Thursday, February 19, 2009

Where is everyone?

Well, it's finally happened — the longwinded gabmeisters at WB have all hit the drowning-in-other-work-right-now wall at once. And even the shortest-winded person on staff, Litchik, has gone missing.

We'll be back after a break... and with luck, after we find Litchik and bribe her back to the keyboard with us.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Rumors of their deaths were not greatly exaggerated

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, an evil emperor decreed that there could be no evidence shown of a war he'd begun with the help of a team of bumbling illusionists. It wasn't that he actually thought people were so stupid as to think the war only had casualties on one side, but that evidence of casualties on his side could erode the already-thin support for his war. The emperor knew about semiotic relationships: symbols evoke narratives, and narratives shape reality. Thus:

Military caskets = dead soldiers = Vietnam = failure = unsupportable cause = resistance

So insistent was the emperor on maintaining an illusion of success that when one air freight employee named Tami Silicio took a photo of a cargo plane full of flag-draped dead soldiers military coffins in 2004, not only was she fired from her job instantly, but her husband was fired too.

Now, you might be thinking that the evil emperor was a certain country & western wannabe in the White House who thought invading Iraq would be a great idea for a hit single, but actually, it was his pops. The official military ban on dead soldiers military caskets in the media was imposed in 1991, not 2004; i.e. Desert Storm, not Iraqi Freedom. But no matter, because the current White House is now thinking that after nearly 20 years, it might be time to stop playing let's-pretend with the American people (and the world), and to let photos of dead soldiers military caskets exist openly.

Tami Silicio thinks this is a good idea, since all she ever wanted to do was show a friend, via email, how much care and respect the soldiers' bodies military caskets received when they were loaded onto cargo planes. The friend was so impressed by the respect that she sent the photo to the Seattle newspaper. The newspaper was so impressed that it published the photo on the front page, and then Tami Silicio's employers were so doubly impressed that they fired her and her husband — the military-industrial equivalent of "fuck you and the horse you rode in on."

Meanwhile, HBO is preparing to premiere Taking Chance, a movie about the cross-country journey of the body casket of Marine Lance Corporal Chance Phelps, escorted by another Marine and encountered by hundreds of average citizens along the journey. But if bodies caskets were officially banned from viewing, then how did those average citizens even know what was being escorted to its resting place? And why did the United States Marine Corps give permission for a film to be made about a casket fallen soldier receiving deep reverence and respect as it he returned home?

And how is WB supposed to keep track of what gets redacted here when the redactions are interchangeable depending on the context, in one more case of hegemony trying to dictate multiple rules of engagement at once? It's all too confusing, so while "the system" figures out what it wants, we'll just share a photo.


Saturday, February 14, 2009

Of "bad" guys and bad guys

PETA — People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals — became a PITA (pain in the ass) for the Westminster Kennel Club dog show this past week, stationing two protesters outside NYC's Madison Square Garden dressed in white Ku Klux Klan hoods and robes. As PETA sees it, the American Kennel Club's focus on purebred dogs and documented bloodlines is no different from the KKK's focus on purebred... uh, KKK members. Or something like that.

PETA has done some good stuff in the name of humane treatment for animals, but we find the dog show position a bit over the top. Maybe that's why the group appointed only two protesters outside the arena?

Elsewhere, Clive Owen appears in The International this week, girding himself for battle with the most despicable, dishonorable, deplorable, disreputable, and diseased industry on earth right now: banking. Once upon a time — say, back in the days when Mary Poppins first hit theaters — banks were trusted institutions and if bankers were hedging bets with money they didn't have at the cost of money they did, no one knew about it. Now, we all do, and pop culture arrives just in time to reflect the harsh reality that what was once solid (i.e. the average retirement account) has melted into air.

With one difference: Clive will kick bad banker butt and good will prevail over evil. It'd be nice to remember here that pop culture also shapes reality... but in this case, we're not holding our breath.


Thursday, February 12, 2009

This is your brain on drugs, continued....

Eight people have been arrested for being with swimmer Michael Phelps when he hit the bong seen 'round the world. Talk continues about what criminal charges will be brought against the Olympics star himself, although even the governor of South Carolina says charging him is senseless.

WB suggests that, in solidarity with the Phelps Eight, the eighty million Americans who have also hit the bong at some point in their lives—including the last three U.S. presidents—step forward and insist on being charged, tried, and jailed. With one state, California, having been ordered this week to release 40 percent of its prisoners from already-overcrowded facilities, law enforcement and the judicial system would crash under the weight and tell everyone to just go home and stop being silly.

And that's our point.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Blogoboots - footing the bill for bad behavior

January 20, 2009 marked the last day in office for George W. Bush. Nine days later, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich was kicked out of office after being found guilty of trying to sell President Barack Obama’s Senate seat. But that’s not the only similarity between these two unpopular political figures.

On December 15, 2008, Dubya dodged a pair of shoes thrown by an Iraqi journalist. Seven days later, a life-size cardboard cutout of Governor Blagojevich stood in downtown Chicago, allowing passersby to throw three shoes at him for a $1 donation to the Neediest Kids Fund.

The event, which only lasted an hour, was held on Michigan Avenue just outside WGN Radio’s Tribune Tower studio and was called “Pay to Play and Throw a Shoe at Blagojevich.”

Since the event was so limited, WB set out to find our own version of the game that anyone can play in the comfort of their homes. And we found it. As an added bonus, the online version allows players to choose their victim, which can also be Bush.

Unfortunately, the game offers only those two options. We suggest that the Wall Street executives who made sure to collect $18.4 billion in bonuses this year despite receiving bailouts from American taxpayers should be next in line for the shoe-throwing honors.


Sunday, February 8, 2009

6+8=14 Too Many

So, the woman who brought eight more babies into the world after already giving birth to six other ones has, natch, gone to the magazines and networks to tell her story. And what is the story?

She was lonely as a child, and now, in her 30s, she's compensating.

Single and jobless but living with her parents on a couple hundred grand she received in worker's comp, the proud mother of fourteen has a "preoccupation" with childbirth, according to her own mother. WB recognizes this syndrome: it's called I Don't Really See Babies As Human Beings But As Realistic Animated Dolls Or Cool Fashion Accessories That Make People Notice Me disorder.

And it's rampant.

It's also heartbreaking, because way too many of the babies who get made to make their mothers feel like they finally have something of their own, and to make their mothers feel fulfilled as women, and to help their mothers get more attention from other people — reasons that are psychologically complex but morally hollow — are also the babies that get propped in front of TV sets at home, in front of DVD screens in the minivan, in front of Ritalin bottles at the doctor's office, in front of frustrated teachers at school, in front of Happy Meals at dinner time, and in front of therapists when their own lonely childhoods start to fester.

Babies aren't dolls or bracelets, and a woman's choice to let her womb play host to a personal population explosion to cure her past hurt feelings isn't ethical behavior. The overall tone of this People profile is harsh and disapproving, as it should be. And this MSNBC article notes that "instead of the usual donations and support high profile multiples often get, [this mother] has drawn fire." Again, exactly as it should be.

Even better, the California Medical Board now wants information from the fertility doctor who decided to play along with the insane "turn me into the mother of the world" goal this desperate and disturbed woman set for herself. "The physician has the responsibility to provide a standard of care - which for someone her age is no more than two embryos at a time," says a Vanderbilt professor of ethics.

To which we add, the mother has an even bigger responsibility to provide a standard of care - which for someone in her mental condition means having no children at all until she gets her head on straight. History has already shown what can happen to the children of parents who obsess over having "as many children as possible" without any rational thought or intelligent motivation. The story ends very, very badly.

We hope that won't be the case for these fourteen unfortunate results of an experiment matching abnormal psychology with irresponsible biology. And we also hope that nothing like it will ever be allowed to happen again.

Friday, February 6, 2009


The 2008 election season (which started in 2006) brought us merchandise plastered with images of all the main players, including Sarah Palin action figures and John McCain hot sauce, but Barack Obama mania is still sweeping the nation long after we could have stopped campaigning. Here are just a few of the products we've found to be... interesting, listed in order from mildly strange to downright creepy.

First up, the Obama bobblehead. While bobbleheads are a common item in American pop culture, the Obama model is so popular it comes in more than just one style. You can take your pick from suit and tie Obama, Superhero Obama, or, for $150, four Hawaiian Obama bobbleheads from Ebay. Sure, they’re cute, we guess, but let’s not put too much pressure on the new president by thinking he’s Clark Kent, okay?

Next up, an item marketed toward the younger generation of voters (you know, the ones Obama was trying to reach by sending out text messages and posting things on YouTube.) The Obama skateboard comes in a variety of styles. Some are imprinted with messages, but most just have a giant picture of the president himself. We find this a bit odd considering that the last time we felt like stomping on someone’s face, it wasn’t to show support.

If you don’t skateboard, but still want the president near your feet, here’s your perfect pair of shoes. There are 35 pages of these bad boys, so there’s no way you couldn’t find a pair to match each outfit. The shoes come in multiple colors, multiple pictures, and one pair even offers the president’s “Yes We Can” speech. So if you really don’t prefer to step on his face, you can just walk peacefully in your new shoes with his face on your feet.

And what about adding an Obama-rama air freshener to your car to go along with your bobblehead? The website selling this one of a kind artwork states that, “yes, he is vanilla scented” and that it sold out quicker than the Hillary Clinton air freshener during the campaign (she’s vanilla, too).

Or maybe you’re not one for wearing Obama clothing, dressing up your car, or skateboarding. As long as you celebrate Christmas, these Barack and Michelle Obama Christmas cards should be your perfect fit. They feature the president in a Santa hat and the first lady in lingerie-like Mrs. Clause outfit. Something tells us Mrs. Obama probably doesn’t appreciate being photo-shopped into a Victoria’s Secret Christmas gift.

The Obamas probably don’t appreciate this one either: their wedding photo on that most useless of items, a mouse pad. It can also be found on mugs, calendars, shirts, and bags. A few of the items are even inscribed with their wedding date. While not quite the creepiest item found, WB wonders…WTF? While it is normal to put your own wedding photo and date around your house, it’s a little stalker-ish to use someone else’s, unless you know them personally.

While we were unable to find a place to actually buy this one, probably because it’s caused a wee bit of controversy, there’s no doubt they exist. The last and creepiest piece of Obama merchandise we discovered is two dolls named Malia and Sasha. Ty Inc., the company responsible for the Beanie Babies craze, created the dolls and swears they have nothing to do with the Obamas. However, their spokeswoman, Tania Lundeen, also told the Chicago Sun-Times, “They’re such adorable girls. How can we resist?” Either way, it creeps us out, and apparently the first lady as well. Her press secretary, Katie McCormick, stated, “We feel it is inappropriate to use young, private citizens for marketing purposes.”

With this ongoing demand for Obama merchandise, we're glad that the president is sticking to his word of helping out the economy, even if he doesn’t realize he’s doing it — or have any control of the situation, for that matter. Like all good things in pop culture, he and his family have become a fetish commodity, infused with special power, animated with the hope and change they symbolize, their images replacing the real people since the real can't be had no matter how strongly they're desired.

And of course, they haven't been asked for licensing permission, either. Public figures, public domain, private profit. God bless American enterprise.

Now, where did we leave our Visa card?

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Playing with space-time

Two games hit the market in the last year and a half that promise to change the way we look at gaming, and stretch the boundaries of what we can do with what we consider a game. These two games are Portal and Braid.

Portal was the first to hit shelves. It’s a release from Valve, the makers of Half-Life and Half-Life 2, among others, and they’ve proven they know how to do things right. Set in the Half-Life universe, and loosely connected, Portal follows you as the protagonist through a short romp in space. Not space as in outer space, the one with all the stars and planets and nothing, but space as in what you’re occupying right now. It’s a first-person shooter, but not in the traditional sense. It’s also a first-person platformer, which almost never works in games. Portal pulls it off, because it centers around one simple mechanic: portals.

In this case, a gun shoots a hole in space onto a surface. Two colored portals can be fired; blue and orange, each one at the end of a wormhole. Through these two simple holes, the player must navigate a series of increasingly confusing and deadly “test chambers” in search of… what, exactly? You’re a test subject for Aperture Science, discovering where the employees are, who that voice is talking to you, and what the big deal is about cake. (That’s right, cake.) The drive to complete the test chambers slowly morphs into the drive to escape, and to find out what happened along the way.

On the other side of the continuum we have Braid. Where Portal was made by a big-name company, in first-person, in 3D, and has you manipulate space, Braid is made by an independent developer, in third person, in 2D, and has you manipulate time.

Time manipulation is nothing new; ever since Prince of Persia, at least, there’s been some element of it present. Even in games that give you lives and set you free, death is often a rewind button to let you try again. No game has taken it to an extreme as much as Braid does.

Braid’s central mechanic is a rewind button. As you make your moves, jump your jumps, and fall your falls, you can press this button at any time to rewind back through what you’ve done, to change anything and see the different outcome. Each successive level makes things a little more complicated: one level has a ring you can place to slow down time in a small area, while another has a shadow version of yourself that only appears when you rewind, do to what you did while you do something else, effectively giving you two characters at once.

The story for Portal is light-hearted and funny, but Braid is a mystery: Tim is off on a search to rescue the Princess. She has been snatched by a horrible and evil monster. This happened because Tim made a mistake. Not just one. He made many mistakes during the time they spent together, all those years ago. Memories of their relationship have become muddled, replaced wholesale, but one remains clear: the Princess turning sharply away, her braid lashing at him with contempt[….] Our world, with its rules of causality, has trained us to be miserly with forgiveness. By forgiving too readily, we can be badly hurt. But if we’ve learned from a mistake and become better for it, shouldn’t we be rewarded for the learning, rather than punished for the mistake?

This is some of the first story you encounter when you begin to play the game. Note the wording; first story you encounter. Like everything else, the story isn’t necessarily chronological, and there’s much more to it than a simple story of a man chasing a princess — a pretty significant bit of social commentary just flew past, in fact:

Our world, with its rules of causality, has trained us to be miserly with forgiveness. By forgiving too readily, we can be badly hurt. But if we’ve learned from a mistake and become better for it, shouldn’t we be rewarded for the learning, rather than punished for the mistake?

It sounds almost like a new president's inaugural speech line about extending a hand in friendship — which can't work if the other hand is a closed fist. There has to be a new start, a clean slate. Wow, who knew that a princess's vindictive braid could be a metaphor for rebuilding the public image of a formerly admired nation... or a metaphor for a dozen other possibilities, if you really ponder them for a few minutes?

But beyond the moral-ethical-philosophical angles (and the plot does get much thicker and more complex than those), what else have these games done? They both push the bounds of what we’ve considered possible in a game, i.e. the odd physics of Portal or the creative uses of time in Braid. They lead the way for a whole new type of game. Let’s hope all the other game developers are paying attention.

Monday, February 2, 2009

This is your brain on drugs

Olympic swimmer and multi-medalist Michael Phelps went to a party. People at the party asked Michael Phelps if he wanted to smoke some weed. Michael Phelps said yes. Someone took a picture of Michael Phelps smoking weed and then sent it off to the newspapers.

Immediately, a shocking scandal erupted.

Now, Michael Phelps is going overboard saying that he's only 23 and is guilty of the bad judgment young people use.

But he's wrong.

Michael Phelps has totally blown a terrific opportunity to help steer the United States of America out of its Puritan "war on drugs" dark ages and into the 21st century. Instead of falling all over himself apologizing and groveling for forgiveness, he could have said, Yes, I smoke weed sometimes, like millions of other Americans do, and look, I'm still a wholesome super-athlete. But whoever took my photo at that party needs to apologize for being a slimy weasel and trying to turn a normal recreational habit into something shocking and terrible. The time for that is over; it's a new day.

Sadly, Michael Phelps threw that opportunity away, and instead we get one more public figure confessing his alleged "sins" and seeking atonement, when he hasn't done anything that half the "shocked" public hasn't done itself.

Move along, folks. There's nothing to see here.