Only a few bits left

There was a time not so long ago I was obsessed with media. Well, to be specific, I was obsessed with owning media. Boxes of books, movies, video games, CD’s (mostly of bad bands) and all other things I had piled everywhere just taking up space in the off chance I wanted to revisit Underworld: Evolution. Okay I did that a few times (I CAN MAKE BAD CHOICES) but still, the vast majority of my possessions were just things that never saw use.

Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t hording things, I was happy to loan things to people I and we always were good about spring cleaning. I knew how to give up things, but I was really good at holding onto things that I thought had value. That’s started to change.

I couldn’t tell you the exact time I wanted to own less, but I think it is related to the desire I had to change myself after I left Mines. I was fundamentally very unhappy, and I didn’t know why. So, I basically hit resent and started making major changes to my life.

Step one was when I shaved my head. Say what you will, I looked good. Then I started to get rid of crap. I sold video games initially and then started to donate them because I don’t really value money. I donated books and movies. Not my usual two or three here and there, I got rid of almost all of them. I don’t own a DVD anymore, certainly no CD’s. No more physical video games. The word physical is where things really pick up here.

Who buys DVD’s? No seriously, the only people I know who buy movies are people who either don’t get the idea of streaming or….. okay they’re actually the only ones. Between Netflix, Amazon Prime, and HBO Now, I can cheaply watch more good shows and movies than I could ever possibly hope to watch. Music? Google Play Music is my personal choice. I’ve been on digital music for a while, but streaming is just frankly easier and more unified in a lot of ways. I still have physical copies of the Bible, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter, but that’s mostly just a bit too much nostalgia to give up. Besides that, Kindle books are cheaper anyway. As for video games, I’ve grown to prefer PC gaming anyway, and what chump buys physical PC games?

Here’s the thing, it feels truly liberating to have less stuff. Obviously I’ve been out of the house for some time now that I’m in college, but I used to just keep a bunch of stuff at home. I wanted nothing to do with that anymore. It’s seriously just stuff I have no intent of using anymore. I literally don’t have a room at my family’s house anymore (it’s not sad like it sounds, there’s just a lot of people in a small space).

Does any of this mean I am consuming any less media? Not at all. I don’t buy as much anymore, but I’m getting as much or more joy from entertainment than I ever have. I just spend less and own less. I really like it. I can get things I like anywhere I happen to be I have what I want. Travel has been my goal for as long as I can remember, and owning less makes that seem a lot easier. I’m hoping to spend a year in Russia soon, and if I were to go today, the computer I’m currently typing on already has everything I would possibly want ready to go. Nothing I’d have to entrust with people while I’m gone or try to stuff together. Just the freedom from being owned by possessions. It’s kind of like Fight Club.

I would not quite call myself a minimalist yet, but I’ve gotten to really enjoy owning less. There’s a great documentary on Netflix that is made by podcasters and bloggers who are hardcore minimalists. They didn’t get me started on getting rid of possessions but they sure have helped me along the way. The main idea that I am trying to embody is only buying things that add value to my life. They have a phrase I’ve been trying to keep in mind. “Love people and use things because the reverse never works.”

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Realistic escapism

For as long as I can remember, I have been drawn to escapist expressions. At the risk of sounding like a hipster, I have always loved fantasy, comics, sci-fi, video games, anything that lets me escape to somewhere more fantastical than the world I live in. So, in the stressful media world of Trump’s America, I must ask myself why I can’t seem to lose myself in the worlds I love so much.

My Steam library is packed to the gills, I have a significant reading list on my Kindle, and there is a ridiculous amount of good content on HBO, Netflix, and Amazon. So much, in fact, that I needed to get an app to sort through it. There’s a really great app that aggregates movie and TV choices called Mighty, they describe themselves as Tinder for streaming. I made sure to input a lot of my favorite things so most of the recommendations are off the charts good. Things I wanted to see I didn’t know were available to me, and things I really like were appearing with my having no prior knowledge of their existence. Here’s the thing, none of them are the sort of escapist show I have been previously drawn to, Westworld, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Stranger Things, and any number of other shows I have enjoyed throughout the years. I have watched almost exclusively documentaries.

At the beginning of the semester, I once again read Book X of The Republic for my Introduction to Literary Criticism class which gives a blistering attack on the nature of art and literature, the harshest criticism possible, for art as a whole.. I don’t agree with it by and large, but Socrates largely argues that reality is hard to perceive so having multiple lenses to distort a vision of the world can make it exponentially more difficult to see the truth. In a world of alternative facts, I am turning to the entertainment with the fewest lenses to find my joy.

Want to know what I just watched? A documentary about government surveillance. That’s not as light as In Search of General Tso, but it shows some truth. Of course everything has its own flaws and distortions applied by its makers, that goes without saying. That’s kind of the point of Socrates argument in The Republic. That doesn’t matter.

It is impossible to be a proper citizen of an Advanced Liberal Democracy without exposing oneself to the news. That is quite simply essential to functioning in the world, but frankly, it really sucks in the last few years. Real and legitimate news is under assault, and those attacking it won’t even allow us the courtesy of marking it as such. Of course right leaning sights were more problematic in the election, but its not lack of center right news available to them from reliable sources, look at The Economist, Forbes, or The Wall Street JournalThey all have political angles that do not align with me, but they have reliable records. They made their names on reliability, not on clicks.

So I turn to documentaries. True, reliable, and entertaining. Even the darkest ones are infinitely better than what I get in the New York Times everyday. Top notch reporting, but it makes me feel like I’m going to have a nervous breakdown because the truth is so much stranger than fiction with the Whitehouse acting as a reality TV show. It’s just not the strangeness I like.

Slow and steady

Before I begin let me say that I am aware that as a white man I am not in a good position to discuss diversity. Though I would say I am a hard worker I see no alternative but to acknowledge the many privileges I have had all my life. While I do my best to expand my understanding of the world and see things through the broadest lens I can find, please remember that everything I write comes from this limited perspective, so take it with a grain of salt.

Initially, this topic came to mind when my dad, a very open-minded man, told me that he did not quite understand what the big deal was. I confess, when the 2015 Oscars rolled around with major diversity issues (though I would note the Best Director winner Alejandro Inarritu is Mexican) I was of the mind that it was merely unfortunate. Yes, it was very, very bad that there were no people of color nominated for their role in the film, and a continuous lack of women among the ranks of directors, rather than behind the camera, but it didn’t seem impossible to me.

Though minority populations (and particularly Latinos) are rapidly growing, and on pace to create a scenario where white people are either a minority or races become mixed to a point that it doesn’t matter anymore, we are still the largest portion of the United States’ population. While people of color go through their growing pains in both population and socioeconomic growth, it seemed possible that we would have one year to eventually look back on with cringing laughter in a post-racial year. Heck, the year before had been a great year for people of color with 12 Years a Slave. Maybe that day will come, but I fear it may be further off than I anticipated.

At last year’s 2016 Oscars, there was the same pale domination of every category with the same solitary exception. This in a year with both Creed and Straight Outta Compton representing compelling and quality movies with primarily African-American casts (still not perfect representation, but take the victories we can get). Unfortunately, the only actor nominated from either film was Sylvester Stallone, who is certainty a competent actor, but it seemed like a wonderful example of the absurdity of the situation.

At the root of Hollywood’s diversity problem is the seeming inability of the institution to produce good rolls for people of color. While still an issue, and most likely an issue for years to come, the situation is slowly improving. While we still get horribly white-washed rolls like those in Gods of Egypt (though that was honestly the least of their problems) we do see some progress with purposeful diversity elsewhere. But even in a movie like Creed with a talented black man at the lead, the white supporting actor was the only one nominated.

So, maybe they didn’t want to pick a character who had race as a major facet of their identity, fair enough, I’m not fond of that sort of casting anyway and there have been recent awards for characters focused on race. I (as a middle class white man) am much more fond of characters like Trenton in Mr. Robot who is definitely a woman of color and practices Islam, but all of that is just a component of her identity as a tougher-than-nails hacker who helps bring about amazing wealth redistribution. While not exactly colorblind casting, it is a template for sophisticated portrayal of race.

So the only conceivable option beyond a race issue is a strong preference for colorblind or pseudo colorblind casting. Here’s the things, there was still some good options with colorblind casting last year. In 2015/2016 I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens six times in the theater. Yes, I know that is too many.

Obviously I don’t expect Star Wars to sweep the Oscars right after the series gets a fresh face, but I think it is worth noting that two of the three new main characters are men of color. Obviously John Boyega (Finn) is of African decent, more specifically his parents are from Nigeria and didn’t know what Star Wars was when he was cast. With both a strong performance in the mega franchise and a strong acting pedigree, Boyega would make a good fit nominated as Best Actor. If I’m being honest, his snuff isn’t the one that really upsets me.

While Star Wars was barely a blip at last years awards, want to know what wasn’t? Ex Machina. The light sci-fi film got acclaim both for its core concept as well as its underlying thread about the objectification of women, particularly women of color. The film was nominated for Best Screenplay and won Best Visual Effects, but I get a bit angsty that the common actor between Ex Machina and The Force Awakens, Oscar Isaac (Poe Dameron in Star Wars and Nathan in Ex Machina).

As far as mass-appeal movies went, last year was clearly the year of Mad Max: Fury Road, and sometimes the Academy gets a bit full of itself and doesn’t want to acknowledge films that aren’t artsy enough. That’s fine, they want to keep a certain amount of prestige. But Isaac was also in Ex Machina. Though he is from Guatemala, Isaac falls into the category of “racially flexible” in a roll that has nothing much to do with any race and did a damn good job, he was even anticipated by some publications to be a contender to win Best Supporting Actor. But he wasn’t even a blip on the radar.

I apologize to all of my friends in minority communities for not understanding this sooner, I could blame it on the privilege, but that doesn’t absolve the guilt. One might have been viewed as chance in a certain light, but two shows a real problem. It is partially on the industry for not producing better films, but it is also partially on the Academy, they hold real power to make and break stars and hits that they do not share enough with marginalized communities. Before anyone accuses me of being a SJW, of course I don’t want a general awards show devoid of white people, that’s stupid. I want fair and well balanced representation of all sorts of communities. Numbers and percentages will inevitably ebb and flow over the years, but the previous state of affairs was a disgrace. This year represents another step to fairness and equality, and I won’t see another white gold Oscars as anything but discriminatory. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

Silver linings

I won’t beat around the bush, 2016 was a bad year. I refuse to believe that it is just media coverage, this was a bad year. But there were a few things this year I really liked (mostly entertainment stuff for the purposes of this Post) and got me through, so I want to talk about them.

Music

The first thing is actually tied to an early unfortunate event, and that is Blackstar by David Bowie. I remember the moment I read about his death. I had “Lazarus” playing on Spotify when the Rolling Stone headline showed up on my Twitter feed. If you haven’t heard the song, it is Bowie’s song that kind of acknowledges mortality. That’s been read into plenty, but at least I’ve had something to listen to from the get go.

I really can’t mention 2016 without mentioning Kanye’s new album. I adored The Life of Pablo by Kanye West. I’ve written about Kanye already and recent events have shown some interesting turns in his persona, but Pablo gave me a lot to identify with and lean on for strength. Also, just go ahead and lump his concert in there because I’ll remember that little trip with Grace for years to come.

I actually saw quite a few concerts in the second half of my year. After I saw Kanye, I also got to see MC Lars, a longtime favorite of mine. He was every bit as nice as I could have hoped and the show with Mega Ran and mc chris was high octane and unique.

This year I had the habit of getting tickets to concerts as Christmas presents, the final show I went to was a Christmas show from Trans Siberian Orchestra. They make an incredible spectacle, but the highlight for me was when they had a tiger change into a dragon change into an attack helicopter. I still don’t know why they did that, but that has yet to affect the degree to which I care.

Film

The next thing I loved was the new Coen Brothers movie Hail, Caesar! which really shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s on HBO at the moment, and that’s good because it’s hard to explain all the reasons I like this venture without ruining a lot of things, not by killing plot points, just really cool and odd jokes. If nothing else, the sheer amount of incredible names should speak about why I’d be so thrilled by a period movie like this.

Sandwiched between the album and the tour, I binged some serious TV and I have to say, Netflix had a good years. Bojack Horseman has been going strong for a few years, but that blend of flippant humor with serious and potent commentaries on sensitive issues (i.e. mental illness, abortion, nontraditional relationships) is something that I can’t get enough of. Also, I didn’t expect to like Stranger Things, but there are few things made that so perfectly fit with what I live. I know I’m not from the 80s, but I don’t care. Just as I liked the setting of Hail Caesar! I adore that aesthetic that permeates so many things I love.

The other source of TV that entered my life was HBO. My family never paid for the cable subscription. We still don’t. But I subscribe to HBO Now so I’ve gotten to enjoy what they’ve put out, and it has been some wonderful stuff. I enjoyed Westworld and Veep but my favorite has to be Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. I’m impressed with the sheer variety they can produce and there has yet to be a time I could not get out of a funk with those three magic letters.

Games

Before I say anything here, I must acknowledge that I’ve been playing a lot of older games this year. For instance, I’ve only recently gotten into Skyrim. Not the remastered on on consoles. The PC version. No special mods. I just finally found what makes it fun. If you want to know what has had a major emotional impact, look to Spec Ops: The Line. It incredibly subverts expectations to show what war is like. To be fair, I haven’t been to war. I probably never will. But I definitely can understand the stress there. That’s just the beginning of my list of older games I liked this year.

Another thing that was incredibly cheery was Stardew Valley. I love that game. I have never experienced something that so easily made me feel comfortable. When I think about the gameplay itself or the story, there’s nothing all that impressive. But the loop always makes me feel productive and relaxed. When paired with the incomparable soundtrack, it’s basically a digital blanket I can cuddle into.

In terms of time sinks, there has been little that could compare in my life to Sid Meier’s Civilization series, and Civ VI is not an exception. I don’t know if I like it as much as IV yet, and I certainly haven’t spent as much time with it. But its on its way. That could easily get to be my most played game. Full stop, It’s going through the roof as we speak. Twenty hours in a week, thanks to winter break. Life is sad sometimes.

Tech

I need to give a shout out to my phone here. I’m on my own phone plan now, and I adore the phone I have for it. While I don’t have the brand new OnePlus 3T, that wasn’t announced until a few weeks after I got mine, but I don’t care. I love my OnePlus 3. In our society, our phones have gotten to be an expression of who we are. My iPhone was fine, but I think this represents who I am better. It’s a smart buy when considering value. It’s unique because no one else has it. That’s my problem with Apple products. They all blend in. They look nice, but boring. Where my phone is concerned I want to feel unique, and it is.

Person

I can’t mention Stranger Things, Westworld and trashing on Apple without thinking about the person who spurred me to watch it, my wonderful girlfriend Allie. I try to keep an air of professionalism with this silly blog and not directly address her, but she is definitely my favorite thing about 2016. I’m not an easy person to be with, but she seems to be sticking it out. She leaves for Canada soon, but I know I’m the luckiest guy in the world to have her. She makes me happy. I love her, and she’s my favorite thing of the year.

Consumer cannibalism

I am a strong believer in the merits of technology. When I was a little kid, my mom was (and is) staunchly against computers, mostly on principle. And by principle I mean a deathly fear of change. One might think such circumstances would produce a technophobe. In my case, that is not true.

Though our home lacked a computer, I couldn’t be insulated from computers, and that only had limited exposure only made me more interested. Maybe that’s part of the reason for my time spent as a computer engineering student, and it is certainly responsible for my obsession with gadgets. So if it isn’t obvious, I’m a big proponent of technology for education and benefiting society in a myriad of other ways. Today, something happened that dampened my optimism.

Earlier this year, I bought my youngest sister Stella a tablet. Nothing fancy, just a cheap little Lenovo. In my mind, this was a fun present that would open up educational stuff to her with some occasional games for long car rides. That worst case scenario would render her a gamer with a better understanding of the basics of technology than I did at her age. If only.

With Christmas break rolling around, I’ve been spending a lot of time with Stella, and it is great. At school I really miss getting to be a hero for breathing and playing the Mr. Scrooge game with her. While I spent a good portion of last Christmas break and the summer like this, that isn’t what she wants anymore. She is devoted to YouTube Kids.

I’m not judging watching YouTube, I think there’s some really good content on there and frankly can’t stand the majority of current “family” shows. Pair that with a fostering of DIY ethics for a lot of creators, YouTube’s something I don’t have any inherent qualms with. Then I saw what she was watching, and I felt kind of gross.

This is all content curated for Stella’s age group, so nothing that even registers PG, The gross part is that Stella is enchanted by ads. I understand that to have free content, some adds are necessary, that’s fine. But she will watch hours and hours of videos of toy unboxings and channels that just talk about how cool the new Frozen grab bags are so cool. The voices are pandering, and I really had trouble believing that this many adults would be so enchanted with these products.

So, it was time to dig. It is important to note that the YouTube Kids app doesn’t allow easy access to description or comment sections, so I had to go and find some of these videos in my Chrome browser. Upon the slightest scrutiny it turned out that, almost without exception, they were made by people being paid to pretend they are really, really into Shopkins, just like every kid should be. The internet has made finding ads a lot more confusing. Sure, some stick out and a lot go unnoticed due to the popularity of ad-blocking software. What if the content that drives internet traffic is, to some degree, an ad?

Paid content in mainstream media is nothing new, but there have always been federal regulations that require disclosure that the content is being paid for. So if you read a review someone was paid to write for a product on Amazon, they are required to disclose any financial gains, including a free product, in the words. Videos don’t work the same.

On YouTube, there only has to be a disclosure in the description. No one, child content creator or otherwise, makes a point to mention this in a video, so its always in the description. Personally, I already think this is kind of deceptive for adults. Kids? That’s a whole other ball game.

As previously mentioned, it’s hard to get to that description through the app to begin with. Even if a kid figures out, it probably wouldn’t make a difference. Stella is a smart kid. Really smart. Still, like most 5-year-old people, she can’t read. Assuming that the population of her age group is on the same or lower levels, getting to the description doesn’t make a difference, they can’t read it. This is unfair on multiple levels.

For those who don’t know, I listen to podcasts semi-obsessively and one of my favorites is “Stuff You Should Know.” Recently, Josh and Chuck ran through some information about advertising to kids, and that is some really, really gross stuff.

Until the Reagan administration, advertising to kids was heavily regulated, but then laissez-faire took over, and the next thing you know there are full length shows that are basically ads. Adults can differentiate, but children can’t. No, literally. Studies show that until around the age of 12 the human mind can literally not differentiate between the fun toons they were just enjoying with some Cap’n Crunch and the products people want to shove down their throats. Their mouths are wide open to these early stages of consumerism.

Most of the videos Stella watches are for licensed products, Disney Princesses and Trolls in particular. They found a devious way to sell a lot of these, grab bags. I won’t pretend I don’t understand part of the fun of collecting, I had my own obsessions with Pokemon and Yu Gi Oh cards, but I think that’s different.

Maybe it’s my old man deep down already getting angsty about the kids threatening to step on my lawn, but this seems more dubious. Those cards were part of a game and encouraged trading and social behaviors. That’s why I still like TCGs. These have no purpose beyond growing a horde, and Stella knows so much about them. When I opened a Zapdos card, I knew it was special because I knew that was a cool character that was hard to find. Thanks to her videos, Stella knows specifics of rarity and and class of these little figures. And because there is no way to know what is in the bag ahead of time. So she always wants more.

Here is where I will differentiate consumerism as a problem. Full disclosure, it’s a drug I still struggle with, but this seems like purchasing for the sake of purchasing. I had a lot of cards, but they were for a game. I had books, but I read them. I had movies, but I watched them. Now, the toys go unplayed with, collectible heirlooms for kids. Many would argue that they make them happy, so who cares. I understand that, but that is going somewhere really scary.

It wasn’t until the beginning of the summer I really started to rage against the machine and reduce my possessions, and I realize now that it was probably because I was groomed by Pokemon cards, even though I really do hold to the belief that it was more innocent and valuable. This is really the same model, but much, much more potent. When I was advertised to, I didn’t realize it, but I hadn’t been trained to seek it out. Maybe I’m just worried about the kids of today, but I want it to be clear that I do not blame them, they don’t know it’s happening.

I understand that we live in a mostly capitalist society, and so some of these issues are unavoidable. But every segment of every industry seem to be collaborating to make the next generation wonderful at buying crap they don’t need or necessarily want until they see a very enthusiastic description online. It’s the same as its always been, just a lot worse. It’s taking advantage of people to make a profit. That’s not okay.

What’s worse? I have no idea how to fix this mess. We can try to teach kids about how to identify ads, but who knows how effective that would be? Even if it worked, that’s still consumerism, just a bit smarter consumerism. It doesn’t get to the central issue of this sociological tumor. And it makes me really sad. This is why I’m liberal. I’m not nearly as worried about Big Brother watching me as I am society selling its soul for a few trinkets.

Go West(world) young man

I’m finally on the hip edge of TV with HBO’s Westworld, and I have to say, it blew me away. There are a lot of issues the first season raised that I plan to talk write about later, like the representation of identity and self, but today I want to talk about my favorite character, Dolores. Let me just throw a quick spoiler warning here.

When I started Westworld, I was expecting Dolores to follow a very archtypical path of female empowerment, but even in the first episode I saw that would not be the case. If there’s one thing the show excels at, it’s subverting expectations. Maybe that is why I felt my initial pull toward Dolores, the writers made it clear from the beginning that she was intended for something special.

When I first started discussing favorite characters with my girlfriend, who I also watched a significant portion of the series with, she suggested that it’s because Dolores is hot. I won’t deny that Evan Rachel Wood is a very good looking woman, but I don’t think that’s it. I think it’s because I can identify with her character.

One of the things that has often held women back in entertainment is the male gaze. Almost all entertainment is made to please young men. Not only has that given an unfortunate homogeneity to entertainment, the perception has been that men can only identify with strong characters (read straight white guys). I am thrilled to report that Dolores definitely disproves such a conceit.

Many, myself included, might point out that I’m not an overly masculine figure to begin with. That is true, but Dolores remains a strong character. While she does become more empowered over time, there is never a point where the farmer’s daughter isn’t ready to go. This is your last spoiler warning before I go to some major plot points.

Maybe I’m just stupid, but one of the craziest realizations for me was that not all subplots in the show were happening in the same time, I certainly didn’t expect William to be the Man in Black. Assuming I wasn’t the only one, the reveal of Dolores bouncing all over the timeline caught me off guard at the same time that a mirror was held to my face.

I’ve talked a bit about my post traumatic stress, but one of the (admittedly stereotypical) manifestations can be traumatic flashbacks. If something negative and familiar hits me, I can be transported to a bad place, with almost no way to hold on. For now.

The way humans work reminds me a great deal of how robots work, just more complex. That’s why the representation of androids on Westworld grips me so thoroughly. My thoughts tend to align with those of Arnold. As far as I am concerned, they are sentient beings just as much as any human is, the means of controlling them are a little more obvious.

Hard determinism is a bit off-putting, but I can’t deny that the philosophy holds truth to me. As I’ve previously written, the way humans work is essentially an incredibly complex series of electrical pulses and chemical reactions, the hosts are just a bit more obvious.

Mae gets out of this loop by altering her code, I’d make an analogy to medication, and Dolores finds freedom with the help of another; which I’d compare to therapy. The strength and capabilities are deep in her to overcome and become a great person, or lead a revolution, she just needs to change some things, and move past some old scars.

Can I beat my demons just like Dolores shot Ford (seriously, what?)? Not yet. But I’m getting there. I just need to change a few lines of code in me.