Category Archives: Culture

Unfriends forever

Today the New York Times, in its role as the paper of record, investigates one of the most pressing questions of this point in history: the etiquette of deleting people from your Facebook friends. This seems to be prompted by Burger King’s recent promotion wherein the fast food chain invited Facebook users to remove ten friends in exchange for a free Whopper. Contrary to normal Facebook procedure, but better for spreading the promotion, the ex-friends would be notified that they had been dropped for 10% of a burger.
Personally, I thought this was awesome, and was halfway tempted to do it even though I had no interest in actually eating at Burger King. However, apparently the Whopper Sacrifice has been axed by Facebook, who seem intent on keeping the act of unfriending as silent as possible.
So the correct approach, apparently, is to quietly drop people from our lists and hope they don’t notice. This works until it’s brought to their attention by, say, a mutual acquaintance using the “suggest a friend” option. This actually happened to me (as the unfriendee, not the unfriender), although rather than being offended by the realization I just laughed at the fact that someone had made the suggestion—this was a case where it was pretty clear why I had been unfriended.
On the other hand, in some situations a message about the reason for the removal may be justified, and even helpful. This is the case for one of the best reasons for deletion: irritating status messages. These come in many forms: the all-caps shout with twelve exclamation marks; the incredibly pedestrian messages that get updated every five minutes; the message that gets reposted every day but is essentially the same. If you unfriend someone because of their status messages, be sure to tell them why so they might stop annoying the rest of their friends. I was impressed by the person in the Times article who said this:

“I believe it was based on a passive-aggressive update of yours to which I sighed, kinda shook my head and pressed ‘delete from friends,’ ” she confessed by e-mail. “I find negativity a bit tiresome and don’t have the patience for it.”

This is excellent and we should all follow her example. In fact, there should be a “delete from friends” button next to every status message so that the option is readily available. This might even make people think twice before posting something lame. As they say, an armed society is a polite society.
Wait, no, this is the internet. Here, an armed society is the Hobbesian war of all against all. Maybe Facebook’s quiet deletion policy really is for the best…

Artificial “natural”

Lisa Katayama’s recent guest posts at Boing Boing have been great; they should kick out the Bigfoot guy and take her on as a permanent blogger in his place. Nevertheless, this is kind of abusing the word “natural”:

For his upcoming exhibit in Tokyo, designer Tokujin Yoshioka is making a natural crystal chair from scratch. He’ll do this by submerging a nucleation-inducing fiber structure in four giant tanks of water, and then letting visitors watch as crystals form and the chair grows into its natural shape. (This image shows the artist working on a prototype.) The exhibit kicks off on October 17, and features other cool artsy objects made entirely out of nature.

Now, I do think the chair in question is pretty cool. And you’ll see worse abuses of “natural” on the shelves at your local grocery store. But the formation of the chair requires the prior construction of a chair-shaped fiber structure. It might be a novel process of shaping the material, but it’s about as natural as casting something from a mold.

The flaw of Forbidden Kingdom

(This post is spoiler-free.)
I saw Forbidden Kingdom yesterday: it’s a decent movie, with entertaining fight scenes; if you go in hoping to see Jackie Chan and Jet Li perform some entertaining kung fu, you won’t be disappointed.
However, it’s actually a movie about hanging out with Jackie Chan and Jet Li, and consequently the main character isn’t (despite the movie posters) either of the two Hong Kong stars, but a teenager played by Michael Angarano. I’m sure there’s a strong constituency for the “going on adventures with Jackie Chan and Jet Li” story, but for those of us who just want to see people get kicked in the face, Angarano’s character only gets in the way. On the other hand, there’s plenty of good fighting so it’s not a big disappointment, and having a broader audience helps movies like this get made, so I can’t really complain.
Unfortunately, this aspect of the film is made infinitely worse through the egregious use of one of my least favorite plot devices: the ordinary teenager from the real world who gets transported to a fantasy kingdom (which he then must save before returning home). As far as I’m concerned, any narrative that employs this lame plot is digging itself a huge hole right at the start, and will have to be exceedingly brilliant to make up for it. There are lots of good reasons to avoid this plot, and especially the implementation in Forbidden Kingdom:

  • It’s lazy writing. This plot is a way to avoid a couple of the challenges of writing in a heroic fantasy setting: the need to explain the special rules of the fantasy world to the audience, and the lack of a character the audience can relate to in a cast populated by legendary heroes. Dragging in a character from the real world is an easy solution to these problems that saves the writer from having to do anything sophisticated (such as a show-don’t-tell approach to presenting the setting, or writing complex heroic characters with realistic flaws and motivations).

  • It insults the audience. Because it’s really not that hard to stick a relatable character in a heroic setting—even young children recognize that the farmboy or the hobbit is supposed to be the audience stand-in. The “ordinary teenager from our world” is the most literal interpretation of the relatable character (short of a Choose Your Own Adventure story told in the second person) and suggests that the writers didn’t think the audience could handle anything more subtle.
  • It strains suspension of disbelief. A self-contained fantasy world is easier to accept than one in which people from the modern world are randomly popping in and out. Furthermore, it wrecks the sense of otherworldliness to have someone walking around wearing jeans and spouting American slang. There’s less immersion with a constant reminder of the real world in the center of the frame; a good fantasy should make the audience temporarily forget where they are.
  • It contains disturbing racial overtones. This plot device would have been bad enough if the teenager had been from Shanghai. But the use of the Boston setting and Michael Angarano suggests that the filmmakers decided that, in a film set in Fantasy China, a Chinese lead wouldn’t have been white enough or American enough for American audiences. Now, it may be true that the film will make more money with an American lead (although it’s interesting that he doesn’t appear on the posters). Nevertheless, such shameless pandering is ugly. And equally disturbing is the imperialist notion that powerful warriors like Jackie Chan and Jet Li couldn’t save China until the American (with no special skills or talents) showed up.

Now, I don’t want to say that this plot can never be done well, but it takes some excellent writing to save it. The anime Fushigi Yuugi is one example where this trope succeeds, due mostly to strong plotting and characterization. The film of The NeverEnding Story does a good job but keeps the real-world protagonist at a distance from the fantasy world for most of the narrative. On the other hand, one of the several flaws of The Chronicles of Narnia is its repeated use of this device.
More generally, I think the approach of inserting ordinary, relatable characters into a story about legendary heroes is way overused. In the fantasy genre, I much prefer stories without an obvious audience stand-in but with heroes who may have extraordinary abilities but have complex and human personalities. My favorite Chinese fantasy films—Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the underrated House of Flying Daggers—take the latter approach.
Going back to Forbidden Kingdom for a moment, I’ve just spent a lot of time trashing its plot, but of course in a movie like this the story is secondary to the spectacle. So this shouldn’t be considered a pan of the movie as a whole; however, this glaring flaw in the story does detract a bit from the experience.

New York City in fiction

federal hall
I’m off to New York this week to look for housing; to put me in the right frame of mind, I’d like to hear suggestions of iconic portrayals of NYC (particularly Manhattan) in fiction. Accuracy of the portrayal is less important than style, but if it captures the spirit of the city in some sense that’s a bonus. In any case the city shouldn’t just be the setting (Wikipedia has a whole category devoted to this); New York should be somehow central to the story or thematically important. Some ideas (just off the top of my head):

  • Film: King Kong, Escape from New York, Cloverfield

  • Television: Seinfeld, Sex and the City
  • Literature: Bonfire of the Vanities, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
  • Video games: Deus Ex, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty

Please suggest more, and I will check out the ones I haven’t seen/read so as to be up to speed on the cultural connections to my new location.
Bonus round: iconic portrayals of Wall Street or the finance industry in particular, such as the Oliver Stone film Wall Street.

The actual world needs better writers

I must confess that I don’t share Cory Doctorow’s intense interest in all things Disney-related, and as a result I tend to skip past the (many, many) Boing Boing posts on this subject. However, his co-blogger Mark Frauenfelder posted one today that caught my eye, about planned changes to the classic “It’s a Small World” ride:

[T]he gorgeous New Guinea rainforest scene, replete with some of Mary Blair’s most whimsical character creations (a crocodile with an umbrella, colorful birds hatching from eggs) and her drummer children with Tiki Masks on the opposite shore will be replaced with a Hooray for U.S.A sequence.

Now, I don’t have any particular attachment to this ride. But, this kind of thing makes me wonder if we’re living in a fictional world, and the writers are on strike. I mean, imagine if you saw a movie where some evil executive takes control of a Disney-like corporation and, to establish his character, the film has him modifying a Small World-like ride by tearing down the rainforest and replacing it with a nationalistic display. We’d all laugh (or cringe) at such a heavy-handed metaphor. It would be like that movie with the ultra-militaristic U.S. vice president who actually shot a guy in the face while hunting. Yeah, we get it. His poor judgement and belligerence caused him to attack the wrong target. Subtle.
In conclusion, reality has excellent, immersive visuals and sound, but terrible writing. I give it two stars out of five.

Buffy Night at the Speakeasy

The Speakeasy is a theater in Oakland (there’s also one in El Cerrito) that recently started doing monthly Joss Whedon nights, alternating between Buffy and Firefly on the big screen. Last night was a Buffy night with a decent selection of episodes, so I went to check it out. Some observations:

  • The musical episode “Once More With Feeling” is shown at every Buffy night. The audience is encouraged to sing along, and the subtitles are turned on to facilitate this.

  • However, people don’t seem to be really comfortable singing along: at the start of each song some people would be singing enthusiastically, but this would fade away to a murmur after a few verses.
  • Someone brought stuffed bunnies to throw in the air at the appropriate moment.
  • The other two episodes are usually selected according to a theme; last night’s was a “double feature” double feature: “Dopplegangland” (twin Willows) and “The Replacement” (twin Xanders). The former is one of my favorites, but I’m not a huge fan of the latter and would have preferred (in the spirit of the theme) the late-season-5 episode “Intervention”.
  • Character preferences were clear and fairly uniform: there was widespread cheering at the first appearance of Spike, while Dawn drew boos and hisses, and Riley’s extended bout of lameness at the end of “The Replacement” was drowned out by jeers.
  • Next Buffy night is Halloween; the El Cerrito theater is showing “Fear, Itself” and “All the Way”, although I would prefer to see the second-season “Halloween” (Ethan Rayne!) in place of “All the Way”. The Parkway hasn’t announced its lineup yet (they’ve said it won’t necessarily be Halloween-themed). Anyway, I might be doing something else on Halloween but Buffy night at the Speakeasy was a lot of fun, and definitely worth doing again.

Fashion blues

While traveling with my Chinese satchel, I learned that Cameron Diaz apparently has the same bag. Which is fine—I was into Communist chic before it was cool. However, then she went and used it to spark an international incident, Peru being understandably touchy about their Maoist guerrillas. So now I find myself having conversations with TSA agents while they search my (other) luggage about how, yes, this is the same bag Cameron Diaz had to apologize to an entire nation for. Luckily they did not infer from this any membership in the Shining Path; otherwise my trip home might have been rather delayed.
I will console myself by imagining that I made the bag trendy by wearing it to Coachella, even if it was probably mistaken for a Rage Against the Machine bag.

Library Anticorrelations

Like the opposite of Amazon book recommendations, LibraryThing’s UnSuggester lists books that are unlikely to be found in the same library as a given title. I entered one of my favorite books, Haruki Murakami’s masterpiece of surrealist fiction The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and was amused to get a list of mostly Christian devotional books. It’s not that Wind-Up Bird is anti-religious in any way, so I imagine it’s a result of demographics more than anything else. (Via Unfogged.)
Last.fm should do a version of this for music.

I denounce this linguistic development.

Something that annoys me to an irrational extent is the use of diminutives on certain words that I’ve been seeing recently. The latest, but by no means only, offender is Cory Doctorow, who recently wrote,

The forthcoming Logitech Alto laptop stand is a nice compromise between a dock and just plunking your lappie down on your desk.

and in a different post:

[Alibi Networks will] also buy and ship prezzies for your lover, provide untraceable phone numbers and manage the rest of your sneaky double-life.

“Lappie”? “Prezzies”? What’s with the baby talk? Depressingly, this isn’t the first time I’ve seen either of these two words in blog posts that are ostensibly aimed at adults. Who decided it was a good idea to infantilize words like “laptop” and “presents” in otherwise serious writing, and why on earth is it catching on? I suppose it’s an attempt to be twee, but to me it just seems jarring and condescending. Knock it off!