Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Book Review: "Garfield Minus Garfield"

From the outset, Garfield Minus Garfield seems like an odd choice for a book. The year-old webcomic based around the concept of the complete removal of Garfield from Jon Arbuckle's life represents some of the most creative extremes of independent online thought. In fact, the practice dates back to message board collaboration (such as this) started years before Dan Walsh created a site around it and started getting famous.

In fact, I created this one long before Walsh's site debuted, during the "remove Garfield's dialogue" phase of the idea:

The concept of removing Garfield and his dialogue from the strip is, in a way, a sublime criticism of a fairly bland, obvious comic strip. "Garfield" has the makings of a fine comic within it, but all-too-often overdoes the punchline by giving Garfield some vapid one-liner. Removing him altogether improves the humor immeasurably, making it relevant and surreal, and drawing attention to Jon's neurosis and misery:

So one would wonder: what could be the appeal of a book based on a webcomic created by somebody who appropriated a great idea from a bunch of nobodies, a book which is published by the same group which publishes Garfield books and even gives Jim Davis a chance to participate in what should be a condemnation of his own work? Yes, one would wonder that.

But now I have the book, and it is glorious.

Whatever the genesis of the underlying idea, the one behind Garfield Minus Garfield is a great one, and having so many of these comics reproduced in book form is extremely satisfying. It's easy enough to ignore the original Garfield comics printed alongside the minus versions above (smaller and sans color) that they don't become distracting. I would have liked to see two columns of Garfield-free comics instead, as they're funnier without their context, but the book's appeal remains untainted.

And allowing Jim Davis twenty pages near the end to try his own minus comics serves as a wonderful condemnation of his own strip, even better than if he had rejected the idea and tried to have the site shut down. Because he completely misunderstands the point, ignoring the wonderous non sequiturs and darker punchlines the format provides by selecting strips that already have a fully-formed Jon joke. Jim Davis appears fully convinced that removing Garfield merely underscores Jon's loneliness, rather than improving the pacing and subtlety of the comic. Poor guy. But I recommend the book.


Garfield Minus Garfield
A full explanation of the concept with links
Dilbert mashups bring in the fun

Peripheral Experiences and Personal Impression

I think much of our interest in something is determined by what we hear about it. First hearing about a negative experience with, for example, a movie or product is often enough to color our view of the same for good. And many people feel threatened by a negative review or impression of something they enjoy.

I think there's a reason that our consciousness works this way - conformity can be a way of institutionalizing proven, tried methods into our daily lives. But feeling insecure about things you've invested in can also be a way to introduce imbalance and dissatisfaction into life. So I've been training myself to look at things another way.

After realizing that it's more important to enjoy something and be personally satisfied than to stretch out a decision or create unnecessary advance distress, I've tried to twist the way I view what I'll call "peripheral experiences," the way that others discuss and review products and people. After realizing that I was often inclined to give extra credence to a single negative peripheral experience even amidst a sea of general acclaim, I've since tried to rely on "information shortcuts" to determine what I'll like. For example, when trying to decide a movie I'd like to see with a friend, I've found that a single positive review from a critic I respect steers me more reliably in an enjoyable direction than going through excessive research. My mind is thus clearer and I'm less inclined to overanalyze the experience and not enjoy it.

Information shortcuts can consist of anything - the experience of a friend with similar tastes, aggregate reviews, or manufacturer. It's quite similar to the ways that many people vote - if you know that a particular party tends to match many of your opinions, then you have a point of reference for building an image of a particular candidate. Likewise, if you've long been impressed by a particular guitar amp manufacturer and you see a new, affordable model with features that you like, just a little cursory research will be necessary to make a safe purchasing decision.

By choosing simple, reliable methods that tend to steer you in the right directions, you're more able to analyze your own impressions and experiences and enjoy something for its utility, entertainment value or benefit rather than counterproductive, contradicting peripheral experiences.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Out-of-context Google searches

Something about the lack of grammar in the post referenced here makes it funnier. Click on the image to read clearly.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Sean Hannity makes idle promise to be waterboarded for charity. . .

Oh, mercy me. Transcript from the Huffington Post:

"[Charles] GRODIN: You're for torture.

HANNITY: I am for enhanced interrogation.

GRODIN: You don't believe it's torture. Have you ever been waterboarded?

HANNITY: No, but Ollie North has.

GRODIN: Would you consent to be waterboarded? We can waterboard you?


GRODIN: Are you busy on Sunday?

HANNITY: I'll do it for charity. I'll let you do it. I'll do it for the troops' families."

Leaving aside the question of what exactly is going on in Hannity's brain ("Troops' families! Ollie North! RONALD REAGAN!!!"), obviously this will probably never happen. Still, the fact that Hannity's BFF Ollie North has done it might make give us a faint possibility of seeing something that will surely turn out to be entertaining for us and deservedly humiliating for the conservative icon. Christopher Hitchens lasted about ten seconds when he was waterboarded, and Hannity's going to have a tough time spinning his inevitable sputtering concession as a positive. After all, in real waterboarding they don't stop when the prisoner gives the signal.

Snarky bit warning:

Still, the idea of Hannity being kept awake at all hours of the day and night by high-decibel rap music and maybe held in a corner as snarling dogs bark in his face has a certain appeal. After a few months maybe he'd have the moral authority to wish it on others.

Partisan Associations - Political Imprinting and Strawmen Demagogues

(I wrote this recently for my university's political review and thought I'd throw it up here as well.)

While recent attempts by top Democrats to paint Rush Limbaugh as the new face of the Republican Party may seem a bit like kicking the GOP while it's already down, this method of attempting to damage parties by creating dangerous associations is actually a part of a mainstream, directed political strategy by no means limited to progressives. This practice of setting up a strawman for an entire political movement is dishonest at best, divergent and damaging at worst.

In the wake of Limbaugh's divisive February speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference (one he later termed his first "Address to the Nation"), Rush was seen as an easy target to trump up as the archetypical Republican; blustering, self-assured and unabashedly partisan, the man’s polarizing rhetoric served as a suitable strawman for the entire conservative movement.

In their previous criticisms of Sarah Palin (a controversial nominee to be sure, but also a sympathetic one), the Obama team had been seen as overly harsh, and progressives thereafter went after less vulnerable targets like Limbaugh. The numbers seemed to support the choice: The DNC polling company Democracy Corps found the venerable talk show host's popularity among voters under 40 to be a mere 11 percent, numbers far below that of even the Reverend Jeremiah Wright and William Ayers, both popular targets of the Right during the election and campaign kryptonite for Obama. Rush's audience is comparatively small and highly disproportional – fully 72 percent male according to Pew Research, a gender gap that amused the radio host, who jokingly suggested a "Female Summit" to discuss the issue. The conclusion is obvious: while Rush may claim a mandate to the neoconservative mantle, he commands an influence over but a small, selective portion of the population.

Most of the GOP/Rushbo associations were explicit: when asked who speaks for the Republican Party, Obama chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel referred to Rush as "the voice and the intellectual force and energy behind the Republican Party. . . which is why the Republicans pay such attention to him." When Rush famously wished failure on the new administration (a preference even most of Obama's opponents report not sharing), the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sent the tape to its members as part of a fund-raising campaign. Furthermore, when RNC Chairman Michael Steele joined in the criticism, calling Rush's discourse "incendiary" and "ugly," he was forced to apologize personally, giving further ammo to progressives who attempted to publicize what they saw as a close, highly subservient connection between the iconic figure and his party.

But does this strategy work? Similar connections can be made to the tactics of Bush-era conservatives during the 2004 presidential election, when Bush campaign advisor Mark McKinnon acknowledged having used a similar strategy by "making Michael Moore the face of the Democratic Party. . . That's why we gave him credentials to cover the 2004 convention and then turned the spotlight on him." Still, Moore later rejected the concept that his name was used as a pejorative. He insisted that American voters share his values and that Republican strategies had backfired, in effect turning him into an "accidental spokesman for the liberal, majority agenda." Nevertheless, Moore's films and often incendiary statements and politics remain a healthy source of controversy. Like Rush Limbaugh, he remains a larger-than-life figure, representing the extremes of his party rather than the more moderate values and politics of the average American.

In the end, Limbaugh and Moore are essentially cartoon characters - personalities whose constant addiction to controversy, often-questionable behavior (drug addiction on Limbaugh's part, shady editing techniques on Moore's) and radical politics imbue their beings with the sort of excess that makes them untouchable by those of their political stripe and unstomachable by all others. Many political sectarians rely nearly completely on these divisive figures to attack the opposing ideology. A Rush Limbaugh, Michael Moore or can often serve as a shortcut to depict the opposition as thoughtless partisans and sidestep legitimate political discourse. This sensationalistic behavior only serves to glamorize the horse race of politics over the priorities and issues our system and representatives ought to address.

Though political in-games and shifty strategies will always be a part of our political discourse, it seems disingenuous to resort to this type of infighting and partisan bickering when ideologies, not individuals, are on the table for debate. Though associating an opposing party purely with its most extreme of ideologues may strike a chord with the average American - most of whom have little in common with the ferocity or pettiness of these polarized ideologues - it’s a lousy way to win a long-term political victory. Building an ideology based on positions, not partisans, is the only way to ensure a healthy political discourse in America and guard against an increasing apathy of politics.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

My Favorite Songs of All Time

It's good we use a base ten counting system - ten is the perfect number for a list. It includes just enough entries to give a good impression of the subject being "listed," but isn't so large as to cause boredom.

I haven't been much of a presence here lately so I thought I'd throw something neat together that I've been brewing up for awhile. Click the middle mouse wheel to open these links up in a new tab rather than leaving the list:

My Favorite Songs of All Time, Keeping in Mind That This Isn't Necessarily Comprehensive and Merely Constitutes Whatever Songs I Managed to Think Of While Writing This List

10) The Clash - London Calling. A song beyond reproach from an album beyond reproach by a band beyond reproach. One of the reasons we tolerate Green Day today is their occasional parallels with this still-relevant band.

9) The Shins - New Slang. A perfect song for a sunny day, driving at night, birth, death and everything in between.

8) Yano - Banal na Aso, Santong Kabayo. Take my word for it that Yano is the best folk/punk Filipino rock band of all time, whatever you may have heard to the contrary.

7) Mr. Bungle - Retrovertigo. This live version is practically as good as the copy on California. Mr. Bungle released my favorite album of all time in 1999, and experimental pop music has never been the same.

6) The Beatles - Strawberry Fields Forever. Thank Heavens the greatest pop group of all time stopped caring what people thought of them.

5) Ween - Mutilated Lips. Too bad Ween doesn't write like this anymore.

4) Elvis Costello - Living in Paradise. This song typifies Costello's talents - breezy, astounding pop songwriting, songs that twist and turn without seeming unnatural, and great melodic progression. Paired with The Attractions he was pretty much unstoppable.

3) The Pixies - Monkey Gone to Heaven. I don't really have to defend one of the most influential rock groups of all time, but I still praise The Pixies to high heavens every chance I get. They gave us four unforgettable albums and then retired before they started sucking. How many bands can say that? This song is epic and suitably harsh.

2) Metallica - Battery and One. I'm not really sure that a complete understanding of Metallica, metal or modern music could ever be constructed without these two tracks. "One" is Metallica's apex - a slowly building, melodic wistful tale that builds into a highly enjoyable nightmare. "Battery" represents a significant side of Metallica that we saw more often - riff-based metal constructed with a conscious punk intensity, never straying into the atonal, chaotic regions of much of the thrash of that period.

1) Pink Floyd - Comfortably Numb. In the end the edge goes out to this trippy, introspective masterpiece. It's darkly optimistic, lyrically subjective but inarguably significant. Dark Side of the Moon might be a better album than The Wall, but this track from the latter is their finest moment.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Obama keeps contents of copyright treaty secret for "national security"

From the article:
In one of his first acts as president, Obama signed a memo saying FOIA "should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails. The government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure."
I guess he's changing his mind already. I'm not a conspiratorial guy, but this whole thing almost looks like a plot to get everybody excited about the country's future and then send them back into deeper recesses of crushing apathy. Good one, O.

EDIT (9/10/09): From now on, I'll try not to report on redundant articles regarding Obama failing miserably to live up to his high promises of change and honorable government. Suffice it to say that anybody who checks the news will see why it's largely business as usual for this administration in spite of initial lofty ideals.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Great One-Liner From Kotaku

"Published reports" (i.e. don't blame me) say [game developer] Blizzard's got the Redneck Rampage brand now. Someone should tell Blizz there's already a redneck [Massively-Multiplayer Online Game] out there - it's called "Mississippi."


Saturday, April 04, 2009

Fundamentalist nutjob cartoonist Jack Chick explains the error of fictional holiday figures in a gripping tale of murder and spiraling insanity

Most Jack Chick tracts exhibit a slow-burning incivility, a quiet offensiveness and absurd overstatement that makes them unsuitable as a subject of anger. The parsing of small, out-of-context snippets of Biblical verse into the text to emphasize whatever evangelical talking point Jack had in mind at the moment - coupled with text added to the verses whenever the Bible didn't make the same point Jack wanted - absurd consequences for sin ("Charlie smoked marijuana against his parents' wishes and was run over by a car!") and outlandish, subtlety-free writing hardly elevate it above, say, Mary Worth as a subject of religious education or parody.

Nevertheless I've been reading a couple of his online tracts this afternoon with the cynicism I reserve for irony-free douchebaggery, neither offended nor particularly amused. Until on the third strike I ran into his tract "Fairy Tales," which hit comedy gold. For those without the desire to read the story I'll summarize the gripping tale of self-destruction below:

We witness a veritable mural of emotion, a group of protesters - murderous, obese trolls on the left side (including the rather amusing goblin near the edge of the panel mumbling "Kill, Kill!"), bespectacled religious conservatives on the right. Harry's parents insist that this can't be happening!; their son was always a "sweet little boy." The answers are simpler than reasonable people would imagine, and only require a brief trip into Harry's past:

Harry's parents unfortunately fall into the trap of other well-meaning, but ultimately Satanic and hellbound parents - they begin to indoctrinate Harry with the lies of secular society, teaching him about the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny (and, no doubt, about the moon landing and flouridated water). Obviously deeply disturbed, Harry gathers these fictional creatures up until they form the core of his very identity, until one fateful day. Oh, let's watch:

This is when things start to get awesome. Just so you know, the wide-eyed little Edward Scissorhands in the story really does kill a kid in the schoolyard. And this kid's murdering spree isn't over, you'll be happy to know:

Keen observers will notice that this story is a little devoid of warm-hearted religious significance at this point, so this is when Jack ramps up the story; Harry's cellmate learns about and accepts Jesus. Harry, uh, doesn't:

After all of this carefully-constructed buildup Harry's end seems almost a little too abrupt:

Other ironic fans of Jack Chick may enjoy the thrilling twist at the end of "Oops!" or the story where Satan kills a bunch of teenagers with a chainsaw.

Other tales of the kookiest side of religion:

Why Santa Claus is the Devil
The Philippines' [Voluntary] Good Friday Crucifixions
A Jack Chick parody with quotes from the Necronomicon (PDF)

The "Zongrila Swirl" - Amazing Recursive Animation

Years ago I found the "Zongrila Swirl" - an amazing recursive animation of the image you see above - and it's made an imprint on me ever since. Long before I read about the ramifications of loops in Douglas Hofstadter's stuff I began to appreciate the concept of representing an infinite process via a finite model (in this case, a simple animation).

Anyway, enough jibber jibber - I've been looking for this animation for ages and I've finally found it again. That link goes directly to the animation, and here's the parent post.

And here's some music to put on in the background. Trust me here. Don't do drugs, kids!

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Mastodon's "Crack the Skye" - A plot to write home about

Mastodon's fans already know that the metal group is a little pretentious, in a Dungeons and Dragons sort of way. The band's concept albums have grown increasingly ambitious, though 2004's Moby Dick-themed Leviathan is still my favorite for its mad, raving Captain Ahab (Oh, and the song titles are terrific: "Blood and Thunder", "Iron Tusk" and "Aqua Dementia" all have very growlable names). And it goes without saying that Mastodon's cover art has always been part of the experience:

Awesome, or super awesome?

Leviathan also had the most coherent story; the band's first album, Remission, was about "fire," Blood Mountain was about "earth" and running around from place to place disoriented and confused, and their just-released Crack the Skye (incidentally the "aether"-themed album, proving they've run out of real elements) sees them taking a page from the The Mars Volta school of epic incoherence. In the words of the band's drummer:
"There is a paraplegic and the only way that he can go anywhere is if he astral travels. He goes out of his body, into outer space and a bit like Icarus, he goes too close to the sun, burning off the golden umbilical cord that is attached to his solar plexus. So he is in outer space and he is lost, he gets sucked into a wormhole, he ends up in the spirit realm and he talks to spirits telling them that he is not really dead. So they send him to the Russian cult, they use him in a divination and they find out his problem. They decide they are going to help him. They put his soul inside Rasputin's body. Rasputin goes to usurp the czar and he is murdered. The two souls fly out of Rasputin's body through the crack in the sky and Rasputin is the wise man that is trying to lead the child home to his body because his parents have discovered him by now and think that he is dead. Rasputin needs to get him back into his body before it's too late. But they end up running into the Devil along the way and the Devil tries to steal their souls and bring them down…there are some obstacles along the way."
Crack the Skye is about physics, history and that grand old standby: good versus evil. And, from what I've heard so far, it's also pretty awesome. It doesn't bludgeon you as much as Blood Mountain, and the longer track lengths give time for some really sprawling compositions. It might be their best record so far. [Edit: Scratch that. It's now officially my favorite.]

Sample tracks (just click the "play this track" near the top of the page. Wait until you see the little player bar on the bottom before you click):

The Czar (A little over the first six minutes)

Medium Large nails the Tinsey/Carroll Crossover

Today's Medium Large is only an April Fool's joke, but this wonderful absurdity is one of the funniest strip in weeks.

Forest For the Trees Banners

I've created the following banners for Forest For the Trees, . They're not really intended for use (seeing as they don't even have any HTML), but I think they look pretty nice.

The Worst April Fool's Joke of All Time

Wake all of your friends and family up this morning and tell them: "Didja hear? April Fool's is canceled this year!" It's obvious upon obvious though it doesn't involve blinding chemicals or making people late for work (arguably the spirit of the holiday).

Related links:

100 Best April Fool's Pranks of All Time

Google suckers me into believing in the "Gmail Custom Time" feature