Monday, July 27, 2009

"Independent" independents? Depends.

WB caught a quiet little weekend story on NPR the other day about a new business called 15th Ave. Coffee and Tea opening in Seattle. Reading this, you might think, what kind of coffee shop startup would be foolish enough to try and compete in Seattle, Washington — the home of Starbuck's?

Good question. The new store hopes to succeed by having a different decor, different menu, different servers, and a different name than the company that owns it: Starbuck's.

Yes, Starbuck's is going "local" — just like Wal-Mart and shopping malls are hoping to feel "local" as they keep repeating the word over and over to consumers. But unlike Wal-Mart and Sears and JC Penny and Foot Locker, Starbuck's is going further with the "local" idea by intentionally distancing itself from itself.

15th Avenue Coffee and Tea has no plans to expand — yet. That comes later, after it succeeds at seeming like a locally-owned neighborhood place, you know, a real neighborhood place, not like Applebee's that only wants you to think you're "eating good in the neighborhood."

Jean Baudrillard is smiling in his grave at this intricate simulation and simulacra show, brought to us by one of the biggest corporations in the world and one that has acted as a steamroller to flatten the genuine local-coffeeshop scene in many cities. There's no irony in any of this, there are only layers of simulation, and if we prefer some 15th Avenue coffee because it seems more genuinely local, then that's really all that matters... to Starbuck's.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The economic cost of Economics ideology

From our friends at Adbusters magazine:

The .jpeg or .pdf file can be downloaded here.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

A tale of two numbers

Pardon us while we toss another gearhead topic out there, but this one really drives us nuts.

There are these two 1970 Dodge Chargers for sale, and one of them is rotting in a back yard with a non-running 426 Hemi engine, a busted 4-speed transmission, a ton of rust, shredded bucket seats, a cracked and faded dashboard, and even a couple of missing windows. It appears to have been painted green at one time.

The other one is immaculate, not a speck of rust, no tears or fade spots on the interior, no sign of wear on the bucket seats, a screamingly powerful 426 Hemi engine with working 4-speed, and an utter joy to drive. This one, too, is painted green.

One of these classic Mopars sells for $47,000. The other sells for $12,800. Wanna take a guess about which one is which?

See, the immaculate lime-green Charger* R/T 426 was never a lime-green R/T 426. It came off the assembly line as a docile maroon grocery grabber with a six-cylinder engine, bench seat, and automatic transmission. Then it went into storage, was bought by a Charger fan, and became an R/T 426 through the magic of correctly and carefully placed body emblems, patiently procured and perfectly installed interior components, and a huge race engine delivered in a crate from Chrysler. It is a Charger R/T 426 to every smallest detail — there is nothing on this car that differs, in any way, from the factory specs in 1970. Even the decals on the battery, radiator, and tire jack are authentic. So is the owner's manual in the glove box.

But the car's VIN number — its factory-designated Vehicle Identification code — tells the story: regardless of what your eyes, ears, and body are telling you, this is, in fact, a six-cylinder maroon grocery grabber with a bench seat and automatic transmission. It doesn't matter that everything — EVERYTHING — else about the car is authentically restored and correctly placed. There's one number on a little metal plaque riveted to the dash, and reprinted on the car's title, that matters more.

The rotting car, as you've probably figured out by now, is a "numbers matching" prize; its engine and transmission, even though they're worthless hulls, are the ones that were on the car when it went onto the delivery truck in 1970. And the bucket seats, although in tatters, are the original equipment. And the VIN shows that this was, in fact, an original R/T 426.

Will the engine and transmission require massive overhaul, using all new parts during the rebuild? Yes. And the seats — any hope that anything other than the basic metal frames can be salvaged? Nope. Everything from the metal up will be restoration materials. Carpet? Paint? Windows? Fenders and doors, which the rust of decades has eaten away? Those will be replacements, too.

But the VIN will be correct: this was, in fact, an R/T 426. The other car, the one in perfect condition, was a six-cylinder maroon grocery grabber.

This whole scenario, to us, defies all basic logic. People are willing to fork over tens of thousands of dollars — and then many additional thousands for the restoration — over the price of another perfect classic car, only so that the VIN will say "true" about a rolling junk heap instead of "false" about a gleaming race machine?

The insanity only increases when car nuts act like pro baseball statisticians: "This was one of only seven R/T models to have a black shifter knob and chrome trim on the wheels." Ooooh, well, that's certainly worth ten or twenty grand. "Only 23 R/Ts had this color green with an AM/FM radio." Hot damn, that's worth a small fortune!

Of course, WB loves to see the power of ideology in action, and the classic car scene, as a case study, is as good as it gets. Meanwhile, if we ever have a chance to own a black Camaro SS 396, or a green Mustang Boss 302, we're going for it — especially because, since they won't be "real" SS or Boss models, we'll actually be able to afford them. A metal plate with a number embossed on it is just one more part on a car made up of many parts — and a damned insignificant one, at that.

* The immaculate lime green Charger in the photo is only an example of an immaculate lime green Charger! We do not mean to cast any doubt on its authentic numbers, if it has them.


Monday, July 20, 2009

The "local" Wal-Mart is NOT local.

There are plenty of reasons to buy local, as The Sustainable Table lists and explains here. People in or near communities lucky enough to have a farmer's market can buy meat, eggs, produce, flowers, even fresh-made condiments (i.e. with only three items on the ingredients label, none of them starting with "partially hydrogenated"), knowing that everything on the display table has been trucked in from only a couple of counties away at most, and when an item goes out of season, it'll also be out of stock. You learn how to eat realistically when you buy local — there are no Michigan strawberries in winter, no Chilean grapes in summer, and no Kiwis ever unless you live in New Zealand.

"Buy Local" has caught on to such an extent that many people have taken the philosophy even further, translating the motto as "boycott corporate chains." Some of us at WB, for instance, make it a goal to dine only at independently owned restaurants, and especially those that list the geographical origins of their ingredients on their menus. Yeah, those babyback ribs at Applebee's are tasty, and the soup at Panera is delicious, but too bad. They're corporate. Their supplies arrive via corporate truck, from wherever their headquarters or distribution points are. And a chunk of their profits go to HQ, not to the community.

Knowing that "buy local" is expanding into "buy independent," corporate America is quickly mounting a misinformation campaign. According to MNN, Wal-Mart is hanging signs that say "LOCAL" over its produce, even if the term is defined as "grown in the Western Hemisphere" or "grown in the Americas; i.e. in Argentina." With no official legal definition of "local," the massive machine from Arkansas can get away with its one-word banner. But Wal-Mart isn't alone in this, because shopping malls, too, are — surprise! — also angling to position themselves as "local." And of course, they are local; the mall is "in town" (or more likely at the outskirts of it, near the freeway entrance). They just hope no one notices the "Made in Vietnam/ Indonesia/ China/ Guatemala" label on the clothes/ tools/ luggage/ eyeglass frames/ everything.

The sad thing is, there may be two or three people who work for Wal-Mart or the International Council of Shopping Centers who know that buying local is a great practice, and that the days of "jet fresh catch" in the seafood department should have ended long ago. But those people won't say anything. Profit is king, and community is just a location for making it. And environment: that's only what produces the raw materials for the stuff that makes the profit.

It's a tiny, myopic world view. It's utterly destructive. But it will sure as hell succeed in persuading millions of consumers to wrongly believe that their nearby corporate chain outlet is also their local one.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The King is dead; long live the King

Being without Michael Jackson has caused a world-wide meltdown. People are still crying, fans have killed themselves, and the King of Pop's album sales have exploded since his death as fans attempt to console themselves with sonic tonic. In an effort to save us all from an irreversible depression, WB has set out to crown a new King of Pop. After narrowing it down to four candidates, we eventually chose a winner. Here's our journey.

Usher: While he, like all other candidates, probably wishes he was Michael Jackson, he's not really that close. He definitely doesn't seem to have an impact on the music industry like Jackson, which is pretty important when being crowned the King of Pop. Not to mention that his popularity seems to be declining a bit, as his newest album sales didn't even come close to matching his previous sales. But, in the opposite perspective, his music is in the same genre, he's a decent singer, and he's a pretty good dancer. Usher is definitely a pop artist like Jackson, but we're still left wondering if someone whose career seems to be fading could ever be as good as Michael Jackson. And since he's had only a small impact on the music industry, it's hard to know if he could fulfill the duties of such a prestigious crowning.

Justin Timberlake: Although his Michael Jackson crotch grabs are pretty lame (see photo), Justin is a leader in the competition. From the time he left the boy-band 'N Sync to embark on a solo career, WB has noticed the similarities to Jackson. With the exception of wearing one glove, Timberlake's high-pitched singing and dancing has always been a dead giveaway. He has also sold his fair share of albums, is friends with A-list celebrities, helps other musicians on their albums, is involved in charities, has appeared in movies, and has even made a name for himself as a returning guest on Saturday Night Live. And though he may never top Jackson's success in holding the record for most album sales, Justin has made women go crazy, just as they did for Jackson. All of this experience in the entertainment world makes him seem like a pretty good candidate for the King of Pop, but we're not sure if Timberlake appeals to as wide of an audience as a King of Pop should. Because he has kept many fans from his boy-band days, it is not quite obvious if Justin has male and female fans of all ages, races, and backgrounds, or if teenage girls still make up a majority of his fan base.

Jamie Foxx: We don't really have much to say about Foxx. We always knew him to be an actor and comedian until he appeared in Kanye West's hit song, "Gold Digger." He had made music before that, but the Kanye collaboration, combined with his portrayal of Ray Charles in the film Ray, thrust Foxx into the music industry. He has continuted to make music and even appeared as a musical mentor on American Idol. Still, we're just not sure if we can see him fitting into the MJ crown. Sure, Jamie can sing and dance a bit, but his music is nowhere near as popular as it should be for a King of Pop. If he continues to make music for many years to come, he may be able to gain a few more fans. But, we're still worried that even with more fans and album sales, he is not as influential as our other candiates.

Chris Brown: Also a leader in the competition, Brown is a young R&B artist. His songs usually involve fast beats or romantic lyrics, which is quite similar to Jackson's lyrics. Many songs are also dance-like, another deciding factor when it comes to being at all like Jackson. Brown is well known as being a dancer and has even appeared in a commercial showcasing his dancing. However, the commercial was pulled from television after Brown landed himself in court for allegedly abusing his girlfriend. Though Browns' arrest was not at all similar to Jackson's troubles in 1993 and 2004, they did share the same lawyer. Before his troubles with the law, Brown performed "Thriller," one of Jackson's biggest hits, at the World Music Awards in 2006, just one year after bursting onto the music scene. Although Brown seems to share a resemblance with Jackson and would most likely make a wonderful King of Pop eventually, we're a little concerned that his inexperience would make him a better prince first.

So the winner is... Justin Timberlake. To be a the King of Pop (according to us), one must not only possess a desire to be like Michael Jackson, but must also sell millions of records, be an important figure in the music industry, be able to make girls cry and faint, and of course have enough experience to be crowned as a King. Out of all our candidates, we believe Timberlake has the most experience, the most fans, and has done the most for popular music. And, after all, he did bring sexy back.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Another sad celebrity ending

WB recently discovered yet another Hollywood death this year. While we managed to get over the initial shock in about five seconds, we still can't shake the fact that we didn't see it coming. Although the disease had been slowly worsening for years, it never really hit us that death was imminent until the cold evidence of it saturated our TV screens.

It began innocently enough with toothpaste commercial. But in just four short years, it progressed quickly, transforming itself into multiple commercials, disguised as clothing, milk, towels, and eventually, as the end was near, more toothpaste, cars, sunscreen, and even a prescription eyelash enhancer.

Yes, Brooke Shields' career is officially dead, and we are in mourning. Not because we'll miss it, but because it means we will most likely be suffering through even more of her omnipresent commercials in the future. We can handle the car ads, but we really don't care that she sunburns easily, has germs in her mouth, and can't grow her own eyelashes. In fact, we're a little embarrassed for her.

Celebrities suddenly appearing in several commercials in just a few years is always a sure sign that their careers are headed steadily to the has-been file. True, in Brooke's defense you could counter she has always been in commercials, and when she appeared in a new one in 2000, it had been many years since her last one, so there was no worry. But then came one more in '03, and another in '04, then '06, then '07, and then two in '08 and three in '09, and we knew this was more than the normal, tolerable, unremarkable celeb-in-an-ad pattern. We were witnessing the end of an acting career.

Now all we can do is remember what used to be and hope we're not the only ones breaking this obituary. For Brooke's sake, we hope someone else can deliver the message, maybe someone like Tom Cruise, who has always known more about Brooke than she knows about herself, and can let her down gently.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Lars Ulrich - plotting a course for post-Metallica retirement?

First there was the troubling news that Lars Ulrich wasn't just the drummer for Metallica; he was also a multi-millionaire collector of world-class art. The semiotic train wreck here still hasn't been sorted out, as Mr. Millions is currently out on tour banging the skins, shirtless and sweating and far from any kind of image of a wealthy art collector.

Now, Lars is also branching into playing host to art film retrospectives, introducing audiences to the work of fellow Danes and filmmakers Lars Von Trier and Jørgen Leth. Can the diminutive Danish drummer refrain from dropping F-bombs long enough to get through an introduction? That's probably part of the appeal of pairing him up with art-house films.

It'll be interesting to see what the Four Horsemen all decide to do after they fold the Metallica tent for the final time. Unless they're gunning to out-roll the Rolling Stones, who are still out there rocking in their encroaching 70s (drummer Charlie Watts is 68), the Met boys will probably not be touring this time in 2019. They reached the summit with the Black Album, fell off the mountain hard with their next several releases, and finally climbed back up there with Death Magnetic. Going out at the top of the game is a good thing. And the idea of Lars Ulrich as host of a radically updated Masterpiece Theater is oddly, and kind of perversely, appealing.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

We repeat: Every sperm is not sacred

As we have ranted said here and here, WB is unimpressed by babies in multiples. Twins are cool (and cute, especially if they're the boys of a favorite WB associate), but when the numbers start sliding upwards to four and above, and those numbers are due to fertility treatments run amok, then we roll our eyes. When Monty Python sang "Every Sperm Is Sacred" in The Meaning of Life, they were joking. It was commentary — the visual element of the song, with two miserable parents and a hundred dirty, starving kids, was a big clue about the Pythons' intended meaning.

And still.

Today, college students everywhere taking Art Appreciation 101 are shown slides of the Venus of Willendorf, the stone goddess of fertility with pregnant belly and ample bosom for nursing and nurturing. Likewise, Isis was famed and revered as a fertility goddess, especially since she gave birth to gods. The reverence for fertility wasn't just an aspect of ancient pagan cultures; it crossed over into Christianity with the story of old, barren Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, and then to Mary, Mother of Jesus of Nazareth — a particularly complex narrative wherein God miraculously impregnates a virgin to give birth to His Son, Who is also His Father, and thus is God giving birth to Himself — a stunning display of showmanship as a way of saying Hey, pay attention here.

Two thousand years later, both Mary and Elizabeth have their praises sung on Sundays by millions around the world, and their stories are recited in creeds of faith. Which leads WB to wonder, what might anthropologists in the year 4009 say about our culture and its continuing reverence for and obsession with miraculously, wonderfully, overly fertile women?

Behold, the woman was named Kate, and she did bring forth into the world eight children, and so great was her power that it was broadcast into the whole world, and even into the entire galaxy, on magical electron beams. And Kate did herald the arrival of Octomom, whose powers of fertility were the mightiest in all the land. Octomom was at first worshipped, then reviled in a great backlash, but still the Keepers of the Electrons did offer her a reality show so that her powers could be shown to the galaxy, like Kate's.

And there were lesser Goddesses, too, like Joan Lunden of the Electron Keeper called ABC, and she did produce four children but only as two sets of twins, and so she was cast down from the pantheon of Greater Goddesses and became the spokesmom for Oral B, promoting good dental care for children.

And lo, there was even an organization called MOST — Mothers of Super Twins — dedicated to the celebration, care, and preservation of women whose wombs did produce triplets, quadruplets, quintuplets, sextuplets, and even seventuplets. (Beyond seven, even MOST understood that overkill was involved.) Understanding the meaning of Monty Python's
Meaning, MOST did also set up a charity seeking donations of wealth so that the Super Twins and their exhausted, impoverished parents could purchase the implements necessary for good dental hygiene, so that the Goddess Joan would be well pleased.
Or maybe not. Maybe scientists in 4009 will only shake their heads sadly and say, "Look, even after thousands of years, these people remained primitive and stupid. Their planet was dying, crushed under the weight of fourteen billion feet, and still they went gaga over multiple googoos."

Oh, the insanity of humanity.

Friday, July 10, 2009

CO2 as a controlled cash cow

As we do from time to time, WB is stealing borrowing from its sister blog because topics have overlapped nicely....

Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi is a master of The Rant — and the clear successor to the late Dr. Hunter S. Thompson in the "gonzo journalism" department. But his latest eruption of molten opinion, "The Great American Bubble Machine," in the current issue of RS has some major blind spots.

The piece is lengthy attack on Goldman Sachs, and on Barack Obama for staffing the White House with a number of key Goldman characters who, according to Taibbi, are manipulating this President just as they manipulated the last one, engineering legislation that, while claiming to be good for the country and good for the world, will first and foremost be good for Goldman Sachs. Everyone else comes fifth — and gets screwed in the process.

It's at the end of the attack, when Taibbi addresses Goldman's role in "helping" to combat climate change through supporting cap and trade limits on carbon emissions, that he goes blind, writing:

"If cap and trade succeeds, won't we all be saved from the catastrophe of global warming? Maybe — but cap and trade, as envisioned by Goldman Sachs, is really just a carbon tax structured so that private interests collect the revenues. Instead of simply imposing a fixed government levy on carbon pollution and forcing unclean energy producers to pay for the mess they make, cap and trade will allow a small tribe of greedy-as-hell Wall Street swine to turn yet another commodities market into a private tax collection scheme."

WB hates to take the side of "swine" in any argument, but in this case, we need to face facts. First, the "unclean energy producers" are... well, us. The consumers of electricity and gasoline and natural gas (methane) and propane and firewood and charcoal and all of the other things that burn and release CO2. (We won't even get into our culture's maniacal consumption of things that consume energy.) The way the United States and its proud and avowed capitalist system works is that producers produce what consumers demand. Nobody does anything that doesn't make money. There is no altruism involved, unless it's a good guise for generating more revenue. This is not an attack, nor even a critique; it's just an explanation of fact.

And: if the U.S. government were to "simply impos[e] a fixed levy" (i.e. tax) on carbon, as Taibbi advocates, then this is what would happen: four years after signing the legislation, the President would be voted out of office, along with all of the members of Congress who supported it with him. A new crew would come in, all of them wearing "GOP" patches on their sleeves, and repeal the tax in the name of "freedom from big government."

That is why, in a capitalist system, you use capitalism to get things done. Not altruism, not ethics, not intellectualism, not legislation or the balance of powers. You let the bankers and their clients get rich, and since their clients include the owners and shareholders of the energy producers having CO2 limits imposed upon them, everyone's happy. If the companies don't scream, and the shareholders don't lose money (and instead gain it), and Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity have no Democrats or "liberals" to attack because it wasn't they who were demanding climate sanity, it was the financial system and the corporate world it supports, then we all win by losing.

It's a strange and demented way of doing things, but a society so tightly encapsulated in an unbreakable ideology of money über alles has to take what it can get. It's Progress through Profit and Prosperity, Carbon Control through Cash and Currency — and who know, maybe someone can copyright those slogans and get rich selling bumper stickers and T-shirts.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Because being a millionaire just doesn't buy what it used to

Our favorite group of middle-aged millionaire metalheads will soon be appearing on fans' feet everywhere. Converse, the company that used to make its shoes in the United States, but now is a subsidiary of Nike and making them overseas, rolls out the Metallica line of Chuck Taylor All-Stars this month. Now fans not only can stand and headbang for several hours while seeing the band's shows, but also stand and headbang for all that time in flat shoes with zero arch or ankle support.

That said, WB will totally be getting the black ones with the orange Pushead skull on the side.

Monday, July 6, 2009

United we cough

We don't normally comment on graphic design, even though it's a huge part of branding and commodity peddling. But the other day President Obama dropped a message into our inbox asking for stories about health care misadventures, very similarly to what Michael Moore did in preparing material for his last documentary, Sicko. We've been feeling pretty good for quite a while and so had no horror stories to share, but before deleting the message we happened to catch this:

Whoever Obama's got on the team making graphics, s/he's a genius deserving a very large raise in pay. Just look at all the stuff going on in this little blue box — starting with the brilliant reworking of the famous "O" logo that incorporated a shimmering flag, a glowing sunrise, an exquisite blue sky, and... well, a big O. That "O" now has sprouted a gorgeous luminescent blue eagle atop the Medicine logo that grows from the sunrise in the original O, while yet another sunrise — much bigger and grander than the original — shines above the expanded logo and even includes stars — night is literally turned to day, darkness to light. And who does the double-sunrise shine over? All Americans, standing from the rocky Atlantic to the calm Pacific on an ocean of absolute calm.

Everything's going to be fine. Let yourself float into the blueness. Of course, socialized medicine isn't all beauty and grace, being administered by bureaucrats, but hey, this isn't about reality. This is about image. After all, didn't SNL used to say something about it being better to look good than to feel good?

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Culture of (dubious) achievements

We live in a culture of Achievements. At least, we young people do.

Every game that ships for the Xbox 360 these days has "Achievements." What are they? By completing objectives in the game, your profile gets a badge that says you completed the event, and your “gamerscore” goes up by whatever the achievement was deigned to be worth. “Gamerscore,” by the way, is the Xbox 360’s way of telling the world how much time you sink into games.

The trouble is, more and more these days the achievements fall into a few categories. Walk-throughs, Multiplayer, and Absurdly Difficult are the three most common.

Walk-through achievements seem to reward doing what you’re already doing. They usually have a few small achievements and one large one, representing the narrative flow of the game. Every chapter comes to a close with the little sound effect, letting you know the game appreciates your effort and here’s 10G, enjoy it. Then comes the climactic boss fight, where try after try leaves you on the verge of a rage-quit, when suddenly the monster falls! You can hardly believe you’ve done it, but then that sound effect plays again, and bam! 50G, cold hard points, tacked on to your score. 50G that proves to the world you don’t quit what you start.

The trouble with walkthrough achievements is that they rarely prove anything. It’s just a way for companies to hook OCD players into making sure they play every minute. What does that 100 or 150 gamerscore say besides ‘I spent $50 and 10 hours on this game and all I got was this lousy achievement?’

Multiplayer achievements reward tenacity and time, more than anything else. More often than not, you’ll find achievements for every weapon in the game, only rewarding you once you’ve killed an arbitrary number of people with that weapon.

What happens then? Players who have Xbox live, first off, have the advantage. Those who don’t often can’t even get the full gamerscore available from their games. This means they aren’t playing the game to its full potential, which in turn makes them want to buy subscriptions to Live. Those who do have Live and try to earn the achievements, find hours of their lives spent with weapons they don’t like. Sure, it’s an incentive to get better at using those weapons, to develop different skills and tactics for each situation presented. More often, though, it ends up being an excuse for everyone to use the same weapon for a while. This doesn’t even take into account the scenarios where you buy a game a year later than everyone else, and either no one is playing the multiplayer, or everyone is so good you never get the chance to get the kills you need.

Absurdly Difficult achievements are exactly that; absurdly difficult. Things like “find all 100 of these well-hidden items we didn’t give you hints as to where they are,” or “kill everything in this game using only the weakest weapon,” or our personal favorite, “get the perfect score on everything this game has to offer.” These are all in the spirit of achievements: they reward skill, talent, tenacity, and otherwise dogged determination.

Unfortunately, more and more these achievements are getting arbitrary. Some of them are flat-out impossible for anyone but the best. Included there are the Absurdly Difficult Multiplayer Achievements. Things like “obtain #1 rank on worldwide leader boards” and “submit user content and have the developers praise it.” Who will get those? Only the players with the most time on their hands and the best connections.

Open-world games like Oblivion and Fallout 3 have achievements that guide their gameplay. Oblivion rewards you for completing each quest chain, but has no mention of the sidequests and subplots available. To the online community, there’s no different they can see to someone who spent 30 hours doing the guild quests and unlocking every achievement, and someone who spent 130 hours doing every sidequest, hunting every rare item, and leveling up to max. Fallout 3, on the other hand, rewards multiple playthroughs. With a good-neutral-evil Karma system in place, and achievements for hitting different levels at different ranks, it’s almost impossible to get all the achievements without playing through at least twice.

All of this just stacks up to more time spent playing games, more fanatical grinding and collecting, and less good old-fashioned exploratory fun. Sure, games have had achievements long before this, but never before has there been the social pressure to achieve. Not in games, anyways. There’s a certain arrogance that comes with obtaining every achievement. Even more so, the multiplayer achievements, which serve as a warning; this player is either very good, or very bored.

Are achievements ever going to go away? Probably not. Are they a good addition to gaming culture? We don’t know. We’re still too busy trying to get that last collectable.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Finding FOUND

Millions of Americans are obsessed with reality, or at least what they perceive as real. They think The Real World could never be scripted and Heidi and Spencer Pratt really were tortured and have a right to be overly dramatic. And come September, there will be a movie that attempts to takes away the invisible line between simulation and reality.

But there is one person (and hopefully a few others) who accepts real instead of creating it. Four years before Frank Warren convinced people to reveal their deepest secrets via postcards, Davy Rothbart realized our obsession with reality and began collecting trash that consisted of letters, pictures, song lyrics, and many other random artifacts.

It all started with FOUND, a magazine he published in 2001. The magazine showcased many of the discarded items he found over the years. The popularity of the magazine then led to publishing two books, one of which was a best seller. There are also two websites, one for FOUND, and one for DIRTY FOUND, a place for all the "adult" trash.

Many of these lost or discarded items are a fascinating look into the real lives of Americans. Among the few that Rothbart shared in an appearance on ABC's 20/20 was a monthly budget list of a man who set aside more money for crack and liquor than for food and a letter from a woman breaking up with a man because she found out they were related.

While readers may find these letters fascinating, it still seems like fake reality is sweeping the nation more than real reality. We're not even going to try to explain why people are fascinated with simulations of reality (Truman Burbank could probably explain it better anyway), but, we are going to say that we're at least pleased with the way Rothbart's trash collecting has turned out.

With a mixture of pure human emotion and voyeurism, Rothbart has taken reality to an entire different level and turned it into a fascinating look not just into the lives of people, but into our entire culture. Television and movies certainly try to show us what reality is, but the odds of us being stuck in a jungle with television cameras following us, or having a choice of dozens of potential mates, is pretty slim. Sure, the key characters are not actors (okay, maybe they are), but that doesn't make it reality. Rothbart collecting trash from unsuspecting litterers is the reality of human nature.

Next time you're looking for something real, WB recommends staying away from Hollywood and instead finding cheaper entertainment by simply opening your mind to the real lives of the everyday people all around us.