Thursday, July 31, 2008

Burn them all down!

Back in '94, I got the fool idea in my head to learn a computer programming language so that I could make my own video games. I tried to get my other friends interested, but none of them shared my passion for the medium. Unfortunately, over four-thousand dollars and one correspondence course later, I had learned nothing, and swore-off computers forever.

Forever lasted about five years, and in '99 I was ready for another PC. This time though, I wanted to focus on coming up with ideas for games and not actually building them myself, to learn programming at my own pace. This never happened - I had a job as a computer operator, but was not well educated enough to get a job programming for my company. This is when I decided to go back to school to learn more about what I wanted to do - make video games. Unfortunately, by the time I managed to get everything together to do it, a stock market crisis (9/11) robbed me of the funds that I wanted to use towards that end.

As a result of my destitution, I began working part-time at a local video game retailer. The plan was that (along with my subsequent bankruptcy) having basically no income would allow me to borrow more funds to attend school. My parents made it clear early on that they would not help me in this endeavor, as their finances were stretched thin as it was. Yes, it is indeed a twisted system, but the funds would have been forthcoming.

I began to seek attendance at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh (AIP), who was starting a Game Art and Design program. I want to make it clear from the beginning that I wasn't really interested in the art so much as the design. I was hoping that the school would help me unlock the process by which games were made, as well as honing the skills that I would need to express my ideas more clearly. While I wanted to wait until the summer quarter, the school insisted that I sign up for the spring. In doing so I had to use an older 1040 tax sheet which showed my income as considerably more than what I actually had made the year before, thus denying me sufficient funds for awhile. The school began charging me interest when I had opted to wait on interest, and their financial department seemed bound and determined to squeeze every last cent that they could out of me while I attended school, leading to some very bad weeks where I couldn't even afford ramen noodles to feed myself (I actually went five days without eating because I was broke, while the government refund checks that I was given had to be signed over to the school every quarter, for reasons they never sufficiently explained to me). Not that I didn't work during this time, but my employer seemed satisfied to give me four hours a week sometimes, just to spite me, I guess (you need at least twenty hours a week as a student to qualify for food stamps).

As time went on at AIP, I began to notice a great bit of disparity in their standards: I was apparently not good enough for the game art and design program from the start, so they put me in animation, a course that I was not interested in at all, for what they told me would be two quarters. When those two quarters were up, they told me that it was actually three quarters and that I was S.O.L.. Meanwhile, in the classes that I shared with the game art students, I noticed that quite a few of them were drawing stick figures ala third grade art class, and wondered if they really were better artists than me (the answer was a resounding "no."). By the time I actually did get into game art, I was behind. I wasn't learning anything in most of the 3D classes, usually because the teachers couldn't sufficiently answer any of my questions, but also because I later found out that they were forcing us to learn not the basics of the programs, but ancient, outdated methods of doing things that should have been avoided from the start.

Nearing the end of the three-year Bachelor of Science program, I began to feel as though I had completely wasted my time and money. I didn't know how to do anything that they wanted me to do because the teachers kept changing the cirriculum on us based on their own inability to manage time. My under-paying job was starting to get on my nerves, and the school career counseling department, which consisted of one bitter eighty-something senile old lady (who is as of this writing dead - and the new students won't even know what they missed, and should be thankful) wouldn't help me find something more in-tune with my major. I have to say that the school's counselors at that time were the most inept, impotent bunch of worthless human garbage I have ever met, and that's coming from someone who considers themselves worthless, impotent and inept!

My uncle at this point had decided to renege on his promise to me to buy my grandfather's house (not that I blame him for that, it's just that he couldn't have picked a worse time), so I had the added stress of losing a home that I couldn't make payments on - this too was my own fault, as I had taken a mortgage out on the place to pay debts some years earlier. I came home one winter to find that part of the ceiling had collapsed and that the cold had allowed the mildew to take over the old place.

I'm sorry, let me sum up my points:

1.) I had declared bankruptcy so my credit was a mess.

2.) School was stressful, demanding, and unrewarding

3.) My job was stressful, low paying, and also really stressful.

4.) I was losing the house that my late Grandfather had entrusted to me, that I had never really appreciated until I had lost it. 

School portfolio review was coming up, and I didn't have anything to put into it. The new teacher they hired, Gabe, was just plain crazy as he wanted the game art students (who hadn't had any solid education in how to do anything) assemble a working 3D game in two weeks. I got a "D" in my low-poly modeling class because the teacher (Ruth Comely) decided to make it a high-poly modeling class, and spent all of half an hour explaining to us how to rig a skeleton to it. The horrifying thing was that at that point Ruth was teaching almost all of our classes and giving us Herculean homework assignments for each one, so she knew that we didn't have time - she just wanted to make our classes as hard as her master's degree classes were at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). She gave me the "D" as a favor - I couldn't figure out how to rig my model or do facial movements - when I should have gotten an "F." That's when I decided to leave school. I just couldn't compete anymore with all of the bullshit; I had come there to learn, but all they wanted to teach me was that I didn't know anything about it.

I left AIP in early '06. Almost a year later a collections agency contacted me and said that I owed them $7000, because AIP had charged me a little over $4000 but never bothered to tell me, and that they had tacked on collections fees and interest. I couldn't pay because I was making less than $20,000 a year at my new job, and most of that was used for paying rent, transportation, and utilities. I deferred those payments in a consolidation loan.

Why am I putting all of this in my blog? Well, a few weeks ago I received a call from Westwood College, wanting to know if I was interested in going back to school with them. I was skeptical, because I had such bad experiences with AIP and the correspondence school, but they talked me into applying, only to spring on me at the last minute that I needed someone to co-sign the loan. As per my parents telling me never to ask, I told them that it was an impossibility, and that I was sorry I had wasted their time. Last week I got a call from another recruiter for the same school, who told me that I didn't need to have a co-signer, and explained the options to me. I spent $100 for the application fee, only to be told by Westwood's financial services department that I needed a co-signer to get all of the funds that I would need. I restated for about the tenth time that there was no co-signer, and then they began suggesting "scholarships."  

An aside:

My view on scholarships is that they only benefit two types of people: 1.) Suburban rich kids who are so well off that they can spend time volunteering at various humanities and don't have to get a job by the time they're sixteen just to pay for a car that their father pressured them into buying. 2.) Rich or poor kids who are so ingenious that they probably don't need to go to college anyway. As I fit into neither category, I have never found a scholarship that I am eligible for.

At this point it was clear to me that I had been right all along in my assumptions that they were just pressuring me to sign up to fill some stupid quota, not setting me up to succeed, but hoping that they could drain me for tens of thousands of dollars before I failed. As part of the application fee was refundable, they only took me for $25.

I hate colleges, post-secondary schools, and trade schools. It is probably because I am so stupid that I can't grasp the tools that they insist that I use, but in my mind it is because of all of the hoops of bullshit that they make you jump through, making escaping them a financial mess. If I had it to do all over again, I'd tell AIP to shove it, and wait until I felt comfortable starting school; I wouldn't let them pressure me into starting something that I was unsure of right away, or let them change the rules on me at the last minute.

They've helped me to ruin my life more than I could ever do alone.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Dark Knight

When one thinks back on prior Batman movies, one might be endeared to the camp of the sixties, or impressed by the twisted schlock of the Tim Burton movies, or be turned on by the homo-erotic undertones of Joel Schumacher's bastardized versions... well, you might, but not me (*cough*). Some people might even believe Batman Begins is the first true Batman movie, as it is the first to actually feature Batman as the main character. Those people love the powerfully written script, the realistic setting, and can even forgive the movie when it gets a little unbelievable because the movie is just so darned good, and because of the uplifting and bittersweet happy ending... those people are the ones who really need to watch Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight; those people are in for a shock.

Taking place in the months following Batman Begins, the film lets you know how much things have changed. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has continued his crusade against evil, helped every step of the way by the cheery and insightful Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine) and with the inventions of the brilliantly discreet Lucious Fox (Morgan Freeman). Rachel Dawes (played very believably by Maggie Gyllenhaal, who has taken over for Katie Holmes, who came down with a bad case of Tom Cruise slightly before this film was cast) has moved on with her life. Her new boss and beau is Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) who seems to be taking their relationship very seriously, much to the chagrin of her childhood sweetheart, who very much wants Dent to clean up the city so that he might win back Rachel's affections. Crime is down, the mob is on the run, and the charismatic and well-meaning Dent is poised to take down the stragglers with the long arm of the law and not a grappling hook. It seems as if the Batman's days of usefulness are nearing their end...

Enter the Joker.

Chaos begins again in Gotham with the arrival of a mysterious clown who first steals from the Mafia then strikes a deal with them to eliminate the Batman. The Joker (Heath Ledger in what is undoubtedly the scariest performance I have ever seen on film) quickly begins to turn Gotham City's own citizens against one another, creating a wave of terror that begins to unravel the lives of those closest to Bruce Wayne.

In order to review this film properly, we have to discuss the Joker. This is not your campy sixties Joker. This is not the dapper and operetic supervillian of Tim Burton's first film. This Joker even makes the comic book version seem pale by comparison. When this Joker is on screen, you cringe at his every move. You get no origin, no reason for his illogical homicide. There is something twisted and evil in this character, but you can rest easy in the knowledge that Batman will save the day, and that the good guys will persevere.

Except that they don't.

Let me state that again for you, just for emphasis:

The good guys don't persevere.

I won't ruin the ending for you, suffice it to say that cinema as we know it will be turned on its ear. No amount of effort, no gadget in Batman's arsenal, no supporting characters can undo the damage the Joker does in this film. You will be surprised, you will be amazed, but one thing you won't be is disappointed. As great as Batman Begins was, this one is better, and one can only speculate where the franchise will go from here.

From a cinematic perspective, this movie is heavy on plot and its length is sufficiently accommodating. The fights are more sporadic, but crisper and better-filmed than the claustrophobic Batman Begins sequences, and you get to see Batman working with James Gordon (Gary Oldman) much like in the comic books. This film seems to be heavily comic-inspired (much like its predecessor) and that dynamic is reflected in many of the aesthetics here. Batman's uniform is (finally) significantly altered from the - and I know that I'm going to take some flak for this - STUPID design of the 1989 film into something more Batman-like: He can turn his head, his armor is less-formidable, but it allows him greater and faster movement and acrobatics. There are even times when they cover his eyes with a luminescent glass, much like in the comics, but also a much better design than the production crew's of Batman Forever. I can't say how long I've waited for Batman to actually move in the movies, and it was a nice touch to see him do so (yes, he occasionally walks in this one). This film has an odd dichotomy about its production: the Joker's makeup is relatively simple compared to the eighties film, but it works well, while another character's computer-enhanced makeover is far better than any amount of latex makeup. For those fans who hated the Bat-mobile in the last film, they will not be disappointed in this one as they can hope for a new design in the next one.

Overall, I would recommend this film to almost anyone, provided they don't have weak hearts. Those who stubbornly think that Jack Nicholson's performance in 1989 was the be-all, end-all of Joker performances, you will truly be disturbed. To everyone who is sick of "Hollywood" endings, you will be surprised. To everyone who loves "Hollywood" endings, this film will shock you out of that funk.

Highly recommended.


Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Doctor Sketchy's Anti-Art School, Pittsburgh

This Saturday past I went to an event at the "Future Tenant" gallery here in Pittsburgh called Doctor Sketchy's Anti-Art School. This event required a ten-dollar donation to the Pittsburgh Toonseum in order participate. It was essentially a life-drawing session with a variety of non-traditional art models (girls with piercings, tattoos, and unusual hairstyles). The draw here was that they would have little contests with some random prizes for the winners.

I had never been to one of these events before, and I was looking forward to it for quite some time. In the hours before it started, I decided to go on a long bike ride. As they had closed the route that I was going to take unexpectedly, my ride home was actually about ten miles longer than I had planned for in almost ninety-degree weather (and I am really, really out of shape). This is important to remember so that when I say that I was tired before I walked the mile to the event there is no misinterpretation. Getting home later than I expected, I showered, picked out some clothes, and began to decide what art supplies I wanted to bring. I had expected a few long sets with just a few models, so rather than haul my entire big sketchpad down to the gallery with me I tore three sheets of drawing paper from my 11 X 14 tablet and rolled them into my art tube. For a drawing surface I carried a large clipboard that I had recently purchased from the Goodwill store for two dollars, as it had a handle and my more expensive drawing boards do not. I did all of this because I really didn't feel like hauling my Art Institute of Pittsburgh portfolio bag to the place with me. I brought a bag of various hardness pencils to draw with, and topped the whole of my outfitting with my "Most Pretentious Art Hat," which is really just a golf hat that kind of looks like a beret. I set out later than I would have liked, but I would still get there a little early.

When I first arrived, I noticed (possibly for the first time ever) that Future Tenant is not air-conditioned. Fortunately, after I had made my donation, the drinks were free (I ended up drinking almost all of their Diet Pepsi and a few glasses of water before the night was over). Future Tenant is a rather small space, and they had set up buffet tables with white paper tablecloths on them for the guests. I felt that this was rather pointless, as there really wasn't a stage for the models to pose on. What it amounted to was that if you were in any row but the front one, you couldn't see the models except for their heads and shoulders. Putting them in the center of the room, or having a runway or stage for them would have been better.

The event was M.C.'ed by "Doctor Sketchy" (real name Joe), a loud man in a loud suit who presented the contests and the models. For what he had to work with that night, he did a really good job and I salute him. The theme that night was High Fashion, and one of the models was actually running the show because she was going out to Los Angeles to be a fashion designer. All of the outfits worn by the girls were designed by this model whose real name I cannot recall but went by the pseudonym Vontinka.

This wasn't exactly what I'd call a free-range art show. It was somewhat annoyingly strict in terms of what they wanted you to draw and how fast you had to do it. The first exercise involved drawing a penguin. Like a fool I tried the realistic approach, but the prize was given to a girl who drew a cute and well-executed primitive. You will have to forgive my description of the proceedings, as I didn't really have time to take any pictures of other peoples' work.

Next, we got into the models. We were given two five-minute poses with the first model, and as I hadn't done any real life drawing in awhile it took some time to get into the swing again.

Still, I didn't think that it was all that bad, until I saw the one that won. That's when I knew that I was way out of my league in terms of skill. I just couldn't hold a candle to these other (and usually younger) artists.

The next exercise came when they wanted a drawing of the gallery's namesake, "Future Tenant." They only gave us two minutes to sketch it out, and I really wasn't sure what to do, so I churned out the following cartoon:

I wish that I had more time to finish the cop, but this is the one that won. The gallery's proprietor cracked up when she saw it, so she had to choose it over the Astronauts everyone else was drawing (future tenant, get it?).

It was time for the second model, which as it turns out works at the Bee-Hive coffeehouse that I sometimes hang out at. She has an excessive amount of tattoos, and a shaved-head with a patch of green-dyed hair, but she's actually a really cute girl. I say this because my drawings of her turned out AWFUL, and they can't convey her sublime natural beauty.

See what I mean? I still feel really bad about those, particularly because I see her on occasion when I visit the Bee-Hive. I apologized to her the last time I got iced tea there.

I should point out that in case you haven't noticed yet, all of the "high-fashion" dresses are the same design - a one-piece job with the separation between the skirt and brassiere right below the latter, which makes any fine-looking woman look like she's trying to look like either a toddler or a pregnant mom-to-be. I can't say that I liked the dresses, but that is the current style at a lot of those "pay fifty dollars more than the clothes are worth for discount store quality" stores.

Anyway, the next model and the first model teamed up on the next set, and they were wearing some rather form-fitting clothes, but as it was a ten minute set to draw two figures I didn't finish one (because people were in the way) and failed to tweak either.

After that, she took a break and the fashion designer was brought up to the front and made to pose. She was a tall, skinny girl with red hair and some of the deepest eyes I've ever seen on a person. Unfortunately, both my drawings of her turned out really bad, and I opted to not include them for the sake of this blog entry.

At this point, I began to run low on drawing paper, and had used up both sides of all three sheets. I began to make the drawings smaller and less inclusive to the total figure to save space.

The next model was announced by Doctor Sketchy, right after he said that he didn't know how they were going to replace Vontinka when she had left - the next model was a dead ringer for her, though her eyes were maybe not quite as deep, but still almost as interesting. I got one decent picture of her with a teddy bear in the two ten-minute sets we were allowed.

We then took a little breather while the Models changed costumes again. I got up to get another Diet Pepsi, when who should I see sitting right behind me but my old instructor, Ms. Love. I knew that she probably didn't remember me, and that even if she did that she didn't care one way or the other, much less like me. I just waved and ignored her the rest of the evening.

The exercise that followed was pretty much the same as the "Future Tenant" drawing, except that the theme was "High Fashion." My drawing was of a dress model with a bong mounted on its headpiece and syringes for needles. I lost to a drawing of a marijuana-smoking shoe.

One of the models from earlier came back out with a different outfit on, and she did a few two minute poses:

Once these were done, she did a fifteen minute long pose, aided by the Teddy bear's head:

For the last set, the three main models of the evening changed to long-dress type costumes with some really revealing tops, and made a bustle-train for ten minutes. I was so low on paper at this point that I had to make the drawing exceptionally small in the margins of the overall sheet, but I still managed to get all three figures.

That pretty much wound up the night. I turned to leave and found that Ms. Love had left (probably a great deal earlier), I can only assume because she didn't win any of the contests. This would be something that I would do again, though it would be better if I had friends that were available to do it with me.

Saturday, July 19, 2008


Something really got my goat the other day. I was going to "The Beehive" (a coffee-house in the Southside of Pittsburgh) with my friend Bill W. Sitting out in front of the Beehive was Bill's friend (of a friend) Katie. I recognized Katie as the girl that works at the Southside Record Exchange, a place I frequently shop, not in the least because they have very cheap used video games.

Despite all of her tattoos and piercings, Katie is a very lithe and attractive girl. Because of this, Katie was crying and looked like she really wanted to be left alone - so of course all sorts of guys were trying to console her.

I've heard the story before, of course, primarily from my college days:
Attractive girl dates attractive guy who treats her like crap and eats away her self-esteem so that she thinks she needs him, then attractive guy cheats on her and threatens to dump her when she finds out. Attractive girl then wonders what's wrong with her that attractive guy doesn't like.

Strong language follows; children should be warned.

I sat and listened to her story, but offered no words of empathy. I'm tired of trying to coddle attractive people when they have relationship problems. The crowd of guys sitting around her vying for her affection should have shown her that there is nothing wrong with her, and that she's just been dating an asshole.

Fuck her. Fuck them all. I haven't had a date in five years, and haven't had a girlfriend in almost thirteen. I've been exploring the reasons why, and oddly enough my reasons are very similar to Katie's, and that's the problem: we're both attracted to attractive people. Unfortunately, almost all attractive men are assholes. My problem is that I'm an asshole AND I'm unattractive. Even when I'm not trying to be an asshole I am blatantly ignored by attractive people. They ignore what I say, and usually my very presence. Women run at the sight of me, because all women know that they can do better, and I don't deny that. For those of you that doubt me, I tested this theory at an art party the other night, and that's when I made the connection.

I noticed it a few weeks ago when I went to a dance hall for a free dance lesson - there were FAR more women than men (about two-to-one), yet when they had us pair up, I was alone. There was a gap where there was no woman. Down the line, women were doubling up rather than pairing up with me. Rather than stay there alone, I packed up my things and left.

But I am not attracted to terribly unattractive people either. Ironically, not because they're ugly - I have been trying to be more active lately, and dating someone who weighs more than me might prove counter to that interest. Unfortunately, the few women who do contact me through various dating services are so heavy-set that they are obviously sedentary. Before you accuse me of being a pig, by the way, please observe that there (many) men out there that prefer that body type, I just don't happen to be one of them.

I do have a few "women" friends. The problem is that 90% of them are married and are friends with other women who are married and/or going steady. The ones that aren't are warned away from me early on. I am friends with a few women that I would never date, but this is primarily due to religious and personality differences. My point is that there is no woman on this planet that I would be interested in who would be interested in me, or even get to know me before we started dating, which is what I'd prefer (friends first).

Topping everything else off, I never really learned how to talk to women back when I was still just kind-of ugly, not my current level of fugliness, and looking back there were a couple that were interested, but I was too scared to interact with them.

I know that this will be read by my family and friends more than anyone else, I don't care. I've explained this to people before - if it seems like I'm bitter about it, the truth is I am, and I know that I'm to blame, so please quit reminding me! I'm aware of the problem, but without hundreds of thousands of dollars in plastic surgery I don't know how to fix it.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Forbidden Kingdom

Once in awhile a movie comes along that slips below the radar to deliver an unexpected delight. Such is the case with The Forbidden Kingdom, a bizarre Asian-American film that would have been lauded a few years ago but is presently relegated to discount theater status.

The film's top billing is co-given to Jackie Chan and Jet Li, though neither of them are the main characters. The story's hero is in fact played by an American, Michael Angarano, who some moviegoers will remember from his other lead in Disney's Sky High a few years back. Angarano plays Jason, a Kung-Fu movie obsessed teenager who frequents a mysterious pawn shop owned by the mysterious old man "Hop." Hop is in the possession of a mysterious Chinese bow staff that he says has been in his shop since his father opened it one hundred years before, waiting for its mysterious rightful owner to collect it (so mysterious). Later, when the local bullies realize that Jason and Hop are friends, they force Jason to betray that friendship so that they can rob the pawn shop. When Hop tries to defend his store the gun-brandishing leader of the gang seemingly dispatches him, his last words to Jason inciting the boy to return the staff to its rightful place. With the staff in hand, Jason runs from the gang only to be dragged off of a rooftop by a strange force. When he awakens, he finds himself in a very feudal-looking ancient China, where he is saved and befriended by Lu Yan (a dread-locked Jackie Chan), who is essentially the same character from The Drunken Master. Along the way they meet the orphan-turned-assassin Sparrow (Yifei Liu) and the formidable Monk (Jet Li), and the masters train Jason in the ways of the Kung-Fu he loves so dear so that the troupe can take on the evil Jade Warlord (Collin Chou - more popularly known as Seraph in the Matrix movies) and his hired assassin, the sexy and deadly Ni Chang (played by Bingbing Li - c'mon, say it! Bingbing!).

While the plot is essentially a straightforward coming-of-age story, it brings to mind a sort of Alice in Wonderland exclusively for boys. The real draw for moviegoers is the Marvel Comic-esque (that is to say, two well-meaning heroes who come to blows over a simple misunderstanding seconds after meeting each other) fight between Jackie Chan and Jet Li. Audiences have been waiting years for these aging superstars of Chinese Opera to come to blows, and they will not be disappointed. The fight between the two is extremely long by movie standards, but never seems to get old due to the skills of two seasoned wire-work professionals. This Western production of an Eastern genre manages to capture an epic feel on a limited budget, and without all of the pithy pompousness and tragedy Kung Fu epics seem to require ever since Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon was produced. It is also a relief to finally see Jet Li play the classical Chinese Sun Wukong (the Monkey King) as one of the few actors who could do the part justice even with a truncated and incorrect story. Michael Angarano provides both the straight man and the audience's portal into the strange world of Kung-Fu beautifully, and it would be a shame if he didn't get bigger roles in the future. On top of everything else, it is refreshing to see a film that has literally no product placement in it whatsoever.

The movie is not without is problems, though. While it is rated PG-13, it is strictly for the violence - which can get intense, and parents with young children should be cautioned - though it is bloodless enough that the more hardcore moviegoer may laugh at the lack of brutality. The story is about as cut-and-dry as it gets, and even though it is nice to see a martial arts film with a happy ending, it does seem to be a little bit compulsory even by Hollywood's standards. There are some exceptionally cheesy and predictable parts in the plot, offset by some very tragic back-story, which gives the audience a rather confused feeling.

Overall, this film is recommended. If you've waited to see J.C. and J.L. in an on-screen bout, this is your film. If not, you'll probably have a good time anyway.

Monday, July 7, 2008

There Will Be Blood

Last night I had the pleasure of watching There Will Be Blood, a recent film from director Paul Anderson, adapted from the book Oil! by Upton Sinclair.

The movie stars Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview, a pioneering oil prospector who anyone could admire at the outset of the film. Despite setbacks and hardships he crafts his oil prospecting into a profitable business. Along this journey Daniel's hardships include the injury of his leg (he has to crawl out of the desert to stake his claim), the death of his business partner (leading to the adoption of his son), and his adopted son's deafening during the eruption of one of the wells. For the most part, he seems like the decent sort, but there are hints of his darker nature early on when he swindles a naive church-community out of their property.

After the injury of his "son," things begin to take a turn for the darker. His humanity seems to slip further and further away with each secured fortune. He later confides to his half-brother that he hates people, and only works for money so that he can distance himself from them (to which I can relate). His crimes become penultimate towards the end of the film (yes, there is indeed blood). It's a spectacular performance from an oft-lauded actor, and anyone with an eye for drama will be alternatively appalled and empathetic for his character.

I won't ruin the movie for you, if you like tragic period pieces. Suffice to say it is expertly filmed not as a period piece, but like a modern movie that just happens to take place at the turn of the last century.

The movie even has a moral that is fit for our time:
"Whenever you see an oil man, shoot on sight!"

Fourth of July canoe trip

The arrangements had been coming in for weeks. My computer screen was illuminated with the electronic correspondence of my oldest and dearest friends as they discussed the matter at hand; the Fourth of July was coming, and we needed to finalize our plans for the annual canoe trip.

Calling it annual is something of a misnomer for me: last year, due to a family near-tragedy (my mother's severe car accident) I was unable to go. My friends manage to get together maybe once or twice in a year, and to miss one of those gatherings because of something so stressful... well, it felt like missing Christmas.

To call it a canoe trip is also something of a misnomer. While we used canoes the first few times, we have in recent trips changed to using kayaks. There are many benefits to this, not in the least of which is the individual reduction in weight and speed. A kayak with one person and their gear will drag bottom in the shallows far less than a two-person canoe with no gear. Once not so very long ago my companions and I traversed the rivers in an over-large green PVC canoe that we dis-affectionately called "The Barge." This hulk was a nuisance of the first class, and nearly half of our navigable time was spent climbing out of the monster just to get it free of whatever obstruction was keeping it from moving with the current. My one condition of attendance this year was that I would not pilot "The Barge" anymore. My friend Keith, who was the caretaker of the vessel, revealed to me that he had sold it, and that its green-and-brown mass would not trouble us anymore. Whether owned, borrowed, or rented everyone was issued a kayak this year: singles for singles, and doubles for couples.

I was, much to my shame, out of the planning process for much of this. Not only because I have a particularly bad habit of not checking my e-mail every single day but also because once again I am almost completely destitute and at the whim of my friends' generosity. Anyone familiar with my web log will know the circumstances behind this turn, and I won't recount the details here. Suffice it to say that my friend Brian has helped me out considerably over the past few weeks, and I am eternally indebted to his friendship. To all of my friends I would ask that they just be patient of me, and if someday Fortune sees fit to smile upon me rather than sneering as she steps on my larynx I will be a better and more responsible friend.

So the plans were made: The morning of the Fourth, Brad would pick up Alicia's kayak. Brian, Keith, and Brad would take their kayaks to the boat launch at Kinzua Dam. Sandywould drive to the dam to stay and watch the boats. Brad and Keith would then drive to the ending point (the Buckaloons campground in Irvine) so that we would have a way to get the kayaks home. Brian drove to the Indian Waters branch of Allegheny Outfitters to rent three two-person kayaks for the attending couples (Bill and Sandrita, Tim and Alicia, and Sue and Jeff - her hunky man). On the way back from the outfitters, Brian would pick up Brad and Keith, and everyone would meet at the dam around 10:30 for cast-off.

As most plans go, ours had some small monkey wrenches thrown in just for the sake of normalcy. Bill and Sandrita were caught in traffic while trying to come home the night before, so much that they had to get a hotel to get some sleep before heading home. As a result they were exceptionally tired (as anyone in that position would be) and couldn't maintain the energy needed for the entire trip. I wasn't thinking clearly, or I could have just had Brian pick me up on the way to the dam in the morning, and I could have watched the boats, saving one less car to be parked in the visitors' lot (there wasn't enough room in the car later on to get all of the people back to their vehicles in one shot). These were just minor problems for what was essentially the best-planned trip we've had.

I awoke around eight o'clock that morning and brushed my teeth. Normally I would take a shower to wash my hair and wake up, but because I had cropped my remaining hair fairly short a few days ago and also because experience has taught me that the river is a odorous wench I felt obliged to forgo it until the evening.

For my part, I arrived at the Kinzua Dam on time and without forgetting anything that I thought I'd need. A dry bag that I had purchased at Dick's Sporting Goods was my one extravagance this trip. I tried to keep it light but brought a few conveniences as well including my camera and a towel just in case. The forecast was calling for rain and to its credit there were quite a few clouds in the morning. Noting that I was the only one parked in the lot I called my friend Bill's mom (Gayle) to see if they had left yet. She informed me that they had, but they were late starting due to the aforementioned traffic incident. I inquired to the make of Sandy's car to see if she had arrived yet and given the description I was able to place it. I made my way from the visitor's lot to the boat launch to find Sandy quietly reading a book by the pile of kayaks, still awake and keeping watch despite the fact that she had probably been there for two hours.

We exchanged pleasantries (or as pleasant as I get, I suppose) and waited for the others. While we talked I snapped a few pictures of the dam from the boat launch. From that angle I could only get pictures of the earthen side, but I still noted how the sky was fairly cloudy.

I had barely arrived when a blue pickup carrying three kayaks pulled up behind us, announcing the arrival of Brad


and Brian

Already the clouds were starting to dissipate, and one could tell that the skies would remain pleasant, sunny, and blue the rest of the day. We took the kayaks out of the pickup and placed them on the concrete steps of the boat launch as Sue and Jeff arrived

Shortly after they got there we were joined by Tim and Alicia. I didn't get any "first impression" photos of them, though I would have if I had been thinking about it. Tim is something of an almost mythological figure - he is oft talked about, but never seen. It was good to finally meet the husband of the "middle-child" of our group (Sue being the little sister). He seemed like a pleasant-though-disturbingly-quiet fellow, and we discussed the day's events while we waited for the last of our pack to commute. I took the time to offer my compatriots sun block and bug-spray. Jeff refused any sunscreen except for his nose, despite our repeated warnings. Keith opted for a full dress - a large hat, fingered gloves, long-sleeved shirt, and even a splash-skirt for his kayak. While other people would see this as being a little excessive, anyone who actually knows Keith knows that he is the "go-to guy" in case of emergency survivalist situations, and should never be mocked for being better prepared. The more experienced rivermen of our group opted for short-sleeve shirts, long pants, and padded, fingerless gloves, with SPF 30+ sunscreen. The less experienced generally wore shorts and tank tops, which would later result in glowing red sunburn. Usually, I fall into the latter group, but this year I count myself among the former, and I'm happy for it.

Bill and Sandrita arrived a little worse for wear, but not late, and we actually disembarked only a little later than we had planned.

I took Brian's little green kayak, even knowing that it would be slower and harder to paddle than his longer, yellow one simply for the fact that I didn't feel that Brian's enjoyment of the day should suffer because of my mooching. I would be remiss if I didn't mention the form factor too - the thin, lithe guy should have the thin, long kayak while the short, squat guy should have the wider, shorter kayak.

The next couple of hours were magical. The northern half of the Allegheny River has, in my admittedly limited opinion, some of the best and most tranquil scenery I've ever experienced while kayaking or hiking. It's not a fun rapids-ride for most of it, as the elevation of the river only changes gradually, and for the most part you can see the bottom. The dam regulates the depth of the water more than anything else, and at the river just below it the water sometimes just barely covers the pebbles on the bottom. Just for clarity, you can really only experience the full beauty of the river on a kayak, as most other boats will drag bottom.

It was in this first stretch that Bill and Sandy started to lag behind, not just because they were exhausted, but also because their boat had trouble going in a straight line. We tried to instruct Sandrita on how to steer it, but none of us had firsthand double-kayak experience, we could only tell them how a canoe worked. Even when they were in a current drift, the boat seemed to want to go to the right, making us wonder whether it wasn't bent somehow. Rentals are hard to figure out that way.

As we traveled downriver, we came to one of the settlement areas - an area of river with houses on it. These houses have road access on the other side, but the people who live in them generally have adapted to living on the river with all manner of watercraft and equipment. This year, one of the houses had a pretty cool piece of carved art, which could only be seen from the river. It was a tree carved like a totem pole, and it was awesome.

It wasn't all that long that we came to the Glade Bridge in Warren. This landmark is generally the end-point for the people who rent from Allegheny Outfitters, as they are often inexperienced or unwilling to commit to a farther endpoint. This area is also noted for the last place to stop before the notorious Warren Rapids (please note my use of sarcasm). It was at this point that we rested for a short lunch break. We turned upstream to a little tributary in order to stop at the Dairy Delite, an ice cream stand just East of Warren. Bill's Mom (Gayle) had made me a lunch, so I decided to use this time to see what was in it. There was a sandwich, an apricot, an apple, a bag of potato crisps, some Oreos, and the most unusual thing of all, a shish kabob. Bill and Sue (who are brother and sister, by the way) didn't seem to think it was unusual, and it was quite good (as was the rest of the lunch) and consisted of ham, turkey, chicken, tomatoes, pineapple, bacon, and scrambled egg. As bizarre as it seemed to be eating it, nevertheless I have to admit that it was a welcome inclusion. I gave my apple to Brian, who enjoyed it while we waited for the others to return from ice cream and "the men's room" (actually just a tree on the island between the river and the tributary).

Some excitement came as we began to pack up and leave our current location. I managed to get my kayak out into the tributary, but the current was stronger than I had anticipated and I ended up getting caught in a tree that was spread out from the shore. I tried to push myself free, but found that I was quite caught in the little branches. Fearing at being caught underneath the water should I let go I called to my friends for help. They thought it quite funny (rightfully so), and there were numerous shouts to stifle help until Keith managed to get a few shots of my predicament. Sandy and Bill finally pulled me free with a few scratches, but I became unbalanced and fell into the water anyway. Bill and I dumped the excess water out, and Brad managed to recover a sponge of Brian's that nearly floated away in the excitement. I didn't lose anything or get too badly injured, although the poncho I had brought in case of rain was now filled with river water.

The next site that we passed was the United Refining Co. of Warren. This dinosaur of a petroleum refinery has been a sore spot on the riverfront for as long as I can remember, but unfortunately it is also one of the last well-paying places to work in Warren. As the demand for Oil increases, I don't think that they have expanded their output, but I could be mistaken. I do know that in years past the company was accused of dumping waste into the river and exhuming pollution into the air. Over the next couple of years they have placated the public by telling them that the white clouds coming from their smokestacks are steam, and by only burning the hazardous pollutants at night when you can't see the black smoke pouring out. Despite these facts it is quite interesting to look at, and some of my best pictures were taken here.

I noticed as we were drifting towards the rapids that there was a trenched river running under the refinery. I had never really noticed it before, and I tried taking several shots of it. Regretfully, I wasn't able to get even one good shot in the five photos that I took because the increase in movement required me to shoot them one-handed. As a result of trying, I was soon left far behind the others as they crossed the rapids.

I had to hurry to get my camera back in the dry bag before hitting the rapids, as one is sure to get wet while traversing them whether one falls out or not. It was the most fun part of the entire trip, though it probably would have been more so if I had gone through it with my friends instead of pursuing a fruitless quest to get pictures of the refinery. I was bounced, I watched water fall over the aft side of the kayak, but I didn't go under, nor did I capsize - the successful part of any navigation.

We were nearing downtown Warren now, and by the time we got to the Liberty Street Bridge we could see the last vestiges of the Parade ebbing to a close.

The phallically-challenged members of our troupe (the girls) jumped at the promise of a "pit-stop" at Brad's apartment, which was only a short way from the bridge. We parked our boats on a sandbar for a short respite while they took care of their business.

While we waited I listened in on an exchange between a mother and her child, whose solution to everything seemed to be to throw rocks at things ("Look mom, ducks! Can I throw rocks at them?" "A fountain mom - look! Can I throw rocks at it?"). His mother found him quite charming, and I have to say that this is the perfect example of the level of ignorance anyone will find in America's heartland.

Once again we parted with the land and set out on the open river.

Almost immediately, we ran into some geese.

I managed to snag a few pictures, but couldn't get the close-ups of the babies that I wanted because I was already a few steps behind the others.

From that point on the river was wider and deeper than before, and there seemed little chance of dragging bottom in any part of it. I struggled to catch up to the others, but Bill and Sandrita were almost completely out of gas. Brian, being the ever-helpful sort tethered them to his kayak and pulled them. It is a testament to Brian's strength that even with Bill and Sandrita in hock I couldn't catch him.

The next few hours were uneventful. The current had stabilized to the point were if you weren't paddling you were pretty much at a stop. Rivermen of all shapes and sizes began to flood the waterways, giving you foul looks like you were disturbing the fish, though their motorized boats and the fact that they were fishing in the middle of the afternoon probably had more to do with their poor haul.

The one highlight I saw in this leg of our journey was the appearance of a Blue Heron - an endangered wading bird native to those parts. I don't have a telephoto lens, so I tried hard to paddle and then to just drift by him quietly snapping a picture as I did. Sadly it did not happen, and he flew away while I was getting my camera out of the bag. I will always remember that moment, but some moments just aren't meant to be artificially preserved, I suppose.

By now most of us were tired of sitting in the Kayaks. We came to the place where some years before we had been caught in a rather violent windstorm while traversing the river. It seems an opportune time to mention it, because at the time I had no web log, and the tale is worth telling. It was a sunny day until we passed Pleasant Township just outside of the City of Warren, when it got eerily quiet on the river. I was sharing a boat with Keith, Bill and Brad were in another, Sandy and her then-husband Kelly were in a boat ahead of us, and Brian was in his new kayak. The clouds were coming just over the hills, and we could feel the air change. We were in a straightaway spot and could see a good distance in front of us. A mist came rolling over the waters, being pushed by a wind that in turn was wrought by the rain. The wind and rain hit us square on. Water that had been smooth a moment before suddenly became feet-high waves. I pulled on my poncho as Keith steered us to an inlet on land. The ground was steep, but we managed to get the boat safely there. The others were gone - we couldn't see or hear them anymore in the chaos of the storm. We pulled our jackets tight and waited for the weather to calm. A storm that raging usually doesn't last, and this one wasn't the exception. After bailing out our boat we began to search the river for our friends, who (luckily) were all right. We all had similar tales, and in our history of these trips that one still stands out as the most exciting and dangerous.

We discussed this amongst ourselves and told the tale to the people who weren't there, but our latest trip ended without any similar incident. We reached the boat launch unscathed if not a little more tired. Jeff soon discovered why we had warned him: He was red in almost all places that the kayak wasn't covering him. On the one hand, I felt sorry for him, on the other, he's handsome and tall, so he deserved it (sorry Jeff).

Once the boats were all back on dry land, we began packing up. Bill's Mom (Gayle) had procured the campground's pavilion, and Keith and Brian's family were waiting there as well - because as a surprise we were having a birthday party for Keith, who (as his nephew Liam put it) is turning sixty-nine (not really).

After a short party (which I felt like a total heel for not being able to get Keith something), I had to have Brad take me back to my car, which was still parked at the dam. Alicia and Sandy invited us to play Pictionary with them against Keith, Tim, and Brad who they claimed were unstoppable at the game. That was later in the night, so I called my parents to let them know that I got back safe and then went to Bill's Mom's (Gayle's) house to collect Brian. I found our erstwhile adventurers slumped on the front steps exhausted.

We decided to let Bill and Sandrita get some much-deserved sleep and went to Brad's apartment.

We quickly learned that it wasn't just that Brad, Tim, and Keith were good at Pictionary, but that Sandy and Alicia weren't. I'm not saying that their drawings were bad (it's Pictionary, after all - how good could they be), just that they made some questionable decisions. In one example, the answer was "Big Ben" (the famous British clock). Brad promptly drew a clock tower, which was guessed quickly, while Sandy drew two curvy lines, implying a formation of the Allegheny Reservoir ("Big Bend"), which of course needed to be explained after we had already lost.

After we had managed to win the second round of Pictionary, Brian and I decided that it was time to sleep. I went home and tried to read before going to bed, but I was so tired that I wasn't getting anything from it. Conversely, I couldn't get to sleep because of the pain in my arms and chest from paddling all day.

Overall, it was a great weekend, and I hope that our group can continue to get together and do this in the future as well.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

A puzzling quest

A few short months ago I downloaded a game onto my Xbox 360 called Puzzle Quest. I had seen it out for the Nintendo DS some time prior to that, but the price of the Xbox version was the contributing factor in my purchase decision as it was roughly half of the DS version and had better graphics (lacking the portability, naturally). For the uninitiated, Puzzle Quest combines the item collecting, stat building, and storyline of a Dungeons & Dragons style role-playing game (RPG) with the gameplay of a Bejeweled-styled puzzle game. This combination is interesting, but the game has flaws that hurt the experience considerably.

(Though my English teachers would cringe at the following paragraphs, I have replaced the non-descriptive "one" for the inclusive "you" in order to give the article a more conversational tone. I am not being graded on this (I don't think), so I believe it is safe to do so.)

As far as the puzzle game goes, it is almost a complete rip-off of Bejeweled - you merely switch tiles (or "gems") two at a time until you line up three or more of the same kind, then the line of gems disappears and new ones drop from the top of the screen. Unlike Bejeweled, however, the gems give you different effects, from earning gold and experience to gaining a supply of mana (magic power) that you can use to cast spells in your favor, giving the gameplay far more variety.

As an RPG, this is pretty standard fare. You pick a character, class, and sex at the beginning of the game, and build on that. Your character is, of course, the one chosen to rid the land of monsters and save the kingdom. As you advance through the game, hints of a larger cliché- oops, I mean conspiracy arise, forcing you to travel to the outlying lands. Character management is fairly intuitive to anyone who has played an RPG before, but newcomers shouldn't be overwhelmed either. When you earn so much experience, you level your character up, which allows you to use stronger attacks and better equipment when fighting your monstrous foes. Eventually, by building a fortress you are able to capture creatures to learn their spells or to train them as mounts, which gives you extra advantages in battle. Along the way your character will encounter others that will want to join your group, and they will give you additional stats in battle depending on the creatures you face. There is also a siege system where you can take control of the various cities on the map for extra gold when you pass through them, and you can use gold to develop better skills, build your fortress, and buy better equipment.

Now, for the flaws: Go back and read the last two paragraphs, and understand that all of this is WORTHLESS. In regards to the puzzle aspect of the game, you take turns with the computer. Inevitably your turn will involve merely matching up three tiles and then letting the computer take its turn. Unfortunately, once the gems disappear a much better set falls into place for the computer, which ultimately leads to extra turns. The computer occasionally makes mistakes as if to say, "Hey, look! I made a mistake," just so that you can forgive it when it takes 10 turns in a row and half of your life bar before you even get to play. I am not exaggerating: my roommate can attest to this phenomenon. Later on, you will get "wild card" pieces falling when you perform a move (this is supposed to help you), but most of the time it just gives the computer an edge. Another note here, the computer A.I. has the irritating, almost psychic habit of knowing where all of the extra turns and skull gems (the way you inflict/take damage) are going to fall from the top of the screen (or they just appear when the computer makes its move, whichever is worse). The only way stop it from taking unfair advantage is to use the "stun" move which costs it a turn, but you need to wait a few turns for that to recharge AND you have to have the right amount of mana. From an RPG standpoint, leveling up your character does you no good, because the enemies scale to match your level. While this should be challenging to the gameplay, enemies respawn on the map at a phenomenal rate, making a simple trip an hours-long ordeal. A creature that your character takes on at level 1 is just as difficult to defeat when you're level 40 and have all sorts of powerful equipment enhancing your character. What's worse, tougher monsters have an annoying habit of resisting spells, which means you can't develop a strategy by the end of the game because none of your spells work (oh yes, and later level monsters always have significantly more vitality points than you).

All in all, the game's concept is amazing, but the execution ruins it for me. It seems pretty unbalanced from the viewpoint that winning is just random chance no matter how good your character is. It makes what could have been a truly great game very mediocre.

Play a demo if you must, but pass on the purchase.

Into the avant-garde

Randomness follows:

It's been a stressful week for me so far. I wasn't sure if the state was going to approve my claim for unemployment insurance while I searched for better work, and I've been losing sleep wondering whether the $73 in my bank account was going to be my last (I do have bills to pay, after all). It wasn't until later this afternoon that the money was deposited. I feel a little relieved now, though it is difficult getting less than half of what you used to make at work, I'll adjust for awhile.

It's not been all bad, though.

I got my car back from the body shop, and all of the damage that the theif did is now gone. What's more, they detailed the rest of my car inside and out - it's almost like it's brand new again.

I bought a "Tony's" pizza from my roommate Isaac last night. It had been sitting in the fridge for awhile, and I was really hungry and hesitant to buy any food that might spoil in the next few days while I'm gone. I paid him a few cents more than he had paid for it, but this mutant pizza had extra pepperoni; usually, "Tony's" only gives you six, but this one had seven. If you've never had "Tony's" pizza, it's a pastry-based crust that doesn't taste much like a real pizza - it is more of a snack food than a real food. I still like 'em, though....

I've been trying to learn the basics of Flash. I don't have a recent version (how the heck would I afford a program that expensive?) but I do have tutorials on how to use the older version (MX 2004, for those keeping score) so it's not all bad. It's coming along slowly, not in the least because Flash has one of the clunkiest, counter-intuitive interfaces I've ever seen (it's still a step above any Discreet software though, and I had to struggle with 3D Studio Max for years). I will be using this to build an online porfolio, but for now it will just have to be experimental while I look for work.

So this weekend I'm going to (hopefully) go on a Fourth of July kayaking trip with my oldest and dearest friends. The reason that I'm hopeful is not because I won't be there (that is next to certain at this point), but rather because last year just hours before we were to go on the river my family suffered a near-tragedy. I hope to avoid that this year, even though it seems as though the women in my family are all suffering from one hardship or another right now. I know it seems selfish, but I so rarely get to do any wilderness-related activities anymore that I'm really looking forward to it.

I've got two - count 'em, two - cats at my apartment for all of June and most of July. It's my cat, Chico

and his brother, Cornpuff

who I'm watching for a friend. (I feel guilty leaving the little guys here alone for a couple of days, but they'll have enough food and water. I just wish I could do something about the litter box while I'm gone... stinky!

I was brushing my teeth today when I noticed that the moles on my chest had an interesting pattern, so I connected the dots with a Sharpie. Enjoy, ladies!