore.

The Love Triangle

The biggest problem with the Cloud/Aeris/Tifa triangle is that it's a case of two Bettys and no Veronica. (For you kids out there, you can substitute "Betty and Veronica" with "Edward and Jacob". Probably. I don't know; I couldn't even make it all the way through Steve's summary of Twilight. And it was hilarious.)

Tifa and Aeris are too much alike. At a glance, you expect the obvious trope: the scantily-clad, well-endowed one is the sassy, liberated one, while the conservatively-dressed one is a shy girl-nextdoor type. And at first, the game seems set to go down that path -- after all, you meet Aeris in a church and Tifa in a bar. Then, it takes an interesting turn suggesting that maybe they're about to subvert the trope and reverse the roles, as Tifa turns out to be literally the girl nextdoor and Aeris fearlessly guides you through the slums where she's grown up. But that potential twist never really pays off, and ultimately Tifa and Aeris are both the shy girl nextdoor. There's not a whole lot that distinguishes them from one another, and ultimately the competition between them never really feels like there's anything at stake in it.

Of course, once Aeris gets shish kebabed the triangle is resolved while simultaneously finally achieving a real dichotomy -- Cloud never makes a choice between the two women, the choice is made for him, and the rivalry for the audience's affection is no longer between two sweet girl-nextdoor types but, instead, between the angelic figure who died tragically and the girl who survives, stands by Cloud through his breakdown, and literally follows him to the ends of the earth. That is an interesting contrast, and it's most likely why people still care about Tifa and Aeris all these years later.

And of course there's also the rudimentary romance subquest that served to define them throughout RPG's to come. You can't seriously tell me that any of BioWare's romances are substantially more complex or nuanced than choosing your date for the Gold Saucer. Hell, it's even got a same-sex option!

The Translation

My God.

I played the PC version on my recent playthrough, and the most infamous errors ("This guy are sick", "Off course!/No, way!") were fixed, but there was still a "creek in the floor", and I'm pretty sure I saw "shit" spelled with an apostrophe. And the first boss fight still begins with Cloud instructing you to "Attack while it's tail's up!" -- less notable for the misplaced apostrophe than the omission of the rather nontrivial word "Don't", pretty much guaranteeing everyone playing the game for the first time would die twenty minutes in.

There's an absolutely fantastic peek behind the curtain in The Rise of Squaresoft Localization, an article by Wesley Fenlon at 1up. To wit: the massive script of FF7 was translated by one guy, who had little or no access to the original team, had no "series bible" of common Final Fantasy names and words, and had to hack the whole thing into a foreign character set. Considering that, he did a pretty good job -- I mean, we're still talking about the damn thing, aren't we?

But on the whole it was a big step down from Ted Woolsey's FF6 translation. Sure, that one has its detractors, but I can't for the life of me figure out why. It's got mistakes ("Vicks and Wedge"), truncations ("Fenix Down", "Carbunkl"), and plenty of 1990's-era-Nintendo censorship, but not only does it exceed 7 in its adherence to the basic rules of English spelling and grammar, it's also a lot more fun.

I suspect that FF7 is more like the American FF2 writ large in that people enjoyed it because the deeper themes of its story shone through the lousy script that conveyed them.

Right Time

I think the defining characteristic of FF7 is that it is spectacularly adolescent.

That's not entirely a bad thing -- in fact, it was adolescent in a time when its medium and its audience were adolescent too. It was big, it was operatic, it was bombastic; it was obsessed with its own appearance; it treated its shallow, superficial philosophy as if it were really deep and thought-provoking; it featured awkward cursing and a busty girl nextdoor and in the end it wasn't nearly as damn important as it seemed at the time. In other words, it's pretty damn obvious where its appeal to its target audience came from.

Final Fantasy 7 and Iconic Images

I closed Part One of my Final Fantasy 7 retrospective by saying that the Phoenix Rejuvenation Project, a mod designed to replace all the super-deformed field character models in the game with more detailed and realistically-proportioned ones, was the product of a lot of hard work by a lot of talented people...but just a bad idea on principle. The reason I believe this comes down to one essential point:

Final Fantasy 7 is ridiculous.

Now, the game has a huge fanbase, most of which was captivated by its epic story, cinematic atmosphere, and shocking moments. And I think that, given those elements, people tend to forget exactly how damn silly it is.

Here's an example. You're following Sephiroth -- the man who left a trail of blood and bodies ending in a dead President, a man who burned the heroes' village to the ground -- and his trail leads to...an amusement park. After you get your fortune told by a talking stuffed cat, and optionally ride the roller coaster and play an arcade game about the mating habits of Moogles, you find another trail of blood and bodies, these cut down by machine-gun fire. It's briefly implied that your colleague Barrett is the killer, but it turns out it's actually his best friend Dyne. Dyne's gone off the deep end and just wants to burn everything down; when he hears his daughter is still alive and Barrett's adopted her, he threatens to kill her and Barrett has to kill him first.

And then you go race a Chocobo.

Seriously. That is not an exaggeration. At all. The delay between Barrett having to gun down his best friend in order to protect his daughter and Cloud becoming a jockey in a race between giant pastel-colored birds is approximately thirty seconds.

The tone of FF7 shifts so often and so wildly that if you think too hard about it your brain will get whiplash. Do I even need to get into Wall Market and Don Corneo's Mansion? Do I ever want to see a realistically-proportioned Don Corneo thrusting his hips at me? (Actually, I looked for one from the Rejuvenation Project to inflict upon you, my audience, and couldn't find one. Maybe they don't want to see it any more than we do.)

And I can't stress this enough: one of your party members is a talking stuffed cat.

Final Fantasy games, at least since the 16-bit era, are a delicate balancing act of the serious and the silly, and 7 is probably the one that shows that contrast most clearly. And key to its balancing act is its use of exaggerated, iconic character models.

In the essential Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud explores the power of simple, iconic images:

Image: Understanding Comics
Image: Understanding Comics

It doesn't just apply to comics, of course; it works for any form of cartooning. Similarly, a few years back some dumbass critic wrote a review of Monster House where he loudly proclaimed that it was the most important animated film of all time, and summarily dismissed the entire history of animation on the grounds that, prior to performance capture, cartoons couldn't truly convey emotion. I'm convinced he was just trolling, but Amid Amidi at Cartoon Brew tore him a new one across multiple blog posts, including one with this side-by-side comparison:

Image: Monster House vs. Bugs Bunny

One's got a dead-eyed Uncanny Valley face, and the other one is Bugs goddamn Bunny. Bugs is an enduring icon who is recognized the world over and has remained popular for over 70 years, whereas Monster House...well, did you even remember what Monster House was when I mentioned it?

The point is, in cartooning, you take essential elements and exaggerate them. FF7's chibis do that: little bodies, big heads, and exaggerated movements in a story that is itself bigger-than-life. The Phoenix Rejuvenation Project injects more realistically-proportioned figures into those same exaggerated movements and bigger-than-life story, and the result is a pretty clear clash:

Image: Comparison of Barrett waving his arms, original vs. Rejuvenation
Image: Comparison of Barrett shaking his fist, original vs. Rejuvenation

FF7's field models lack even the basic facial emotions of FF6; each character has only one unchanging facial expression, and emotions are conveyed through exaggerated movement. In the Phoenix Rejuvenation Project, that doesn't change -- and it's a lot easier to accept a static facial expression when it's just a couple of lines and dots than when it's more fully formed, easier to accept ridiculous arm-waving from a squat little Playmobil man than one who's more reasonably proportioned.

And even if they could somehow take all that out, give the characters emote animations that fit their new models, you'd still have the Honeybee Inn, Sephiroth tossing people around like ragdolls in Nibelheim, Yuffie leaping across the screen, and, oh yeah, a talking stuffed cat. There are large swaths of the game that simply cannot be made to fit this art style.

I'm not opposed to overhauling FF7's field graphics by any means -- but Team Avalanche has the right idea: keep them chibi, just make them smoother and more detailed chibis.

Of course, even that approach is fraught with peril; FF9 tried it and we got a leading lady who doesn't look like a detailed chibi so much as, well, a dwarf.

Image: Final Fantasy 9's Princess Garnet


Next time: An attempt at a thorough critical analysis of Final Fantasy 7, what it did right and what it did wrong. Combat! Love triangles! Japanese nuclear anxiety! Recurring themes, both literary and musical! Keep goin'? Off course!

And in the meantime, don't forget to join the discussion currently raging at Brontoforumus!