Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Sweet Science (of Nintendo)

I've started sparring recently, and as you might imagine I'm sort of terrible at it. That's primarily because, although I've been learning how to properly punch and kick for the last two years, the actual dance of boxing is totally separate from drills and forms training. It's completely exhilarating though, and spikes up along this raw dimension I sincerely forgot I had.

As I'm learning the basics of the sweet science...a retro-nerdy thought occurred to me: Punch Out was pretty right on.

Hear me out, because there are several aspects of Mike Tyson's Punch-Out that are brutally unrealistic to boxing, among them the idea that plumbers can be referees or that pink sweatsuits are acceptable workout attire. But dig all these ways that the boys at NES got it right:

1. It's all timing

Strength is sort of overrated. I've got a decent natural amount of it because of my size, for instance, but speed and finesse and timing are really the keys to the fortress. In Punch-Out, when you "stun" a guy with a hit, the gameplay subsequently emphasizes a rhythmic series of punches to maximize your attack strength. No rhythmic punching, less success

Also, in general, the game focuses less on wild punching right from the get go than does, say, Wii Boxing...and rather emphasizes watching, waiting, blocking and dodging in time.

2. And endurance

Little guys fight hard and sometimes even win, and it's mostly because of this. Strength can only take you so far, and in many situations will simply fail in the face of persistence/ belief in a just cause/ or just plain old heart.

Underestimate your opponent only at your peril, dude. Little Mac is scrappy. And he wants it bad...hence he's able to train harder and hold up longer.

3. And speed

Pretty obvious, but the big swinger knockout star punch that Little Mac puts all of his weight behind won't accomplish anything if Sandman sees it coming.

4. And patience (fighters usually have tells)

Like everything else in life, your first approach to a new situation should be to lay low and keep your mouth shut and observe what's going on. Though the fighter tells are obviously exaggerated in Punch-Out, it still makes for a fairly accurate representation of how fighters follow patterns and have weak spots or give consistent openings.

5. Judging the distance from your target is probably the most important aspect of a punch

Epitomized by Little Mac's series of fights with Bald Bull, Punch-Out is subtly communicating perhaps the most vital "technical" skill of boxing...which is the weird dance of distance. Couldn't possibly overestimate the importance of being the correct distance from your target-it's everything. Constantly staying in the "goldilocks zone" of perfect distance from your opponent (out of his reach, and then quickly stepping into the sweet spot to strike) is basically what boxers are trying to do the entire time they're fighting.

Monday, May 24, 2010

LOST is telling us to relax

LOST ended last night, and hundreds (if not thousands) of analyses will soon be written and posted. Before I go ahead and read any of those (notably: Noel Murray's from the A.V. Club, who I've been following pretty consistently but haven't read in a couple weeks) I thought I'd make some comments of my own. Majors spoilers to follow.

In quick summary, what happened last night was this: they killed Smokey after pulling out the earthquake plug, then Jack put it back in and left Hurley in charge before keeling over in the bamboo forest where the series began. Sawyer, Kate and "the rest" were last seen taking off in the Ajira plane to escape. But more importantly (at least, in the context of this post) they wrapped the alterna-timeline with Jack realizing he (and everyone else) is dead, and that they've basically constructed this reality in order to ease their passage onto the next stage of the afterlife game. In other words, alterna-LA was purgatory, but the island was real life.

The crowd I was with last night gave it an immediate (and knowingly hasty, half-joking) thumbs down. I've always been of the opinion that LOST is the type of show you either decide to like or decide to be frustrated by, and after making up your mind about this what actually happens on the show is of small consequence. Having of course chosen the former, I've always been slightly confused as to why the latter continue to watch religiously each week. In any case, the common complaints about the show (it's slow, it's cheesy, no answers, or the plot's too ridiculous) have always puzzled me as well, since it seems to me these are actually the foundations the show has been built on and has managed (somewhat impressively) to stay consistent to throughout. Also I've never found it "slow"at all (except maybe season 3) but I think that's just a difference of opinion on what the word "slow" means in this case.

He's aiming at Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan!

On to the analysis: I've digested it a bit and as predicted I've been liking this ending more and more. On the one hand, they've managed to tie up their gambit with the alterna-timeline and package it as an epilogue of sorts, albeit a psychological one. Secondly, they've stayed consistent with the show's own format of outlining characters lives past, present and future. And finally, they've reinforced one of the major themes of the show which is "letting go of old shit so you can move on".

Throughout the season I found the alterna-timeline interesting but also exhausting. Like past LOST story arcs and secret methods, I couldn't see where it was going and so it was easy to be frustrated with it. It didn't appear to be moving the plot forward at all or serving the show as a whole other than perhaps continuing to question the relative nature of time-space and fate versus free will, while also (now it's easier to see) not so subtly pushing the "let it go" philosophy. The end has Jack finally coming to terms with (basically) his own death, then embracing the most important people in his life one last time before letting go and moving on. It was a nice way for the audience to see the characters interact again (even post-death, I mean) and within a more subdued and calm reality (read: LA after a safe landing). It also helped a lot in rinsing our mouths of the potential evil-Locke aftertaste by showing the Locke we love triumphing (finally!).

would anyone care for pie?

Certainly one way the show will be remembered is by its sometimes overly direct, occasionally delicate interaction with the blogosphere. It strikes me as the first show with writing and story arcs being directly affected by nerds analyzing and discussing the show. Clearly this was a curse and a blessing, but all in all I believe Darlton handled it quite well. I think a lot of people will be saying that the whole "purgatory" idea may have originally been planned as the conceit of the entire show (like, the island isn't a real place) but that because of speculation and direct questions to that effect early on in the series, the producers had to change their plan a bit and then come back to the purgatory concept in a roundabout way. I could definitely believe that, but let's leave it aside and just say the show got to where they eventually wanted to go.

The show's always been about the details of the characters lives. At the outset, they accomplished this through a creative flashback structure. Later they used flashforwards, and now, as it's finally been revealed, we even get the characters' post-death stories. Think about that for one second. There's a completism there that is admirable, if nothing else. We got very full stories for our 6-10 major characters.

I've got a soft spot for material that suggests death as another birth, so my immediate reaction was to like this approach. I'm a scientist and an atheist, but find these ways of thinking are completely compatible with the possibility of an afterlife. In fact I dislike the idea that belief in an afterlife is seen as synonymous with belief in god (why's the universe gotta be a dictatorship?), and notice how the non-denominational church in LOST is basically saying we all end up the same, regardless of our beliefs...but anyway this is a digression. The alterna-timeline showed us how the characters all eventually came to terms with what's really the most significant thing humans have to come to terms with: their own mortality. Perhaps it also showed the characters as their own ideal manifestations of themselves (Sawyer's on the right side of the law, Jack's well-adjusted, Hurley's lucky, and Locke has his shit together, sort of). It was pretty uplifting, really, not only because of the suggestion that we can meet up with lost loved ones (so they're not "lost", are they?) but also because it helped put in sharp perspective all the "real life" events of the show, which brings me to my final point: LOST is telling us to relax.

Despite the island being a real place and the events and struggles therein being very real, the purgatory storyline about letting go makes it seem a bit allegorical to the unnecessary stress and out perceived importance of everyday life. This is accomplished two ways, I think: first, the obvious juxtaposition of a relatively calm and simple purgatory/afterlife with the breakneck pace and life or death/save the world shitstorm of (on and off) island life, and second by leaving so much to the imagination in the real timelines' conclusion. Ambiguity was a great move here. We can just assume that Kate and Sawyer made it home to their (sorta) kids and Desmond somehow made it to Penny and Hurley stayed on as protector with Ben as his number 2 (also alluded to in a line from Hurley to Ben outside the church), but also, I don't really care so much. We all end up dead sometime, and the wheres and whens seem a lot less important in retrospect, right? (The other purpose of this was to highlight that the show is really about Jack and that he's the one who get's the most complete arc, and the last shot of the show gave it nice wrap around as well, etc...).

More importantly, everything on the island was put through a prism of black and white, all or none, won or "lost". Every event was seen as having (potentially) grave consequences toward the fate of the universe and each individual's specific importance (and special status) was reinforced again and again. I keep thinking that one of the major issues in the world is so many people seeing life this way (in other words, in terms of the extreme). In truth, nothing is black and white, and realizing this has a remarkable ability to calm people down. Our lives and actions aren't the going to make or break the entire world (see: fate vs free will and the Faraday debate of "details"). We, as individuals, aren't terribly important (see: the shifting candidate list). So in the end LOST is trying to put a fine point on how even through some serious struggles the black and white conception of the world is a fantasy. It's something we dreamed up so that games like backgammon make sense, but you simply can't apply it across the board (ha ha). So seriously, everybody: relax.

post script: I could say more but this seems like plenty
post post script: I also just got back from Japan yesterday, so I'll write about that soon.

Check the Fahey!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Record Review Time Machine!
Thin Lizzy - JailBreak

It's been established: I love old records. I know track numbers, album chronologies, and who played what solo where and the circumstances under which they played it. I will now focus that love into writing recommendations and reviews about albums that came out when "pitchfork" was still primarily known as a tool of satan and when, in most cases, I was yet to begin taking poops and breathing air. Yes, I'm one off those dudes who still goes to the record store and, wait for it, makes physical purchases.

Thin Lizzy is still fairly new to my worldsphere. Apart from knowing the basic beats of their massive radio hit 'The Boys Are Back in Town," they were near completely unknown to me before about a year ago. This didn't prevent me from stubbornly holding an opinion about them based almost solely on their band name which I now find quite incongruent with their actual sound...but perhaps it's just a trick of my own memory acting up here. Justin slammed me with some Liz a way's back and shortly after I purchased both a CD and vinyl copy of "Jailbreak" which it turns out is typhoid sick with the heavy rock stylings of 70s Dublin.
Thin Lizzy stuck out, soundwise, immediately. They've got Phil Lynott in the front, swaggering through the tracks and doling out the lines like they were some thick glugs of Canadian maple syrup. Then there's that other sure fire way to hook me in...the sweet twang of harmonized electric guitar, which Thin Lizzy has in spades.

The first track (also the title track) on this record really nailed me to the nuel post, and I was in love thenceforth. They come out of the box on 70s rock fire. I liked it immediately.


You could overlook the fact that it's a concept album about a futuristic criminal element (the band members) running amok in the buzzing techtropolis, except for that cover art. Oh, and the liner notes with paragraph after paragraph of backstory.

I'm not much for the theme angle, which is loose at best. That said, the record doesn't really have any clunkers. I mean there are singles which stand out but nothing I feel the need to skip. Plus it's concise enough that I've listened to it all the way through a whole mess of times. Another highlight is "Cowboy Song" which starts quiet and gets loud like a rock song should.

"Cowboy Song"

"The Boys are Back in Town" is also on this record, situated as the Side 2 opener, and though I've always liked the tune anyway, I feel like it sounds much better in album context, after the Thin Lizzy sound and style have been established. Give it another listen as it follows "Warriors", which could easily be a Pegataur groove plus lyrics. This one is really solid and recommended for just about anybody with a heartbeat (see my official rating below)

In summary, Thin Lizzy fill that crucial gap between Black Sabbath and Jimi Hendrix that you didn't even know you needed filled (like a micro-cavity!). But you did, kid. You most certainly did.


I quite like all the records I'm going to talk about here, so instead of rating these on a standard linear system, I'll instead be likening them to the career trajectories of actors who appeared in the 1986 film 'Stand By Me,' all of whom are pretty awesome in their own regard.

By that scale, I gotta rate this record a solid "Kiefer Sutherland". It was badass from the get go, and it remains ever-badass. Whether Kiefer is playing a spiky haired young ruffian like Ace or doing the old Jack Bauer, the man takes no slack. No slack! The sound and feel of Phil Lynott and the Liz say it's my way or the stinking gutters of Galway, brother. A heavy right out of the box who keeps swinging despite the inevitable not-quite-hits and/or DUI arrests.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Hottest Chip

John complained that I should write more, and since I always listen to John, here's some thoughts on the Hot Chip show I went to last Friday.

As I was dancing along to Hot Chip at the Fox Theater in Oakland last Friday night, having myself a grand old time, I found myself thinking a somewhat startling thought: "If I could be in any band working right now, it'd be this one". Now, I'm not really given to hyperbole over bands (particularly modern ones) and although in the sober light of day I've been rethinking this impulsive opinion a bit, I still find it interesting that this happened to occur to me. Allow me to examine it a little.

Despite Justin Martin's ridiculous opinion that music and dancing are somehow mutually exclusive, non-related entities, I continue to believe that dancing (in its many forms which I will delve into shortly) is both one of the finest ways to compliment as well as to appreciate music. That said, I'm no conneissour of dance music and don't really even like it that much. My complaints tend to be in the drum machines, which by their nature would appear to remove the human element (the part I like!) from music and rhythm. But there are exceptions of course and Hot Chip is one of them.

First off, Hot Chip plays with a full band (including real drummer, even though they use lots of drum samples on their recordings). They are a sort of dance song band who are both making fun of other dance song producers but also being deadly serious about producing linoleum thumpers with enough kick to throttle a giraffe. Totally danceable, but also kinda goofy. (check). However, with a real drummer and full band setup (albeit with three keyboards) they can really rock it hard (check). Above all, the guys on stage and on the records look and sound like they're having fun. This is an element I feel I'm always looking for. Having fun (check). All this (to me, anyway) totals an awesome band. Way to go, lads.

I wrote about how I was introduced to them at the 2008 Treasure Island Music festival, and how they sort of did the unthinkable which was rock a mid-afternoon festival crowd and get me to like songs I didn't know beforehand, in a genre I don't tend to be into. After that, I snatched up their records and got pretty into it, waiting patiently for them to come back to the Bay Area (it took a solid year and a half). Realistically, there existed a moment at the very apex of my interest in Hot Chip's records, somewhere around December of 2008, when I could have had even more fun at this show...but with touring bands, having them show up in your far away town right at this moment is rare for sure. That said, the show was awesome. They played all the songs I wanted to hear from new and past records and the crowd (although packed like sardines) was pretty into it and there were plenty dancing along like myself.

In recorded form, Hot Chip is a perfect example of music best enjoyed on headphones, not just for the standard nuance and better bass response reasons that make pretty much all music better on headphones (read: not earbuds), but because it makes you want to walk along in step with the songs and walking with your headphones on and a nice beat backing you is most assuredly a form of dancing (I told you I'd get to it!). (Think on it. Apart from working out to music (specifically running, wherein you can lock in to certain song rhythms and get that "70s carwash-size endorphin sponge is being squeezed over my head" feeling*), it's one of the best methods of music ingestion. It's also the easiest, most socially acceptable form of dancing, and you should probably go try it. Right now).

So yeah, it's fully confirmed. Hot Chip rounds out the full package by being a high energy, fun-loving, hard-rocking live band. Maybe my impulse was correct. High energy plus headphones plus dancing plus rock plus lots of harmonies plus melody plus fun plus Batman references. (by the way, Astralwerks (and others) won't let you embed videos anymore, because I guess this is one way musicians are continuing to earn labels money? It's complicated but (I think) generally supportive to the arts to click that and watch the video(s) on youtube.)

Also Pitchfork has their brand new video for "I Feel Better"...which is pretty bizarre (and cool), and features a Mr. Burns-as-drugged-up-glowing-alien-like figure.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Kung-Fu Cinema: Flag-waving


A little while back I decided that I wanted to get into kung-fu movies. Straightforward enough...yet deceptively complicated, because damn there are a lot of them, released under numerous aliases and with various crappy original language and dub audio tracks. I started here, an article I found very helpful as a primer...the legend continues, as they say. Keep in mind that I'm speaking about these films from a perspective of almost no prior knowledge and experience. So far I'm just working with what Netflix has available...

I watched Flag of Iron last night, another Shaw Brothers' film about a couple warring clans of fighters with different styles. My quest and interest in kung fu films is slowing down but on the plus side, watching them is making my Mandarin's improve; only, apparently it's golden oldie Mandarin, since most of the movies take place like 500 years ago and they use expressions that no one uses anymore. Also sometimes I feel like I'm missing out on the occasionally hilarious english dub tracks (I did half and half for this one)...but the language absorbtion thing seems more important than finding out where Wu-Tang samples originate.

This jam starred Philip Kwok. Most of these martial arts actors have already shown up in multiple films, and I recognized this this dude as Lizard in the Five Deadly Venoms. He plays a good guy again, name of Iron Panther (nice!). He's part of the Iron Flag clan, who fight with long flagpoles and get into a dispute with the Eagle clan (bunch of pusses). The story works so that he becomes a fall guy for his clan over some legal nonsense and goes into exile, only to eventually come back and topple a mini-conspiracy a year later.

Along the way he kills 9 deadly assassins who were sent to kill him who all have different fun names / styles. One's called the butcher because that's his job when he's not assassin-ing. Another goes by Iron Axe, etc..

The coolest part of the movie, and really the part that sort of redeemed it, was the final fight scene, where one dude throws a flagpole and impales another guy, whereupon the flag unfurls from the pole drenched in blood. This happens about 2 minutes into the clip.

One thing that cracks me up about kung-fu movies (like this) is the complete lack of resolution after the climax. The film ends literally 3 seconds after this scene (above). Typical end of kung fu film: they fight it out and then one guys dies and then there's a brief shot of the winner, and then the "the end" pops up. No tree topper on this party boat. They get it done and they roll the credits.


Some of the choreography in this movie was cool, and it's always fun to watch them fight with new weapons (in this case, a flag), but the plot and the fight sequences were pretty standard issue. The movie was bloodier than a bunch of the others I had watched, but the main thing that stood out about the film was the emergence of a new (to me) character archetype in "The White Rambler."

This guy, pictured in the clip above in white, is an assassin for hire who's just "in it for the money" and doesn't get too involved with the politics of the situation. He's laid back and slick with the babes. He's kung fu Dolemite. Han Solo with a headband and a spear that's spring-loaded and shoots the tip off (and afterward a handful of nails). His dub-voice actor is even doing half a John Wayne impression which sort of clinched it when I flipped over to the English soundtrack halfway through. Carbonite thick.

Other than that, I was sort of bored.

Iceberg Rating: 5 out of 12 parsecs for the Kessel Run