Spring Pictures

This is one of my picture posts, so if you’re into that, great, and if not, then I guess I’ll see you later.

I’ll start with a usual theme: birds. I’ve seen a lot of robins, of course, as well as red-winged blackbirds, cardinals, European starlings and grackles, sparrows, mourning doves, at least one swallow, and the ever-present Mallard ducks and Canadian geese. I’ve even seen a red-tailed hawk! As usual, most of my pictures suck. Worse than usual, even the decent ones are only decent when grading on a curve. But still, here are a few:

I also have a couple landscape shots that I thought were pretty enough:

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Lastly, I’ve got some zoo pictures to share:

I love the second orangutan shot not because of the quality of the picture (it’s dreadful, I know!) but because of the dude’s incredibly contented face.

That’s it! I hope more pictures will be coming soon as I get out walking more–it looks like it might finally start feeling like spring!

Living in the franchise flow

My last post might have ended up sounding shockingly bitter or defeatist. Maybe it sounds like I’m engaging in an activity that I don’t even like anymore? But that’s simply not true.

I suppose pop culture fandom is a bit like an addiction. You could definitely keep consuming past the point of enjoyment. You might take deep reward from fandom, or you might merely remember at one point feeling a sense of reward, and after all you’re so invested that there’s no reason to quit.

But I could quit if I wanted! I say this jokingly, of course; that phrase is the recognizable cliche of any addict ever. Yet there’s truth to it. I bashed pretty hard on Marvel films last night, but I don’t have the history with Marvel to feel any sense of personal identity bound up in its IP. I could walk away and never look back. But they’re still fun films!

Rather than a true addiction, it’s maybe more appropriate to look at my franchise fandoms as junk food. It’s way too easy to take in way too much of it, to keep consuming beyond any possible benefit. And just like junk food companies, these big studios are always trying to sell you on way more than you need, way more than you would otherwise want, way more than you should have. It all feels good–until you’re way past the point you should’ve stopped, and you feel a little bit sick. The metaphor is definitely not original to me, nor is the recommended treatment: moderation. Limit the junk food, and try to mostly eat healthy.

I admittedly don’t mostly eat healthy. Figuratively, or, uh, literally. But I try–both in the metaphor of media consumption and in my real-life dietary habits.

My big franchise fandom is, of course, Star Wars. But I’m more broadly a fan of the sci-fi and fantasy genres. And this of course means that there are plenty of original works out there without the burden of franchise. In the past few years, I’ve read plenty of Star Wars and revisited writers like Ray Bradbury and H.P. Lovecraft and George R.R. Martin, but I’m very glad to say that I’ve also read works from writers I hadn’t before, like Molly Glass and Victor Milan and Marie Brennan and Naomi Mitchison and Octavia Butler and even Carrie Fisher. I’ve also kept a steady stream of nonfiction works in my reading rotation, including a couple histories of Indiana, a few books on the paranormal, and a recent streak of true-crime books. I similarly try to keep my mix of films and games a combination of franchise favorites and new material.

I’m actually not trying to be prescriptive or judgmental. My own frustrations with franchise juggernauts, and my own efforts to counter my overexposure to the biggest commercial cash cows, are merely my own. I’m not an expert in, say, media studies or psychology. If you think that there could always be more Marvel movies, and you could never have enough, I’m not here to say that you’re wrong! It’s just my subjective experience.

What I’m trying to get at is that I get frustrated with my fandoms, and I recognize that these franchises are not healthy as one’s sole source of entertainment. But I still get a lot of enjoyment and engagement out of them, and I sometimes get a lot of inspiration or insight too. It’s just important to splice that with more enriching material. At least, it is for me.

Things I’m Into Right Now

For this evening’s post, a short recap of Things I’m Into Right Now.

First, I’m still playing Skyward Sword. I’ve held Arena on pause for a while now, but I feel more like I owe something to finishing up that game. I don’t really feel like I owe anything to Skyward Sword. Visuals are sometimes pretty, and sometimes fall short. Game’s quirky, though sometimes the characters are more annoying than silly. Plot’s falling into some generic Legendary Hero bullshit, which I guess it has to as a Zelda game, but it’s not anything to keep me around. Game path still feels really railroaded, and while it seems there are a lot of things I could be doing, a lot of arbitrary Secret Places in each zone and a lot of dumb item collection things like bug catching, very little actually seems interesting or fun to do. And oh my god, the motion controls are killing me. Things that should be intuitive are difficult to replicate. Trying to get my sword to arc a repetitive circle is a nightmare that usually translates to Link spastically jerking about–and that’s a required task to get through several sealed doors. I’m now through the Faron region and, having held off the demon Lord Ghirahim, I’ve finished my first true dungeon in the game.

Second, I’ve intermittently been playing Sonic Mania. It’s another game I don’t feel driven to complete, but it’s a fun diversion at times. You can play it a lot or a little. It feels like the original side-scrolling Sonic titles in the best possible way. It’s fun, it’s light, it’s challenging–sometimes, for me, very challenging–yet seldom frustrating. Bright colors, imaginative reinterpretations of old levels, and a sense of smooth direction over the course of every level to keep encouraging just one more level of play make for good times.

While it’s not really a Thing I’m Into Right Now, I’ve been excited to see the return of many songbirds this week, especially several red-winged blackbirds. Robins come so early, but it really feels like spring when I start to see (and hear) those red-winged blackbirds! And we still have two days until the spring equinox. On the subject of birds, anyone have any idea as to an identification of the birds up-top? Larger version of the image below:

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Also, I’m on a bit of a 1930’s true crime kick right now. I recently finished John Toland’s The Dillinger Days, which was fascinating mostly because I’d known very little at all about those 1930’s bank-robbing and kidnapping gangs. Toland’s book is well-researched, and it was written in the 1960’s so benefited from interviews with many of the surviving actors. Apparently some of the information’s now viewed as inaccurate, but I enjoyed the book. Toland did a good job of keeping criminals and cops alike as human, resisting the impulse to romanticize or villainize anyone (it’s hard to say I really liked anyone, though, what with the criminals murdering innocents and kidnapping people and often being sort of stupid and cruel, while the cops were often willing to shoot first and ask questions later and seemed a little too zealous in stopping the Bad Guys without due process concerns, except for a few who were often just outright corrupt).

Relatedly, I’m reading Al Capone: His Life, Legacy, and Legend by Deirdre Bair. I’d never read a biography of Capone before, and this was a very interesting one to start with. Bair has extensively interviewed family members and shares a more personal, intimate take on the famed gangster, often relating family stories and breaking down which ones are false and which ones have grains of truth. She also references other existent biographies. If you wanted a just-the-facts narrative focusing on Capone’s criminal operations and efforts to take him down, it seems like you might want another biography. But this one is beautifully written and thoughtful and engaging–the writing alone truly makes this book worth it.

Finally, I watched the 2011 biopic J. Edgar earlier today (directed by Clint Eastwood; written by Dustin Lance Black, who’s credited with writing a few other biopics; and starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Hoover, Naomi Watts as Helen Gandy, and Armie Hammer as Clyde Tolson, with an excellent supporting cast including a single-scene appearance by Adam Driver as an overly earnest gas station attendant). The original FBI director is such a ridiculous, legally empowered super-villain, and yet the film managed to portray him sympathetically by (1) presenting him as a true-believer law enforcement reformer who bought into his own myth, and by (2) spending significant screen time carefully building up the allegedly romantic relationship between Hoover and Tolson. Hoover’s fear of his own sexuality and his deep (yet apparently platonic) love for Tolson are elements that may or may not be true, but without them it would be hard to salvage a likeable man out of this. Tolson also conveniently serves as a very soft conscience, who challenges Hoover at his most disgusting and grandiose, though he unfortunately always backs down to the director. We are left without hard answers about who Hoover was–just one particularly artful interpretation. Aside from the pretty bad Old Person makeup for later-in-life Hoover and Tolson, this film was quite good.

And now, sadly, it’s time for my weekend to end.

Trouble in DKC

I was reminiscing with a friend the other day about our earliest video game experiences. Some of the games I thought about then hadn’t been in my mind for years. Maybe the first video games I remember are SNES titles: Disney games like Beauty and the BeastToy Story, and The Lion King; Jurassic Park and Jurassic Park 2; and Super Mario All-Stars plus Super Mario World. The Mario games are still delightful to play, of course; they’re iconic. The other games…are licensed titles for big franchises. They don’t all hold up as well. Perhaps it may surprise you if you haven’t played it, but I’d say The Lion King was the best of that bunch. It was a frustrating game, a side-scroller requiring repetitious attempts to master platforming movements with a sometimes less-than-precise control scheme, but the graphics were gorgeous for the time. I never got very far as a kid, but it was always a treat to play through the “Can’t Wait to be King” sequence, leaping across the backs of vividly colored animals (an example of someone’s play through that level can be found here).

The most vivid early gaming memory I have involves Donkey Kong Country. Rare would become a favorite developer of mine in the soon-to-follow N64 era. Donkey Kong Country was the first Rare game I encountered, and I loved it. The graphics are still gorgeous, with incredibly vibrant backgrounds and colorfully menacing enemies. The platforming was often challenging, but (except, perhaps, for mine cart levels) it always felt fair–you just had to learn how best to approach any given situation. And the setting was delightfully absurd in the way of the best Nintendo traditions, giving a whole new character and wacky world to a former Mario villain (not to mention a great collection of associates, like Cranky Kong or Diddy, and a ridiculous archenemy in King K. Rool).

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The thing is, Donkey Kong Country was decidedly not my game. The Internet tells me that DKC was originally released in 1994. Depending on when, exactly, in 1994 it was, I would have been five or six years old. My parents’ divorce couldn’t have been that long before. My sister and I lived with our mother in Florida, but we were being introduced to the eventually familiar pattern of summers and Christmas holidays in Indiana with my father. My father, a doctor, always had a smorgasbord of toys and games and activities for us when we visited. Hence the collection of SNES games. But my father was also something of a gamer at the time–I don’t think he’d ever call it that, but he’ll admit to having experimented with video games for a while, and I remember what must have been Sega CD discs for Dune and at least one flight sim, games I never was allowed to play. Donkey Kong Country was decidedly my dad’s game.

He and my stepmother (who wasn’t my stepmother yet, if I have the timeline right) had been working through Donkey Kong Country for a while. If memory serves correctly, they were perhaps a level away from the final boss. That’s a feat that, I must admit, I’ve never achieved in the years since. My sister and I were allowed to play in a separate file, though.

We were kids. My sister is a year and a half younger than me, and I was probably six years old in the incident that follows. We were not good at this game, and we did not get very far at all. But even the first levels were so fun and beautiful to look at, and it was a game that supported two players playing at once, so it was something we could play together.

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It is also true that my sister and I have always been competitive at best, if not outright belligerent towards each other. So one day, after agreeing to play Donkey Kong Country, we almost immediately got into an argument over which of us should be player one, and who should get to pick the game file. Maybe there was more to it, but that level of stupid, nearly incomprehensible, argument sounds about right.

DKC was not child-proof. Given that the game could be expected to be played by kids, it could almost be seen as a critical flaw that both players could control menu options at any time. And that, when two players are both smashing opposite directions and opposing buttons as fast as possible on the controllers, it is easy to cycle not just through game files but to the Erase Game option.

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These possibilities became reality. And in our momentary hatred, we somehow spun through the options and–in a flash of rapid button presses–deleted my dad’s save file.

Gone.

Irrecoverable.

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If I had any honor or integrity, I would have gone to my father to apologize. To explain that my sister and I had a foolish argument, and that we had let our tempers get the better of us, and we had deleted the save file.

But I was five.

My memory fails me on the exact details, but I must have rushed to my dad to tell him all about how my sister and I were in an argument, and she started hitting buttons when she wasn’t supposed to, and she alone deleted the save file.

My sister was blamed for the whole incident. And my dad never played Donkey Kong Country again.

It’s become a minor piece of family lore. A few years back, I finally came clean and owned up to my share of the responsibility for the deleted file. To my father, this was an old incident. But to my sister, it was a little bit of vindication–even as I began to recite the actual story, she already knew exactly what incident I was speaking of.

And that’s my first vivid video game memory. Somehow, I’ve kept playing video games ever since.

Not so much a movie review…

My wife and I were going to see Yu-Gi-Oh! The Movie today, but then we didn’t.

I don’t care at all about Yu-Gi-Oh! (always with that exclamation mark–maybe it should calm down a bit), but my wife has long been a fan of the show. There’s a lot of nostalgia, but that fandom has also helped her get through some dark times. I can respect its importance in her life (she’s written about that before on her own blog). I certainly have my share of pop culture obsessions. So while I don’t care about the show, I was perfectly willing to go with her to see The Movie.

AMC had a special two-day showing. Sam bought tickets early. The day of, she was excited and pushed us to leave early. We got there with plenty of time. And a couple of minor misfortunes ensued.

To start, we apparently had the wrong showtime. Sam had marked the start for 12:30–and I heard others also confused that the movie hadn’t started by that time. Turns out, the theater we attended had the time set for 12:55. She says the post she saw on Facebook had the earlier time; while I can’t find that post now, I’m inclined to believe her, especially since others were similarly confused. However, we have to concede that the AMC website, at least, does show 12:55 (as did her tickets the day of).

It was confusing, but I had nowhere better to be, so I was willing to wait it out. No promotions, no trailers, no sound, though, so we sat reclined in a dark theater. I suppose, under the circumstances, we could have just talked like normal humans, but dark theaters so strongly signal silence that we both mostly hovered over our phones.

Eventually 12:55 came around and passed. And then 1:05. At Sam’s request, I went to inquire about what was going on, and was assured that it was a projection issue. However, the screen stayed dark for another 20+ minutes, and at last a theater employee came in to tell us that the projector was down, that it could not be restored despite various attempts to resolve the issue.

The end result was a refund, two general movie passes, and some coupons. Frankly, it wasn’t a bad experience, and I felt that the theater did enough to try to make up for the occurrence. I know it was disappointing for Sam, though.

There’s one final showing of this film tomorrow. Sam’s going to try to go again. I hope it works this time, but either way, I’m sitting it out.

And that’s my day! How was yours?

Columbus, Ohio

Sam and I made a long weekend for ourselves and took a trip to Columbus. You could divide our trip into three categories: wandering Short North, eating at Bonifacio and shopping at Chuchay’s on a tip from the waiter, and visiting local public attractions. This post is concerned with that last prong. We went to COSI, CMOA, and the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.

COSI was a bit of spontaneity on my part, after I saw that there was a dinosaur exhibit in town. It appears to be a traveling exhibition on loan from the American Museum of Natural History. I thought the selection was fantastic, and it proved to be an exhibit for all ages. They had great content to engage children, including little interactive screens and games, looping videos, light-up fossil trackways, a life-size environmental diorama, and even an expert (or otherwise well-trained speaker) answering questions for kids in part of the exhibit. This dinosaur exhibit alone, which was good-sized and quite densely packed with information and displays, would be big enough to occupy an entire visit to COSI for at least a couple hours (it’s actually all we did there), and it seems like it would be great for families with kids who love dinosaurs or science more generally.

I was also impressed by the very contemporary research on display there, some of it seeming fairly cutting edge. Sam and I were really interested to learn more about how biomechanics and computer modeling were being applied to determine what dinosaurs could actually do. There were also many exhibits that explored current theories (and the fossil support) for things like nesting and egg-laying, brain development and composition, feathers and flight development, and even what makes birds uniquely birds. There were lots of excellent fossils exhibiting many of the above features, especially of feathered dinosaurs and early birds. There were also many skulls, especially of ceratopsians, and a few large full reconstructions, including of Tyrannosaurus, Stegosaurus, and a wire-frame Apatosaurus modeled off a simulated skeleton used for biomechanics research. A small selection of my photos from the exhibit follows:

I took many photos at the Columbus Museum of Art, but most were awful, and even decent photos just don’t adequately capture a painting (and frankly I don’t think it’d be super-appropriate to post even high-quality images of a collection without permission; I suspect the fair-use argument there would be fairly weak). There were a lot of interactive prompts at the museum, including stations encouraging people to leave their thoughts or to do something creative, and many of the descriptive plaques next to the artwork actively encouraged reflection on the part of the viewer. It was a smaller collection, but it also felt like an art museum that could engage with anyone regardless of their age, education, or exposure to art.

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Just a tiny segment of a massive Lego city inspired by Columbus, one of the larger displays at CMOA.

On the last day in Columbus, we went to the zoo. It felt like it was a little larger than the Indy Zoo, and we saw some animals here we’d never seen before. I thought the number of primates, including great apes, was pretty impressive in particular, though hardly the only thing of interest. Some of the exhibits were still closed because of the cold, including sections devoted to African and Australian animals, and many of the North American animals were absent (which seemed odd to me, since many of the absent ones were specifically adapted for living in Midwestern winters). I took a lot of pictures from the zoo, as usual–and I mean a lot. While I’ve trimmed down which photos to share here, there are still quite a few below, beginning with a series of one-offs, then some additional groups focused on specific animals.

A few wide shots:

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Birds, mostly:

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Reptiles and amphibians:

The silvered langur:

The bonobo:

The Amur tiger:

The polar bear:

Mixed messaging about kangaroos:

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Various sculptures/monuments:

I also saw a blue jay in the empty bison exhibit, and that awful-quality picture is included below.

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And that’s it! The trip was fun, and we’re glad to be home again.

A good weekend

This weekend was good because I was able to do very little that was in any way productive. That was quite fun. Most of the weekend was spent playing Zelda or reading. I played so much Zelda and could do another update just on that alone, but that would be productive, so I’m not doing it today. Let me point out that the image up top is recycled from my last post. What I will do is say that I’ve reached Goron City; I’ve completed the memory main quest, and I’m ready to knock out my last Divine Beast. Then I guess I need to get the Sword of Legend and, of course, wander around to solve mysteries and help people in distress until I’m finally willing to go face Ganon and give Zelda a much-deserved rest. She’s waited a hundred years; she can wait a little longer.

Relatedly, I’m pretty amused by the Switch profile’s game tracking. It’s pretty difficult to tell how vague the tracking is, or if there’s a cap to the number of hours it will report. Or maybe it wouldn’t be that difficult at all to figure this out, but I don’t check very often. Last I checked, which must have been a few weeks back, the profile indicated that I had played about 60 hours or more. Well, it’s continued to track a higher number, though it’s stayed just as vague:

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Wow, I’ve played a lot of Zelda. At least that seems like a lot to me!

Anyway, I said I’d spent the weekend gaming and reading. I’m currently reading UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record, by Leslie Kean, and as I result of that, I watched I Know What I Saw, directed by James Fox; Kean and Fox worked together in interviewing witnesses and bringing a group of credible observers together for a conference in, I believe, 2011. The trigger for my current tangent into ufology is the reporting this winter on the Pentagon’s investigation into UFOs, reporting which involved Kean. As with all things ufological, there are a lot of interesting stories in this book and film, and some things truly seem unexplainable, but some of the narratives are sandpapered to remove the rough edges of factual inconsistencies and alternative explanations (conversely, in hearing accounts of some famous sightings by those who actually investigated, I’m shocked to realize how knee-jerk reactionary the debunking/skeptical community can be–I’d completely written off the 2006 O’Hare incident until reading this book). Still, the core of the book and film, that about 5% of UFO sightings cannot be explained via conventional means despite sufficient documentation to rule out all known technological and natural possibilities, and that these sightings are often made by trained observers including pilots and military personnel, and that the US should follow the example of other countries in conducting an open and honest investigation into the phenomenon, is valid and worth considering.

As a child, I had a fascination with a lot of paranormal nonsense like alien abductions and ghosts and various cryptids, as well as the associated conspiracy theories; I think growing out of that and becoming skeptical really helped improve my critical thinking skills. But I’ve always had a soft spot for the paranormal, and while Kean and Fox can’t say that UFOs are anything other than unexplained and currently unexplainable aerial phenomena, that’s still interesting and remarkable in and of itself. (Too bad Fox’s movie was distributed by the very absurdly named UFO TV.)

All right, back to being unproductive.