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Sunday, November 30, 2008

I got in.

I'm going to be playing John Witherspoon in 1776.






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Imagine, if you will…

Exploring a landscape of improvised music

More than fifty talented musicians sit down at the same time in fifty recording studios. Each has a different instrument- pianos, drums, flutes, violins, guitars, vocals, saxophones, harmonicas, you name it. This is all going to go through computers which are networked together. I don't know if an internet connection can be fast enough to coordinate what I'm about to suggest, but let's say it is and that these people aren't anywhere near each other. They are all wearing motion-capture suits, so that a video camera in each room can record movement to be applied to 3D models of the musicians.

The computer has an image of a virtual sphere, on which each musician is represented by a point. If two musicians are next to each other on that sphere, then they hear each other as though they were in a room together. See, each room has two or three computer monitors, positioned on the wall at the precise point where the musician would be looking if he were on the sphere looking at the respective person. On the screen is the live video feed of that performer, and next to it is a speaker so that each can hear what the other is playing. There's another speaker, not connected to any particular monitor, which very quietly plays everything which is no more than two points away, but still close enough to be relevant.

Once this is all set up, they just start to play.

No one is given any direction in terms of who starts or what key to be in or what style of music to play. They just listen to each other and figure it out as they go. They play for fifteen minutes or so, and leave.

Then the animators come in. They smooth out the motion-capture data, and integrate all the facial expressions in.

Then it's turned into a first-person exploration game. You start out from a point on the sphere of your choosing, and then you can walk around however you like, in 3D, as the recording plays out. Obviously, surround sound is recommended. The volume of a musician depends on your distance from him, and the musicians are spread out really far so that clashing performances are kept to a minimum wherever you go. (The specific distances are tweaked by a "composer" after the recording.) There's a thick fog, so that visibility is tied to hearing. You can go through the music over and over, each time taking a different path and getting a different experience.

This is not the sort of work which can be achieved overnight. It could take years of experimenting with styles and techniques and relationships and positions on the sphere. And even after all that, it'd probably be very flawed. But I think that's part of what's cool about it. It's more pure music- the conflicts and admirations between musicians, fighting with each other and hugging each other via music. And you can look at the faces, see how they react to each other, try to imagine what this musician heard in that one's performance which inspired him to play this. It's the sort of thing you could play over and over for years, and still find new depth in.



I have a actually experienced a similar type of audio exploration piece. It was an installation that was put up in the gallery at ACAD during my first year their.

40 high quality speakers were setup around a room, spaced in groups that represented different parts of a choir. Each speaker played the recording of one person singing their part of "The Forty Part Motet". It was written by someone famous who I can't remember.

You could walk around the room and put your ear right up to each speaker and hear each person individually, or move into the middle to here the whole.

It was a great piece of art.



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Friday, November 28, 2008

No work done.



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Thursday, November 27, 2008

How The Audition Went

Did I make a fool of myself? Why, yes. Yes, I did.

It started with a warm-up, in which we sang (with harmony) the beginning of "Sit Down, John" and I missed most of my cues though no one was paying much attention. Then we all went outside and waited for our turns.

As I waited I went over my song a tiny bit, but I didn't feel I really needed to. After all, I'd been repeating it over and over and over in my head on the bus to Jerusalem. Even if I had been messing it all up in my head on that bus ride, I'd been reciting it so many times that in the moment I'd know what to do.

"What will you be singing?"
"Something I composed today."
"Well, this morning."

And then I started begging that they let me sing from the notes, rather than from memory. I couldn't do it from memory. (I do think "begging" rather than "asking" is the right word- no dignity was involved.) The casting director was strongly against it, so I started singing.

You can fill in the rest with your imagination, and chances are it'll be more or less how it went.

They stopped me before I got to the second verse, which I put there for the sake of contrast and showing off my range. That's the "confident" part of the song, as opposed to the beginning and ending which are hopeless and a little scared and maybe not all that distinguishable to a bad singer singing badly for an audition.

"Sorry.", I blabbered, "I only composed it today. It's still fresh in my head. If I could have followed the notes…"
"Thank you. Do you have another song?"
"Well, there's another piece here I've got the accompaniment for," -I pulled out the page of "The Balladier's Warning" piano music which I'd printed out as a backup plan- "but I didn't think it was so appropriate."

I handed the page to the music director, who then proceeded to play it better than I do. And I sang along, which took no effort at all. I composed it months ago, music for a poem that Tamir's friend Eva had. And it's had all that time for her words and my music to bounce around in my head, so that pulling it out is effortless at this point. I hadn't practiced it so much. And yet I think I sang it well. That might just have been me hearing what I wanted to hear, but usually when I sing it I feel like I'm pretending to sing, and I actually felt like I was singing that time.

As I said, it could just be my state of mind at the time, and maybe it was as wretchedly bad as I expected "The Balladier's Warning" to be if I sang it at an audition. I honestly don't know.

They gave me a script for Jefferson, and told me to wait outside. At first I resolved not to disrespect anyone else's singing, since that would put me in a position of weakness. But then I heard one or two people who were obviously terrible (I can't say objectively whether they were worse than me.), and I laughed. It made me feel, for a moment, like I hadn't done an awful job. Though of course I had.

After everyone had done the singing, people started getting pulled in for line readings. I'd been going over the lines over and over in my head, picturing how the guy who played Jefferson in the John Adams miniseries would have read the lines. Very quiet, but maybe getting more agitated and even ever-so-slightly charismatic when justifying his position.

Anyway, I was called in. I asked, "Who am I playing against?", which I thought was a perfectly obvious question. And one of them said something along the lines of: "I like how you're already taking an antagonistic attitude toward your colleague." Honestly, I might be getting that quote very wrong- I didn't understand the intention behind the statement. Anyway.

I started while under-acting, and as soon as the words left my mouth I could tell that I wasn't acting like that actor on TV, just acting like I was afraid to act. But what the hey, that's pretty close to what I was going for, right? I was interrupted before I could reach my intended crescendo into outspoken-ness, as the script seemed to be indicating should build and build and then suddenly crash back down into mumbly-ness. I was told to start back from the beginning, but with more confidence. "But wasn't Jefferson a quiet man?" "Maybe the real Jefferson. I want you to play him confidently. Take a step back, put your legs apart a little, hold up your chest."

I tried again. Giving him a little more confidence seemed to take it too close to my ordinary speech, but that was what I was told and I didn't know how else to play it. I could feel myself slipping back into quietness as I went along, though it wasn't really my intention- my idea of who Jefferson should be was getting in the way of playing the part I was supposed to play. Which would be more reasonable if I were a good enough actor to get my idea of who Jefferson should be across, which I'm guessing I'm not.

And then I left.

So, not nearly as bad as the last time I auditioned for something. But also not something I can walk away from with self-respect. Blah.

I think I have a chance of getting in- there were very few people there, and I think there are a lot of roles. So they'll sort of have to bring in a few guys of my level just to round out the chorus.



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Aw, to heck with it.

When Moshe told me he was auditioning for the musical 1776, I congratulated him but didn't really think to try out for myself. When I was (too briefly) in the Beauty & the Beast cast, I made a total fool of myself. Not just the way I always hurt my teams in the warm-up games, but the whole audition and my pitiful attempts to dance…

It wasn't really an option to go through that again, y'know?

But then, yesterday, my mother e-mailed me the notice for auditions. And I thought about it. And I'm going to go there today.

I didn't know what song to bring to audition with. They said it should be musical-type music, and that it should highlight acting ability, and that there should be contrast in it. And I didn't really have a song like that. So last night and today, I made up a new one. Lyrics and everything. And now that I have that, I'm feeling much more confident about the whole thing.

Here are the lyrics:
It's been dark out for so long,
I've almost forgotten what the light looks like.
Can the world be as inviting as I picture it to be?
What if my heading is all wrong?
I turn for every flicker that I see!
Each time my heart beats quicker- is this it?
My destiny?

I think I hear music in the distance-
There must be someone there who sees the notes.
I think I feel wind across my shoulder-
Is it there?
Is it there?

I've been walking for so long.
My legs say to stop, and I still move onward.
With each step I wonder: is there any place for me?
I look around for any sign
But the sound is just an echo, and the feeling is a distant memory.



pity we cant here it to music...
Shhh don't encourage him!
who the hell are you?

I've thought about posting the music somehow, but if I posted it down here no one would ever notice it, and I've never seen any reason to put it at the top. There's also music for the "About Me" poem; same story.


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Monday, November 24, 2008

1 5 6

Wow, I'm really unoriginal. I was struggling for a few days to remember an old theme. I knew exactly where I'd left it in my head, but when I reached in there my fingers couldn't find it. All I needed was some little corner of it, and I'd be able to get the rest of it out. But I wasn't getting in far enough. You know how it is.

See, this was a theme which I'd played over and over and over again in the past, though not in several years. I'd played it over and over and over because, as is usually the case, it didn't go anywhere. Just another random bit of aimless nonsense which I happened to be attached to for no particular reason.

I remembered the theme at 3:00 in the morning, as is typical. But that got it loose enough that I could get it out onto the piano the next day. As always I hoped that maybe with a fresh perspective I could find a continuation. No such luck - it still goes nowhere.

I did see something I wasn't expecting, though. Analyzing it from various angles made me realize that it was awfully similar to another old piece I'd almost forgotten. And once I saw that, I noticed another old piece and another, all coming from the same creative place. I expressed frustration with this revelation, and demonstrated that I'm not like that anymore by playing my most recent theme. Yep, very different indeed.

Here's the thing. I apparently am in love with three notes, since they start a lot of my pieces. They are: 1 5 6. What I mean by that is, you take a note, you go up four notes from there, and then you go up by another one. This is usually in minor, which means that the sixth is just the tiniest bit above the fifth.

(Incidentally, that new and different theme I mentioned? Starts 6 5 1. In minor. Maybe not so different after all. I only realized this the next day.)

The theme I'd been trying to remember began 1, 5 6, 2 1, 4 5. This reminded me of old theme 1 5 6, 6-5-4 5 3 4 2. (Both are in minor.) And I realized that Variations on V.O.V presented those notes very prominently in one bit. And that little soothing piece in major I composed to use Grandma and Grandpa's piano which doesn't have much edge to it? It starts with 5 9 10, 4 8 9, 3 7 8. in the left hand, while the right hand plays the melody 1… 6… 5…. And there's a tense minor theme which starts 1-5 5-6 6-3 3-7 7-2 2, and a different theme where (in the middle) 1 5 6 repeats on higher and higher octaves in order to hold on to tension that was created.

(Worried, I checked my best musical work -A Lonely Journey. No 1 5 6 there. Phew.)

This obviously isn't something I was aware of before. But it also isn't really an accident- in each of these cases, 1 5 6 is a critical part of the music, not just something I pass through on the way to places. So clearly something about those notes speaks to me.

The 1 grounds it. "Here is what you're standing on." The 5 brings that to its natural conclusion, fifths being the most pure interval. If you just have the 1 and 5, you've got a lovely chord of sorts. It's too pure to know whether it's major or minor, but it has weight to it. Then it goes up from there, because it's not exciting enough for my tastes yet. It can't go up to 8, because that's too obvious. Up to 7 doesn't really change the chord, just makes it more complex and interesting. I use that on occasion. Up to 9 makes my favorite chord, two fifths together, but it's so pure that there's nowhere to go from there.

But up to 6! 6 changes the meaning of the chord. In minor it's just the tiniest bit removed from 5, but flips the whole chord's meaning upside down. See, 6 is just two notes under 1 (or 8), which means that that's suddenly the "real" base of the chord. A tiny little half-tone increment, and suddenly the chord isn't what you thought it was. That's interesting to me.

So now, whenever I play 1 5 6, even if there was no particular intent behind it, I'm going to remember the interconnectedness of everything and see if I can reuse that 1 5 6 some more to make it seem like I actually know what I'm doing.

Though of course I don't.



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Sunday, November 23, 2008

Conflict, about the blog part 2

Normally I'd just talk about this with Eli, but he wasn't around so what the heck. What's a blog for, right? So.

I'm becoming a big fan of J.J. Abrams' TV work. I've been watching Lost for years, but it's only now that I'm getting around to Alias and seeing how much fun that is. And his new show Fringe- fantastic. Which brings me to the topic of this post: the latest episode of Fringe, and how brilliant it was. It had me glued to my seat right from
What a clichéd entrance. No, seriously, I do want to talk about the episode.

It set up these characters at the beginning, which I wouldn't have minded seeing a whole episode about. I just wanted to know, "What happens next?", and I had no idea that what I was in for was even cooler than
Stop interrupting me. Yes, I know you're there. Go away. So it introduced this character, a kid who's a brilliant musician, and I guess I probably
Um, excuse me, Mr. Buckman?
We should probably
leave him alone.
Look, I'm sorry to bother you.
Should I go?
No, whatever. What is it you want?
We were just wondering when you'd get back to talking about interesting stuff.
I wasn't wondering that.
I don't mind so much.

Define "interesting".
Anything which, um…
Gamism stuff.
Yeah. We want to know how you turn into a famous gamist.
This seems to be the part of the blog where that starts to happen, and we were both hoping to see more about how that happens. Because we were really sort of wondering about how someone, what that experience is like.
First of all: I'm not a famous gamist. You guys aren't real, you're just characters I made up. But Fringe is a real show, and I'd like to talk about that. Now go away.
And second?
Look, it just seems like you're wasting a lot of time. You're talking about TV shows, and comics, and I'm sure that would be very interesting if you grew up to be a famous comics or TV guy, y'know, if they didn't all converge into gamism, but you're a gamist. That's what you are. So none of this is interesting.
What do you want me to tell you? It's going fine, I'm working on it a little bit every day. I'm working on the chefs' movement now.
Look, it doesn't need to be about games specifically.
I mean, it doesn't need to specifically be about making the games. But you were such a lazy person before, and we know that eventually you're going to be, it's going to be well-known how you work ridiculous amounts on your games, like in that interview I read from back in
Is that a fact.
Look, that's not the point! The point is you're talking about all this stuff which has nothing to do with your personal, um, "path" as you put it. This isn't what your life is supposed to be about! Where are all the struggles, and questions, and challenges, and stuff? When will you have to ask yourself
Oy! Look, I'm working every single day, okay? And I just started the job at the Friedmans again. See, discipline and all that! I'm doing fine!
Yeah, but
Let's go.
Let's go!
Leave him alone already!
Fine. It's not like he's going to do anything anyway.

Well, it's nice to know that tact is a thing of the past in the future. Y'know, pretending that that's the future. Which it isn't. Bl'bah.

So. Fringe.

Eh, I'm not in the mood to talk about anything anymore. Whatever.



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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Ultimate Marvel comics

(I apologize for talking so much about comic books lately. No more after this for a while.)

Marvel started their Ultimate line of comics in 2000 with Ultimate Spider-Man. I think the best way to describe it is as a remake of their superhero comics and universe. The Ultimate comics started their continuity from scratch, retelling old stories as the regular Marvel comics do new things. There were two good reasons to do this. It was mainly done to sell to younger readers, who might be put off by the complicated continuity and unfamiliar status quos of the regular books. It also tried to approach the stories from a more modern sensibility, rather than being simple homages and rehashes. That way, they could justify selling it to people who were already reading their comics.

Eight years later, the Ultimate comics don't seem to have any reason to exist. Stories better geared for kids are being published in the Marvel Adventures imprint, where the stories are all done-in-one, as opposed to six-issue arcs. That line started in 2003 (and was restarted in 2005), and occasionally yields surprisingly fun and whimsical (if tame) stories. The Ultimate comics have told so many stories by now that their continuity is almost as hard to follow as the originals, and the status quos keep bouncing around in a struggle to stay fresh. And the original Ultimate architects (Brian Bendis and Mark Millar) have moved up to the regular Marvel universe, where they're doing stuff that feels as fresh as anything they did in Ultimate. So on both sides, Ultimate Marvel is redundant.

The editors are trying to deal with this in a few ways. First, they've brought in new blood: Aron Coleite, Joe Pokaski, and Jeph Loeb, all from the TV show Heroes. (Actually, Jeph Loeb has just been kicked off Heroes. From what I've seen of his comic work, I think it was deserved.) Though some of their work seems too reminiscent of Heroes plotlines, Coleite and Pokaski both seem to be very good writers. The other thing they're trying to do is raise the stakes. They're doing that with a Loeb-written miniseries called "Ultimatum", in which much havoc is wreaked. I wasn't impressed by it at all. The editors say that they want the Ultimate comics to be a place where big things can happen that wouldn't happen in the Marvel Universe, but I don't think that's enough. Fine, the Earth could blow up tomorrow in the comics. But that wouldn't give them any more reason to exist.

Here are my thoughts on each of the Ultimate comics.

Ultimate Spider-Man

This was the first one, and if it hadn't been good there wouldn't be any others. There are now 127 issues, not counting specials and miniseries, and they've all been written by Brian Michael Bendis. This series is good not because it was a particularly good idea to remake Spider-Man, but because Bendis is just really good. He's taken a lot of old plot-driven action stories, and reworked them into character-driven stories. And in order to make that work, he took characters that were usually paper-thin, and made them believable, likable, flawed, and interesting. His versions of characters are often much different than the originals, but it works. It's his version of Spider-Man, and when he tells stories I've seen before they're always much more dramatic than I remember. Bendis loves to experiment with his situations and storytelling techniques, but his characterizations are so good and relatable that it's usually still palatable for the masses. And he's also really good at long-term plotting, subtly setting lots of stuff up which he then pays off fifty issues later. His one major weakness is action scenes. Whenever Spider-Man's punching someone, it feels like the book's just going through the motions. Bendis was a very strange choice for the comic, and no one else could have done it better.

With all that praise aside, there isn't that much point to the series. The Amazing Spider-Man, which has been three-times-a-month for a while now, is just as good. It's got Dan Slott, who co-writes my favorite superhero comic ever (Avengers: The Initiative), and it's got Marc Guggenheim, who's been doing the fantastically fun Eli Stone TV show, and it's got Bob Gale, who wrote Back to the Future. So it's not like if Bendis called it quits there wouldn't be well-written Spider-Man. What the series has going for it are two things. First, it gives me a little of the teenage soap-opera I've been missing since Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane ended. Secondly, there's a subtext to everything that happens in the entire series, where the American government is brewing up a genetic war. Every super-powered character's origin is tied to that idea, which gives this whole big ongoing series cohesion. And it's interesting enough, under the surface. Trouble is, it's been 127 issues, and that still hasn't built up into anything major. It still feels like it could erupt at any moment, like how the show 24 tries to feel like at any minute nuclear war will break out. But how long can that be dragged on for before it goes somewhere, and you move on? (Bendis has just written a miniseries which brought the theme to the surface.) It doesn't really feel like it's going anywhere. Peter Parker is still 15, just as he was when the series started. As much as the editors would like me to feel like anything can happen, I don't believe the war's going to start for real and I don't believe Peter will graduate school and I don't believe he'll get married.

Here's what I think they should have done. They should have set out with the intent of telling the whole story, from start to finish. Bendis should have plotted out 150 or 200 issues to cover the entire life of Spider-Man, from superpowers to growing up to having a family to premature death. They shouldn't have thought of this as an ongoing to be preserved for future writers, because that's what Amazing Spider-Man is for. They should have let Bendis loose, to do whatever the characters told him needed to be done. And the result would have been the definitive Spider-Man run.

I don't know how much can still be achieved at this point. The pace has been set already. I guess the best thing is to just keep doing the series as they're doing it for as long as Bendis wants to do it. I can't argue against an excellent comic coming out month after month. Though, it might be nice if Bendis moved on to something new. Is he really going to be on this for ten years straight? Wowsers.

The Ultimates

The Ultimates are a re-envisioning of The Avengers, who in a clever twist are not idealists. They're run by the American government, and used to fight their wars. It's a cynical story where most of the team's problems are caused by their own incompetence, and where they spend more time worrying about their image in the media than they do fighting supervillains. This has a very different tone than the other Ultimate books- not only is this not really for kids, but the visual style of the characters and the way they're characterized and the long chaotic action scenes are all more like big-budget Hollywood movies than like the usual comic books. The original Avengers series is just the inspiration- this really is its own thing.

Or was, I should say. Series creator Mark Millar wrote 26 issues, then left. That's when Jeph Loeb took over, and undid all the interesting work Millar had done. He made all the characters closer to their Marvel Universe versions, he made the storytelling more conventional and dull, and in general every reason to care about the series was taken away. I don't blame Millar for leaving. He told the story he wanted to tell, then went to the Marvel line and injected his brand of quasi-politics, cynicism and "Hollywoodiness" there with the big "Civil War" crossover. His run on The Ultimates had a satisfying ending, which is so rare. More importantly, if he had stayed on the routine would have gotten really old. That cynicism is now really common, even in regular Marvel comics like The Thunderbolts and Avengers: The Initiative, and in both those cases it's being done better than he did it. So I think it's good that he left when he did. But Jeph Loeb was absolutely the wrong person to follow him.

Again, I wish they had paid off the war they were hinting at. Millar hooked me with the idea of using superheroes as soldiers. So what's that like? What does a war look like where one side has superpowers before the other? What's the new world order like? What are the politics to all this? That's where the series needed to go. It needed to get more serious, not less. They needed to get -and this will sound bizarre to anyone who's familiar with his work, but they needed to get Jonathan Hickman to write this. To plot out a believable alternate history, in a world where wacky Marvel characters like Iron Man and Thor and Captain America and the Hulk exist.

Loeb has taken all the characters in such cartoony directions, that I don't see how it's possible to get to that anymore, short of starting over as a different book. He's turned The Ultimates into "The Avengers Lite", and now I think the best thing to do is just cancel. Which they may actually do, after Ultimatum. I'm hopeful.

Ultimate X-Men

Now here's a series that never had a reason to exist. When Mark Millar started it, it was already just a bland imitation of the original X-Men stories. There's no twist, there's no subtext, it's just X-Men. Again. There have been some excellent writers on it: Bendis, Brian K. Vaughan, Robert Kirkman. None of them could get to a point where there was a point. It had a big convoluted soap-opera with all its many characters, but that's what X-Men has been known for since the 70s and Chris Claremont did it better. The characters often act in ways that are surprising, but not ways that are more interesting than the original incarnations. This book doesn't feel like any writer's personal vision, it feels like a diluted rehash of better and more memorable stories.

What it should have done from the start was rethink the whole concept of the X-Men, because I think the problem stems from the originals. In the sixties, they were just another bunch of superheroes. Since then, the cast has gotten larger by the hundreds, and writers have used them as a metaphor for all sorts of oppressed minorities, but still I don't think the X-Men have found focus. They started out as superheroes like any others, so no matter how much you add on top that's what they'll still be. Their stories will still be about fighting this guy or that guy, about cleverly using this power against that power. I think there's a real problem with all the regular X-Men books, where even excellent writers write stories which only long-time fans could care about. So a remake was not just a way to get money, it should have been seen as a way to figure out how to make the X-Men work on a basic level. Start with just the original six characters, find a way to make them work and seem like a good idea, and only then start incorporating elements from later years. Slowly.

Here's how it should have worked. It should not have been an action-packed adventure, it should have been a tense drama. Brian K. Vaughan would have been perfect had he started it. The twist would be that most mutants can't control their powers. They genuinely are dangerous to society and themselves, which makes the whole persecution angle much more interesting on a fundamental level. It wouldn't be about fighting or being generic heroes, it would be about hiding and trying to survive. The only one with a reasonable amount of self-control would be Professor Xavier, and even he would be very scary for the rare occasions where he loses control. Imagine, being protected and taught by a guy who could erase your mind by accident. That's creepy, and that's the sort of thing it should have gone for.

Ah well. That's a whole different series. This one is pointless. It should have been cancelled long ago, and it's not too late to do so now.

Ultimate Fantastic Four

As with the original Fantastic Four, this is about a small team exploring wacky dimensions and fighting over-the-top villains and all that other generic superhero stuff. But it started out different from the Marvel Universe version in several ways. Most obviously, they changed the characters from adults to kids. That gives it a sort of wide-eyed enthusiasm which you wouldn't get in adults. More importantly, the tone was changed from anything-goes fantasy to more grounded science fiction. The first issue begins with Reed Richards, as a younger kid, discovering another dimension. Almost everything in the first eighteen issues (one story by Bendis and two stories by Warren Ellis) follows from that set-up. The heroes' powers and the main villain's powers and the initial plots are all tied to that dimension and the rules about how it works. The fact that there are rules at all differentiates this from the original, and I think there was potential to surpass the original. For my tastes, I think fictional science with rules is much more entertaining than fictional science which the writers make up as they go along. The first eighteen issues are fun, and all sorts of crazy things happen, but none of it feels like it's coming out of nowhere. So when Reed comes up with a brilliant invention, it's not just a plot device- it's a puzzle he solved, where you saw all the pieces to start with.

Then Mark Millar came on. He wrote four three-issue stories, and in that time he completely undid the series' potential. No, he did that quicker. Right from his first scene, where they're suddenly time-traveling back to the time of the dinosaurs, calling themselves "The Fantastic Four" and acting like jaded adults. Millar felt that the appeal of FF is that any craziness can happen, and maybe there's something to that. But that's not where this series should have gone. (Incidentally, he's writing the regular Fantastic Four now. He's writing it exactly as he wrote UFF, and it's not any good.) Once you say that Reed can invent anything as the plot dictates, and they're not acting like kids anymore, and there are no rules, what's the difference between it and the original? Why bother with an Ultimate version at all? Them looking younger isn't such a big difference to the kinds of stories you're telling.

It's not like Millar's stories were good on their own terms, either. He kept to a very rigid formula: Issue 1: set-up. Issue 2: The Twist. Issue 3: resolution. In each story, The Plot Twist was the only reason for the story to be told. To his credit, the twists were clever. But there was nothing but the twist. For instance: The first story started with Reed Richards discovering the original Marvel Universe in the multiverse and having a pleasant inter-dimensional chat with the original (and older) Reed Richards. All amusing enough, but there was no plot. Then in issue two, The Twist: it's not the Marvel Universe after all- it's another alternate reality just like it except that all the superheroes have become zombies. The communication was a trick, to let the zombies into the Ultimate Universe to feed some more. In issue three, they close the portal and prevent a zombie invasion. This doesn't feel exciting so much as feeling like it's clearing the stage for the next story and twist. It's a story which Mark Millar can feel proud about as he tells his friends what his clever plot twist is, but it's not a story that's good.

That's where I lost interest, so I can't say how current writer Mike Carey is doing. I don't usually care for Carey's work, so I doubt I'd be impressed. It should have built up rules slowly, adding in one or two new concepts whenever the writer ran out of stories and then seeing how those concepts played against everything else that had been built up. It should have been a series that started out simple and got progressively more and more complicated and interesting, which isn't really for kids but would sure have been fun. (There's no way Warren Ellis would have stayed on for more than twelve issues, and I think Adam Warren would have been the next best writer.) At this point that's not possible anymore, so I think the series should like UXM be cancelled posthaste.

At this point I think it's fair to say: The Ultimate Universe is a failure. In eight years it has failed to find its footing, and I don't think Ultimatum is going to change their approaches significantly. The "genetic war" angle is an interesting one, but the longer they wait to pay it off the less fresh it'll be. Already the Marvel movies have co-opted the theme, making it seem more like a staple of the genre and less like an edgy twist. I'm still interested in specific Ultimate comics. Ultimate Spider-Man is certainly going to continue to be excellent. And there are the occasional excellent stand-alone Ultimate miniseries, like Warren Ellis' somewhat-recent Ultimate Human and the infamously-long-delayed Ultimate Wolverine vs. Hulk by Damon Lindelof. I'm also cautiously optimistic about Mark Millar's new undertaking, "Ultimate Avengers", which won't actually be an Avengers book so much as an ongoing stream of big crossovers using whatever characters the writer feels like using. I think that's a cool idea, saying to a writer: "Here's the universe. Have fun. Just leave it somewhere cool for the next guy."

So here's what I'd like to see: Five or six Ultimate comics for Jeph Loeb, just to keep him away from the main universe. Ultimate Spider-Man, given the opportunity to do whatever it wants. And Ultimate Avengers, with unpredictable stories of varying length and scope. Just those three writers, and everyone else should write for the main universe.



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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Beit Shemesh

Many men were standing by the edge, all wearing black. They were yelling at a man in a nearby boat. It was a houseboat which he had built with his own two hands, and he was living in it. He was sitting back comfortably, reading a book and sipping lemonade.
An Endless Shabbat
What if tonight, a year of Shabbat began? No games, no music, no blog, no TV shows, no digital comics, no buying things, no forums, no programming, no job, no microwave. A clean slate, with nothing to put on it. For the first month or two, I'd be terribly depressed. Obviously. Maybe suicidal, yes. A person whose every opportunity has been snatched away permanently is not a pretty sight. To be sure, the first month or two would be the worst time of my life. But then I'd adapt. I'd have to.
The kharedim are simple people. They don't work, they don't expose themselves to culture. Walking into a kharedi community is always a shock, seeing how the local gossip and lectures on the radio are the two most interesting things they ever have. I once let a few kharedi kids play an extremely simple game on my Game Boy, and they'd never seen anything like it. Sad. Still, any kharedi off the street can get more joy out of learning Torah than I ever will. They have a different sort of life, one where I imagine they never think they ought to be doing more. Sometimes I envy them and their innocence.

Most of the time, I'm just scared of them. They all dress in identical black-and-white clothes. They live in identical white apartment buildings, and their streets are so uniform that I can't tell one from the other. A kharedi neighborhood is a seemingly endless forest of banality. And it grows. They violently shoo away anyone who doesn't fit their vision of the world. Women they don't find modest are harassed (and they've got a very broad idea of what's "immodest"), people who don't follow Jewish laws have rocks thrown at them. As I understand it, the Ramat Beit Shemesh area was originally supposed to be a mixed community. That didn't last long. As soon as the kharedim moved in, everyone else was forced to move out. And they spread. They marry early, have as many kids as they can, and continue to push their lifestyle further and further into our neighborhoods.

It's easy to forget they exist from our community. There are no kharedim around here, and it's only every now and then that we hear stories of violence against our people. Our people work, we entertain ourselves with music and movies and all sorts of things which would never be tolerated in kharedi society. Every Shabbat, we young types all sit and talk about the latest episode of Heroes. There are lots of programmers around, who talk to each other about all sorts of database-related stuff I don't quite understand. There are lots of people around with videogames. There are buildings painted in weird colors. It's not like this is paradise or anything, but we have… y'know. What to live for. We've got lots of interesting people, with clearly-defined identities, who don't hide everything that's interesting about them under conformity.

So if, in yesterday's election, there had been a mayoral candidate with a platform of "Get out, kharedis!", I would have voted for him in a heartbeat. That's the biggest concern- that by the time we rally against a kharedi takeover, it'll be too late. They'll have such an overwhelming majority in Beit Shemesh that our only options will be to turn kharedi, or move out. But there was no candidate for me, and if there were he couldn't have won.

There were three candidates. One was our mayor of the past 15 years, an incompetent and corrupt politician who knew how to play the game to get elected, but not how to be a mayor. He was running on a "The other candidates are worse!" platform. Then there was the kharedi candidate, who most of the rabbis had told their congregations they must vote for. (If a kharedi rabbi says to do something, their entire community does it, no questions asked.) And finally, there was the candidate whose campaign my mother was helping in every way she could, a guy who by all accounts knew exactly what needed to be done and was running on a slightly naïve "Let's all live together in harmony." platform.

So now we have a kharedi mayor. When my father heard the news, he jokingly asked where we'd be moving to. He's not wrong. Now there will be no one to hold the kharedim in their place. I don't expect to see anything happen in this city which is not specifically designed to appeal to kharedim. That means there will be no malls, no places of entertainment, but lots and lots of identical white apartment buildings. Beit Shemesh isn't going to be big enough to hold all the kharedim who'll want to live here.

I think it's time for our neighborhood to set a policy, that we will not accept any kharedim here. We need to make it clear that they will not be welcome here, as we would not be welcome in their areas. Because if one family moves in, and then another, then another, it's only a matter of time until they're the majority here. Just as they're apparently the majority in Beit Shemesh as a whole. For fifteen years we had a mayor too spineless to do anything against them, and now it's too late. They run this city, and it's only a matter of time before they drive us out of it.



I think I should keep my mouth shut about politics and social issues until.. let's say the end of time. Seriously, if I ever act like I know what I'm talking about with politics, refer me to this comment and e-mail me a virtual slap to the face. It looks like our new mayor's going to do an excellent job- he's already put the guy I voted for (who's his personal friend) in a very good position, even though he wasn't obligated to give him anything at all. And he's talked about preserving the status quo, diversity-wise. A referral and a slap, that's what I ask for.


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Monday, November 10, 2008

Reinventing the Artist

This game is not like my last one. Not "not like" like the piano music I'm working on now is not like other piano music I've composed, and not "not like" like the blog post I'm writing now is not like other blog posts I've written. The piece of music I'm working on now is not like the blog post I'm writing now- that's the sort of "not like" I'm talking about. "The Perfect Color" is not in the same art form as "Smilie", and the same principles do not apply.

For that matter, the third game I have planned will not be like the first two. And the fourth will not be like the first three. And the fifth will not be like the first four. (Assuming all goes according to plan, as God willing it will.) And the games I dream of making are complex, mixing all these art forms with other art forms.

And I can get there. Isn't that crazy? Imagine if I sat at my piano, and said: "From this seat, I will grow as an artist until I am a good architect!" That's essentially the nonsense I'm saying. I don't plan to use the specific skillset I honed on Smilie for years! The skills I'm learning now, I might not use again for even longer! And yet, I am sitting here with the audacity to say that this is a path before me, that this seat will lead me to things I'm not even training for. It's "The Sims" logic. Creativity points are creativity points, and they can be applied toward anything.

I am saying: the world can actually work that way.

This game is not like my last one. Smilie started from an idea of a character. I thought back to how animals acted, and how I might act, and developed that character in my mind. Then I used that to determine all the actions he would take, in order to create a game where his simple personality would shine through. This game isn't like that. It started from a philosophical principle, where I wondered how I could express that idea. I built up more and more rules in my head which reflected the idea, in order to create a game where that general concept will be clear.

And making this game is not like making my last one. Smilie was all planned out in advance, to the smallest detail. Planning is meaningless for this one- I never know what the game needs until I get up to it in the coding. I started out trying to write a script for it like Smilie's, and very quickly realized that it simply wasn't appropriate. Also, Smilie was a very linear piece of code. I don't think I could have written it any other way. But this code is all object-oriented and organized. And again, I don't see any other way I could be doing it.

The programming language I'm using is the same, but I'm using it to make two things which are worlds apart. The whole approach to rules and feedback and interactivity and how a message is conveyed is totally different, and I'm treating these like one leads to the other. Crazy.

Isn't that what Eliezer told me I needed to do? When I first started out at the Academy, he listened to what I was playing and told me it was too derivative. He told me that the best way to find my own voice, rather than just copying other people, was to turn to dodecaphonia. Throw out the tonality, force yourself to approach the music differently, and then there's nothing to fall back on. No imitation, no habits, nothing but your theme. In the end, I figured out how to apply my habits and imitations to dodecaphonia. But still. That piece isn't like anything else I've done. (Or it wouldn't be, if I'd ever finished it.) From working on that piece, I didn't learn any specific techniques I'd want to repeat. But I sharpened my creative mind, that's for sure.

But Eliezer was weird, I think. He reinvented himself going from classical to pop and then back to classical. He always listened to his improvisation partner and saw if there was anything he could use in it. I'll always remember when I came to him with the fifth variation, following a particularly dense Schoenbergian cacophony with simple tranquility. I'll always remember it, because I remember what he told me. He told me it was a revelation to him. Imagine that! That an accomplished composer, who has formed a lifetime's worth of habits and techniques, could stretch his mind to be inspired by an amateur's mess! Would a teacher who wasn't like that tell me to throw out what I'd learned, or would he just have me improve what I had?

Most artists and entertainers, in any field, dig deeper and deeper until they have no way out. They keep honing their craft until they see subtleties and nuances no one else would notice, finding innovation and greatness in tiny changes from the norm. Take the case of Will Wright. A brilliant gamist, to be sure! He made SimCity, he made The Sims, he made Spore (which I have yet to play, but certainly seems ambitious!). Anyone who's heard him talk knows that he doesn't take games lightly. To him, they're a way to explore everything he finds interesting about life (and a fascinating perspective on life he has!). He takes inspiration from science and popular culture and everything else he ever comes across. And yet, all this gets funneled into the narrow field of simulation strategy. That is his Form. He continually gets better and better at that one field. Each time he makes a game, he learns from what worked and what didn't, and applies those lessons directly into his next game. So he has become (without much competition) the world's greatest simulation strategy gamist. While he makes mistakes, he learns from those and moves forward. Deeper and deeper he goes into the potential of the tiny bit of land he owns, and I don't think he'll ever find a bottom.

I don't want to be like that. Gamism is so lost, in so many places. How can I limit myself to just one? It used to be, an artist would just pick one trade and get better and better at it. That's not enough for me. There's so much to do, so much that needs to be done! Settling into one Form, getting comfortable, finding its boundaries, honing my craft- that seems like the easy way forward, these days. So one kind of game (maybe movement) would be better off, and I'd be an expert on that. But what about the RPG? What about the metalude? What about the adventure? What about the exploration? What about…

My, my. I've become an impatient little phoenix, haven't I? Or maybe I've always wanted to be one.

I read an interview with Miyamoto recently where it was pointed out that his latest games -Wii Music, Wii Fit, Wii Sports- are not similar at all to the games Miyamoto's known for. Which is true. And it's pretty remarkable, isn't it, that at 56 years old he's still reinventing himself? He could sit and make platformers for the rest of his life, and we'd have platformers of such a level as we can barely imagine. But no, he's making music games and fitness balance games and sports action games and whatever the heck he's inspired to make today.

With each game, he says, he finds the core "ingredient" that's going to play well, and then tries to create a whole experience around that. So I guess, if that experience follows patterns he's familiar with, that's fine. But if it doesn't, then he'll throw his 30 years of game experience to the side and try something different. Crazy.

So I guess the question is, is this path reserved only for geniuses, or is there room for me? Is it possible to hone one's instincts, or do they have to be great to start with? Are there principles of art which can be moved from art form to art form, so that I really can get better and better at destroying and starting over?

Well, that's the plan.



I think I have a very similar path ahead.


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Thursday, November 06, 2008

No work done.



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Monday, November 03, 2008

It's always more frustrating than I expect.

They need to move.
They also need to not walk through each other.

movement test.bmx
The circle moves at a changeable angle.
Type type type type type.
I'll put in obstacles.
Type type typey-type.
Type-a-type-a-Pace, pace. Type.
No, that's not right.
Fix fix.
Pace, pace, pace.
It needs.
It needs..
Pace, pace.
It needs to check to the left and check to the right, and keep checking 'til there's an angle that's not covered.
But first.
Type type type type type.
Um, huh.

No, that's not
Oh, that's very wrong.
Fix fix fix.
Fix fix fix fix.
Wrong, wrong.
Erase erase erase.
Type type, type-a-type. Type type typey.

Consult help file.

It is now no longer what I want.
What the heck.

So. Now it at least sees that it's running into something. And it won't do that.

What was it I was doing?
Pace, pace.

Oh, right.
It needs to check to the left and check to the right, and keep checking 'til there's an angle that's not covered.
Type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type.
Erase erase erase erase erase erase erase erase erase erase erase erase erase erase erase erase erase erase erase erase erase erase erase erase erase erase erase erase erase erase erase erase erase erase erase erase erase.
Type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type.
Fix fix.

Fix fix.
Run. Quit. Erase. Type. Run.

Why is it doing that? I didn't tell it to do that.
Read, read, read.
Here's the problem.

Think, think, think.
Bounce ideas off Tamir.
Think, think, think.

I'm back.
Type type type type type type type type type Run!
What the heck?
Read, read, read, read, fix.
Erase erase erase erase type erase.
Pace, pace, pace.

Eat lunch.

Pace, pace.
Type type.
Ah HA!
Type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type.
Undo, undo, undo, undo, undo.
Stare at screen.
It needs to check to the left and check to the right, and keep checking 'til there's an angle that's not covered.
Oh, that's how this works.
Type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type run.
Type type type.
Sure. Good enough.
The circle's not knocking into stuff.

Now to integrate it into the game.
Type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type.
Oh my god that is slow.
Fix fix fix fix fix fix fix fix fix fix fix fix fix.
Oh my god that is slow.
Simplify simplify simplify.
Oh my god that is slow.
Okay, fine. It's slow. But does it work?
Good question.
Quit, run.
Quit, run.
No, it's not my imagination.
It's smearing across the screen.
Why is it smearing across the screen?
Read read read.

Read read read.
Why are you smearing across the screen?
Okay, simplify. It won't check as many angles for free spaces.
Slow and smearing.
Okay, simplify. It'll check even less angles.
Slow and smearing.
What do you want from me?
Okay, simplify. It won't check to see if it's bumping into anything.
Slow and smearing.
Okay, simplify. There's only one thing moving now. It's going to bump into everything. I hope you're happy.
Smear, smear, smear.
What does that even mean, "smear smear smear"? Just move and be happy!
I'll simplify this to the point where it's not doing any of what I want it to do.
It's still not working.
Why is it not working?!
Pace pace pace pace pace pace pace pace!
Oh dear no.
It can't be that.
IT REALLY IS oh wait.
The way I wrote it, it's going to get triggered whether or not my hunch is right.
Oh, phew.. AAAAGGGHH!
It triggered.
It triggered.
What does this mean?
It means I messed up back there.
But I'm finished with that part.
I don't even really understand how that part works anymore.
I programmed it back at the beginning, and it made sense at the time, and I was proud of how I'd made this big complicated code which was the absolute simplest way to do that thing which seemed so obvious I didn't even need to think about it as I was planning the game.
It made sense. It was right!
Why must you trigger?

Forget it, I am not rewriting the foundation of my game today. Enough.

Blah, the whole day's gone by and what a waste. I haven't played a single game.



For the moment I feel glad I am on the visual design side of this project.


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