Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Weekend

Hey!  Hope everyone is doing well.
We had a nice, relaxed Memorial Day weekend.  We spent some time running errands and taking care of chores.  Went to church.  Got some exercise.  Did some shopping.  Read a book.  Walked Cassidy.
Went out for Mexican food on Saturday night.  We grilled on Sunday night.  Chicken and corn and grilled squash.  Washed it down with a couple of Mexican beers.  'Twas a good meal.  Tasted like summer.
On Monday, Memorial Day, we went to Barton Springs and swam in the cool water and lay in the warm sun.  Afterward we ate a lot of watermelon and a little baba ganoush.
Went to the music store and played expensive guitars and almost bought a mandolin, but in the end, did not.  We sold some things and made a purchase at Half Price Books, but walked away feeling like they got a little more out of us than we got out of them. 
Mono Ensemble rehearsal on Monday night.  We worked on a couple of new songs and made progress on getting them right.  It might be a while before we can practice again, though, so I'm not sure whether they'll stick.
It was a good weekend.
Now it feels like summer.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Jonathan Blow and Games as Art

Amy knows that I'm sort of fascinated by the idea of video games as art.  I think that she's sort of interested in it as well.
At any rate, she sent me a really interesting article from The Atlantic by Taylor Clark about video game designer Jonathan Blow.  If you're interested in video games and their potential at all, I would really recommend it.
(this island from The Witness might ultimately prove just
as confusing as the one on Lost)
Jonathan Blow is the video game designer and producer who created Braid, a game that I've read about and watched videos of, but never actually played.  Braid is said to be remarkable in that it's meant as a sort of psychological journey and metaphor.  The themes of the game, the music, the gameplay and the artwork are all said to be designed with an eye toward inducing introspection and reflection in the player.  Blow's upcoming game, The Witness, is said to be similarly designed with an eye toward observation, contemplation, interpretation, and revelation.  It seeks to engage players in a calming, intellectually challenging environment.  As with Braid, The Witness sounds as if it stands in stark contrast to the hyperkinetic, frantic, adrenaline-fueled experiences created by the vast majority of games currently on the market.
When people try to link the words "video games" and "art" together, Blow's name is usually on a pretty short list of designers who produce games that might fit the bill.  Blow, by his own admission, seeks to do nothing less than create games which make insightful statements about the human condition and universal human experience. 

Clark's article in The Atlantic left me with some mixed feelings about Blow's motivations and work.  Actually, maybe I wasn't even conflicted about the work that Blow is doing (I think he's almost indisputably doing a very good thing and growing the videogame, as a medium, in a positive new direction) so much as I was slightly surprised by the dismissive, sort of condescending tone that he takes with pretty much the entirety of video games as they've evolved up to this point.   Blow undoubtedly sees a potential for video games that few other people have refused to even take seriously, let alone attempt to fulfill.  He understands video games as being not only a genuinely artistic medium, but one with the potential to create unique experiences that no other medium can replicate.  Blow believes that games cannot only be used to convey messages, but that their interactive nature can be used to guide players toward reaching their own insights and revelations, seamlessly blending their form with the function that they seek to achieve.
In short, Blow is a smart guy, and he might be genuinely deserving of the title of .  His approach to games is so ambitious that it almost tempts a person to come up with a term other than "video games" in the attempt to describe the sort of experiences that he envisions. 
On the other hand, Blow remains someone who's working in a field that is not without history and precedent, and although he may not really appreciate the current state of modern gaming, it's probably worth considering the evolutionary history of modern gameing before completely dismissing the form that they currently take.  For starters, video games need to work on a practical level, provide engaging experiences that people will pay actual money to buy.
For one thing, our larger American society has sort of yet to move beyond the point where we think about video games in the way that Blow would have us do. He wants a more intellectual, adult audience for his games, and if he might get one if he and other ambitious game makers continue to produce more high minded products. I'm not sure, however, that this audience that he seeks exists at this moment. Even if he does manage to create such an audience for his games, my guess is that it's going to end up being a select subsection of the larger video game market. I don't think Blow is going to end up transforming the entire video game world. I think he's going to create a category of games that appeal only to a certain type of person or that other people purchase in order to have available to them when they're in a certain sort of mood.

As I read the article about what Blow and a few other small handful of gamers are attempting to achieve, I couldn't help but be impressed by their dedication and devotion to creating not just better games, but to an entirely different kind of experience- one that might genuinely elevate video game play onto a level that might almost indisputably be called art.  I'm glad to see that people are trying to move the whole gaming experience forward.  I genuinely believe that different variations of the video game experience are likely to be as important to future generations as film, television, and music have been up to this point.
The point of disagreement that I have with Blow, as I've said, comes in the snobbery and condescension with which he treats almost all other modern games.
It's true that a lot of popular modern games involve violence, combat, and lots and lots of action.  But to hear Blow (and by extension, his mouthpiece for this article, Taylor Clark) tell it, the evolution of the modern video game as an action-packed, combative form of entertainment is either purely coincidental or the result of sleazy, unethical scheming on the part of game designers who randomly decided to cram bloodshed down every one's throat as a preferred method of making a quick buck.
I think the truth is a little more open for discussion.
Game companies and game designers have been delivering combat, violence, and action for years not simply because these are the easiest things to program (some of the violent games, in fact, involve intense production, amazing artwork, and fairly complex game mechanics).  Instead- and I think that this is the part which is so vexing to Blow- I think that modern video games are visceral, escapist entertainment simply because so much of their audience craves these sorts of themes.
In saying this, I'm not trying to make a cynical, dismissive statement about he hunger of modern audiences for violence.
For a long, long time there has been an often discussed (if not always clearly delineated) difference in the art world between high and low art.  High art has typically been thought of as a more intellectual approach to art- more thought provoking, more stimulating, and often relying upon greater levels of education or powers of perception from its audience.  Lower art (or popular art) has often been seen as more accessible to (and some times more representative of) a broader class of people.  Lower art is often thought of as more decoratively symbolic.  It can be more escapist, providing for a refuge from the daily difficulties of life as opposed to presenting an intellectual challenge that must be overcome.
I tend to see Blow's work as something akin to higher art, while Call of Duty and Halo may fill more of a lower art niche.
And there's nothing wrong with the lower art niche, in my opinion.
We've always had folk music and rock and roll which stood as counterpoints to symphony and opera.
It's easy to be dismissive of games that contain a lot of action and violence, but these games, at the same time, are typical narrative works in which the player takes on the role of some sort of hero who is fighting against and trying to overcome evil.  That sort of story has been with us since the days of Greek mythology, and almost certainly long before.  Blow can say what he wants about the stupidity of the bloodshed and violence, but even our oldest myths and fairytales contain stories of heroes fighting against monsters and the oppression of evil men.
Furthermore, on an emotional level, action games are satisfying in a way that are not only visceral and exciting, but also cathartic and, in a strange way, orderly.  A person may go through their day suffering all sorts of unfairness, frustration, and annoyance involving work, the boss, fellow students, finances, romantic difficulties, etc., etc..  The world can, of course be stressful, frustrating, messy, and unfair.  Not only the good guy not always win in the real world, but he often endures many of the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" just to get through his day.
So isn't it sort of understandable that a fair number of gamers, when it comes time to flip on their machines and escape from the world for a while, just want a chance to enter a realm where ultimately the righteous will triumph and where the bad guys are not only clearly delineated but also capable of being dispatched in spectacular fashion with some sort of high powered weapon? 
I'm glad that Blow is making games that will challenge people to really think (and such games definitely have a role), but much of the time video games represent a chance for people to escape to a world where they don't want to think so much as simply have the chance to decisively overcome obstacles.  On many days, the real world just sort of falls short in offering us those sorts of opportunities...

You can probably see where I'm going with this.  I tend to think that Blow is really shooting for a "high art" experience in video gaming, whereas the vast majority of video games are created as escapist entertainment for a gaming community that gaming companies see as more of a "low art" sort of crowd.
I really think it's cool that Blow is designing more advanced, ambitious, high minded games, but, for me, anyway, I think that these sorts of artistic games are likely to simply gain a place on my shelf right alongside some of the more traditional, action-oriented fare.
If I'm in the sort of mood to challenge myself or expand my horizons, I'll probably reach for one of Blow's games.  If I want to work off some of the frustration of my workday and enjoy a story, I might reach for Mass Effect.
I'm genuinely happy to have more artistic options, but I guess I was slightly bothered by Blow's seemingly abject rejection of action-adventure games as they currently exist.
Even with options out there that are meant to challenge my cognitive abilities and make me grow as a person, I know that there will be some nights when I just want to shoot zombies.
Still, I look forward to trying The Witness.  It sounds really interesting, and I'm definitely curious to see if it's as cool in practice as it sounds in theory.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Graduation; The Weekend

This weekend Amy graduated from The University of Texas School of Law and from The School of Information (formerly the library school).  Big accomplishment!
Amy's family came into town to celebrate and to attend the law school graduation ceremony.  I had a really nice weekend visiting with them.
Amy had flown back to Arizona last week to spend time with her family (including her sister's family, since they weren't able to make it out for graduation), and she drove back to Austin with her grandparents, Jerry and Carol.  I had lunch on Friday with Amy's parents, Jean and Greg.  Friday afternoon Amy got back into town, and Friday night we joined Amy's parents, my folks, and Amy's grandparents for dinner at Fonda San Miguel.
It was a very nice meal.  I know that Austin has a lot of nice restaurants, and it seems like we get new places all the time, but Fonda San Miguel, which has been around since 1975, has a special place in my heart.  I really like the look of the restaurant, (from the skylight in the foyer to the artwork and high ceilings in the restaurant itself), the food is very good, and the waitstaff usually does a good job of keeping things casual but nice at the same time.  At any rate, the food was excellent and the company was really fun.  After dinner we went over to parents' house for a while to just hang out.  The weather was pleasant, and we had a nice time sitting out on their back porch and catching up.
On Saturday Amy and I got up and went back out to my parents house for breakfast with Amy's family.  In the afternoon we had the graduation ceremony itself.
The UT Law graduation ceremony is called The Sunflower Ceremony.  For reasons that I still don't fully understand- even after having suffered through halfhearted explanations probably half a dozen times- the students at UT Law don't just graduate in hoods or caps and gowns like everyone else.  Instead, they show up in "business attire" and have a faculty member pin a sunflower to their clothes.
I don't really get it.
Anyway, I had a few flashbacks of my own graduation ceremony from years ago.  The ceremony was kind of long, and not particularly inspired (or inspiring).  Famed Texas plaintiff's attorney Joe Jamail gave the commencement address.  He started out strong and had a few good points (I especially liked the part about having the professional autonomy to tell your client "no" when they want you to pursue a particularly foolhardy course of action), but then his talk sort of degenerated into an incohesive, rambling defense of lawyering combined with a fairly vague plea for new lawyers to "do the right thing" and "seek justice" (I'm usually not very impressed by ambiguously moral exhorations.  In my experience, people almost always find a way to justify their personal actions as "doing the right thing", no matter how questionable their behavior.  If you want to speak to questions of ethics, I think you normally need to do so with some specificity).
Anyway, the graduation ceremony was largely what I expected it to be, and it was really nice to see Amy walk and get her diploma.  She looked nice, and we were all very happy for her.
After graduation we went back to my parents' house again and had barbecue and drinks.  I picked up a chocolate fudge cake from Quack's, and it was very good.  Ryan, Jamie, Susan, Uncle Donald, and Ciara joined us for dinner.  It was a nice chance for Amy's family to meet them.
It was just a very pleasant evening.  I think everyone had a good time.  I know I did.
It was very nice to see our two families getting along and enjoying each other's company.

Congrats to Amy!  Thanks to my parents for being such gracious hosts!

(Amy with her grandfather, Jerry.  In this photo, Jerry is
sporting a beaded necklace from the Karebear Kenya Collection!)

(preparing to swipe cake from Amy and Carol)
Sunday was pretty uneventful.  Amy's parents came by to see her again before going to the airport. 
Sunday evening I had band practice, and we worked on some new tunes.  It felt good to play.

After that Amy and I watched an episode of Sherlock (which was pretty darn entertaining).  Then I crawled into bed and slept hard.
It was a good weekend.
Congrats again, Amy!

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Weekend

The weekend was pretty nice.  Hopefully all of the Moms had a nice Mother's Day.
Friday night was sort of slow.  Amy and I were both feeling a little run down, so we took it easy.  We ended up watching Hugo.  I liked it, but I guess I didn't end up finding that it lived up to all of the hype and excitement that I'd heard about back when it was in theaters.  Maybe the fault for a little disappointment lies partially with me for waiting to watch Hugo until after I'd heard a whole lot of people tell me how amazing it was.  Raised expectations, I've learned, can be the downfall of just about any movie.
Anyway, I found Hugo pleasant, if not stunning.  Definitely pretty to look at.
Saturday morning we got up and went out to Pflugerville for the kidney walk.  We walked around Lake Pflugerville to support the National Kidney Foundation.  Our team was associated with the dialysis clinic where my sister-in-law receives treatment, and our immediate family raised a surprisingly large amount of money for the event.  The weather was nice, and it was a pleasant walk.
I'm not really sure where the rest of Saturday went.  I went for a bike ride.
Sunday was Mother's Day.  Amy flew back to Phoenix to spend time with her mother, grandmother, sister, and family.  Having to work this week, I stayed here. 
I went to church with my folks and took Mom and Dad out to lunch.  Later in the day I went bowling with my family and the McBrides (it was Jamie's dad's birthday, so that was good- especially since I think he beat everyone bowling), and then I joined that same crew for dinner.  Doug and Kristen, Jamie's brother and sister-in-law, were in town, so it was nice to have a chance to hang out with them.
And that was the weekend.  Short and sweet.
I hope everyone is doing well.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Happy Mother's Day!

Happy Mother's Day to all of the moms out there!  Happy birthday to my mom, for sure!  She's the best.  I just got back from church with her and from lunch, so I think she's off to a good start.
Anyway, mom's are obviously really important to their kids, but as I've gotten older I've realized how important our moms remain to us well into adulthood.  As a person of the male persuasion, obviously my dad has been extremely important to me, but my mom just has a different perspective and experience, and it's a profoundly important one.
Happy Mother's Day, Mom!  Love you!

(the weird thing is that Mom popped up from under the table
right before this picture was snapped, so neither Amy nor I
knew she was there...)

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Assassin's Creed 3

So I've played Assassin's Creed 1 and 2, and now Amy has been playing a bit of the second one.  These games are sort of weird, especially in the details of their plotlines, but I really enjoy them.  I think Amy does, too (she can correct me if I'm wrong).  The artwork is just really, really impressive, and I like the historical themes (I think I would enjoy them even more if they just went ahead and took some of the virtual reality/sci-fi aspects out of the game).  The games tend to be sort of long, but they've got a lot of interesting stuff to do, and the gameplay mechanics are pretty cool (the characters have cool moves when they're fighting, and it's fun to spend time having your acrobatic avatar run across the rooftops of ancients cities and towns).
Anyway, here's the new trailer for Assassin's Creed 3.  It looks to be have one of the strangest plotlines yet (the assassin guy looks weirder than ever running around in a variation of the assassin's cloak during the American Revolutionary War), but it also looks like it'll probably be visually stunning and a lot of fun.

The Last Day of Law School!

So today is Amy's last day of law school.  Her last exam is today.  As she wraps things up, I'd like to post a video that I think symbolizes a bit, at least in my mind, what going through much of law school must have been like (especially while also being in a relationship with me).
Love you, Amy!  Congrats!!!!

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

R.I.P. Maurice Sendak

Famous children's author Maurice Sendak died today in Connecticut.  The only one of Sendak's books that I really remember reading was Where the Wild Are, but I truly loved that book as a child, and I both read it myself and had it read to me many, many times.
As a little kid (maybe especially as a little boy), I think you get a certain sense that adults are hiding many of the scary, troubling parts of life from you, but you sense that they're out there, anyway.  I can't speak to the experience that girls have, but little boys have a certain desire to seek out some of the scary, dangerous, wilder parts of life and prove that they can handle them.  I don't know if it's cultural or genetic or what, but young boys have a desire to prove themselves through acts of bravery and toughness, and as a little kids we get sort of impatient with the fact that adults keep hiding from us the very chaos and difficulty that we want to confront in order to define ourselves.
Sendak seemed to intuitively understand the attraction toward scary things that some children feel, the impatience they feel in response to the confining protectiveness of adults, and the ultimate comfort that children find in the safety and security of home and family.  Some of themes border on the contradictory, but they're all part of the childhood experience, nonetheless, and Sendak managed to wrap all of these things and more into Where the Wild Things Are.
Anyway, I love that book.  I have good memories of my parents reading it, and it managed to really capture my imagination in a remarkable way.
Thanks for sharing your stories with us, Mr. Sendak.

Monday, May 07, 2012

The Weekend


So the weekend turned out to be really good.  Friday afternoon Amy had her capstone project for The School of Information, so I went over there to check it out (my family stopped by as well).  For those who aren't familiar (I wasn't), the capstone project involves that basically spans a semester.  At the end of the semester, the students have an event where they create a poster that summarizes their work, and they hang out to answer questions and explain the project.  some of them had laptops or other visual aids to use as a demo.  As a point of comparison, the presentation style is a little like the model that we used for science fair when we were in high school except that most of the capstone projects weren't scraped together four hours before they were due, and the capstones aren't ripped off from encyclopedia articles with the heading of "Science Fair".
Anyway, I thought that the capstone event was really cool.  The iSchool kids had some interesting projects, and it was fun to walk around, see what people had been working on, and then talk to them about their stuff.  The capstone event managed to be both social and informative and actually a lot of fun.  It was much livelier than I had imagined when Amy first described it to me.  At the end there was a small reception, and then Amy and I joined my parents for an early dinner.

Saturday we exercised and did a little shopping.  I took a bike ride.  Amy did some school work.

Saturday night we had some friends over for Cinco de Mayo and to celebrate the end of the semester for Amy and her friends.
(Jaci, Christine, Heidi, and Josh chat as things wind down.
Somehow it didn't occur to me to snap any pics until it was already
 pretty late.  I did a slightly better job of making margaritas...)
It was a very nice evening!  Amy made some really good food and drinks (chicken and shrimp tacos, guac, queso, margaritas, sangria, etc.), and we had a nice chance to hang out with friends and family.  Just a very pleasant evening.  Thanks to everyone who came!
We were all wrapped up and cleaned up by about 1:00 a.m..  Then a thunderstorm rolled in with some truly spectacular lightning and thunder, and I couldn't fall asleep until almost 3 in the morning.  Good to get the rain, but those Central Texas storms are intense.

On Sunday we had a pretty laid back day.  Or at least I did.  Our cable and internet had been knocked out by the storm, and they didn't come back on until the middle of the afternoon, so I was forced to read books and play guitar.  It was positively medieval!  Actually, it was nice.  Amy went up to the law school to do some work, and I went for a bike ride.  In the evening I had Mono Ensemble.  Good practice.  We're learning a few new songs in anticipation of our upcoming gig on July 13th at The Carousel.  I hope to see you there!
And that was the weekend.
It was very nice and over all too quickly.  I hope everyone else had a nice one, too.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

The Wall

"So ya
thought ya
might like to
go to the show..."

So Thursday night I went with Sigmund, Kim, and a few of their friends to see a performance of The Wall, live at the Erwin Center with Roger Waters.
The Wall, for those who don't already know, is a rock album by Pink Floyd that came out in 1979.  It's a concept album, loosely based on the life of Roger Waters (who wrote a lot of the lyrics for Pink Floyd), and it follows a fictional protagonist named Pink throughout his life as he experiences various events that lead to an increasing sense of isolation, alienation, and numbness.  Pink suffers various occurrences of emotional trauma, beginning with the childhood death of his father, including life with an overprotective mother, school with abusive teachers, relationships with exploitative women, and a music career filled with drugs, alcohol, and debauchery.  In addition to all of these things, he looks out upon a broader world and finds it replete with materialism, warfare, sexual objectification, and suffering.  All of these things take a toll on Pink.  One by one they become bricks in a wall that he wall that he builds to protect the more innocent, suffering part of his soul.
In the end, Pink descends into madness and reimagines himself as some sort of bigoted, fascist, hate-spewing figurehead.  Apparently unable to deal with the injury to his psyche, he takes a "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" tack, and casts himself as one of the people causing harm to others so that he might suffer less of it himself.  He takes to the stage as a quasi-Nazi type of figure and encourages his own fans to turn on each other for reasons ranging from differences in race to religion to sexual orientation.
In the end, though, unable to deal with the person he has become, Pink puts himself on trial.  He ultimately find his own conduct deplorable (in his madness, his tendency to show human feeling is found to be one of his greatest crimes), and sentences himself to have his protective wall torn down as an appropriate sentence for his crimes.  The end of the show finds The Wall destroyed and toppled, Pink exposed to the world once again.  The final music is quiet, soothing, and a bit hopeful- seeming to signal some sort of new beginning.

The show was really good.  Better than I was expecting, really.  I first listened to the album of The Wall on a band trip when I was a freshman in high school.  We were riding from Austin to Lake Charles, Louisiana, for a competition, and I listened to it on cassette on my walkman.  I still remember that we had dark skies and rain for the entire trip.  I sat with my head up against the bus window, watching the gray countryside roll by and listening to The Wall.  When I was done, I flipped the tape over and started again.
I was floored by the whole thing.  Up to that point I had never listened to an album that took me on such an emotional journey, and I'm not sure that I ever have since. 
People can criticize the Wall for a number of reasons.  It's depressing, it can be a little cheesy at times, and it's about as subtle as a hammer over the head.
On the other hand, few albums have ever been written that managed to carry off a theme and convey a story as effectively as Pink Floyd did with The Wall.  The record manages to convey the story of one person's inner life in a way that few other art forms (let alone rock operas) have ever done.  With The Wall, a story about a rock star who struggles with madness, the musical medium actually becomes part of the message, and the songs are just perfectly calibrated to carry the listener along on the emotional journey that Pink is undertaking.
As you can tell, I'm a genuinely huge fan.

And the show Thursday night went far beyond the typical sort of Rock nostalgia concert that you might expect on a tour from an album released in 1979.  To be honest, going into the concert I had The Wall mentally pegged within a certain time period. 
The album was written from the standpoint of a narrator whose father was killed in World War II.  It was almost undoubtedly influenced by the experiences of a songwriter who had lived through the era of the Vietnam War.  The film of The Wall has some concert footage and art that seems to haven been gathered in the 70's and possibly the 60's. 
At the show last night, though, more recent images from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were repeatedly displayed upon the giant wall that was slowly erected during the course of the performance.  The names of dead American and British service members were displayed  along with deceased Iraqis and Afghanistani civilians.  Various corporate logos ranging from Shell Oil to Apple were incoprporated in the imagery.  In short, Waters and crew did a great job of reinforcing the timelessness of the themes and the universality of the message.  The original events that inspired The Wall might have included the death of a World War II veteran and carpet bombing in Vietnam, but the images of dead Gulf War vets and modern day drone strikes reinforced the notion that contemporary life is no less damaging to the psyche that were the events of the 20th century.  In fact, images of various people plugged into iPods and other electronic devices hinted at the idea that modern living may in some ways lead to an even greater sense of alienation than was experienced by previous generations.

At any rate, the messages in The Wall are undoubtedly still relevant, and absent some kind of huge societal shifts, they're likely to remain relevant for a long time to come.  The music was really good (G.E. Smith on guitar!), and the special effects and stage production were pretty amazing.
A good night.
Definitely worth catching.