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A Little Talk About Nothing at All

April 30, 2009 4 comments

Bear with me.

I’ve seen a lot of scary things in movies, and read a lot of scary things in books.

The most flat-out terrifying scene I’ve ever seen though, is in Terminator 2: Judgement Day. In the scene, Sarah Connor, the mother of John Connor, leader of the resistance against the machines in the future, is having a dream about August 29, 1997, the supposed Judgement Day, when the war against the machines begins. She is on one side of a playground, watching children play, just outside the fence. Slowly, comprehension dawns on her that this is the day, THE day. She yells and screams at the children playing, but they are ambivalent; it’s likely they can’t hear her at all. Suddenly there’s a great flash, a mushroom cloud, and a wave of extreme heat ignites and chars everything in the wake of the explosion. It is followed by the shockwave, which rends Sarah’s flesh from her bones. All of this is done in exquisitely detailed slow motion. It is, simply put, the most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen. I have to link it because the only decent clip of it I can find on Youtube is missing its embed code, so here it is. Please come back.

There are two close follow-ups, the first being the deleted “crabwalk” sequence from The Exorcist. The director pulled it because he felt it was “too much, too soon,” which I agree with completely. But that image scared the living shit out of me, and this is in a movie in which I was pretty scared througout the entire runtime of the film. See it here. Again, please come back.

The other is near the end of the movie version of Stephen King’s Pet Semetary, in which the young son of the hero comes back from the dead. (Spoilers? The book’s been out for 25 years and the movie almost as long. I’m not calling spoilers here.) When I read the book I was initially pretty creeped out, but seeing and hearing the image on the screen was a whole different dimension. The whole scene is scary and tragic. It’s probably worse now that I have a child and can identify with it a little more. Unfortunately, I can’t find a short clip that does it justice, nor is in the proper spot to illustrate what I’m talking about exactly, so you’ll get no video on this one. Sorry.

An honorable mention goes out to the first reveal of an alien in Signs. A lot of it has to do with my own personal fears of aliens/abductions, but I think this particular Big Reveal is probably M. Night Shyamalan’s greatest moment in film. I’m not even going to embed it here because it creeps me out, personally, so much that I don’t want to go digging for it.

Here’s the thing though. A lot of these moments come when we’re already emotionally invested in a film. Once the T2 scene hits, we’ve already become involved in all of the characters, and—if we’ve seen the first Terminator—in Sarah Connor in particular. The Exorcist clip is, I think, only available as a special feature on the DVD, and we rarely watch special features without watching the movie first, so we’re pretty much prepared for anything… except that. The Pet Semetary clip comes after some pretty traumatic experiences for the hero (and us). At that point we’re prepared for weirdness, but nothing is really as frightening as a three-year-old come back from the dead with a murderous streak.

Aside: The exceedingly stylish video game Bioshock tries to use this effect in their “Little Sister” characters, but most reviewers at IGN.com felt worse incinerating their companion cubes in Portal than they did killing Little Sisters, which probably should tell you about how much empathy they feel towards Satanic little girls nowadays. End aside.

Now, all this leads me to the following: we haven’t had a good horror movie come out of Hollywood in years. I mean a really good, fills-you-with-dread, I’m-gonna-remember-this-for-the-rest-of-my-life horror movie. Signs was weakened by the bizarro morality play that it had going on within it. Most movies listed as “horror” nowadays are anything but: they are “slasher porn” or “torture porn” or whatever people are calling it these days, and there’s seemingly no end to them. The only movie I’ve seen in the past five years that actually made me react vicerally to it was Cloverfield, and most of that had to do with the vomit-inducing camerawork.

But the thing about Cloverfield is that, for being a Giant Monster Movie, it did a really good job of generating dread. It would, generally speaking, only tip its hand when necessary. Even one of the scariest scenes in the film, in the subway tunnels, relies on darkness and the unknown to instill terror within us. We know that the creatures are CG effects. Stephen King calls this knowledge “seeing the zipper down the back” in his nonfiction book Danse Macabre. We know these things aren’t real, we know they’re just SGI workstations pumping out pixels, but the pixels are only a tool to manipulate our own emotions. The reason it’s scary isn’t the creatures themselves, but the buildup to them, the things going bump in the night.

The reason it works, and the reason J.J. Abrams is fucking rich, is because it (and he) doesn’t tell you What’s In The Box. Abrams has a fantastic talk at TED about this very subject, but it’s used by authors and directors from David Fincher in Seven (with the literal “What’s in the box?” scene) to Roman Polanski to Alfred Hitchcock all the way back to H.P. Lovecraft. Rather than shock, or go for the jump scare, masters of horror foster an environment for us to create our own fears. The current trend in horror isn’t doing that, not by a long shot. Even King, in the blurb on the back of the edition of Danse Macabre I own says “I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out.” So many movies these days seem so utterly incapable of doing the first two that they simply skip straight to the gross-out.

And this is where we come back to the three scenes I mentioned at the beginning. Terminator 2 prayed on the fear at the end of the Cold War: now that we didn’t have to worry about the Russians nuking us, we had to worry about anyone, everyone else nuking us… including ourselves. It produced a scene that—while on its face being a gross-out—played on our latent fears of nuclear annihilation and the emotional investment in the main character. The Exorcist and Pet Semetary both play on a) the innocence of a child, and b) the fear of the unknown and dabbling in (as King calls it) Things That Mankind Was Not Meant To Know. By bridging the fears we already have with the unknown with emotional investment in the characters in question, the simple gross-out leaps from horror to terror. We’re not scared of Linda Blair’s Regan because she’s a demon, we’re scared because inside that demon is a little girl. We’re not scared of little Gage in Pet Semetary because he’s a zombie, we’re scared because he’s a three-year-old boy with a scalpel and murder on his mind.

Too often Hollywood spends time on gore, on going for the simple gross-out. Even the goriest scene I’ve seen lately, near the end of Shaun of the Dead, in which antagonist David gets his comeuppance, is scary not because we see the entrails and hear the screaming, but because at some point, we actually kind of cared about him. (Although I still cheered in the theater when he got nabbed, and laughed maniacally when he got dismembered—it was a little silly, don’t you agree?)

A long while back, for Halloween one year, I rented Event Horizon and In the Mouth of Madness, both Sam Neill vehicles. While they are both similar in basic story (the aforementioned Things That Mankind Was Not Meant To Know), I think they are equally scary, even with Paul Anderson’s love affair with gore, because they are both takes on this feeling of dread and the unknown. By the time The Big Reveal rolls around in both films, we’re left feeling genuinely terrified. And it’s not because the same nameless stalker has been killing people off one by one in gruesome and bizarre ways. It’s because we don’t know who’s going to die, or if anyone’s going to die at all.

Too often, we’re not only shown what’s inside the box, but we can see the box from a mile away, and it’s got glass sides. If you want to scare someone, you don’t show them what’s in the box. At least, not right away. You tell them, “Maybe you know what’s in here, but maybe you don’t. How about this: I’ll set the box here, and you can try to guess what’s in it. I’ll give you a hint, though. It’s really, really bad, and it’s really, really scary.” And then you leave the viewer/reader to form their own opinions.

Because nothing scares us like ourselves.

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Time for a Sprucing Up

April 28, 2009 Leave a comment

Longtime readers (all 20 or so of you) may notice something. Color! Wow! No more of that bland and painful-to-read black and off-white. I really liked them for a while, but I decided to switch some things up around here so they’re more closely aligned to my webpage design that I’ve been working on.

Oddly enough, I’d picked Trebuchet for my font over there. Just somethin’ ’bout that font apparently. Anyway, here it is, and I have some more content coming later this week. It’s only Tuesday. Give me a break, people.

Anyway, enjoy the new colors!

Categories: Uncategorized

Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, Ten Years Later

April 23, 2009 1 comment

“Hey, I finally saw Heat!”
“Heat? I saw that six years ago…”
“Yeah, but I wanna talk about it now!”
~Jim Gaffigan

Ten years ago, we were all agog over The Matrix. Cyberpunk, electronica, and people in fetishistic vinyl clothing were suddenly everywhere. Me? I was still in my final years of high school. I admit, I never saw The Matrix in the theater. I, like many others who didn’t, kicked myself later for not doing so.

But this isn’t about The Matrix. Nope. It’s about a book. You know, those papery things they used to make before we all got addicted to our screens, phones, and Xboxen?

That book is Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon. Had I read this book when it came out, like some of my friends did, I might have a different view of it, but now, ten years later, we can look back on its trademark cutting-edge technology and see how well it has weathered the times.

First, some basic plot and character points. The book is one story, told over two time periods, with concentric story layers. Some characters occupy both timelines, some occupy just one, but they are all interconnected in some way. If you’ve stumbled this far into the internet to find my little corner, you’ve probably seen or heard of the book, but I’m going to try not to divulge too many secrets (well, no more than are in the book’s own synopsis…)

The Waterhouse clan is our main protagonist group in the story, given here in the forms of Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse and his grandson, Randall Lawrence Waterhouse, or Randy for short. Randy is a professional hacker; he builds networking code. Really good networking code. His grandfather was likewise gifted with numbers; the elder Waterhouse was a cryptographer in World War II. So what we end up with is a single story, told in bits and pieces, in two different time periods, but involving the same family. Oh, sorry: families.

See, Randy ends up contracting Doug Shaftoe and his daughter Amy to do some underwater cable work. Turns out Doug Shaftoe’s dad, Bobby Shaftoe, did some work with old man Waterhouse back in the day, in the super-secret Detachment 2702. They also worked with the mysterious Enoch Root, and together did all sorts of cat-and-mouse, cloak-and-dagger stuff with the Germans (and Japanese, I suppose) during the war.

But why would this mean anything? Well, there’s a lot of talk involving Randy’s new business venture, Epiphyte(2)– the 2 denoting that this is the second company called “Epiphyte” that he and his friends have concocted. Basically, Ephiphyte is building a data haven–a place where people can deposit their secret information without the prying eyes of governments or other entities seeing it. Eventually this whole operation gets turned upside down, thanks to operations and pacts made in the past… things that the elder Waterhouse, Shaftoe, and Root know about. The key to all of this is a mysterious set of computer punch cards that show up in the possession of Randy’s family.

Add to this some smatterings of Dr. Alan Turing (the computer guy), Gen. Douglas MacArthur (the Army guy), and some German conspirators that may or may not have lived, plus some Japanese engineers, and it all adds up to a century’s worth of awesome sauce.

Of course, the book is complex in ways other than its structure. There is some pretty complicated math in the book, plus there’s the added bonus of a lot of networking, business, and hacker lingo. What dates the book is precisely these things. The networking technology at this point was so far behind where we are today, when wireless networking is something you can get on just about any phone, GPS navigation is standard issue in many cars, and encryption is as easy as flipping a check box in a Windows dialog box. Back then, all these things must have seemed so bizarrely ahead of their time. The concept of servers and T1 lines and internet banking are all perfectly normal conversation in many circles now, no longer relegated to the annals of computer science buildings.

Now, I’m 27 years old. I have a pretty good grasp on network architecture, and I know a thing or two about Linux. But the math in some parts of the book is so far beyond my own abilities that I just let it pass. Whatever, I figure Stephenson probably had someone check it to make sure it worked. And that’s the thing about the details the book has: they don’t get in the way of the story. No matter how technical it wants to get, the book breaks down to Good vs. Evil, good ol’ treasure hunting, and the guy getting the girl.

The main thing that kept me coming back to the book (especially the second half, which I consumed in about three days–no small feat for being a 900+ page book) was the style. Think about it this way: if somehow Warren Ellis’ brain consumed all of Tom Clancy’s technical knowledge and then spit it out as both detailed and hilarious, that’s how this book would read. Like a technological Hunter S. Thompson. Which probably means I’ll have to add Stephenson to my list of People That Are Influencing My Fiction Writing.*

Since it is written in present-tense third-person, the book has an immediacy all the way through it that is hard to deny, and is probably what lent itself to such voracious consumption in the second half. And given that Stephenson wrote quick, simple chapters, with utterly fantastic cliffhangers, and structured the pacing in such a way that you didn’t know which plotline was going to be next, it was difficult to put the book down. It went from being a “chapter at a time” book to a “couple hundred pages at a time” book, and I was so consumed by it in the second half that I was emotionally invested in nearly every character in the book, from the lowest Chinese slave camp laborer to the highest German admiral to the nerds at Bletchly Park.

And so, ten years later, Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon stands the test of time not because it was an ahead-of-its-time cyber-thriller, but because it tells a pretty good story in a relatively unique way with a ton of fantastic copy. Sure, there are only so many stories to be told, but this one tells a few of them, at breakneck pace, with a fantastic sense of humor. Its details may be a little sketchy now, but it’s heart is definitely still in the right place.

This book may be ten years old, but Cryptonomicon is well worth the wait.

*The list so far: Hunter S. Thompson, Warren Ellis, Neal Stephenson

Conversing with Zac Echola About the Internet

April 3, 2009 4 comments

Back in the annals of last year, I wrote a two-part article (part one is here) on the business of being creative in light of the revolutions brought about by the internet and the complexities it brings about. One of those that I interviewed was my friend Zac Echola.

Zac works for a newspaper. Technically speaking, he works for a communications company, and he recently transitioned into the online department, focusing almost solely on marketing. He has helped push for site redesigns within the company’s satellite papers as well as the flagship paper of the company. In addition to his professional endeavors, he runs two blogs, Blog-o-Blog and It’s Randomonium!, and is a co-creator of WiredJournalists. He’s a bit of a mover and/or shaker in his local scene and, in my opinion, has talent far exceeding his place in corporate America.

But enough butt-licking. I’m here to present ideas, not convince my friend he’s God. (Plus it’s hard to be sycophantic toward someone who doesn’t have the good sense to move out of North Dakota…)

Anyway, a lot of the ideas I have about the internet, communications, and media either come from Zac or are things we both independently discovered and coincidentally agree with each other about. So it only seemed natural to me to post the entire conversation we had back in July. This is by no means an exhaustive delving into Zac’s ideas, but it’s a good summary. If you really want to get in-depth, I highly suggest you check out his Blog-o-Blog. Since I don’t really have a byline, consider this Zac’s co-author credit, because it’s just as much, if not more, his writing as mine.

How did you go about amassing so many contacts and networking? How much work does it take per day, on average, to acquire new contacts and maintain old ones?

I never really tried to build a large network. It sort of just happened. It started out because there were a few journalism related blogs out there I thought were interesting, but they didn’t touch on bigger issues. Blogs tend to be short posts about random things happening in a given area, but I wanted to participate in that conversation. It started by getting into lots of debates within the comments of other posts, but then I started blogging to write longer, more cerebral pieces that I thought needed to be addressed but didn’t quite fit well in the comments of other people’s blogs.

As I posted more and read more, it just grew. I’d follow links from the blogs and sources I read and if it was consistently interesting to me, I’d follow those blogs too and on and on. Information overload happens quickly, so at times I step back and let the core people in my network filter content for me. I guess I’m just lazy.

As for other networks like twitter, facebook, friendfeed and a million other sites: Once you grow a community on your own blog, you’ll notice that the conversation isn’t exclusive your blog(s). It moves around. I try to be where those conversations happen.

Right now, I don’t actively seek anyone out on most sites. I see a few new followers every day in my inbox and if we share contacts or I’m interested in what they have to say, I’ll follow them, too.

While your online presences have nice design, it’s mostly text-based. Would it be possible to have such a presence in the print world?

I don’t like design that gets in the way of ideas. Some people like to cram as many links into a page as possible, but I’m more concerned with the content itself.

It’s certainly possible to have a text-centric print product. The New Yorker, for example, has a very conservative design. Many pages are just walls of text. That’s OK to me.

Design should enhance the idea or make the product easier to use, not hinder it. I choose a rigidly minimalist style because it keeps me (and I hope it keeps my readers) focused on the ideas and not the look.

Online and print text-based content still rely on advertising to generate money. Is there a stable, non-intrusive way to make money from content production other than advertising? Will there be?

I don’t think a transaction model (whereby I pay you for for the pleasure of looking at a Web page) will ever truly work on the Web outside of porn. Luckily for us, intrusive and annoying ads have given way to other types of advertising, such as text-based ads which are projected to grow at a much faster clip than the annoying ads.

It’s fairly simple economics on the Web. As long as the cost of bandwidth, processing and storage drops and use of the Internet increases, it will always make more sense to trade “free stuff” for increased market share. It costs pennies to serve up a page, so if you make a few pennies more in advertising on that page you’re doing well.

Current “get traffic quick” schemes revolve around getting other people to link to you, as that’s how Google tends to rank pages. Would this be legitimate advertising/marketing, or shameless whoring?

On one hand, yes it is shameless whoring. On the other hand, it’s networking, community building. A network of links is really just a network of people behind their screens. You can make robots link to you in a variety of ways, but I think people see through that and even if it increases your page rank at Google, you’re not going to see quality page views and you aren’t going to build a community that will essentially act as a free marketing department for you.

While the Web is certainly global mass media, it is also an aggregate of individuals at the same time. When you treat your site as simply mass media as we currently know it, you’re missing out on a huge value proposition–that one-on-one interaction with individuals.

I don’t think we should simply put a generic ad or piece of news content in front of 100 people when we could use the same technology to engage those 100 people on an individual basis. It may be a little more work to do the latter, but the payoff would be so much greater.

What is the biggest thing holding print back from dominance (just a distillation, I know you write extensively about it. Just want a soundbite-y synopsis for other people)? What is holding online back?

Print operations, particularly local newspapers (and local TV, too) need to realize that the Web has destroyed their geographic monopolies. The technology on the Web has lowered the barriers to entry. Anyone with a laptop camera and microphone has a “TV station,” every person with a WordPress.com account has a printing press.

Traditional media were quick to see the value of the Web initially, but have been incredibly slow to understand this essential truth. Rather than building communities (I say this word a lot, but hear me out), they’ve seen bloggers and youtubers as competition. This just isn’t the case. You are only as strong as your network and when you actively refuse to create a loose partnership with real people in your community through networking and linking, while meanwhile these individuals create their own networks without you, you’re placing yourself at a disadvantage.

The only thing that has held the Web back (in terms of traditional media’s use of the Web) is that they’ve refused to dive in and completely understand it, leverage it. Many people in this industry feel they’re in a transition state of business, but the rest of the world already understands the transition happened years ago. Former monopolies will do that to your thinking, I suppose.

Is it worth attempting to break into publishing–print or online–on a financial level? Would one be able to see a recuperation of expenses, at the very least?

Producing something new (like content) costs something. Be it time or money or sweat and tears, it bears a heavy cost. There’s still lots of money on the Web and it grows every day. Good content or good filtering of content to a targeted group of people will almost certainly make you some money. But I don’t think any content creator should expect huge success. The Internet may give you the opportunity for global scale, but it doesn’t guarantee anything.

As for print, I’d avoid it. I would still buy newspaper companies, but not for their printing presses. I’d buy them for their archives of information and their efficient ability to create new information.

Any other comments on the state of print or online content production? (This is probably my favorite single comment Zac made.)

At the end of the day, it’s just the fucking Internet. It’s meant to be a place to watch free porn and laugh at the Star Wars Kid, maybe read an article about the platypus. You’ll notice that neither of my blogs have ads on them. Not even Google ads. They never will have ads, either. It’s about the ideas. It’s about creating lolcats, folding proteins or annoying your family with email forwards.

The web legitimizes the First Amendment in ways the traditional media couldn’t. If some people can make a buck off that, great. If not, I hope that doesn’t discourage them from communicating.

Zac Echola is a muffin but trouble. Rick Cummings fancies himself a writer and thinks he’s better than you.

Categories: web 2.0, zac echola

A Final Note About Fight Klub

April 2, 2009 Leave a comment

I’ve turned off comments on the Fight Klub reviews, located here and here. As I suspected, I became inundated with people selling the game.

You disagree with me? That’s fine. Don’t use my comments section to push your game.

Categories: Uncategorized