Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Red Dwarf Cosplaying: Fun, Fun, Fun at the Con, Con Con

By Paul C. Giachetti

As a creative type, I’ve long been fascinated by the art of cosplaying: the merging of one’s favorite franchises with costuming. It’s mostly been a spectator sport for me; I possess no ability whatsoever to sew, staple or glue two strips of fabric together. My only attempts, a Lost Dharma employee, a Fallout 3 vault-dweller, a member of the Blue Man Group and Pee-Wee Herman, have really been more for Halloween parties than actual con-going. Still, I’ve found and befriended many cosplayers on social media throughout the years, and thoroughly enjoy watching the process of building props and creating costumes from scratch.

The act of cosplaying has, of course, been around for as long as sci-fi and fantasy conventions themselves, but the term “cosplay” (short for “costume play”) is generally cited as having been coined in the mid-1980s. Since then, it has evolved into its own art form and lately has erupted into the mainstream of entertainment, with many cosplayers now using their skills as a primary means of income. These days, it’s almost a fashion faux pas NOT to dress up while attending a convention.

I’ll admit, many of the characters I’ve seen at cons and online go way over my head, especially those revolving around manga or anime, so it’s especially interesting to come across familiar cosplay, moreso when it involves my favorite franchises. Internally, I squee with delight at the sight of Chell from Portal, or Back to the Future’s Marty McFly, or any one of the thirteen Doctors. These characters, along with the contingent of Jedi, Klingons, Stormtroopers and Federation crewmen, are all pretty standard fare nowadays at any given con, however. This is why, every few years, I look forward to Dimension Jump, the premier Red Dwarf convention in the United Kingdom, hosted by the Official Red Dwarf Fan Club.

Red Dwarf is, and has been, my all-time favorite television series, ever since I discovered it on PBS Channel 21 back in the 1990s. Alas, here in the United States, the show’s popularity isn’t as strong; I’ve been to nearly a dozen conventions on the East Coast, and have yet to come across even a single Red Dwarf cosplayer. Dimension Jump fills this void, offering a forum completely dedicated to fans of the show, and a place to show off their dedication in the form of cosplaying.

And show it off they do! It’s amazing to see the level of creativity that goes into many of the Red Dwarf outfits displayed at DJ, as well as at other conventions, every year. Red Dwarf is primarily about a crew of four living in the isolation of a universe devoid of humankind; because of this limited cast of characters, you would think that Red Dwarf cosplay would be fairly restricted. But it’s because of this limitation that fans are often tasked with getting creative with their outfits.

“I decided to do this [small offduty Czechoslovakian traffic warden/banana] cosplay as it was a bit different than other ones I had seen at previous DJs and a bit out the box,” explains Susan Casey, who attended this year’s DJXVIII. “I wanted to do something that only fans of Red Dwarf would understand and get what I was supposed to be straight away.”

Susan Casey gets creative at DJXVIII as she cosplays as Kryten's inaugural lie from "Camille."

2013’s Costume Contest winner, Cole Welch, blew everyone away at DJXVII with her literal Red Dwarf dress, complete with miniature spacewalking Lister and Starbug and Blue Midget light-up shoes. Her rationale was similar to Casey’s: “I chose to be the Red Dwarf itself, as looking back through costume competition images, it was one of the few things no one had done. The models around the shoes were an afterthought in the designing process.”

Cole Welch poses with her award-winning Red Dwarf cosplay with actor Chris Barrie at DJXVII.

Kerry King-Neale says she was similarly inspired for her Despair Squid cosplay for DJXVIII, noting, “I chose the Despair Squid because I hadn’t seen it done before, and I already cosplay Ursula the Sea Witch from Disney’s The Little Mermaid, and it was a natural progression!”

Left: Kerry King-Neale repurposes an Ursula costume to create the deep-sea terror, the Despair Squid; Right: King-Neale offers up some Mind-Rotter as Western barmaid Miss Lola.

Some looked to the show’s mythology for ideas. Sadie Leggett, who attended DJXVIII with her mom, Denise Neave, found inspiration in the Series 1 episode “Waiting for God.” Leggett says of their costumes, “We were the religious cat race fighting over which faction was right—donuts or sausages, red or blue. We chose this theme as it is something you never really see within Red Dwarf. There is just a hint during an episode in the first series.”

Members of opposing Cat religion sects are represented at DJXVIII by Sadie Leggett (right) and her mom, Denise Neave (left).

For others, travel restrictions guided their cosplay ideas. “A big consideration, in my case, was also that I had to travel overseas,” says American Erica Madore, who attended DJXVIII dressed as a Tension Sheet. “I was greatly restricted in how bulky the costume could be or how much assembly would be required. Three rolls of bubble wrap and two cards take up very little suitcase space and do not raise eyebrows at customs, so practicality was also a huge plus in choosing Tension Sheet.”

Erica Madore pops into DJXVIII as novelty item Tension Sheet.

In some instances, fans play on the strengths of their own appearance to make a cosplay work. Kerry King-Keale’s second costume for DJXVIII, Western barmaid Miss Lola, exemplifies this: “I chose Miss Lola from the episode ‘Gunmen of the Apocalypse’ because she is a larger lady and so am I! I don’t believe your size should limit your cosplay… I choose to do larger characters because they’re very under-represented!”

Gwyneth Flannigan, whose past Red Dwarf cosplay has included Lister, Cat, holo-virus Rimmer and “Backwards” novelty-act Rimmer, says of her spot-on Kochanski, “I love my Kochanski cosplay, as she is my favorite female character from the show.”

Cosplayer Gwyneth Flannigan has covered a wide spectrum of personas from the show, including (from left to right, top): Lister (photograph by Paul Flannigan Photography); Nirvana Crane; Pacifist Rimmer; Cat; (bottom): Kochanski; Holovirus Rimmer; and Backwards Novelty Act Rimmer.

Naturally, the main characters make their appearance in cosplay as well, but even with a limited palette of six individuals, including the two Hollys (or seven, counting late entry Kochanski), the creativity of the show gives fandom a wealth of ideas for original outfits. Greg Szczepaniak Sloane, an attendee at this year’s DJXVIII, says, “My first [cosplay] was Series 1 Lister with the green shirt. I moved on to Lister’s leather jacket next, and a Series 1 khaki uniform… My most recent and favorite costume, though, has to be Holoship Rimmer.”

Holoship Rimmer is brought back to life at DJVXIII by cosplayer and prop maker Greg Szczepaniak Sloane.

Richard Talbot chose Cat’s alter-ego, Duane Dibbley, for his visit to the 2015 Newcastle Film & Comic Con. “It was my first time properly cosplaying,” he explains. “I chose Duane as he has such a unique cosplay-friendly look to him.”

Richard Talbot's Duane Dibbley, complete with lunchbox, thermos and homemade Emohawk.

Georgia Haines, a guest at the 2015 Birmingham Comic Con, decided on a Series 1 Rimmer ensemble. “It was my first-ever Comic Con, so I wanted to make it special by going as one of my all-time favorite characters,” she says. “But I also wanted to go as a slightly more obscure character that not many people will go as. So who better to choose than a character/actor that I’m obsessed with?”

Georgia Haines salutes Red Dwarf fans at the 2015 Birmingham Comic Con as Series 1 Rimmer.

Emma Threepwood chose the diesel deck-hiking holiday version of Rimmer for her inaugural cosplay outing. She recalls her experience: “For my first attempt at cosplay, I chose Arnold Rimmer because not only is he my favorite character, but I really relate to him. Plus, I already had the stupid curly-haired, sticky-out eared head! It was very freeing and fun to have a license to walk around with a look of general disdain for other people!”

Emma Threepwood wowed DJXVIII attendees with her various Rimmer costumes, including, from left to right: Diesel Deck Holiday Rimmer (complete with full-sized skutter); khaki-uniform Rimmer (and a more casual version); and Holo-virus Rimmer.

Another DJXVIII guest, Rob Coker, comments on his own personal favorite. “I don’t know why,” he states, “but I always wanted to do a Lister outfit. I just love the character’s style and awesome hats!”

Some characters are decidedly more complex, design-wise, than others, and the level of difficulty in recreating certain characters played a large role in the selection process of some guests. Alison Kozary, an attendee at a prior Dimension Jump, chose a robe-clad Nirvanah Crane for her first project because she loves the character. But having red hair and the materials at home, she says, helped make the decision easier.

Left: A Tale of Two Listers: Greg Szczepaniak Sloane (left) and Rob Coker slob it up at DJXVIII. Right: Alison Kozary sports Nirvanah Crane's "Morning After" attire at DJXV.

Other cosplayers, such as Mathew Clarke, saw the more demanding designs as a challenge. “Kryten was my first Red Dwarf cosplay, so that would be my fav,” he says. “I chose him because I assumed not many would do Kryten due to the difficulty of the costume.”

Tara Duffin, a cosplayer whose work includes characters from Star Trek and Ghostbusters, decided on the hard-light Rimmer uniform for her first Red Dwarf attempt. “When I accomplish one costume,” she says, “I tend to try to make it a little harder on myself each time. In this case, I was re-watching a lot of Red Dwarf and decided I’d have a go at my favorite character in my favorite of his costumes.”

Left: Mathew Clarke shows off his cosplay skills with a perfect recreation of everyone's favorite mechanoid, Kryten. Right: Tara Duffin flairs her nostrils in true Rimmer fashion (photo credit: Damon Shearer).

In addition to fantastic costumes and inventive makeup, some fans go above and beyond to stand out by creating their own props, from badges and belt buckles to entirely separate characters to supplement their own. Greg Szczepaniak Sloane’s Holoship Rimmer was made complete by adornments such as a homemade name badge and Enlightenment belt buckle. “[Red Dwarf cosplay] is now my main hobby, along with making replica props from the series,” he says. Richard Talbot’s Dibbley outfit was enhanced by a lunchbox filled with Dibbley’s personal belongings, such as a thermos, an animal footprint chart, a dandruff brush and a triple-thick condom (because, well, you never know), as well as a life-size emohawk. “I really enjoyed making props (and a model emohawk) to go with the costume,” Richard says. And Emma Threepwood went above and beyond by creating a full-sized skutter to compliment her Holiday Rimmer, “The skutter was a difficult task for my first go,” she admits, “but it was well worth it!”

If there’s one thing to be said about the cosplay community, and Red Dwarf’s in particular, it’s that everyone is made to feel welcome and among friends, no matter what their costuming skill level may be. Erica Madore recalls, “I actually was really concerned about showing Tension Sheet since I had never been to a Red Dwarf con before. I thought that people would find it cheap, uncreative and lazy (it literally is just red bubble wrap taped together with some textured paper and white paint for the placard, and since it’s an inanimate object, there’s no character or personality to adopt). I don’t know how I got the idea for it—it just popped into my head immediately as I was brainstorming ideas—and I assumed that since Tension Sheets were so iconic and so simple to create, plenty of other people would have done it before. Instead, the reaction was overwhelmingly positive—everyone loved it! I encouraged people to pop bubbles over the course of the con, and on the last day, I cut up my remaining roll of red bubble wrap to distribute mini Tension Sheets to attendees. Interactive costumes are definitely the way to go!”

With the announcement of two more seasons of Red Dwarf on the way, I think it’s safe to say that future Red Dwarf conventions will be host to a bevy of new and creative cosplay designs. Personally, I cannot wait to see what future episodes hold, both story-wise and as fodder for new outfits, costumes and props. I’m confident that I am not all alone (more or less).

Visit Kerry King-Neale’s Facebook page at Kezzlebob Cosplay
Visit Greg Szczepaniak Sloane’s Facebook page at Captain Emerald Cosplay
Visit Richard Talbot’s Facebook page at Duke of Dork Cosplay
Visit Gwyneth Flannigan’s Facebook page at The Girl In The Gingham Dress
Visit Mathew Clarke’s Facebook page at Dark Lord Props

Paul C. Giachetti is a co-owner of Hasslein Books and the author of the two-volume lexicon, Total Immersion: The Comprehensive Unauthorized Red Dwarf Encyclopedia.  

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Dreams 2.0

Dreams… everyone has them. Many people can't remember many of them, but they're always there, lurking in the night. Throughout the ages (and yes, I am, in fact, going to gloss over the fact that my last blog post was four years ago) certain patterns of dreams have emerged. Everyone knows the classics: Standing naked in front of a room full of people; being late for school or work; not being able to run or move. These themes are so commonplace within dreams that people have made entire careers out of writing books and analyzing these cryptic scenarios.

As society changes, so it seems does the subconscious, and I'm a bit leery as to the message mine has been trying to get across to me lately. You see, in the last few weeks, I've noticed a brand new "recurring theme" in my dreams: being lost with a failing/dying GPS or smartphone. Usually it's somewhere in the city or another location I'm vaguely familiar with (at least my dream-mind is) but don't necessarily know how to get around, but sometimes I haven't the slightest idea where I am. Sometimes I'm late for something, adding to the stress levels, and sometimes I'm just scared shitless because of the extra-creepiness of wherever the hell I am. But they're usually similar in one respect: The battery is about to die, and I, for the life of me, cannot get the technology to work properly for whatever reason. That reason ranges from issues with Siri (a very REAL issue my REAL self has in REAL life), or hitting the wrong buttons, or for some reason having an unfamiliar phone. In some dreams, I'm on a bike or scooter for some reason. I don't know.

What I do know is that while yes, it's true I have an utterly piss-poor sense of direction and religiously depend on GPS for any trip that involves a journey of more than three roads, I don't think I have an actual FEAR of being lost, much like I don't really have a fear of being naked or late, despite what my dreams may imply. Which means, much like those other staples of dream-repeats, the whole being-lost-with-technology-of-questionable-quality thing is really just another front for some deeper, less obvious neurosis. But what? Armchair analysts may jump in and say stuff like, "it signifies you feeling lost in life, or your fear of not being in control, or yadda yadda yadda." Which may all be true; I just find it fascinating that my brain has updated it's repertoire for the 21st century, and wonder if any other of the "standard scenarios" were similarly spawned from emerging technology.

For example, many people have dreams in which lights don't work, or it's dark, or for some reason they can't see properly. Was this scenario, in fact, created by the sudden popular use of electric lighting? I also often have dreams in which I can fly. Well, not like Superman up-in-the-sky flying, more like hovering just over the ground. I'm walking down the street, I take a giant step, and just never land, floating all the way to my destination. Could this be a deeply-rooted skewed take on my ancestor's fear of operating that newfangled device called an automobile? Did ancient farmers actually ever dream of being late for something, given that they were really just kinda stuck on their property, or did they start having nightmares about their new aqueduct system suddenly running dry?

We may never know, but it'd be interesting to see how other emerging technologies seep into our subconscious and start affecting our dreams. I hope to one day (er, night) be dreaming about my transporter sending me to the wrong planet.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

It's cold outside, there's no kind of atmosphere.

No, faithful blog readers, today's entry is not about the ridiculously apocalyptic weather Mother Nature has blessed the Northeast with this winter. Today's selection is a combination "I freaking need to update this blog NOW"/shameless promotion piece about a British television series called Red Dwarf. Why, you may ask, am I writing a blog about this particular show, when I watch hundreds of hours of other sci-fi and/or comedy television, probably on a monthly basis, and never bothered to write about any of them? Well, you inquisitive and nosy little reader you, I'm writing about it because I WILL be writing about it. A LOT about it. A whole book's worth, actually.

For those that don't already know, one of my "extra-curricular" activities involves being co-owner and art director for Hasslein Books, a little venture my good friend and author Rich Handley and I created to publish unofficial sci-fi genre reference books. To date we have published two well-received guides to the Planet of the Apes mythos: Timeline of the Planet of the Apes and Lexicon of the Planet of the Apes. Having sucked the last bit of life out of that particular universe, we decided to expand our lineup to include other franchises; currently Rich and fellow author Greg Mitchell are teaming up to tackle the Back to the Future universe, no small task by any means.

As with the Apes projects, my involvement in production of these new books won't really kick in until after the manuscripts are written which, given the depth and detail to minutia these books typically include, can be well over a year. I've now watched Rich do this twice, and both times I had wondered: as big a 'fan' as I claim to be about certain franchises, television shows, movies, bands, etc., was there actually anything I truly felt so passionate about, wanted to know about in such intimate detail that I'd spend years hunting down, pouring over and dissecting every last scrap of material I could find? Invariably there was only one series I could ever see myself even attempting to do: Red Dwarf.

If you're unfamiliar with the show, I only need three words to describe it – British. Sci-Fi. Comedy. That's all you need to know (that, and the term Red Dwarf refers to an immense crimson mining ship in space and not, as some people have actually asked me, about actual dwarfs). Trying to describe it any further than that would ultimately do the show a major disservice; Like most brilliant sci-fi television shows, it's not so much the overall premise that hooks you, so much as it is the characters (and more importantly the interaction between these characters), and how they play with the conventions of science fiction. And when it comes to Red Dwarf... oh, how they play; and sometimes not very nicely. Logic holes, plot holes, inconsistencies and whatnot, things that would normally drive a nitpicker like myself absolutely insane within a more serious program, are absolutely accepted (and in fact encouraged) in a typical Dwarf episode. It's the juxtaposition of simultaneously mocking and embracing science fiction clich├ęs that makes the show more than just a comedy, but a smart comedy.

And I've just tasked myself with writing the comprehensive encyclopedia on it.

Fortunately for myself, there's not a huge amount of material to sift through... 'huge' being a relative term, of course. Some may consider meticulously analyzing 53 television episodes, 4 novels, 23 issues of fanzines, an official website, a roleplaying game and several other books on the subject a 'huge' amount; comparatively speaking, however, it's quite small compared to many sci-fi franchises such as, say, Planet of the Apes, which had literally hundreds of comics, books, novels, shows, unpublished scripts and other media in addition to the original movies.

Despite the limited amount of resources to go through, I'm already finding myself running into a few interesting challenges. For one, much of the humor of Red Dwarf depends on the use of similes, metaphors and references to fictional and real-life people, places and things. So even though a serial number on a robot is easy enough to log an entry about, a character referencing Mary, Queen of Scots requires a pause, a google-search of "Mary, Queen of Scots" to verify it's in fact a real person, a stopover to wikipedia to get a brief history, and writing an entry that not only includes some real-world info but how the reference was used and in what context. And there are dozens of such references in every episode, including things like basic british vernacular and slang, which I have to decide whether to even include. Suffice to say, a half-hour episode could end up taking upwards of 9 or 10 hours to get through. The other issue I face is basic continuity; despite what I said earlier about inconsistencies being part of the charm of Red Dwarf, in reality it wrecks havok when trying to write a compendium on it. From what I remember of the novels, for example, entire premises have been altered, characters have been replaced, and descriptions have been completely changed. Most of these discrepancies will probably just be mentioned in notes, but the bigger ones will have to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, something I'm hoping will get easier as time goes on.

In spite of these challenges, though, I'm finding the process incredibly fulfilling. The biggest thrill is hearing things for the first time; with much of british comedy it always difficult to get everything the first time around, indeed I've watched these shows several times over and still pick up on a new joke or comment here and there. Now, watching the episodes with captions (an absolute necessity when writing about them) allows me to soak in every word and absorb every last joke, and having to research references makes many of them that much funnier, now knowing the source.

Of course, getting my hands on new material (in the form of books, novels, etc.) is always part of the fun. I have noticed, though, an attempt by several authors of these books to adhere to the same off-the-wall comic tone as the show, with varying degrees of success. As much as I appreciate that type and style of humor, I'm trying to maintain a more reserved approach when writing the encyclopedia, treating it as more of a serious reference book and less as an extension of the show. The reason is three-fold: first, I'm not convinced their particular style of humor translates well to the written form (the novels notwithstanding, of course). Without mentioning names, a few of the books reviewed for this project came across to me as somewhat trite and forced, as if the writers wanted to say, "Look at me, I can write comedy for them too!" The second reason is time; it would literally take twice as long to come up with funny filler material in between actual facts. And the third is quite simply a legal matter. This is an unauthorized book; trying to add original jokes in the same vein as the show would eventually involve me creating new material, which is strictly forbidden in an unlicensed reference book. I can report the facts of the material, as they are presented, but cannot create new fiction. Don't get me wrong, that's not to say the book will be dull and completely devoid of any humor; those facts I'm reporting on are inherently hysterical by their very nature, so no matter how 'straight' I try to make the entries, the humor cannot help but seep through. I'm hoping it'll ultimately make for a good balance of fun and informative reading.

I will say from what little I've done so far, I now have a newfound respect for the amount work Rich puts into writing these books. It makes my few months of graphic work on the projects seem pale in comparison, and committing myself to this project gives me a real sense of finally 'pulling my own weight', as it were. I can only hope to do the series justice, and create a book not only worthy of the 'Hasslein' name, but of the Red Dwarf moniker as well.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Holiday Negotiations

It's that time of year again, and as much as I love the holidays, there's always been one aspect of it that has gnawed at my tiny little conscious. We're all familiar with the symbols and traditions surrounding many of the well-known holidays – Santa and gift-giving for Christmas; bunnies, ducks and coloring eggs for Easter; pumpkins and trick-or-treating for Halloween; placing the fate of the world's climatic system in the paws of a large rodent in Pennsylvania for Groundhog's Day — All fairly harmless, good clean fun. But then there's one, gruesome holiday; one based on lies; whose traditions are built on the mass murder of millions of innocent creatures. I am, of course, referring to the genocide known as...

...the Thanksgiving Turkey Dinner.

"And why is this so terrible?", you may ask. "After all, we eat turkey every day." This is of course very true; it just seems to me, I don't know, cruel and somewhat zombie-like to all set our sights on one specific animal for one specific holiday just for the sake of tradition. But I'm not going to go on some lunatical rant about the morals of butchering entire lots of flightless fowl so American families have a reason to sit down at the dinner table together; oh no, this blog addresses the bigger question, the question nobody bothers to ask.

Who the HELL did the turkeys piss off to get THAT gig?

Seriously, when it came time for the powers-that-be to negotiate holiday contracts with various bidders, who exactly represented the turkey population? What kind of Bernie Madoff/Joe Jackson mutherfucker were they stuck with as an agent, because as little as I know about the legal process and contract negotiations, even I can tell they got a bum deal. Image with me, if you will, how it must have gone down:

Turkeys: Phew! Sorry we're late, travel's a real bitch, what with being flightless and all... anyways, what'd we miss?

Agent: Well, it was a real circus in there, all the major holidays were up for bid, but I think you'll be happy with the one we got....

Turkeys: Awesome! What happened?

Agent: Well, first off, we couldn't get your own holiday like you requested; turns out the Groundhogs have a knack for seasonal predictions, which the Committee felt was a much better selling point than your ability to solve a Rubiks Cube in under ten minutes; I couldn't really argue against their case...

Turkeys: Damn! Well, it was a longshot...

Agent: We almost got you into Easter, but ultimately it was decided that your brightly-colored plumage would conflict with the pastel colors the committee had chosen for the holiday, so it went to the chicks. Unfortunately the Chicken Labor Union, which was funded by the Toledo Dye Corporation, teamed up with the Bunny Rabbit Worker's Force, which received major backing by the Hershey's Corporation; so now the official symbols of the Easter holiday are brightly colored chicken eggs and chocolate rabbits; what any of that has to do with the resurrection of Christ I have no idea, but their agent was fantastic!

Turkeys: What the?? Please tell us we're not so convolutedly shoved into a holiday like that....

Agent: Oh no no no.... your role is very significant to the holiday.

Turkeys: Oh wait... is it Christmas? Did we get Christmas? Because, you know, we ARE cold-weather fowl....

Agent: No, unfortunately the state assigned that one to some pediphile as community service; they WERE looking for animals to pull the flying sled though.....

Turkeys: Perfect!

Agent: However, I had left the meeting to go get some Jujubes, and the reindeers grabbed the contract..

Turkeys: The REIN.... what the FUCK? They're not even birds!! Maybe we can't fly, but at least we have freaking FEATHERS! And who the hell eats Jujubes anymore?? So what was left? Halloween?

Agent: Apparently turkeys aren't scary enough for...

Turkeys: SCARY? you want to see SCARY you sonofabitch?!?! Tell me what we got stuck with! Valentine's Day??

Agent: I'm sorry, no... independent studies showed that 98% of all regional turkeys can't shoot a bow and arrow with any real degree of accuracy, so they went with the cherubs.

Turkeys: For the love of.... just tell us...

Agent: Well, it turns out there actually WERE turkeys at the Thanksgiving festivities.

Turkeys: Oh.... well.... that's not bad, not bad at all, right guys?


Agent: Yeah, and they were even present during the gigantic Harvest Feast they had that day..

Turkeys: Wow! That's great! Were they the guests of honor?

Agent: Sure, let's go with that.

Turkeys: This is fantastic! So... what do we do.......

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Game of Perfection (or, 'My First Stress Test')

Remember that 'ol Milton Bradley game, Perfection? The one with oddly-shaped pieces that needed to be placed in their respective holes on a big plastic board before the timer ran out, lest it all spontaneously springs up, tossing your well-placed shapes everywhere and giving you a near-heart attack in the process?

Yeah, I hated that game.

In the classic Chicken-and-Egg conundrum, I'm not quite sure which came first; my intense and primordial hatred and loathing for strictly-timed mental-aptitude tests which therefore governed the deeply rooted anxiety that game brought out; or the deeply rooted anxiety that game brought out, which in turn fed my intense and primordial hatred and loathing for strictly-timed mental-aptitude tests. In other words, do I despise the game because of what it is (basically a stress test) or do I hate what it is because of the game?

They say what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. I say I'll take my chances...

Because let's face it, that's really what this torture-chamber-in-a-box really is; an adolescent mental stress test. I don't know about you, but MY face never looked so happy and entertained as the cheery little cherubs on the box would suggest -- more often it would be decidedly more frowny in appearance, with possibly a bead or two of sweat forming on the brow as the incessant ticking of the timer distracted me from finding the hexigonally-shaped hole.

I do find it amusing there's a warning label on the box that simply says, "Choking Hazard...not suitable for children under 3", as if that's the only danger this game poses. I believe it should really say: "Psychological Hazard - may cause aneurysms due to exceedingly-high stress levels... may scar your child for life and cause him/her heightened anxiety when placed in similarly stressful situations down the road.... Side effects may include heightened agitation near clocks, an unnatural fear of geometric shapes, and a constant feeling of being 'rushed'... " To this day I can't play games (board, video, or otherwise) which force players to complete a certain amount of tasks before time runs out. And despite working in the publishing field, the thought of strict deadlines makes my heart palpitate. Sometimes, while working on a desperately-needed layout, I feel as if any minute my keyboard may go BAM!!! and spray key shrapnel everywhere like a Vietnamese booby-trap.

Thank you, Milton Bradley, you sons of a bitch.

(NOTE: Thanks to Steve for the inspiration to write this entry, who somehow was able to recite the entire Perfection jingle on cue.)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Technology turns 360°

No, that's not a typo; I'm not referring to technology taking "2 steps back" as I have in the past
(See "You'll Thank Me Someday...") which of course would be technology turning 180°... This is more about technology going through several steps to arrive at the exact spot is started, more along the lines of this entry ("Call, Click, and Come on in") over at the Heart and Mind Blog. In order to begin, though, I do need to refer back to the former post.

Back when I first started archiving the blogs on paper, an argument was made about the redundancy of typing, posting and storing a blog electronically, only to go back and print an archaic 'paper copy' of it as backup, and if this practice was in fact going against the grain of technology. My counter-argument referred to people who buy expensive phones with the capability to actually talk to people, only to use them to hold entire conversations via texting, which is arguably much slower and more painstaking. I pointed out how that practice has become the norm and "acceptable" in today's world, and the people who were ribbing me about printing a book off of an electronic medium should just get off my damn back already.

We're still only talking a technological 180° turn here (going from "talking" to "texting"), but what inspired this entry is what apparently is coming next. Because Congress is only now starting to realize that texting while driving could potentially kill you and others, companies are starting to develop speech-to-text technology for phones which will, brace yourselves, convert your spoken words into text, which will then be sent through your phone. Let me reiterate that. You can now SPEAK into your PHONE, which will convert into TEXT, which will be sent through your PHONE, to be read... on another PHONE. I'm guessing its only a matter of time before the other end gets converted by text-to-speech software, making this ludicrous circle complete. Now it can take a full half hour to have a ten minute conversation!

I'm not sure how many lives this will eventually save, or how many accidents this will really avoid; but I can already foresee the damage this can potentially cause to the fragile relationships between shallow narcissistic people who simply can't wait to get to their destination before texting about weekend barhopping. Let's face it, no technology is foolproof; a girl may get a text asking what she wants to do tonight, and she verbally answers, "Club Houstead", which her phone translates as "club you in the head" and sends on its merry way... and she'll forever wonder why that friend suddenly turned really bitchy and seemed to lose interest in hanging out. Or what happens if you're listening to your iPod whilst dictating a message to your mom? Listening to Nine Inch Nails might not be a good idea while making dinner plans... "I'll be over around 6 to f*ck you like an animal..." Yikes.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Totalitarianism, Anarchy, and Utopia: The Goldilocks Syndrome

I am by no means a scholar, so anyone expecting a deep philisophical discussion on the political climate of today's world can just skip to the next person's blog. No, this is merely an attempt to straighten out the thoughts in my head, which at this moment involve the means to a Utopian Society, and why humanity's abusive nature will never allow one. But first a prologue to that idea.

I am a big believer in the 'universal balance', the idea that light cannot exist without dark, good without bad, the duality of the cosmos, karma, etc. It is the fundamental Yin-Yang theory, and one of the reasons for getting one tattooed on my leg; the other was to symbolize my personality in general. That's not to say I have a split personality; it's more about the duplicity in my beliefs, the ongoing series of arguements between the devil and angel on my shoulders, with rarely a clear winner. I tend to see both sides of a story as having legitimately good and bad points, with different shades of gray, and have a hard time deciding which side I'm on. In trying to resolve conflicts, both internally as well as externally, rarely do I find one side unequivically right and one side inarguably wrong; to me life has always been a wide spectrum of grays, the trick is to determine which side has the lesser amount of it. Unfortunately human beings are probably the single biggest gray area in the cosmos, which makes them the hardest to figure out and predict. Here's why: the more complex you make a mechanism, the more chances there are for things to go horribly wrong. You see it in cars, you see it in computers, and you see it in living things. A grasshopper is not as likely to maul you unprovoked as a dog would; likewise, a dog is not as likely to imprison members of your family in a power struggle to gain control over the household as, say, some humans might do to a country. The human brain is the single most complex mechanism known to exist, and thus the most unpredictable. Yes there are 'good' people and 'bad' people, (and let's not forget these very concepts are based on perspective) but very few of us are totally 100% saintly (yin) or completely 100% evil (yang). We all have that little spot of contrast within that adds a gray tinge to the mix. It makes for an extremely diverse world.

So what does this have to do with the title of this blog? Well, I often find myself looking around the world and saying to myself, "Well, this sucks". Mostly it's while reading the news. And being me, I frequently try to think of solutions to the various problems I see, if only in hypothetical terms. I ask myself, "What would need to change in order to obtain the level of peace and harmony so often seen in science fiction's version of the future? What do we need more/less of in order to create a Utopian society? What exactly IS the definition of a 'Utopian' society?" Well, a generally accepted perception of the perfect society seems to be one with no crime, no poverty, no disease, no hate, no corruption; where everyone lives harmoniously and no one is left wanting. Where the need for material gain is replaced by the need to improve the society as a whole. And that, I'm sorry to say, will never happen. It's not being pessimistic, it's not being fatalistic; it's being a realist; unfortunately being realistic oftentimes tilts towards the pessimistic side. It will never happen primarily due to the reasons above; There are too many people, with too many different beliefs, that are too set in their own ways. I'll break it down: In order to have a purely Utopian society, you'd have to convince everyone on Earth to:

Have the same ideals, ethics and values;

Have the same beliefs and belief system or at the very least TRULY and TOTALLY believe in religious tolerance.

Have the same perception of justice, and agree on a system of law and a method of enforcing it;

Have the utmost respect for and faith in their fellow man.

Agree on the eventual goal and purpose of humankind.


Living in America, the perverbial melting pot that it is, I see cultural, religious and societal differences every day of my life. As much goodness and kindness as I witness, I've seen an equal amount (if not a significantly higher amount) of people taking advantage of the system, acting as if they are more important than their fellow man, showing no respect to others, having no tolerance for others beliefs, and generally living as though the rules don't apply to them. and that's just in ONE country. So how do we get people to change, to all think the same way? The bigger question is...


First things first.

The 'how' has been a question of the ages. Well if we were starting from scratch, you might say 'religion'. Sure, give everyone a set of standards, a way of thinking, a moral guideline. In theory, a sound idea. In practice.... well, we've all seen how well THAT worked out. Religious differences account for more deaths in human history than probably every disease combined. So what next? Ah, maybe Government. Have a ruling governing body dictate one way to live, what morals to have, the one way to think. I'm sure I don't have to point out how horribly bad THAT idea was, specifically when the Germans had it.

The fact of the matter is, had we as a species evolved together, in one unified society, and developed a moral and ethical way of life together, we may have had a fighting chance to create and maintain a civilization where we all thought and felt the same and had a common goal for our world. Not likely, but possible. Now, however, with our gaping cultural differences, there's no way we as a people can overcome the huge diversity of our species without someone taking charge and forcing it upon us. Which leads to the second question: Should we even try?

Probably not. As was mentioned, forcing a way of life, even a Utopian way of life, on people is still trying to remove their individuality. People would resist, and the only way to ensure the masses act according to utopian doctrine is to have complete control over what they can and can't do, which ultimately defeats the purpose of a utopian society; laws would be so micromanaged as to allow very little personal freedoms.

Conversely, if we remove government involvement completely, we'd have total pandimonium. Everybody doing whatever they want, however they want, whenever they want, wouldn't last a week. Even assumedly rational people who more or less think and behave the same way would eventually come at odds with each other over how to handle the tiniest situation. You simply cannot have any group of people live together without some sort of governing body, someone who decides what is right and wrong for the group.

Thus we come across the Goldilocks Syndrome: Too hot, too lumpy, Too much governing.... Too cold, too soft, too little governing. And 'just right'? Well, that's the big question, isn't it? And the answer is very simple, if disheartening. The answer is: There is no answer. Because everyone has a different opinion on where that sweet spot is, we may never see world peace in the near, or even not-so-near, future. The simple fact that we are such complex organisms gives us the gift of being uniquely different from each other, yet at the same time curses us to see different paths to Utopia, if they care to see it at all.