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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

What’s In My Ipod? Beelzebub in the Peach State edition.

Welcome to Free Toy Inside, bringing you the best memes of five years ago since 2008!

Today I’m going to have a look at what’s in my iPod. Sure, it’s an old meme. But I have an old iPod so it’s okay.

How old is it? It’s so old that it’s one of the early “Windows Only” models.

It’s so old that the irreplaceable battery will play music for a grand total of four minutes to a full charge.

It’s so old it doesn’t even work in those nifty iPod-docks that allow you to play your iPod music through real stereo speakers because it doesn’t charge off of USB power.

It’s so old that I can remember thinking how impossibly huge 10GB of storage was.

I keep it because it still works for what I use it for (listening to music and podcasts in my car) and because I could buy a lot of other, more useful stuff with the $300 it would cost me to upgrade to a new device that does the same thing. (Incidentally, I take the same attitude toward clothes. I am currently wearing a pair of shoes that are older than my daughter, and a pair of socks that are older than my relationship with my wife. I’ve been politely asked not to discuss the age of my underwear in public forums.)

In other words, I make the iconic “Cheap New England Yankee” look like a particularly profligate inebriated sea-farer.

Most of my music collection fits on my iPod with plenty of room leftover for a few weeks’ worth of Gamers with Jobs conference calls. I keep a pretty wide spread of music in it. I’d call it eclectic if I thought eclectic was descriptive enough of a collection that includes Metallica, Garth Brooks and Bela Fleck on the same playlists.

But, as I am no hipster, I see no reason to harp on the matter any further. Instead, I’d like to share with you an artist I’ve selected from my collection and talk about him for a spell.

Most of you are probably acquainted with the Charlie Daniels Band. During America’s brief infatuation with large belt buckles and cowboy hats back in the early 1980s, Charlie Daniels was known for a little song called ”The Devil Went Down To Georgia.” After that he faded out and went away.

Except nobody told him he faded away. Between 1971 and 2007, he released about 30 albums, and he continues to tour to this day. In the early part of the first decade of this century, I got the chance to see him in concert. He played a two hour set and didn’t do two songs from the same album (unless you count A Decade of Hits, which features his top songs from the 1970s including “The Devil Went Down To Georgia”). He plays the fiddle, the guitar and the banjo, and his discography includes country, rock, folk, gospel and blues.

The Charlie Daniels’ Band is the Beatles of country music, if not from a popularity standpoint then certainly from an innovation and influence standpoint. Their ability to seamlessly merge multiple musical genres into a single song or album borders on the chameleonic. The song “Sure Beat’s Picking Cotton” boasts that the CDB is “Rock and Roll and Blues and Country, all rolled into one.” Except it’s not a boast, because it’s not boasting if it’s true. From one song to the next you might not quite believe they’re from the same band, but at the same time you would. The CDB encapsulates everything that’s great from the history of American music without being derivative or me-too-ish.

The CDB boasts of wide influence as well. Bands that have been directly mentored by Daniels include Lynrd Skynrd and Travis Tritt. Bands whose style is to some degree derivative of Daniels’ include Montgomery Gentry among many others.

If the only CDB song you know is “The Devil Went Down To Georgia,” you have done yourself a serious disservice. It would be like going to a fine Italian restaurant and ordering spaghetti and meatballs because everybody’s heard of that and tried it at least once. Devil is a great song, if overplayed, but there’s so much more there to enjoy that you truly miss out on something extraordinary if you stop there.

Years ago, back when the music TV stations played music, VH1 had a series called “Storytellers” which featured bands telling stories through songs, or telling the stories behind songs. It always puzzled me that Charlie Daniels was never on that show, because some of his best songs are stories told to music. Moving beyond Devil, songs like “Willie Jones” or “Stroker Ace,” or “Midnight Train” all tell specific stories about people, some of which are suitable to be made into movies (indeed, Stroker Ace was made into a movie featuring Burt Reynolds). Some of his songs, like “Old Rock ‘n’ Roller” or “Renegade” are mildly autobiographical. Still others, while lacking a linear narrative, still paint a vivid picture of a world (“Honky Tonk Avenue”)

As a storyteller, Daniels doesn’t stop with the music. He penned a book of short stories that inspired or inspired by some of his songs (the ubiquitous Devil, and “Honky Tonk Avenue”), as well as some that had nothing to do with his songs (Me and Deke). I bought a copy from the Charlie Daniels Museum in Nashville Tennessee when I went there for a conference, and read the entire thing while waiting in the airport for six hours because I had misjudged how long it would take me to clear security.

Of course, he’s not limited to the role of wandering minstrel and balladeer. The Charlie Daniel’s lexicon includes such country staples as the love song (“How Much I Love You,” “What My Baby Sees In Me”) the breakup song (“Drinkin’ My Baby Goodbye,” “Hey Mr. DJ”), the celebration of country culture (“Twang Factor,” “What This World Needs is a Few More Rednecks”) and even the occasional polemic (“In America,” “Ain’t No Rag”)

Charlie Daniels is the artist whose discography I would bring with me in the hypothetical “desert island” scenario in which you imagine being stuck listening to one artist for the rest of your life. After nearly thirty years listening to him, I’m nowhere near being done and I will surely continue listening long into the years to come.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

This Won't End Well

It probably has something to do with expectations. You spend years of your life following their stories, talking about what happened with like minded people. You might even buy merchandise relating to them. But in the end they’ll probably break your heart.

I’m writing, of course, about TV shows. You carve out an hour or two every week to follow the exploits of a set of characters. You develop opinions about their personality flaws. And though you may be unaware of it, you have an idea of how you want everything to turn out for everyone.

Especially if the story is serialized or continuous in any way. Ending a sitcom where the only thing tying one season to the next is the inevitable clip show they roll out when everyone wants to take a long weekend isn’t so difficult. You just play clips of the more poignant moments and pull away in a long helicopter shot while a guy in a mustache drives away on a motorcycle to a depressing version of the show’s theme song.

But in this modern world of multi-threaded story arcs, a satisfying close to a popular series is hard to come by.

This is on my mind for a couple of reasons. One of which is the fact that Lost is coming to a close and people won’t shut up about it. Given the buzz around it, I think it’s highly unlikely that whatever the ending is will please anyone. I’ve never even seen the show, and I’m pretty sure whatever the ending is going to piss me off; because the only ending I want out of a show like that is “the people who deserve to get home safely do, and the people who don’t get their comeuppance.” This sort of ending is routinely condemned by people who think they are too smart to enjoy a happy ending.

It is those people that I fear will ruin the other reason why I’m thinking about series finales: The final season of Monk is out on DVD.

Now, I don’t have cable, so my ability to keep up with Tony Shaloub’s defective detective is gated by my ability to buy and watch the episodes on DVD. As a result, I’m not even halfway through season 7 yet, though I must say that season 7 started weakly but has improved in the second disc.

I don’t know how Monk ends, and I’m sort of afraid to find out. I want him to find Trudy’s killer and have some peace, but I wouldn’t bet a nickel on that happening. Why? Because I have too much experience with shows that get ruined by people who think they’re too smart to enjoy a happy ending.

Consider Quantum Leap. I loved that show. Watched it religiously every week, and whenever it was on in syndication. It’s a show that manages to hold up pretty well with age, and Scott Bakula remains one of my favorite actors. But I won’t buy season 5 on DVD, and among the myriad reasons why not is I’m pissed off at the writers for screwing Sam. The final episode ends with a text on a black screen informing the viewer that Sam never makes it home.

So what we have here is not only mean spirited writers, but also lazy writers. Mean sprited, lazy writers who think they’re impossibly clever.

This is a similar affliction that plagued the writers for The Sopranos, which is another show I haven’t seen but whose ending frosted my cupcakes enough to make me not care if I ever do see it. The writers for The Sopranos were obviously trying to one-up the writers of Quantum Leap on all counts. Not only were they more mean spirited (nothing changed for Sam either, but at least he continued leaping around making the world better), but they were even lazier (at least Sam got a line of text against his black screen ending.) And from reading interviews, I’m certain they think they were even more impossibly clever than the writers of Quantum Leap.

You can almost hear them gloating. “Look at me! I added more pointless ugliness to the world. Aren’t I a hip, happening dude?”

You know, when Del Lord ended a three stooges short by fading to black at a seemingly random place in the script, he never claimed to be making profound commentary on the nature of comedic storytelling. He just ran out of film but still had to show something for the time he billed the studio. Somehow I can respect that more.

I don’t hold grudges about shows that were prematurely cancelled. The Pretender ended on a cliffhanger, and I don’t blame the writers for that. I do fault them for writing unsatisfying conclusions to the saga of Jarod in the subsequent Pretender movies, but at least they were trying to tie up loose ends. There were just too many loose ends to tie up, so we got some garbage about how the Centre is actually a cult that believes in a prophecy laid out in an ancient book that claims a kid named Jarod will be their downfall. And there are ghosts or something. I don’t remember, and it doesn’t matter. I’ll take an honest failure to make a good ending over someone who tried to tell you you’re an idiot if you don’t like the fact that he made a bad ending on purpose. Sometimes intentions matter.

Getting back to Monk, I’m concerned that the writers may be too wrapped up in their own cleverness to give Adrian Monk a fitting sendoff. Why? In the episode “Mr. Monk Falls in Love” in season seven, Monk finally starts to progress and let Trudy’s death go. He even takes off his wedding ring. In the end, he brings the murderer of the episode into custody, vindicating the object of his affection while condemning her mother. The woman spurns Adrian over this, telling him to go back to his wife, knowing full well that Adrian’s wife was killed by a car bomb.

I doubt the ability of a writer who would write an episode like that to put a firm resolution on the series as a whole. Am I in for another black screen with white text informing me that Adrian never finds Trudy’s killer?

Now that I would bet a nickel on.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

I am not going to title this post with a lame Wii pun. That would be beneath Mii.

So, as of this writing it’s been about two weeks since Nintendo’s fabulously successful console made its first appearance in my home. Wii’ve accumulated five virtual console games (Starfox 64, A Link to the Past, Super MarioKart, F-Zero and Super Dodgeball) and a handful of Wii games that were in the ten to thirty dollar range. So I figured, why not give Yuu my impressions?

So, here is our initial Wii-brary.

A Boy and His Blob. An update to the charming and utterly incomprehensible game initially released on the NES. This isn’t so much a sequel as it is a reboot, or Wiiboot if you can handle another Wii related pun. (If you can’t this is apt to be one looooong post for Yuu.) This time, instead of a large world to traverse and a limited number of blob-transforming jellybeans to traverse it with, the game is broken up into individual levels. Also, you are given a palette of jellybeans but no limit on how many you use, at least not in the first few levels (this is an impressions post, not a review). The new BahB also doesn’t require you to learn what each jellybean does at first. The menu from which you select your bean shows you what the jellybean in question does. These changes collude to put the game more squarely in the realm of the puzzle genre, rather than an adventure with puzzle elements. The new art style is beautiful, proving that you don’t need a thousand dollars worth of graphical accelerators to make something look good. The game uses the nunchuck and wiimote, but doesn’t try to shoehorn wii motion movements, and the player is free to use the classic controller if hii was gullible enough to buy one like wii were. The Missus loved the original, and while this one isn’t proving to be her new favorite, the $15 price point is hard to resist. Even when the puzzles become annoying and frustrating later on, I’m confident the game will be worth the price.

Cooking Mama: Cook Off When the Missus traded in her DS, she paused lovingly at Cooking Mama before putting it into the shopping bag for the trip to Gamestop. Cooking Mama on the DS was one of those games she liked so much she bought the sequel (Cooking Mama 2) and the spin off (Gardening Mama). Something of a chef herself, she enjoyed the concept and most of the execution (the controls tended to be a bit fiddly and occasionally unresponsive) of the Cooking Mama series on the DS. So when we got the Wii, it only seemed fair to pick up a Cooking Mama game. The controls seem to be just as fiddly, and Mama can be hard to understand (Is she saying “you’re not trying?” Or is it “Donut Flying?” Perhaps “Bow knot Tying?” Am I doing well when she says that? Who knows?). But played head-to-head, this game looks to be a fun diversion for those nights when the missus and I want to play something together, but don’t feel like chopping wood. Which brings us to:

Go Play Lumberjacks I’m a lumberjack. I’m okay. I wave my Wii-mote ‘round all day. I chop some wood; I throw an axe, and climb with Ninja Lumberjacks.

(He’s a lumberjack, he’s okay. He waves his wii-mote ‘round all day. He chops some wood, he throws an axe, and climbs with Ninja Lumberjacks)


Okay, that’s enough of that. I don’t want to get sued, though I am certain John Cleese’s testimony in the trial would be delightful. Go Play Lumberjacks is apparently part of a series of Go Play games. I wouldn’t know. All I do know is that I like watching the lumberjack competition on ESPN when I can do it, and this game features a hot-saw competition.

There are four basic types of games: Sawing, chopping, axe-throwing and water. The manual sawing games can be tiresome (shake your wiimote faster than anyone else in the room! For a minute and a half!), and I haven’t unlocked all the water games yet…

Oh yeah, did I mention that this is one of those games that makes you work to unlock content you paid for? Yeah, it’s one of those.

…but on the whole the game is fun. Recommended for anyone who can’t decide which minigame collection to buy next.

Raving Rabids: TV The franchise that reminded us how cool Rayman was returns for another installment, this one uses the Wii Balance Board and features jokes that are guaranteed to become dated within five years.

Or did you think references to American Chopper would age well?

But all that’s okay, because the games are fun on their own merits, and the implementation of the Wii Balance Board is almost novel enough to justify the game’s claim to be the first Wii game you can play with your butt.

Rabids Go Home And just in case you couldn’t get enough of the screaming rabids, Ubisoft delivers a standalone adventure game featuring them. For those of you who think “rabid” equals “minigame,” allow me to disabuse you. Rabids go Home is a story based game similar to Katamari Damacy in that the plot revolves vaguely around planets and the gameplay involves you collecting a lot of random junk. In RGH, the rabids decide they want to go to the moon. But they can’t reach it, so they decide to build a mountain of junk so tall it lets them climb there. You play a pair of rabids, one driving a shopping cart and another riding in it, who are tasked with careening through levels stealing as much stuff as you can.

It’s fun and the trademark wacky rabid humor is there in spades from the moment you boot the game and your Wii informs you that a rabid has been detected in your Wiimote, and you’re given a camera inside the wiimote that shows him getting smacked around as you shake, rattle, spin and press buttons on your wiimote. This sequence alone is worth the price of the game.

Walk it OutDo you like walking for health, but hate the fact that the weather is only suitable for it for half the year? Do you not mind a rhythm game with obtuse beat detection? Can you handle an excessively perky “coach” telling you how great you’re doing?

If the answer to those questions is yes, then look no further than Walk it Out, a piece of Wii Software that allows up to two players to walk around a virtual town with no time limit, no objective, and no plot.

Note that I said “Software.” Because this is not a game. There is no victory condition, no way to lose, and the only “score” is used to buy items scattered around the town. See, the town is not built up yet. It has roads, but no buildings. So it’s kind of like the I-90 once you get west of the Hudson river, except with fewer trees. With points you can buy thinks like trees, buildings, street lights and new songs to listen to while you’re “walking.”

To earn points, you step in time with the music. You can use the Wii balance board, or the wiimote and nunchuck, or the Dance-Dance-Revolution pad you thought would be so much fun but never play with because the step detection stinks and there was only one game for it.

It’s actually a pretty neat concept. Those of you who’ve had gym memberships know that the most effective, but the most boring part of any workout is the time you spend on the elliptical, or treadmill, or stationary bike. Well, if you have any of those things in your house, you can plant them in front of the TV and use Walk it Out to make believe you’re actually outside and walking around when in reality the weather is too nasty to do it. You’ll have to endure an impossibly perky coach who interrupts you periodically and is, like, so totally amazed at, like, how amazing you’re doing, ‘n stuff. You can swap her out for a male coach, but I haven’t been brave enough to try him out yet because I’m afraid he’ll be even worse than her. It’s a double standard, but perkiness is annoying but tolerable in a girl. Not so much with the tolerable on a boy.

The only problem with the implementation here is the beat detection. Where the game thinks the downbeat of the song is doesn’t always match where I think the downbeat of the song is, but then I’m a middle-class white dude who is less than a decade from being middle aged, so maybe that’s my fault. I highly recommend setting the step detection to easy, and selecting the option that doesn’t cost you points if you miss any steps.

Wii Play Unlike everyone else who bought this game, I didn’t buy the version with the Wiimote bundled in. I already have three wiimotes—should that be thriimotes?—and a fourth would just be superfluous until my son is old enough to stand on his own. So we bought Wii Play used without the controller primarily because it had 9-ball in it. I’m not sure why they went with 9-ball when 8-ball is what most people think of when they think of pool (unless they’re British, in which case they think of snooker, which is like 8 ball except the balls don’t have numbers and there are approximately six thousand of them on the table at any given time), but 9-ball is still fun and the implementation is good enough considering I wouldn’t really want to pay for a standalone billiard game for the Wii.

The real strength of the game is in the Tank game, though. If you had an Atari 2600, you had Combat. And if you had Combat and at least one friend, you probably spent a lot of time playing tank pong. Wii Play features a very similar game here, with tanks that fire shells that ricochet off of walls until they collide with a target or get tired and fall down. The Wii version also allows the player to lay mines, which sounds cool but seems to be largely useless against AI opponents.

There aren’t many games in Wii Play, but the ones that are in there are well executed, and for ten bucks (which is how much it would cost to get this game with a Wiimote if you take out the cost of a Wiimote) it’s worth it. Sure, they’re like flash games. But you can’t play flash games by waving your arms around like a dummy while your friends and family also wave their arms around like competitive dummies, can you?

Wii Fit I’ve mentioned the Wii balance board in a few of the game impressions above. The reason I did so is that we picked up Wii Fit when we bought the Wii.

Wii Fit is surprisingly robust as a piece of training software. A lot of the exercises necessarily focus on core training, since core training is all about balance and balance is what the Wii Balance board is good at measuring. But the addition of several step aerobics variations, a decent list of strength training exercises that don’t actually focus on core strength, and a good roster of yoga poses cement Wii Fit as a piece of software that will actually help people get in shape.

I’m as surprised as you are. How much exercise could a person get standing in one place and leaning in different directions. The answer is a surprising amount. I’ve been doing it every day for almost a month (as of the writing of this post) and not only am I pleased to stick with it, I feel like I’m actually getting in better shape. I’ll never make myself into Arnold Schwarzenegger with the Wii Fit board (unless you buy eight of them and teach yourself to juggle them), but I can stay active and make sure my pants fit. And that’s really what most people want out of exercise anyway, right

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Cap the Haterade: Through Rain and Sleet and Snow

And we introduce a new genre of post here at Free Toy Inside: a discussion of things that are unjustly maligned by critics and consumers alike. In this space you will find a defense of things that are popular to hate on. Be that movies, music, video games, books, or any old thing that comes to my mind.

Why? Because some things just don’t deserve the hate. Some things do, of course. Illinois Nazis, for example, are fully deserving of the hate that gets lobbed their way. But some things are hated on for no other reason than it is fun or hip to do so.

Well, consider this a curative for people who’ve spent too much time on SomethingAwful.com.

In my first installment, I’ll tackle a target that should probably be defended by a better writer, or a worse one. But since good writers don’t like The Postman, and bad writers are too busy trying to write screenplays for people who hate The Postman, then it must necessarily fall to me.

Ambitious? Friend, you’re looking at a man who beat the original Contra on the NES with one life. Challenge would be my middle name if fate and genetics hadn’t conspired to make my middle name “Slammin’” .

Let’s get this out of the way first: The Postman is a decent movie. Does it have flaws? Sure. It suffers from Costner syndrome, first of all, which is an affliction that forces every movie directed by Kevin Costner must be as epic and sweeping as Dances with Wolves, or at least take three hours to watch. Seriously, every move Costner’s ever been in should have had an intermission or a more merciless editor.

The Postman also features Costner’s typical ham-fisted message delivery (WAR IS HELL, DAMMIT!)

But at the end of the day, the stories tend to be good and the delivery, though long, is entertaining. Costner’s style is a throwback to older moviemaking, when movies were more apt to be character studies and the plots tended to be too complicated to sum up in a sentence. I suspect this is why they aren’t more popular, since most modern movies cater to the ever shrinking attention spans of viewers brought up on music videos. If you get bored watching something where the camera doesn’t do a zip-cut every three seconds, an establishing shot consisting of Kevin Costner and a mule walking through the ruins of civilization will probably put you to sleep.

For those of you who haven’t seen it, and I’ll wager that most of the people who hate the movie never have, The Postman is the story of a postapocalyptic drifter without a name who gets conscripted by an army of white supremacists that terrorize the remaining settlements of Western America known as The Holnists. He escapes, taking refuge from a storm in a mail delivery truck that contains the corpse of a pre-war mailman and bags of mail. He runs a scam where he claims to be a mailman from the re-established United States Government, charged with getting the lines of communication flowing for the northwest coastal states, in exchange for food and shelter. The con quickly melts away and he starts actually executing the duties of a mail carrier, along with the help of a lot of young members of the settlements he visits who are looking for any kind of hope for the future.

But hope is dangerous, and the settlements touched by the Postman begin to resist the brutal Holnist army, which responds by hunting down mail carriers and anyone who gives them refuge. And this is where you might consider the main plot to start. From here, the timeline of the movie spans something like a year or more, as can be seen through the changing of the seasons.

The leader of the Holnist army, and the movie’s chief villain, other than despair, is a former copy machine salesman turned general named Bethlehem. Now, the Postman is based on a book I haven’t read, so I can’t tell you if there’s any significance to that other than it enables aspiring political cartoonists in the movie to circulate fliers with the phrase “O Little Mind of Bethlehem” on them. Having taken a turn at writing a novel (I’m about two thirds of the way through it, and haven’t had the time to work on it for ten years) I wouldn’t doubt that the author named the character to get one good joke out of it, because I’ve done it myself.

Bethlehem is insane, but the nature of his mental disorder isn’t explored to any great degree. Narcissism and megalomania are two of his defining traits, to be sure, but he’s not the cardboard villain that you might expect from a movie featuring a heroic mailman fighting a white supremacist. At one point the general is shown painting a self portrait using a hand mirror, and he angrily demands that his subject stop moving. It’s a throwaway scene, shown through a door that’s literally closing on the camera. But it gives insight into the kind of man Bethlehem is, and lends some depth beyond the “racist = bad” motif that a shorter movie would have settled for. As a result, the character feels human. A vile, brutally despicable human, but still human with motivations that the audience can understand, if not agree with. I don’t say he’s the gold standard for villain writing, but I do say that he is proof that it’s possible to make a villain three-dimensional without making him sympathetic in any conceivable way. As a viewer, I don’t need to believe what he believes; I just need to believe that he believes it.

That’s a major theme of The Postman: Believing in something. Believing in something can cause a revolution, and the war between two revolutions is the main conflict of The Postman.

Boiled down, there are two types of revolutionaries: The Eager and the Reluctant. Eager Revolutionaries, like Bethlehem in this movie, like to talk about how revolutionary they are. They talk about the revolution they’re working for, and how amazing the world will be once their revolution starts turning. These are the kinds of revolutionaries that tend to kill a lot of people and get their pictures on Tee-shirts, because they’re really good at self promoting but not so good at building a world anyone wants to actually live in.

The Reluctant revolutionaries are the ones like The Postman in this movie. They’re not in it for fame, or to remake the world in their own image. They just do things that make sense to them. These kinds of revolutionaries tend to get beat up more, and they don’t to get their pictures on shirts, but their impact on the world is in general more profound and usually for the better.

Bethlehem wants the power that The Postman accumulates in this movie, and has been working for it since the war broke out. His problem, like many Eager Revolutionaries, is that he doesn’t know how to acquire that power except through fear. So he threatens everyone. He threatens to kill members of his army who disagree with him. He threatens to kill civilians who disobey him. This gives him a feeling of power, because people stand aside from him and do what he says, but that power is illusory. And this is thrown into sharp relief when The Postman starts delivering mail.

The Postman has more power over the people in the settlements than Bethlehem could ask for. In one visit, he burns off much of the fear that Bethlehem had instilled in the general populace. They’re still aware they can’t fight him and his army, but he’s no longer the invincible monster that must be placated with offerings. The scenes in which Bethlehem’s power crumbles even as he tightens his grasp on it are among the more satisfying scenes ever committed to film.

In the end, it’s a good story with good characters that concerns itself with that universal human need: Hope. I’ll never understand the antipathy toward it.