Dateline USA. Timeline:

In December, a mass shooting at a workplace holiday party claims the lives of fourteen people, with a further twenty-two injured. The attack’s execution does not fit established patterns of either terrorism or lone wolf style shootings, causing rampant and widespread speculation.

On Sunday, a supreme court justice dies. The opposing political party immeditely promises to hold up the nomination and confirmation of the next justice until the sitting president’s term runs out in another year. There is no word on what will happen if the opposition’s candidate, who has still not even been decided, is not elected the next president.

On Tuesday, with all other options exhausted, a judge orders one of the largest and wealthiest manufacturers of consumer electronics in the world to create a method of defeating its own encryption system for one of its most popular products in order to access the contents of one of the mass shooter’s smartphones, citing a legal act dating from 1789. The proposed solution to get at the shooter’s data, a version of the particular smartphone’s operating system that will not erase the phone’s data after a certain number of incorrect unlock attempts, has disastrous implications for the phone’s hundreds of millions of other users worldwide. If created, the modified version of the phone’s operating system would make all similar devices vulnerable to the most popular and effective hacking method currently in use, known as the brute force attack. Such a vulnerability would also prove disastrous for the company’s bottom line.

The consumer electronics company’s CEO appeals to the public and prepares to fight the judge’s order. This challenge stands a chance of going all the way to the supreme court, shorthanded for the foreseeable future.

This might even get better.

Kindle Death Watch

March 20, 2015 — Leave a comment

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A few days ago I had setted in for the seat warming slog at my lady doctor with my portable literary sampling device when I noticed a spanking new hairline crack in the bezel at the corner of the screen. According to several e-reader message boards and a few threads on Amazon itself (the usual “LOL U STUPID CLUMSY” trolls notwithstanding), this is a known issue with my particular model, the Kindle Keyboard 3G. Some users said that the screen on their units had failed outright soon after developing the bezel cracks.

It is a fact of my life that my devices of choice will be afflicted with almost all known issues mostly after the warranty has comfortably expired, leading me to think that I should start being less careful with my things to make my disturbingly regular upgrade cycle a bit less expensive. It would, however, injure my pride to give an inch to the “U DROPPED IT LOL” club.

Several posters on the various boards said that Amazon customer service sometimes cut those with expired warranties a break, so I contacted the mother ship’s support to see what my options were. After a delightful email exchange with one woman and a phone call with another person who had a better command of English straightened out the exact terms, I had been offered a refurbished Kindle Paperwhite without advertising on the idling display (the one without “special offers,” which is where the confusion arose) for a decent discount. The other fact of my life is that every time I have bought something refurbished or second-hand it has cost me in the long run, so I’ll sit tight with my plasti-brick of a slightly ventilated 3G and review the possibilities again once upgrading becomes necessary.

“My God, he even moves like Fosse.”

Yes, I said this about Bob Fosse (performing “Snake in the Grass” from Stanley Donen’s screen adaptation of The Little Prince).

I thought I could get a laugh from my husband, who had the misfortune of having an instructor in high school who thought it was a good idea to make kids learning English as a second language read James Joyce’s Ulysses, by putting a copy of the book with his actual Christmas gift in the same Amazon package this year. I did get a nervous look and some relief on his face when I said Ulysses was for me, and set about opening my own gift from him, which contained a copy of David Cronenberg’s Consumed and the Avon romance What I Love About You, by Rachel Gibson. I had asked for a copy of William Gibson’s The Peripheral, which has far fewer bleached and Photoshopped smiles on the cover:

“I, uh, I did Facebook that to you, right? William Gibson?”

“Yeah, but I was in a rush.”

“Are you telling me that Thalia has a romance section in the English books?”

“It was a surprise to me, too.”

“Huh. I guess I’ll look this up on Smart Bitches.”

“I’m really sorry. I think I still have the receipt.”

“Nah. I’ll get around to reading it.”

“OK. In the meantime you should try this,” he said, presenting me with a purple paper bag which revealed the satisfactorily grey cover of The Peripheral in trade paperback on the initial tear. Even worse is that I did not expect Ulysses to be that thick and with such fine print.

The “what are your top ten video games of all time” question has been making the rounds among my Facebook friends. I’ve posted it here instead because it would be a long scroll on anyone’s wall. The list is mostly in order and out of necessity this one goes to eleven.

Final Fantasy III (SNES, 1994)

At 5:30 that one morning I finished the floating island, dropping the controller into my lap in disbelief at what I was seeing play out. Five minutes later I was face down in my mattress crying like a girl. Awesome.

 

No More Heroes (Wii, 2007)

After having watched punk take a giant shit and then die in the early 1990s (really, I was at the first Lollapalooza so I even bought tickets for the honour) I finally rediscovered that free-thinking irreverence that had been lost once “alternative” wasn’t when I went to save and Travis Touchdown dropped trou. I swear, SUDA, I’ll find a meaningful interest in The Smiths but back in the day I cast my lot with The The.

 

Killer Instinct (arcade, 1994)

Some critics have called it embarrassingly overblown in retrospect but when Killer Instinct came out it generated excitement like nothing I had seen since Pac-Man, and I think it holds up as a solid fighter.

 

Still Life (PC, 2005)

Not only am I incapable of not loving the ventilated corpses of prostitutes drawn by French Canadians, it’s the only adventure game I’ve ever played to spring a plot twist on me which left me gripping my keyboard and screaming at the monitor.

 

The Sims (PC/Mac, 2000)

You can put this on my headstone: The Sims is the perfect game no-one should want to play. As soon as I heard of it, I wanted it. As soon as I unwrapped it, I was out on the Web downloading skins and objects to add to a system I didn’t even understand. As soon as the sun came up that morning, I poured myself a bowl of Froot Loops and went to bed after finishing them.

 

Baldur’s Gate (PC/Mac, 1998-1999)

The Infinity Engine was a revelation and to this day has still taken up a significant portion of my life. Although the story was not as accomplished than Baldur’s Gate II, I didn’t engage with the second one in the same way.

 

Funhouse (arcade, 1990)

I consider myself fortunate to have spent the early nineties with pinball playfield designer Pat Lawlor’s best work. Not as ambitious as The Twilight Zone, but Rudy had the most personality of the Lawlor “talking head” pinball machines.

 

Virtua Fighter (arcade, 1993)

2D fighters never really grabbed me until Killer Instinct, but the technology of Virtua Fighter did. Pai Chan’s Technique of Laughing Crane, where she’d rise up in the air and on coming back down ever-so-gently tap her opponent with the toe of her delicate Chinese slipper, thereby depriving said opponent of one-third of a full health bar, was worth every quarter I shoved into the machine.

 

Tekken 2 (arcade, 1995)

Or “why my wrists crack to this very day.” Thank you, Nina Williams.

 

Portal (PC, 2007)

A masterpiece built around one rock-solid mechanic and eschewed self-important presentation in favour of good old fashioned gameplay. The pacing falls apart somewhat in the final battle, but at that point Valve could have slapped me with a twenty minute cinematic and I wouldn’t have cared.

 

Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate (3DS/Wii U, 2013)

Easily the best example of a style of gameplay that seemed all but extinct in the current market, Capcom’s sadly niche in the west bosses-only slaughterfest is tactical, tyrannical, and utterly addictive. If Capcom could bottle that feeling where you and your mates lose a fight, take a few minutes to rethink strategies and preparation to come back for a victory they could easily get themselves out of their current financial trouble.

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… and they said they’d have left after the first act if I hadn’t been there. The orchestra and performers were understandably world-class. The problem was the staging, as in the director only seemed to be mildly inconvenienced by the fact that he was staging Tannhäuser, an opera, in his quest to be (in my best estimation) an experimental film director.

The basic premise of Tannhäuser is the embracing of Elizabethan asceticism and the redemptive power of spiritual love. The other immutable fact is that a North American of a certain age will giggle like a damn idiot during the opening ballet because of Looney Tunes. I warned my husband about this in advance. My in-laws, who grew up on the far side of the wall are only now vaguely aware of who Bugs Bunny is.

Initially we’re treated to a filmed section of people in uniform in an industrial setting doing a “quitting time”-style montage except that they’re getting ready for something. On the stage we see a factory-like setting with brightly coloured tanks, pipes, a catwalk, and the largest tank in the back oriented horizontally with “ALKOHOL” on it along with apparent markers for the days of the week vertically, but I’ll just trust that German engineering can accomplish anything.

The visuals supplied during the ballet were of an ovum being fertilized and other images which were apparently the first x-rays ever taken. The ovum being fertilized is a very important symbol for reasons the audience are beaten over the head with later. “OK,” I think, “we’re having one of those multimedia extravaganza things” and then go back to trying to stifle my laughter because the particular bar where Bugs Bunny dressed as Brünnhilde begins the descent down the long staircase on that great fat white horse to Elmer Fudd as Siegfried gets me every time.

So after the achingly beautiful call of the church bells we get to the Venusberg, where Venus is pregnant. She argues a bit with Tannhäuser and jumps him cowgirl fashion because Venus is pregnant, and during Venus getting her freak on people dressed as tadpoles come out on stage and lay down and do some sort of choreographed writhing, because Venus is pregnant. I think humanity figured out how that whole “reproduction” process worked around the time of animal husbandry, but it was nice to have an offline reminder.

After Tannhäuser leaves the Venusberg for Wartburg an image of Mary with her breasts out and distractingly large feet is projected on the screen behind the “ALKOHOL” tank and industrial catwalk, flanked by the words “arbeit” (work) and “kunst” (art). The friendly x-ray ovum from the opening ballet is placed to act as the divine radiation around her head, because Venus is pregnant.

After the first act we went down one floor of the cinema to get pretzels, and I could tell by the expressions on my in-laws’ faces that an understanding of German didn’t actually help the director’s game become any clearer. We agreed (allegedly, relying on my husband to translate) that Tannhäuser: All Shagging didn’t add anything at all to the opera, the performances, or the story; and that it had all of the subtlety of an acrobat in a polio ward.

At the opening of the second act, a bunch of text is flashed about (I guess, as I consider my German to have gone from pure shit to adulterated shit after that Berlitz incident) the nature of factories and production. One particular statement was about how families are an organized unit of production, which my father in-law openly scoffed at, but after three children and two grandchildren that’s a judgment he’s qualified to make. Elisabeth, not played by the same singer as Venus probably because the madonna/whore thing would be too obvious for this postmodern multimedia extravaganza we paid to sit through, comes out and dresses herself in jewelry before the singing contest. This seems odd to me as Elisabeth is the embodiment of all that is spiritual and lofty, so it seemed out of character for her to be so taken with glittery trinkets. After this is another bafflingly long filmed sequence in black and white of a nude woman made up to resemble silent era film actors frolicking among the machinery with that very slightly sped up look that again suggests the silent era of film. Each of the participants in the singing contest are similarly introduced by footage of a silent-era homaged out of place nude woman who doesn’t seem to have much to do with the contestant (although the onscreen text might have) or anything related to the opera we’re currently listening to and, if this had been another year, might have been seeing. Venus is also brought back to the stage and Elisabeth is disturbed by this, because Venus is pregnant. Once Elisabeth decides to sacrifice herself I possibly see a reason for the jewelry as the bracelets catch the blood effects nicely, but this is hardly sufficient reason to misrepresent a character.

I think before the third act one of the questions posed on screen is “how many drugs does a man need” which might have been a golden opportunity to tie in what is happening in the opera with what is happening on stage with a suggestion that religion is simply a sublimated opiate of the righteous, but to my knowledge this opportunity was not taken. At the opening of the third act we once again get treated to overlong footage of the friendly ovum and the little soldiers trying to secure their own legacy because Venus is pregnant. This reminded me of the art film Travis Bickle took his date to but without the narration to make it at least mildly interesting. So we’re at the part where everybody dies, the pope’s staff is in bloom, and Venus, who is pregnant and the antagonist, gets the happy ending as she gives birth to a boy. As you may know, Venus is pregnant and apparently the pope’s staff wasn’t enough of a symbol of redemption and renewal.

I don’t automatically reject attempts to do something new of innovative with works of art, but this was just excruciating and baffling. I was a second year film student once, but I managed to get through it without convincing myself I was the second coming of Fritz Lang or the worst ever reading of the dialogue between Tom and Jeanne in Bertolucci’s magnificent Last Tango in Paris concerning the pop marriage. Considering that tickets to Bayreuth have to be booked roughly a decade in advance, sex in this case simply isn’t needed to sell. I’m in the middle of finding out how many and which drugs I need for my chronic vertigo and this will be a long process, but I haven’t yet had the right ones to confuse incomprehensibility with brilliance.

Tomodachi or Not

August 13, 2014 — Leave a comment

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Tomodachi Collection has been available in Japan since the days of the Nintendo DS, and the second version of the game for the Nintendo 3DS saw release in English territories a few months ago as Tomodachi Life. Pre-release, Tomodachi Life drew comparisons to Nintendo’s current king life sim Animal Crossing, but for two games that fall into the same category, the gameplay is very different.

The heart and soul of the Animal Crossing experience is the lawn. You place things, water flowers, and maintain your lawn. Animals will move in or out depending on how they feel about your lawn. I did have one of my villagers cry that I wasn’t paying enough attention to him, but an understanding passed between us that it was really the lack of carnations in my village that sunk my mayorship in his eyes. If that was going to be his stance he really shouldn’t have parked his house on top of my only carnation patch when he moved in but the dialogue options in Animal Crossing are a bit limited so I was unable to address the issue as I would have liked.

Tomodachi Life has no lawn to speak of. The game is set on an island made up entirely of pre-made areas, some of which have some green but there are no insects to collect or trees to cut down. You get to name your island (which is randomly assigned a food-based sea name to break waves in) and then set about unlocking these pre-made areas though gameplay. The only environmental customization is the single-room décor you bestow upon your islanders that functionally only changes the wallpaper. There is no modular furniture in Tomodachi Life, and the collection of clothes, hats, food items, etc. is a much more passive affair than in Animal Crossing.

The selling point and main differentiator between Tomodachi Life and Animal Crossing is that Tomodachi Life is populated entirely by Miis of the player’s own choosing, the intent being for players to move in the Miis of their friends and watch the hilarity ensue — which in practical terms means that players will force their friends and favourite actors into horribly embarrassing situations and clothing, which brings us to the raison d’être of life simulation games.

It is possible to be a jerk to your villagers in Animal Crossing, but Tomodachi Life is the 3DS’s most potent id X-ray to date. Beating an unnaturally coloured chipmunk with a shovel simply doesn’t compare to the schadenfreude of seeing the eternal romantic loser on your island get cruelly dumped yet again (or maybe it does because I did want those carnations). Celebrity stalkers out there might also want to take note that trying to become “special someone”s with a certain Mii is like throwing spaghetti at the wall, unless you specify that Mii Ryan Gosling/Mii Angelina Jolie is breathless at the sight of Mii you on moving them in.

The trial versions of Tomodachi Life, limited to taking a handful of requests from one particular Mii, don’t do the experience justice as it takes about twenty resident Miis and a week for the drama to really heat up, but anyone who has ever wanted an Animal Crossing without the insects and more character interaction would be well served by Tomodachi Life.

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It was fun while it lasted, and considering my health a month of classes each weekday may have been the best I could hope for before hitting a proverbial wall. The first two weeks of my integration course I was enthusiastic and well in familiar territory, having done some pre-course studying to help myself not feel as lost going in. This advantage evaporated in the face of the direct method of language instruction as I was getting a lot of information thrown at me that I didn’t understand. Success here is determined by two things; the ability to piece together what is being said, and the ability to recall it from one class to the next, which is where I got beat. Having chronic vertigo makes things difficult for me to recall, especially under pressure (and not knowing if it’s me or my condition that’s the problem with twenty other people ready to answer within .5 seconds of me being called on is, I think, an acceptable definition of “pressure”).

I did really enjoy the class and got to meet some interesting people, even though I could only communicate with about a half-dozen of them, but at least no-one knew enough English or simply knew better than to think it was funny to ask me about Rob Ford. One afternoon we made a field trip to the Reichstag, or “democracy’s own heated goldfish bowl;” and I made a vaguely obscene gesture at a senior citizen from Syria, but it was in the interests of teaching him the German word for “ice cream.”

Damn you, Capcom.

July 15, 2014 — Leave a comment

You already had my money for Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate. Don’t make my wait any harder.

On the one-year anniversary of Roger Ebert’s death, his widow Chaz Ebert has reposted the last article he ever wrote to her blog, a “leave of presence” notice posted the day before he passed away. Ms. Ebert has also written a moving account of the last year of her life without her beloved.