Saturday, August 29, 2009

The WWE came on after the Yankees game ended, and I figured, since we are only allowed to watch sports here at the bar, we may as well leave it on. Now, I consider the WWE a "sport" in only the loosest sense of the word. And as I watched the panoply unfold before me, I got to thinking about wrestling.

First, the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) used to be called the World Wrestling Federation. Vince McMahon changed the name after an unrelated court case, in which opposing counsel asked him the truth about wrestling (it was not germane to the case, but Vince was under oath). McMahon had to admit the wrestling was rigged, with winners decided by script writers.

Which brings me to my first thought. How in the hell do you get a job as a script writer for the WWE? I've never heard of them advertising. And since they try very hard to get people to forget that the wrestling is faked, it's not like you can really advertise this kind of position anyway. What would you say? Wanted: script writer for rigged, faked wrestling promotion; must have typewriter? Do they promote from within? Do they go to established writers and offer them jobs? Is this what happened to Joe Esterhaus and Oliver Stone?

Next thought. Why do people still watch this crap? First of all, it's fake. It's basically a soap opera played out in the squared circle. Secondly, the weekly TV show is basically an hour-long commercial for the upcoming pay-per-view. All the posturing and the yelling and the shoving... that's all just to keep you up-to-date on the drama unfolding outside the ring. I had a friend and co-worker a few years back who was obsessed with the WWE. He followed every twist and turn of the plot. If you wanted to get into an argument, all you had to do was denigrate Rowdy Roddy Piper. It was hard not to get wrapped up in it all, and soon several of us found ourselves watching weekly.

Final thought. How in the hell do they come up with the gimmicks? Ultimate Warrior. The Undertaker. The Rock. Do they have some committee that decides "we'll make him like a cross between Rowdy Roddy, Andre the Giant, and the Flying Bulldogs, and we'll call him.... Braveheart!" Does the performer invent his own gimmick? Does he go down to wardrobe and pick out a bunch of shit, and present his idea to McMahon? "Nah," Vince says, "it's a little too Khalid, the Wacky Iraqi."

I wonder how the whole wrestling entertainment industry works. One thing, however, has been whispered about for years -- how they pick the winners; it's whoever "services" McMahon.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Reality TV

I'm watching a commercial for Big Brother 11. First of all, I'm amazed that this show is still on. They take a bunch of closet-sociopaths who crave fame and seclude them in a house for weeks and watch the fun ensue. Only, it's not that much fun. I don't care if Chad loves Allison but has to boot her out of the house; it's not like they're going to air the sex scenes. But what really bothers me about this show, and all the other reality TV shows, is the low amount of money they offer.

A half-a-million to embarrass yourself and shame your family? On national TV? No thank you. Swim through a pool full of boa constrictors? For $50,000?! I have two words for you. Fuck. And off. To me, the only amount of money to humiliate future generations of my family is one million dollars. This way, when my kids come to me, hanging their heads in shame, I can point to their college fund and laugh.

The only reality show I would consider going on would be Survivor. And I hate that show.
I’ll admit, I watched the first season. I was expecting some Lord of the Flies experience. Weren’t you? I assumed they’d chosen some remote tropical island where no one had legal jurisdiction. They’d set up blood-drenched challenges like “we’ve put food up in that tree, here are some sharpened sticks; who ever beats the crap out of the other team gets it.” I wanted to see someone “voted” off the island with a machete. I wanted to see someone dancing around a fire with a pig’s head on a stick.

I lost all respect for this show when they had the archery challenge. They gave both teams a bow and some arrows and told them to practice for the next day’s contest. And they did! Really, Survivor contestants?! That’s the best you could come up with? I would have pointed my newly-acquired weapon at the camera-man and announced my ransom demands.

Here’s how I would play this game. I would explore under cover of night, searching for the opposing team’s camp. Once it had been located, I would sneak back with my compatriots and some improvised weapons. We would then proceed to beat the crap out of them and tie them to trees. That way, the next day Jeff Probst could look all confused when the other team didn’t show up and he had to announce us the winner. And God help anyone who even thought about voting me off the island! I’d vote them off first, with “extreme prejudice.”

I think, ultimately, this is why “reality TV” doesn’t work for me. It’s really “contrived TV”. That, and I don’t have cable.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Inglorious Basterds

This is not a review of Inglorious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino's latest film, so you can relax. No, this is my speculation about the movie before I see it. See, I'm of two minds about seeing a Tarantino movie.

On the one hand, I love watching his movies. I've seen Kill Bill dozens of times. I thought Jackie Brown was an inspired look at the criminal underworld, and the people who get caught up in it. Pulp Fiction had crackling dialog and the inter-relationship between the vignettes challenged the viewer to pay attention to details. I generally think Tarantino's storytelling is layered and complex; you can tell that there is much more to the story than what appears on the screen. These characters and their inter-relationships are complex; they have dense back-stories. And generally, you want to find out more -- how did Jackie Brown end up meeting Beaumont? How did Bill put the Deadly Vipers together?

On the other hand, Tarantino is excessively violent. He makes you squirm in your chair. Some critics call his work "torture porn" and I'm not sure they're wrong. Tarantino seems to be saying something about violence, and our propensity towards it. Sometimes he seems to be saying "these people deserved it". Didn't Vivica Fox deserve to be killed for what she did to Uma Thurman? Was it not the sins of her past coming to visit? Other times he seems to simply revel in making his audience uncomfortable; as though he wants you to feel bad for enjoying people's suffering. Reservior Dogs, anyone? Still other times, the violence is completely senseless; perhaps fate and life are fickle. I'm thinking here of when Travolta accidentally shoots that guy in the face in Pulp Fiction.

I want to see Inglorious Basterds. I'm totally down for some Nazi killing. Who doesn't like to see Nazi's suffer? They're like zombies -- you can kill dozens of them and not feel a thing. It's like you're not even killing humans. You are, for all intents and purposes, killing monsters. But, I wonder, will Tarantino's movie add nuance to this? The Basterds are all Jews; is this to be a revenge fantasy? Will I feel that some sort of divine retribution is being meted out to the Nazis? Or, will Tarantino try to make us feel sympathy for the Nazis with his over-the-top violence?

Let me put this another way. There is a scene in Saving Private Ryan where captured Nazis are marching down a road, and a Jewish soldier holds up his Star of David and announces to each of them that he's a Jew. That's perfect. I get a sense, as the viewer, that justice is being meted out. It's understated, but gets it's point across. In another movie, whose title escapes me now, a bunch of Nazis are trapped in a castle while a monster slowly kills them all. My friend Kenneth Hite points out that you feel sympathy for the horrible ways the Nazis are dying, then catch yourself feeling... unclean... about feeling bad for the Nazis. It's a complex emotion -- your revulsion for what the Nazis did and stood for, warring with your basic human compassion.

How will I feel during the Nazi scalping? Or the beating to death of Nazis with baseball bats? Which of those two emotions will I feel: satisfaction or revulsion/sympathy? Even the reviews have suggested that the violence is value neutral, which if true, is a disappointment.

I shall have to go see the movie in the next week and report back.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Studio Manta -- Genesis

It's been awhile since I wrote about Studio Manta, but that doesn't mean I haven't been thinking about it. Since most of my friends are game designers, I thought I'd blog about my idea and its progress. Studio Manta is an idea I had a long time ago (circa 1999-2000); it's my dream for a game company.

The original idea stemmed from a conversation with Owen Seyler while we were both working for Last Unicorn Games. We had licensed the rights to Star Trek and Lord of the Rings, and had just finished our proposal for a Buffy the Vampire Slayer game. My question to Owen was "why are we licensing intellectual properties from others when we should be creating our own?" It is every game designer's dream to create an IP that can then be licensed to others. It is this dream that largely influenced the direction of game design for the last two decades.

Beforehand, games were seen as, well, games. They generally consisted of one or two books and were complete in and of themselves. Traveller, for example, was a generic science fiction game; there was a setting, but it was only a whisper of an idea. There were planets, and space travel, and some kind of intergalactic empire, but I played that game for years and never once had a sense of overall setting. Similarly, Boot Hill was a generic, catch-all game for the Wild West. Gamma World was a post-apocalyptic game. A game like RuneQuest presented a ruleset for a different kind of fantasy from the type found in Dungeons & Dragons. It wasn't until the end of the '80s that game design morphed into creating settings and stories -- generating intellectual properties.

My idea was to create an intellectual property, but not start as a game. It was to present the IP as a fait accompli; the setting would be portrayed as though it were a licensed IP, as though I had licensed it from someone else. The intent was to generate buzz -- where was the TV show upon which the game was based? Could you buy it on DVD? Why hadn't I seen the show in the first place?

Because the IP would be presented as a Japanese anime. You couldn't get it because it was produced in Japan, and hadn't gotten U.S. distribution. But maybe, if there were enough demand (hint, hint), someone would release it here. Maybe, just maybe, someone would then come to me and offer to produce an anime based on my game... It was a crazy idea, I know.

That's where the company name came from. It had to sound like it was a game published in Japan. The company had to have a wacky "engrish"-sounding name, like TokyoPop or Studio Ghibli. I decided on the name Studio Manta.

Soon afterward, I shelved the entire idea, for various reasons. Christian Moore, by boss at the time, was uninterested in creating intellectual properties. Owen Seyler felt the idea was doomed to failure, largely because no one would ever approach us for licensing.

Recently, however, I've decided to resurrect the idea, though not to generate an IP to license, but rather to try and present a new kind of game altogether.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

CIA Confessions - Part 2

All this begs the question: What, exactly, is the Special Operations Group?

SOG is the CIA's own, special army. Because the Central Intelligence Agency is a part of the Executive Branch, it isn't subject to the War Powers Act. This is the act, passed in 1973, that limits the President's ability to send the U.S. military abroad; he must notify Congress within 48 hours of deployment, and they can remain in the field for 60 days before he must get the approval of Congress. This was in direct response to our involvement in Vietnam, in which we found ourselves in a very long, costly war, without any approval from anyone. Like I said, the CIA isn't bound by this, because it's not the military. It's intelligence.

Thus, for example, the President could order the CIA to deploy SOG forces to Venezuela to oust Chavez from power, and Congress really wouldn't have a say. Now, of course, that's not how we do that, because then we'd have to send in conventional military forces to stabilize the situation. Also, the CIA is specifically barred from assassination. That's not a mission for the Special Operations Group. No. SOG would go in and destabilize the region, either by causing internal trouble for Chavez (like blowing up electrical transmission lines and cutting phone lines), or instigating trouble with a neighbor (Colombia would be good).

The CIA usually takes people from various military branches and assigns them to SOG. This became prevalent during the Viet Nam war, when the U.S. government wanted soldiers to do something that, perhaps, they shouldn't. Like, say, invade Cambodia or Laos. Or they were assigned missions that required a high level of secrecy. Really, the movie Apocalypse Now gives a good idea of the kinds of missions SOG might go on (not so much with the assassinating Army Colonels, more with the whole infiltrate and kill). The other good movie that gives you an idea of what SOG does would be Clear and Present Danger, wherein the CIA sends down a few soldiers to Columbia to blow up cocaine labs.

These military cut-outs (meaning soldiers who were "cut out" of the normal chain of command) generally come from special forces (though not always). In Vietnam, they might be Green Berets or Long Range Recon Patrol. Today, they would be Rangers, SEALs, or Delta. Marines are also very popular because of their high sense of esprit de corps. In addition to taking military cut-outs, the CIA also trains people for SOG. The training is basically the same as, well, basic training. Only the CIA directs it. Which makes it extra special nasty.

So what does SOG do today? Let's say you've got four forward operating bases (FOB) along the Afghani-Pakistan border. Now, one of these places is being used by a "certain governmental organization," for the questioning of mid- and high-level terrorists. You can't have Billy Bob from the Texas National Guard guarding this FOB, because maybe he owes $20,000 on his truck, and he likes to cheat on his wife, and smokes a little pot from time to time. He's susceptible to bribery by your friendly neighborhood Taliban (money, girls, and drugs). He might be convinced to look the other way when they come to rescue their friends. No no. You get SOG to guard that FOB. Because they're CIA anyway.

That, in a nutshell, is what SOG is, and what it does. Neat, huh?

Saturday, August 8, 2009

CIA Confessions

There is a reason I chose this title for my blog. It comes from the title to Chuck Barris' memoir of the same name. In it, he discloses that while he was the producer for the Dating Game, he was also an assassin for the CIA. The Dating Game was a TV game show where pretty, young bachelorettes would ask questions of three eleigible bachelors (who were sitting behind a partition). The questions were risque and always had a double-meaning. The "winners" would go on some whirlwind, exotic trip, chaperoned by Chuck Barris himself. It was the perfect cover. The young couple would go on a romantic trip to fantastic places, and Chuck Barris would kill some commie bastard.

Now it is time to reveal the truth. I, too, was a hired killer for the CIA.

I was recruited in 1989, the year I graduated from George Washington University. I had heard they were looking for speakers of Mandarin Chinese, which I had studied, and I gave them a call. Believe it or not, the CIA is in the phone book (well, the DC phone book). The next day, I received, via FedEx, a two inch stack of papers. It was the questionnaire. They wanted to go back as far as about the third grade. This is standard operating procedure for the CIA.

The Company wants to know everything about you. They talk to your parents. To your grandparents. To your school teachers. To your aunts and uncles. To your neighbors (even from 20-years back). They don't show up and announce they're the CIA, of course. They might pose as police officers, or the FBI, or whatever else might sound plausible when they ask your high school sweetheart about you twenty years after you dumped her.

Were you a bed-wetter? You may have psychological problems. Were you a bully? You might be maladjusted. Does one of your parents have a gambling problem? If they owe too much, they might ask you to sell secrets to help them out. Were you a loner? You might have problems relating to people in social situations. They pretty much ask you a million questions about your past, not to trip you up, but to find out if you can be trusted. There are things that get you booted from the process pretty quickly. Does your father have Mafia ties? Out. Do you have a drug problem? Out. Have you ever visited a communist country? Definitely out. The Company is looking for people who are incorruptable.

Yeah, I failed this part. (Dad was an inveterate gambler and pot-smoker, who was a bookie for the mob, and hadn't paid his taxes in ten years. I pretty much failed once they discovered two of those four things.)

Then there's the psychological profile. The CIA is looking for people with a high sense of patriotism, highly motivated, with a willingness to stand on the wall between danger and the rest of society. This doesn't mean they won't take malcontents, however. They're not looking for Clark Kent here. If you cheated on a high school exam, for example, this might be couched as "risk taking." If you stole a car for a joyride, they might look favorably on this as "being resourceful." The CIA wants to know who they're dealing with, psychologically speaking. They take this part very seriously. While I couldn't pass the background check, it was the psych exam that made them very interested; I fit a certain, specific profile.

I was basically Jason Bourne, with out all the water-boarding and drugs. So while I would be unable to, say, handle state secrets at Langley (thanks, dad!), I was perfectly suited for the Special Operations Group.

Router Madness

I happen to work in Greenwich Village, in Manhattan, which means I'm surrounded by tons of apartments. And in each one of these apartments, apparently, is a wireless router. There are dozens of networks available to me on any given day. See, I happen to be either too cheap or too poor to pay for my own wireless internet, so I pirate whatever signals are open to me.

I'm happy about the open networks, for obvious reasons. Some people don't secure their networks because they're too stupid; they don't know how to assign a password. Some are too lazy to read the manual, and learn how to assign a password. And some people simply don't want to secure their networks in an effort to screw over Big Telecommunications; they figure, if they're going to pay $100 a month for the service, they should let everyone use it all the time. Bless these communist bastards.

I'm amazed and amused by the names people give their network routers. There seem to be as many naming conventions as there are wireless modems. Some are simply the name assigned to the router at the factory. I've got a belkin54g, and a linksys, and a few AppleNetworks. A few people use their physical addresses. There's an apt14, apt7, and apt10. I see an 1849 (the name of a local bar), a villagecantina (a restaurant), and an olivetree (a cafe).

Some networks are really obscure. I have a kt, BMW, and Modern on my network list. What the hell are those? Someone really loves their car and had to name their modem after it? Does the person feel really modern using his Modern network? There's a JagerNetwork; gee, I guess someone really, really loves his Jagermeister. Someone loves the Golden State Warriors so much he's named his network GStateWarriors. Not sure what Ruth-Truth means, though I'm pretty sure it belongs to someone named Ruth. And someone loves someone so much, they named their network KenAndMike (which is actually kind of sweet).

My absolute favorite naming convention are the not-so-nice ones. Someone has named his "Your Mom," which is kind of in your face. Then there's the guy who calls his "MeatFlaps." (I don't really want to have to explain that one. Let's just say it's a part of the female anatomy). I'm certain if I had a wireless network router of my very own, I'd call it something like FuckOff or AssMunch.

A final note on the subject: Whoever runs the homeblk network in the West Village, thank you. You have the strongest open network I've been able to pirate. Now do you think you could stop going to the Hamptons every weekend so you can refresh your network when it goes down? Because I'm using Dynex right now, and it sucks.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Failed Novelist

When I first started writing, I came up with a plan. I was actually quite proud of it. I researched my favorite game designer -- Nigel Findley. Now, this may seem strange at first, but bear with me. He wasn't my favorite author. I have varied and wide tastes. Moorcock. Gaiman. Burroughs. Conan Doyle. But in Nigel, I found someone who had been a game designer who became an author. So I researched how he did it. And I rigorously followed his path.

First, I gave myself two years to establish myself as a freelance game designer. This is a lot easier than it seems. At the end of that second year, I was to find a job as a full-time, paid game designer. I would do this for a year, then I would start writing novels. These would be "gamer fiction", stuff based on other games. Then, I would transition to real novels.

For the most part, this worked. I was a professional game designer within one year. Then, it stopped. I was even offered a Star Trek novel. I didn't take it, because it was, y'know, Star Trek. Those people never get out of that dungeon.

It wasn't that I didn't like to write. If you ask any author, they'll tell you that writers write. All you have to do is put your ass in your chair and write. It doesn't matter if it's good. It doesn't matter if it has anything to do with your novel. All you have to do is write. It's better to write at the same time everyday, so your creative subconscious knows when to give forth her pearls of inspiration. That wasn't my problem. I was used to routinely writing 5,000 words per day. I could definitely put my ass in a chair and write.

For awhile, I thought my problem was that I didn't have any ideas. But that's not true, as attested by my hard drive loaded with short paragraphs of novel ideas. (Not that the ideas are novel in any way; they are ideas for stories.) I have all kinds of stories swirling around in my cranium, like bats in a cave.

So if I can write, and I have ideas, then what's then problem?

As near as I can tell, I need deadlines. Deadlines are terrific motivators. I mean, look at the word. "Dead" is a part of it. Meet the target date, or you're dead. Who the fuck wants to die? Even professional death? I had an assignment once and I missed the deadline, and I was pulled from the work. I've done that, as an editor, more times than I'd like to count (because you don't want to tell someone that their work is for naught, and your's truly would then have to write the piece in something like two days; hence the 5,000 words a day). Deadlines sharpen the mind.

Without them, I am well and truly dead. Now that I'm no longer a paid, professional writer, I don't have anyone assigning me deadlines. I am free of that particular treadmill. And like the grasshopper from the fable, I'm content to just hop around and not produce. The ants have got it all over on me. I can't assign myself a deadline, because I always change them. I never meet my own, internal deadlines. I can't. Because I'm not paying myself. Others aren't depending on me to write. So I let them slide.

One of the reasons I write this blog is to keep in the habit of writing. I like to write. It's like telepathy. I set down my thoughts, and you, entirely someplace else, in another time, read what I write and I put my thoughts inside your head. I love that. I only wish I could do this in story form.

But if I'm going to be completely honest, there are times I've started novels. I've discovered something about myself. I need a muse. A person to write for. A person to impress. I've started so many novels in order to impress a girlfriend, only to drop them once the relationship ends. It becomes too painful to continue writing something for someone who is no longer a part of your life.

I know that I should write for myself. But the post of muse is tried and true. It's very important.
And I'm searching for my muse. Without her, I will continue to be a failed novelist.

Sunday, August 2, 2009


As I was riding home on the subway yesterday, I looked up and noticed an advertisement for ConEd. Now, it's usually impossible to ignore advertising on a NYC subway car, as a company usually buys the rights for an entire side of the car. Meaning you are oppressed by a giant wall of ads extolling the virtues of Bud Lite, Dunkin Doughnuts, or, in this case, ConEd.

ConEd is New York's electricity provider. It's short for Consolidated Edison, the company founded by Thomas Edison. I find this mildly ironic, since Edison invented direct current, but recently announced it was no longer supporting DC because only four buildings in the city still use it and it's no longer cost effective. Instead, Consolidated Edison sells alternating current, which was invented by Edison's chief rival -- Nikola Tesla. So maybe they should change the name to Consolidated Tesla.

ConEd is also known for being completely incompetent. Like the time someone stepped on a manhole cover and got electricuted by stray electricity; then it came out that this happened a lot more frequently than anyone knew, but ConEd never bothered to tell anyone about it. Or do anything about it. Then, when they added a rubberized coating over all their covers, it turned out they failed. Or the time several neighborhoods in Queens went without electricity for three weeks (in the summer, no less) because a transformer blew up; and ConEd didn't want to, you know, adjust everyone's electric bill. (This is when the company stopped using it's "We're On It!" advertising campaign, because clearly they weren't).

Back to the ConEd advertising. The entire campaign is based around telling you, the consumer, how to save money on your electricity bill. They're usually basic, common sense tips like "don't leave your refrigerator door open to air condition your house" and "don't forget to turn off the TV when you leave." You know, the kind of stuff any moron would know to do. But at least ConEd is trying. I imagine the rejected "advice" from them: "Don't stick your tongue in a light socket" and "fire = BAD!"

But the campaign seems slightly disingenuous. ConEd is in the business of selling electricity. Don't you think they'd want you to use more? Don't you think the greedy fat-heads who control the company would prefer an ad campaign more along the lines of "go ahead! Turn on all your electronic gizmos at the same time. Leave them on all day long. It's okay, we'll make more electricity!"

It just seems to me that their current campaign would be like MacDonalds telling you to watch your cholesterol intake. Or Doritos providing dieting tips. Or Exxon telling you to stay home this summer for a nice staycation. I know of no other industry that advertises itself by telling you how to use less of it's product.