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    Finding the Meaning: GTA Edition


    2011 - 02.26

    This is a long one, but hear me out: it ends in a great story–even if you hate video games.

    I’m a big fan of the video game blog Kotaku. Every day it’s a steady stream of news to check out, and they often have articles which are just musings upon what the editors liked about ‘the experience’ of playing a particular game. Often even more interesting is what you find in the comments on these articles; random people chiming in about their individual experiences, which is sometimes like a kaleidescope of perspectives and appreciations for different subtleties, and the stories that accompany them. I find it fascinating, reading about the reasons why people enjoy things, or that transcendent moment that ‘did it’ for them.

    One of my favorites was an article published shortly before the release of the fourth Grand Theft Auto entitled “GTA: Rememberances of Cars Jacked” which related lasting memories of experiences in the game and asked commenters what their favorite stories were. At the beginning of the article, Owen Good writes that one of the distinguishing hallmarks of the series is its ability to impart these moments of greatness “that rates the kind of visceral, first-time-ever memories that people usually have of events in the real world.”

    My friend Luke once described to me playing GTA: Vice City at a friend’s house. They were playing through the game near the beginning and had just obtained their first uzi submachine gun. Luke had stolen a motorcycle and was riding along the strip in Miami Beach, that famous stretch with all the vintage art deco hotels. Against the backdrop of neon signs, bikini-clad pedestrians, and 50’s-looking cars, he discovered he could shoot the uzi straight forward, something you can’t do in a car. He described finding the set of wooden ramps that lead to a set of daring motorcycle jumps across the rooftops, and taking that first wild jump where the camera suddenly swaps to a dramatic angle and the time goes slow motion. Through some convoluted series of police chases and blasting random cars with his new grip, he wound up back on the strip, looking out at the ocean–when right then the song “Shoot It Up” came on the radio.

    It’s one of those moments where you’ve just pulled off the craziest stunt, you can hardly believe you somehow came out unscathed, a bombardment of unexpected insanity ensues requiring deft maneuvers to escape, and then right in the thick of it all, that perfect song comes on and BAM, you’re not just sitting on the couch at a friend’s house–you’re transported. You’re in Miami. You smell the salt of seawater in the air, feel the breeze on your face, listening to the sounds of some song you haven’t heard since forever ago and it takes you back to some strangely-foreign, strangely-familiar place in your childhood. In that moment it really IS the 80s. You are THERE.

    Some of the more awesome comments from Kotaku:

    “Over the years and through three GTA games, we’d have a playsession once a week where (my friend and I would) each play a ‘turn’ wreaking havoc and trying to survive. When one of us would die in the game, we’d hand the controller over. His very first time playing GTAIII was especially memorable: after having seen me play it, he really wanted to steal an ambulance. So when he got the controller, he immediately popped a pedestrian and waited for the ambulance to arrive. When it did, he killed the EMTs and stole the ambulance, roaring in triumph and raising his fist in the air. I about fell off the bed laughing when, six seconds later, he drove the ambulance off a cliff and into the water (and died).”

    “I loved (the radio) so much, I actually bothered to rip the audio from the game discs of GTA3 and Vice City and converted it to play in my real-life car. Uncut, with (fake) commercials and all.” (I actually did the same thing for K-JAH/GTA3 and Radio Esperanto/VC)

    “The day I beat Vice City I watched all the Back to the Future movies and sewed all the Homestarrunner patches to a pair of tattered jeans I had. I was flying high and I couldn’t believe that after all the times I’d tried before, I’d finally done it. I was with my first gamer boyfriend (I know!) so for once in my life, playing a game and beating it was an event, something special. I couldn’t wait to tell him that night… then he dumped me. Ah, but I still remember the final firefight in the mansion like it was yesterday… I drove around on a bike in the gray t-shirt from the mall hitting as many pedestrians as possible in a huge victory lap around the city.”

    “My first GTA was Vice City for the PC, I didn’t have a PS2 then. I would spend hours cruising just listening to the radio station, I loved Fever. But I knew I was hooked on GTA when I was bummed out for the whole weekend that I had to take out Lance. Then, the first car I jumped in, they are playing “I Just Died In Your Arms” on the radio. It hit me so hard. Almost, almost teared up.”

    “In real life, I was driving down a street that had a cul de sac. It was winter, so the road was snow-covered and slippery. I sped up my car, and did a hand-brake turn at the end, effectively doing a 180. My passenger said “whoa, where did you learn that?” I coolly said “GTA”.”

    Vice City overlaid on a photo of the Avalon Hotel, Miami Beach
    Which brings me to this: Where things really start to take on a new dimension are the tales where video games and reality begin to overlap. Not for the illusion of invincibility or the reckless audacity it may accompany, but for the feeling of magic, of excitement, and the rediscovery of the sense of wonder, exploration, and experimentation that it brings.

    The summer after Grand Theft Auto III came out, I was living in the upstairs apartment of a house in Madison Wisconsin with my friend Rob. We had a slack-off office summer job together and lived one short block from State Street, the buzzing magnet for youth and juvenile shenanigans. The street is closed to traffic, cluttered with skateboarders, bikers, and a mix of student pedestrians from the university at one end and working professionals from the capital square at the other. Strung out in a ring around this area, our map was dotted with pubs to crash, late-night pizza joints to raid, an abundance of odd concrete begging for a freestyle, and endless question marks.

    One of the coolest aspects of the GTA series is how it constantly prods you to explore. To jump out of the car and see where that narrow crack between the buildings leads. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a little spot tucked away from view, a winding walkway ending in a fire escape climb, atop of which sits a “hidden package.” A small white box tied up with twine that is a badge of discovery. A bite-size reward, a tour of duty emblem that adds one more number to your score of how far down into obscurity your voyages have taken you and how boldly you sought out the tiny spots waiting to be stumbled upon.

    We used to take that idea into real life and go “hidden package hunting” on many a late nite bender. Hidden package hunting wasn’t so much about finding something as it was about looking. We’d take the weirdest shortcuts through people’s back yards, slipping through holes in the fences and squeezing between closely parked cars. If you were to chart our path through the city on a map, it would have been a squiggly line with only the loosest adherence to streets, blocks, or sidewalks. There was one night we went up to the top of a multi-story car park and jumped a medium-sized gap to land inside the neighboring, separate car park, working our way back down and walking past the bored attendant who gave us a funny look on the way out.

    As the summer wore on we got more ambitious and mischievous. One night involved the creative repositioning of those blinky, wooden construction markers into a narrow, twisting corridor along some minor sidestreet. Anyone who had to navigate their way through there the next day surely suffered the wrath of our annoying prank. I’m not saying it was considerate, or even a good idea. But I AM saying that it was definitely awesome.

    Another night we found this cool little area recessed below street level, filled with furniture and an expansive shallow pool. Having passed right by it many times we both kind of looked at each other and asked, “how did we not know this was here??” One way or another, some of that furniture ended up sitting inside the shallow pool, tables and chairs neatly arranged for leisurely eating cafe food and chatting. We sat in the pool-chairs and giggled over a brief conversation or two, long enough to enjoy the fruits of our little escapade before slipping away into the night to continue our hidden package hunt. Probably the culmination of these adventures was sneaking into the newly built convention center on the lakefront to see if we could make it to the top of the fountain on the roof. We did.

    We made hand holds with our feet and knees to hoist each other up and after a series of surprisingly easy clamberings, we dipped our toes in the fountain’s water of triumph, surrounded on one side by city lights and the other by lakewater. It was a sublime moment of victory. We OWNED that city. We laughed and gawked at the expansive view, maybe waxed philosophical a bit, and sat down with our legs hanging off the edge of the fountain to savor the moment. It was a glorious instant in time.

    The spell of which was broken by an inquisitive police cruiser pausing far off at the end of the long pedestrian bridge which had led us here. We froze. “Do you think he can see us?” “Nah. It’s pitch black up here.” “But our legs…?” We both looked at each other. Sure it was completely dark up here, but our feet had been hanging off the edge for some time, and the base of the fountain was brightly lit. Shit!

    Shoes and socks hastily went back on, and we made the jumps down onto the hard concrete in a frantic escape dash. There was only one way out: straight toward the police cruiser over the pedestrian bridge. Unless… the doors to a glass-enclosed stairway down to a lower level were unlocked. As luck would have it, they were. Mad laughter ensued and we took the stairs at full speed, crashing through the door at the bottom which opened up to the city street. Clean getaway. Zero stars.

    nerd rage: tablets are stupid!


    2011 - 02.24

    I’ve been reading a few interesting articles lately using this awesome RSS reader called Pulse, for the android.  Two of them struck me as interesting: tech bloggers who are naysaying about the latest, greatest gadget fad: tablets.  Essentially, a lot of the talk revolves around the idea ‘ what can a tablet actually do better than anything else?’

    Over at Ars Technica, there is a rant I found pretty amusing called Why I Don’t Care About Tablets Anymore.  Jon Stokes opines:

    “the tablet isn’t really the best gadget that I have for any of the [things I commonly do on it]—at least in terms of the overall experience (cost and convenience aside). For watching video, my TV wins. I prefer to read books and papers on either the Kindle or as dead-tree color printouts and books. Surfing the Web is easier on a computer, especially if you leave a lot of tabs open. I’ve yet to have a tablet gaming experience that really surpasses a good console or PC game. And so on.”

    He makes a cuttingly perceptive observation toward the end as well: “Some of the really savvy new media efforts like Flipboard are exciting, but after the initial “wow” factor wears off, these apps mainly serve to remind me that there’s already too much good stuff to read out there, and that my life is slipping away from me in an infinite stream of interesting bits about smart animals, dumb criminals, outrageous celebs, shiny objects, funny memes, scientific discoveries, economic developments, etc.. I invariably end up closing the app in a fit of guilt, and picking up one of the truly fantastic dead tree or Kindle books that I’m working my way through at the moment, so that I can actually exercise my brain (as opposed to simply wearing it out).”

    Hmph!  Indeed.   That last sentence is going to stick with me for a long time.

    Article two is “I Hate My iPad” over at Slate, with a few quotable gems on the iPad:

    “There’s no question that it makes browsing the Web while sitting on the couch easier. Though I have a relatively svelte laptop, it’s kind of a pain to tote around the apartment. But am I the kind of person who pays $600 to save the effort of detaching some USB cables from time to time? I don’t want to be that kind of person.”

    “I think it’s amazing that Apple has convinced so many people to pay $600 for what seem like such marginal improvements in their lifestyles—$600 to be able to check my e-mail in bed in a slightly more comfortable fashion than I can on my laptop seems sort of crazy when I stop and think about it.” His friend replies, “That’s your problem–stopping to think about it.”

    Incidentally, it also spawned this discussion, with this humorously sarcastic quote:

    “I like to sit on my couch and watch Netflix on it even though there’s a 46″ LCD right in front of me. I like to use the word processing software even though it takes ten times longer than using a real keyboard because my desktop computer is all the way in the next room. I like to use the shiny back as mirror to check myself out. I like to look at the pretty colors on the screen. It also makes a really futuristic looking paperweight. It’s so cute and shiny.”

    Nerrrd RAAAAAAAGEE!!!

    You just blew my mind: Imaginary Colors


    2011 - 02.15

    Move over imaginary numbers, there’s a new impossible-to-visualize concept in town: Imaginary Colors!

    Stick with me here: Cone cells are the photoreceptor cells in your retinas that allow you to see colors. Human beings have three sizes of cone cells, logically named S (small), M (medium), and L (large). Each of these three is best at a particular range of wavelengths of light, and the combinations of how much each particular cone gets ‘stimulated’ by a light wave will determine the color you see. The color yellow, for example, is perceived when the L cones are stimulated slightly more than the M cones and not much activity happens at the S cones. Yellow!

    So all colors are a combination of different cone responses. Here’s where things get wild: there are theoretical combinations of cone responses which cannot be generated by any physical light source! That means there’s colors that your eyes could see, but that no light could make!

    Dude.

    I found out about this when I was working on a Photoshop tutorial and started reading about Lab color. Lab color is an alternate colorspace (ie not RGB like a monitor or CMYK like a printing press) designed to mimic the behavior of the human eye. But there are a lot of colors which are possible to create in Lab color which cannot be reproduced by your RGB monitor. Or by ANYTHING!

    all the white=imaginary colors! So are you salivating yet, over these new colors that you’ve never seen before? Wanna know how to see them? Yes you do! It’s easy. And a little disappointing, because all you can get is a limited, fleeting glimpse. Says Wikipedia:

    “If a saturated green is viewed until the green receptors are fatigued and then a saturated red is viewed, a perception of red more intense than pure spectral red can be experienced. This is due to the fatigue of the green receptors and the resulting lack of their ability to desaturate the perceptual response to the output of the red receptors.”

    I think I remember having that effect at a 5th grade Science fair after staring too long at a giant posterboard colored bright neon lime. As a final note, one last anecdote from Wikipedia:

    “At Walt Disney World, Kodak engineered Epcot’s pavement to be a certain hue of pink so that the grass would look greener through the reverse of this effect.”

    Crazy!!

    Maybe someday when computers have the ability to interface directly with our retinas, we’ll be able to “see” other colors… Maybe like an augmented reality style HUD or something.  Or maybe just the most awesomest music visualizer ever.  Hello, Institute of Shockingly Incredible Research That Sadly Has No Practical Value?  I’d like to sign up for your Imaginary Colors program! ;)

    Gorgeous Time Lapse, in HD


    2011 - 02.08

    Put on some cool tunes and check out this astronomical action. To watch it properly, you really should follow this link, go fullscreen, and hit the HD–it’s worth it. Seriously.


    the art of overstatement


    2011 - 01.24

    I really love it when people use the word amazing to describe something which is clearly not all that amazing. I mean, hyperbole abounds even in the average conversation, but there’s something about the word “amazing” that adds to the humor of gross exaggerations for me. Another one that cracks me up maybe even more, simply because it gets thrown around less is “phenomenal.”

    I was once on the phone with a customer service rep, giving her my contact information for some kind of mundane thing like setting up automated bill pay, and I remember she kept using these superlatives every time I gave her a piece of information. After entering in my mailing address she said “Alright. Phenomenal.” Then moved on to the next inquiry. I had to laugh in the middle of our phone call.

    I wondered to myself, ‘What about my address was just such a compelling phenomenon? Was the number somehow significant to her by some odd coincidence, like a birth date or major life event?’ Something told me, no. By the ample amount of excessive adjectives in our conversation, it’s a safe bet she spoke like that all the time. I bet her night at the bar last night was “unbelievable.” That game of beer-pong–“EPIC.” And this one joke the bartender told? A-MAAAZING!

    Pfffff

    Games I like: Super Mario Brothers X


    2010 - 12.25

    In one sentence: It’s every NES mario and Super Mario World, all combined.

    Yes.  That’s right.  There are plenty of things missing from it, but man, there is a lot here.  Every color Yoshi, the Tanooki Suit, Raccoon Tail,  every flavor of Goomba and Koopa, Birdo, Hammer Brothers, vegetables, and level art from all of the above.  It’s like playing some weird mashed-up version from a dream where they all just blurred together.  The overall experience is addictive, incredibly nostalgic, and well, maddeningly difficult.  There are different episodes that various level builders have made (did I mention it has a level editor!) but the one that comes with the game by default is incredibly punishing…  yet somehow I cannot resist the urge to keep playing.  Eventually, you figure out what they want you to do and you win.

    It’s like rewinding childhood memories in fast forward.  All the different kinds of brick, the music, the strange enemies, the rare power ups like 3-up moons–all these have some association for me, of who I was hanging out with at the different ages I played these various Mario games, and the general feeling  just how life felt at the time.  It’s a bit like hearing a song you haven’t heard in ages.

    If I had some things to pick on with it, my chief complaint would be that there is still a ton of stuff that didn’t make it into the game.  The slot machines from M2, the frog suit from M3, the cape from SMW, a ton of assorted music, etc.  And there is a bunch of stuff in here that isn’t Mario as well.  You can play as Link, for instance.  There is a bunch of art from Metroid as well.  It’s cool that the people behind it want to pay tribute to those other games , but personally I prefer it when it’s Mario art only.  And there are also strange permutations of Mario establishment.  Such as the billy gun, a bullet bill cannon that you can pick up and unleash insanity with.  And pink, purple, grey, and black yoshis.  The pink one spits vegetables.  And Ice Mario (pictured above on the green Yoshi) who shoots balls of frozen ice that turn enemies into blocks which can be grabbed or stood upon.  Kinda neat!

    All in all, if you love mario 1-3, you gotta go play this.  It’s free for the pc, so there’s no reason not to.

    Homestar Strikes Back!


    2010 - 12.17

    I can’t believe it!  A new cartoon from Homestar Runner!  Merry X-Mas In Deed!  I’ve always been a huge homestar fan.  The last cartoon they made that was over a minute long was Nov. 10th 2009.  Guess havin a kid takes up a lot of time.  In any event, so happy to have a new slice of H*R!  I hope that this is a sign of things to come.

    “I’m doing my part!”


    2010 - 12.10

    We all need to pitch in, you know, to help the nation.

    There be some irony a-brewin!


    2010 - 12.06

    In the news today, I read an article about software piracy and how this company started tracking the use of a registration key which had been spread through bittorrent sites. The same key was used almost a million times.  That’s a lot of piracy! Must of been a cool program, or at least one that appeals to the pirate demographic. What kind of program appeals so strongly to the pirate demographic you ask? Easy. One called “Avast”.

    It’s so perfect. I’m still laughing. Yarrrr.