FYMP Podcast #25 – Buffy, Vampires, and the Chosen Family: A Conversation with Sami Gardner

In this episode I had the pleasure of speaking with career coach, podcaster, fiction connoisseur, and Buffy superfan Sami Gardner! Our wide-ranging conversation on vampire fiction centers around Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the often underappreciated gem of late 90’s early 2000’s TV. We talk about why the show was so special, and why messages about chosen communities resonate with modern people so much. You can (and should) find more about Sami on her website: samigardner.net

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FYMP Podcast #24 – The Art of Stand-Up: A Conversation with Adam Palmeter

In this hilarious episode I spoke with artist and stand-up comedian Adam Palmeter! We talked about the intersection between traditional art and performance art, the psychology of the comedian, and life lessons taken from stand-up. You can find more of Adam’s work on IG: @adampalmeter, or at his website: www.adampalmeter.com

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FYMP Podcast #23 – The Highs and Lows of Comedy and Culture: A Conversation with Dave

In this episode Khemit and Dave chat about comedy, humor and what makes funny things funny. We talk about the differences between American and British comedy, the relationship between discomfort and comedy, the role of humor in societies, if and when comedy goes too far, and our favorite and least favorite examples of funny stuff.

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FYMP Podcast #22 – Personality Type and Stories: A Conversation with Idahosa Ness

In this episode, hyperglot and serial entrepreneur Idahosa Ness joins us!

Idahosa is the founder of The Mimic Method, a language learning program that helps you learn languages by ear, and MindKeepers where he focuses on helping people spend more time in a good state of mind using various tools and techniques. We talk about the different frameworks used for personality typing, the purpose and utility of learning about personality types, and how personality type plays a role in stories and in people’s lives.

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FYMP Podcast #21 – Journey to the East: A Conversation with Walter McDaniel

In this episode of the podcast we had the pleasure of speaking with artist, entrepreneur and fellow East Coaster Walter McDaniel! We talked about topics including his background as an artist, his current work, storytelling, fictional influences, his advice for people with atypical aspirations. After the conversation with Walter, Matt and Khemit discuss Walter’s work, Journey to the West, and the art of translating mythology.

More information about Red Dragon Media can be found at www.red-dragon.cn

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FYMP Podcast #20 – Why Epic Book Series’ Get Worse & The Psychology of Success

In this episode we try to answer the question of why epic book series’ tend to get worse as they get further along. We also discuss the pressures and psychological effects of success on writers, what it takes to maintain productivity and motivation as a human being, and the incredible value of being bad at things.

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FYMP Podcast #19 – The Last Airbender and the Multiple Dimensions of Cartoons

In this episode we talk about Avatar: The Last Airbender and other non-anime cartoons that were MUCH more than just children’s shows. We discuss cartoon series’ that transcend their genre and have something to offer to both kids and adults, and draw contrasts with those that don’t. The discussion, as always, gets into the essential elements of storytelling and the meaning behind the characters we know and love.

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FYMP Podcast #18 – Annihilation – Understanding the Impossible

In this episode we discuss the Alex Garland movie Annihilation. Tons of themes to unpack so we dive right in, and there’s a healthy dose of our usual tangents on myriad other works of fiction that tie into those themes. We also discuss the psychology of Hollywood, the human ability to create, and the effects of streaming services on the movie industry.

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FYMP Podcast #17 – Unbreakable & Split: the War Within

In this episode we break down the themes behind the 2 films in M. Night Shyamalan’s newly shared universe: Unbreakable & Split. The Unbreaka-verse? The Split-verse? Shyama-Land? Whatever you want to call it, there are some seriously interesting themes in these movies. We take a deep look a what they are and their implications in our lives.

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FYMP Podcast #16 – Movies as Guidance: What Stories Can Tell Us

In this episode of the podcast we shift gears a bit to talk about how movies and stories can be used as more than just entertainment. We discuss a few movies we love because we think they have something to say about how we lead our lives. There’s much more to stories than we usually notice and we talk about how they can also be used as tools for gaining clarity about ourselves. Let us know what you think!

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FYMP Podcast #14 – Avengers: Infinity War and the Marvel Mythos

Avengers: Infinity War, the sequel to end all sequels, is finally here! Thank Thanos! We take you on a tour of the film (spoiler free for the first 30 minutes) and the comics that spawned it. In this episode you’ll hear our thoughts on the movie and the MCU mythos, and learn about the origins of the scenes and characters you liked the most.

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FYMP Podcast #13 – The Dark Tower, IT, & the Cinematic World of Stephen King

In this episode Matt and Khemit discuss the recent Stephen King adaptation of The Dark Tower starring Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey. They then discuss the many King book-to-film adaptation that have been made over the years, many of which you probably didn’t know came from that author! As always, there are recommendations for books and movies throughout.

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FYMP Podcast #12 – The Book Brain Dump: Sci-fi & Fantasy

 

In this podcast Matt and Khemit talk about their favorite lesser known science fiction and fantasy book series’. If you’ve been looking for a new (or old) series to read, this is the episode for you. We start with a discussion of classic fantasy, move on to classic sci-fi, and then give our top picks. Let us know if we mention your favorites or miss any must-read series’!

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FYMP Podcast #10 – The Great Star Wars Debate

star wars debate

Matt loves Star Wars. Khemit does not. This week we try to figure out who’s right by discussing the merits and shortfalls of the Star Wars Universe. We discuss everything from the original trilogy to The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi to books and comics set in the Extended Universe. Also featuring a not-to-be-missed Grudge Match after which the galaxy will never be the same.

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FYMP Podcast #9 – The Rise of the Anti-hero

anti hero

What accounts for the rising popularity of the anti-hero in fiction? In this week’s podcast we explore that question and others related to the idea of heroes in stories and in the real world. We discuss Alan Moore and the origins of the trend in comics, as well as  recent hero stories like Man of Steel. Plus, our very first Grudge Match between 2 VERY anti-heroes! Continue reading “FYMP Podcast #9 – The Rise of the Anti-hero”

FYMP Podcast #8 – Rick & Morty, Dirk Gently, and the Existential TV Boom

rick and morty

Khemit and Matt dig deep into modern TV to find the best examples of existential, nihilistic, and absurdist inquiry including Rick & Morty and Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. This episode explores why many of these shows resonate with us and what that means for our own lives. Recommendations galore, plus the introduction of the Grudge Match segment!

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FYMP Podcast #7 – Comics vs. Manga: The Anatomy of the Graphics Arts

comics vs. manga

In this podcast we’re diving deep into the differences in storytelling between comics vs. manga. As a topic close to our hearts, you should find this interesting even if you don’t consider yourself a fan of either. If you need a good recommendation or a good starting point for exploring comics and manga, this will provide both. Reach out to us on Facebook to join this conversation!

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FYMP Podcast #4 – The “Why” of Blade Runner 2049

In our 4th podcast we deep dive into the world of Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049, and the mind of Ridley Scott. Our discussion touches on common themes in science fiction as well as common pitfalls in the genre. We limit ourselves mainly to films on this one, so if you’re a movie person, this is for you. Beware: here there be spoilers.
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FYMP Podcast #3 – The Mature Sci-Fi TV Renaissance

In our 3rd Podcast we talk about the much-welcome resurgence in mature sci-fi Television that is taking place at the moment. We use shows like Altered Carbon and The Expanse to guide the conversation, and take frequent detours to talk about other great and not-so-great TV along the way.

The occasional cuts you may notice are excised interruptions by Matt’s inexhaustible children. Perhaps we’ll compile them into a stand-alone podcast some day!

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FYMP Podcast #2 – Game of Thrones and the Violence Equation

In this recommendation-heavy podcast, we discuss book series’ ranging from Game of Thrones and The Dark Tower to much more obscure works of fiction with violent themes in an attempt to divine the true nature of violence in books.

We attempt to answer the question: what makes brutality in fiction good, bad, or neutral? In this one, you’re guaranteed to learn about at least several great books you’ve never heard of.

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FYMP Podcast #1 – The Story Begins

In this, the inaugural FYMP’cast, we discuss our reasons for creating it, introduce ourselves and our approach to the world of stories & fiction. We attempt to lay the groundwork for what will be an outlet and delivery system for our massive accumulation of trivia on all things fictitious, as well as our philosophy on the importance of storytelling.

This pilot podcast (with pilot quality audio) has more focus on us than on the fiction we’ll later explore. Continue reading “FYMP Podcast #1 – The Story Begins”

Your Summer in Movies – 2017 Edition

Justice League – Batfleck and Murderman return in the latest sequel to the poorly thought out, soulless Man of Steel, and its ham handed, plotless, character pigeonholing sequel Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Watch as your beloved childhood characters are given the Snyderverse treatment and transformed into golem-like, amoral husks before your very eyes. Justice League: Where Dreams Go to Die.

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The End of the Age of Heroes

With the passing of the years we see also the passing of our heroes: the giants among us who stand out against the backdrop of history and who stood for and symbolized ideals which most of us only think or talk about in the abstract. People like Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr., Mohandas Gandhi. People like Nelson Mandela.

It is an interesting trait of the human experience that we idolize and deify by nature, and heroes are the manifestation of that propensity. Those women and men who have dedicated their lives to a higher cause, and who’ve often died in the service of that cause, are the most revered among us. Continue reading “The End of the Age of Heroes”

3 Ridiculous Political Debates with Obvious Answers

Here are some obvious points to make about utterly ridiculous political arguments that I still occasionally hear. No thinking person should make these arguments if they at all value logic in decision making (So this doesn’t apply to most actual politicians). If you are making any of the arguments addressed here, stop immediately and either rethink your position, or come up with better talking points if you can think of any. Continue reading “3 Ridiculous Political Debates with Obvious Answers”

Cry, Baby

The number one sign that I may be a bit emotionally withheld is that I cry at movies. Not just at legitimate movies that merit crying at, like The Lion King or Beasts of the Southern Wild. No, I cry at those movies AND terrible movies which have no redeeming qualities whatsoever, including their poorly staged cathartic moments towards the end which are meant to elicit an emotional reaction despite having been poorly executed. But damned if it doesn’t work. I don’t mean it works in that it redeems the movie or that it is well executed. I mean it works in that it makes a moronic lump well up in my throat even as I curse the stupidity of the entire affair.

Here’s a recent embarrassing example: I almost cried at the end of The Internship, a terrible Google propaganda comedy film, where a plucky underdog team stages an unlikely win over a “meanie team” through the power of teamwork and dumb luck. It was an offensive movie and an offensive ending to any thinking person including myself… but damned if I didn’t have to take a few deep breaths to hold the tears back during their idiotic undeserved victory scene, hating myself the whole time.

In addition to obvious tearjerkers like Steel Magnolias and the like, I’ve cried at action space porn movies like Armageddon, crappy mindless action movies like White House Down, and hideous comedy movies like Grown Ups 2 (why was I even watching that!?!?). Seriously, I have a real problem. You cue the sappy, heroic, or triumphant music and I’m pretty much done.

sandler

(Not even Adam Sandler watched Grown Ups 2)

The thing is, I very rarely cry outside of watching movies. I mean, as an adult I’ve had a few moments when dealing with close family or friends, but even those are few and far between. With movies though, it’s all the damn time. I do tend to be fairly stoic in my daily life (this is probably a combination of my personal upbringing and the stories that we as a culture tell about masculinity which have a nonconsensual influence on my actions), but not so much as to merit this kind of psychological and physiological backlash. What I mean is that I don’t feel that I’m overly emotionally stifled… but all the evidence is pointing in another direction.

But the more I think about it, among the films and scenes that elicit this annoying reaction, a common thread appears. It’s sincerity. Even the characters in terrible movies feign (poorly) sincerity, and I guess the intention means as much as the action to my primitive brain. And now that I think about it, even my own sincerity causes me to lose it! Thinking back over the last few times I’ve cried (aside from movie watching), it was because I was being unusually open and honest. How weirdly self-centered is that!?

So yeah, sincerity seriously cranks up the old waterworks. Maybe that’s because I feel it’s encountered so infrequently in daily life. Very rarely do people feel comfortable enough to say the things that really matter – to really communicate instead of just talking. Even among friends, it is rare to have the conversations that really mean something: The “I love you” conversations; the “I’m terrified” conversations; the “you complete me” conversations.

So maybe seeing those things in movies is what gets me; maybe they’re things I want for my own life, or even things I just desperately want to believe in. You know like love, and happy endings and such.

nothing-ends

I think what it really comes down to is simple. Tyler Durden’s alter ego put it best in Fight Club: “Strangers with that kind of honesty make me go a big rubbery one.” And let’s just leave it at that.

bitch tits

Stationary Wandering

Guest post by: Ain Bailey

She makes lists of fantastic things. Scrawls improbabilities on crisp sheets of unlined white paper, or yellow tablets, creased and lined. It doesn’t matter which, she is merely daydreaming. Nonchalantly she admires the slant of her letters or the swirls of her words, downplaying the concepts behind them. She focuses on her penmanship and distances herself from ideas that ache.

She thinks maybe she is hungry for milestones. Eager for big events to mark the passage of time, to document her evolution, to prove that she is moving forward in the world. What else could it be? She was not the child who grew up believing in fairy tales. She did not fancy herself the sleeping princess nor the one locked in a tower waiting to be saved. Her hair was not overly long and golden and her father was not king. If she had any part in make believe stories, she was a fairy or a mermaid; petite, autonomous, unattached and free or a unicorn; rare, ancient and alone.

In her past there was no thought of love and its attendant minions. To her weddings, marriage, baby showers, and all that came after, were not even real enough to be fantasies. Now these themes spill into her most mundane moments, caress her face distractingly, when she is focused on other things. It is a tickle, a distant glimmer, an un-sneezed sneeze.

Maybe she is just seeking tradition, longing for special events to break the monotony and give her something to anticipate. When she thinks about it a part of her does ache to bring magic back to a Christmas ruined by retail work, by far-flung family, by growing up. She imagines her preoccupation with love is because she wants something to look forward to.

Some meaning that can turn a random Tuesday, or weekend, into something more. This is not a thing she will analyze because it is not something she can control anyway. This is one thing she cannot do alone.

In her youth, she envisioned a future as a single mom, shepherding her two children from school to home. When she even thought about it, at three year intervals, maybe four. She used to wonder then if she would remember being twelve and imagining herself at thirty with her children’s school aged hands held tightly in hers. She is thirty now and there are no children, no prospect or planning for them either. She starts to feel wistful, disappointed and maybe just a little old, until she remembers that nothing about her life now, is how she imagined it then. Small relief, but enough to push the question away.

Maybe she just wants to belong, to someone, to something. She doesn’t believe in cliques, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t need one. Maybe that is the reason why her pens run so quickly out of ink. She daydreams family, a small and new one, creating itself as it goes. She dreams of holidays that belong to only them. Plots them out on the calendar so that they fill in the days that society chooses not to celebrate. She names them, and then forgets the names.  She writes them down and then scribbles over them until it is like they never existed.

She dreams of vow renewals although she has never even been asked to speak them for a first time. She dreams of honeymoons each year, although she has yet to have the original one. She plans her wedding makeup and chooses wedding dresses in her head, accounting for her body type, of course. Her fantasies are realer than she would ever admit. But she is not admitting anything at all. She is nothing if not a realist.

She wonders if she should have stayed with those who were ready, who would have spoken, and meant in their way, the words she is just beginning to realize she wants to hear. Could she have swallowed her discontent for the promise of a dream that never used to exist and is still forming? Would that have been better than how she feels now, untethered?

She does not write these questions down. She is not analyzing this thing. Only scribbling meaningless words on the borders of pages and imagining how it might feel to believe in magic.

Don’t Watch Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D

If you want to get your eyes raped, go watch Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. In a not unpredictable maneuver, Marvel is attempting to capitalize on their big screen success by expanding their media empire onto the small screen. In this case by taking a passé organization from the Marvel Comic universe, S.H.I.E.L.D., and creating a paranormal exploration show a la Supernatural or [place other crappy paranormal TV show title here] around it.

The show, which follows Agent Coulson from the Avengers film and his quirky team of experts around the world as they try to stop crises. Coulson was resurrected through unknown means (or he’s a clone or LMD, who cares really) to serve as the show’s protagonist and only solid if unimpressive link to Marvel’s film franchise. The show depends entirely on 2 things for its current success: 1) legions of fanboys who will watch anything tagged with the Marvel brand no matter how bland and derivative, and 2) A large swath of the American public who actually enjoy CW style shows like this one. If you are one of those people then feel free to disregard everything said here. Also, feel free to kill yourself.

The writing on the show is middle school level at best. The jokes are flat one liners that seem perfectly suited to a tween sitcom. The romantically and ideologically tense relationship between the strict company man and the new upstart team member is so sickeningly ham fisted that it is almost insulting. The mystery of the week format that the show follows has been done so many times that its almost farcical. And lets not even get into the acting, if it can even be called that… The dead eyes of Agent Coulson as he smirks his way through every  episode makes me want to ask “what did we do to deserve this?”

091712-agent-coulson2 So what did we do, Marvel? For finally giving the fans what they want, you were rewarded in kind with one of the highest grossing films ever with The Avengers. You smartly chose a talented director and writing staff who could pull your myriad characters together into a pretty damn good flick. Your other films, though most were not as impressive (see Iron Man 2, Spider-Man 3, etc.), have been passable enough to keep us as an audience on board.

So is it really a good idea to flush all the goodwill we now have towards Marvel down the toilet by shoveling this kind of crap down our throats? Why not continue doing what’s been working for you and take a considered and unique approach to your next phase.

Sure, we know it’s all about the bottom line, but why parlay your success into something crappy when you could easily make a good show and get not only the dregs of your fans and the general public but an actually worthwhile audience. The 2 groups from above are going to watch regardless. Think bigger. When you play the universal appeal card you see decent returns. But when you take calculated risks (like you did when hiring Joss Whedon for the Avengers) you have the potential to make much, much more.

The show is performing pretty well so far in terms of ratings because the two groups I mentioned above are both rabid and large. But here’s the thing: the show sucks. It can’t stand up on its own, and being propped up by the greater Marvel universe looming over its shoulder will only keep people on board for so long.

While I am a lifelong comic book fan, in no way am I writing this as a comic book purist who can’t stand to see his precious Marvel Universe defiled. I’m writing this as a TV enthusiast who is genuinely disturbed by the type of crap that keeps permeating the airwaves. As the newest player in the game, Marvel is just the most obvious target. I could write a post on Arrow to shame DC as well, but it’d be pretty much the same post.

arrow fight

Brief rant to close on: Your TV sucks, America. I don’t really blame Marvel for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Not really. I blame you for being complacent and watching any old turd that comes on the tube. I’m talking to you: the one reading this and saying “Aw, he’s exaggerating. Its not that bad.” Sorry but it really, really is… you’ve just been watching it so long that you actually believe its got substance. You have the TV version of Stockholm Syndrome. Stop getting sucked in by bad shows. Stop letting studios win with their formulaic, lazy nonsense. Vote with your remote. Demand better. Be better.

That is all.

Pain, in 6 Easy Steps

Ok, so I already described the situation. To recap, I’m in Costa Rica near a beach and I’ve been wanting to get back in shape for a while, so I started a new exercise program.

Because moderation is an obvious sign of weakness and/or mental health depending on who you ask, I decided to go for 2 intense workouts a day (though that has turned into 3… we’ll get to that later).

Movematt wrote me a rambling workout plan suggestion that I go through the motions of saving a baby using a weight of some sort, but I’m in a new small town and I’d rather not be the crazy guy low crawling on the beach with the swaddled rock. Of course I’d swaddle it; I’m not an animal.

I decided instead to go a slightly more traditional route. In 3 months I plan to write about how this workout changed or improved. Critiques are welcome in the comments. So here it is – workout #1:

1)      Jog: I head to the beach and run in the sand to the end where it turns into a rocky cliff; this is about a mile or so out. So far so good.

2)      Sprint: I sprint on the sand the whole way back in intervals. About halfway back my legs feel like linguini and the sand feels like quicksand. Still, I keep it up and make it back to the starting point where I usually collapse for a few seconds which makes me feel ten times worse. Also this is a concern.

3)      Swim: Because I can’t tolerate gravity anymore, I take off my Vibrams, stash them by a log or a dead dog or something and wade into the ocean. Pretty good waves lately so I make my way through those to the deeper water. Once there, I tread for a bit, still trying to catch my breath, then I make my way out to the sailboat flotilla about 200 yards offshore. I use a combination of doggy paddle, breast stroke, and freestyle and I think about Shark Week the whole way. Once I get there I swim back. When I get out of the water, I realize that gravity still sucks.

That’s the end of workout #1. It starts around 7:45 or 8AM. I spend the next few hours recovering. Then around 3 or 4PM, I go out for workout #2.

1)      Pullups: There is a ledge near my door that belongs to the deck of an upstairs tenant. I jump up to it and do 3 or 4 sets of 5 pullups. Considering that I can do many more pullups on a bar, this annoys me. Also my hands hurt and this also annoys me. I also occasionally get caught by the upstairs neighbor who must think that I am secretly peeping on him very briefly 15 to 20 times a day.

2)      Pushup… things: I don’t know what these are called or if they are a thing, but I like them. Movematt just wrote about them actually and I’m convinced he stole the idea from me. What I do is fall forward from a standing position catching myself on my hands in pushup position, then from there I throw myself back up into a standing position without moving my feet. 3 sets of 10. I like pushups so this is my favorite exercise of the day. My hurt hands don’t make it easier though.

3)      Sprint: More sprinting! I found a small hill and I sprint up it 5 times, jogging back to the starting point each time. Some days are better than others, but the overall feeling is of wanting to die. This being closer to the hottest part of the tropical day, I don’t stop sweating until a bit past sundown.

Seemingly unrelated story: though an acquaintance, I met this guy at a bar about a week ago and we got started talking about martial arts. He trained Wing Chun and boxing, and I’ve trained Brazilian Jujitsu, Karate and some Aikido. He drunkenly exchanged numbers with me to train together, but then unexpectedly actually called and wants to train… like every day. So after my 2nd workout, I often get a summons to the beach.

At the beach he and I take turns drilling techniques then trying to punch each other in the face (with boxing gloves), then I show him some simple takedowns and BJJ techniques and we drill those. It last about an hour.

This has all been going on about a week now. I’m getting over my soreness, but am still pretty wiped out all the time. Looking forward to improving as the months go by and seeing how it works.

It’s my rest day, but I just got a text from martial arts guy… I guess I could stand to get punched in the face a few times on my day off.

Roving Packs of Dogs

On the ever growing list of threats to my health and safety, I now add roving packs of dogs. This is the first addition since dengue fever bearing mosquitoes, added about a week ago.

The backstory is this: inspired in part by Movematt, I decided that one of my goals during my time in Costa Rica is to become a physical specimen of a human being, able to jog up flights of stairs and rearrange living room furniture.

To that end I’ve started a twice a day workout schedule that includes a combination of running, swimming, sprinting (sand & hill), and pullup and pushup variants. 3 of those activities take place on the beach (running, sand sprinting, and swimming), which is conveniently located 2 blocks from my house. I drag myself out of bed every morning make my way down to the beach and begin my routine, and generally by the end, I feel pretty good in a terrible, gasping for air, utterly exhausted kind of way.

But today was different; today, towards the end of the jog segment of the run when I begin to transition to sprint intervals, I looked up to find that loping along besides and around me in a not-unthreatening manner were about 3 medium sized black dogs who looked like clones of each other, (a white 4th dog seemed to be a bit of an outcast and was also much less preoccupied with me). My 3 surprise running companions jogged easily alongside me darting in and out at my legs and dashing away when I turned to face them. You’ve probably seen this behavior in nature documentaries where large ungulates are being pursued by seemingly lazy wolves.

Now, the dogs were definitely in semi-play mode, but the thing about roving packs of dogs is that they play rough, and if you show any sign of weakness they will begin “playfully” biting your face off.

Thankfully, I’m not totally ignorant of dog psychology, so I realized that speeding up would probably be a bad idea. Contrary to what you see in movies and TV, outrunning dogs is one of those things that doesn’t happen in real life unless you have a very substantial head start and a safe end point. Instead I slowed down a bit, which helped to ease some of their obvious agitation at my quick movement, and began doing my best to exude alpha vibes. Alpha vibes is my term for a subtle shift in carriage that is meant to say 2 things: 1: “I am your superior,” and 2: “if you mess with me, it will go poorly for everyone involved.” I got a lot of practice with this growing up in New York.

The dogs were fairly incorrigible but, after a few minutes of my extra lazy jogging pace, they lost some interest in me and went back to dive tackling each other across the sand. My mind was still on my workout, and not wanting to lose my momentum at that critical moment I made the snap decision to begin my first sprint then.

70 heart pumping meters or so later, I looked up and angling in gleefully were the black dogs, slavering jaws wide, white teeth gleaming against the sand. One was right next to me and took a bounding nip at my left thigh…

Druid wolf pack chasing bull elk; Doug Smith; December 2007

Now, admittedly, this was my fault. Sprinting like that in plain view of these obviously aggressive dogs was just asking for trouble. Still, if I let roving packs of dogs dictate my workout, where does it stop? What if next time they want to borrow some money, or take my girlfriend to the movies? Where do I draw the line?

The leaping nip was an obvious test of my alpha-ness. If I let it slide the next step would be a full on bite and would likely be proceeded by my being dragged around the beach loudly lamenting my ongoing mauling.

Well, I don’t know about all that, but I definitely knew that I didn’t want strange dogs thinking it was cool to bite me. So I stopped cold and turned on the nippy dog and yelled “hey!” in my most forbidding voice, as if to say, “you just crossed the line, dog!” that got his attention and he backed off. I walked him down a few steps just to drive home my point and that seemed to get my point across. They almost instantly lost interest in me and sped off down the beach to harass some guy sitting in the surf.

At no point in time was I overly afraid of being attacked by these dogs. But I was worried that they would totally mess up my workout which would suck. If I had gone sprinting down the beach like a frightened deer, as wolf evolved predators, the dogs wouldn’t really have had a choice but to chase me and eventually try to take me down. It’s instinct (see video above). So I had to address the situation before it got out of hand.

All told, this should add an interesting element to future workouts, for better or for worse.

I also got chased by a French bulldog a bit further down the beach, but that was less worrisome.

French_Bulldog5

The Greatest Show You Never Watched

Well let’s get right into it, shall we?

In the world of sitcoms, only one show has ever managed to cross the uncanny valley that bridges shows with laugh tracks and shows with truly humorous content. In pretty much all other sitcoms, the laugh track is too often used to remind people that what they are watching is funny rather than adding melodic resonance to the already ongoing laughs of the audience.

fry laugh track

The show in question is not Seinfeld. Nor is it Friends, nor Frasier, nor any of the other sitcoms you will find on your typical ‘top ten sitcoms’ list.

The show was News Radio.

And to clarify, I speak only of seasons 1 through 4 with both Phil Hartman and Khandi Alexander still present. Once Jon Lovitz was brought in for season 5 the whole thing fell apart, not unpredictably (the year was 1998 and Lovitz was already well on the downturn of a less than illustrious career in tomfoolery – probably his best role since then was an un-credited role in the mediocre movie The Wedding Singer the same year). Phil Hartman’s murder might have also had a dampening effect on the whole thing….

Now, don’t get me wrong; I’ve enjoyed many other sitcoms over the years…  Well, actually that’s not a genuine statement. It’d be more honest to say that I’ve WATCHED a lot of sitcoms over the years but have enjoyed very few (enjoying shows like Family Matters and Full House as an adolescent doesn’t count). In any case, News Radio stood out in a class of its own. Its unique mixture of slapstick and rhetorical humor was pioneered elsewhere and attempted in many other shows, but was never pitched as perfectly.

Overall TV is getting better, but network television still sucks. It has always sucked really, but we had way fewer options before. Now, with cable channels like AMC and HBO pouring money into making better shows, the bar for TV is rising. However, most network television shows still stay well below it. News Radio was definitively above the bar in its day, and still stands out as above the bar of what we usually see on network television now. How exactly it was able to accomplish that within the confines of a… well, let’s be honest, shitty… format (laugh track sitcoms) is beyond me. It’s a testament to the writing and the actors involved that it was able to transcend its imposed borders.

And an ensemble cast never looked so good: Lisa and Dave’s relationship was always treated just as ridiculous as it seemed; eccentric billionaire Jimmy James was the prototype for 30 Rock’s Jack Donaghy; Matthew Brock will go down in history as the least offensive and most hilarious character ever played by Andy Dick; Khandi Alexander as Catherine Duke was the perfect counterpoint to the shamelessly self-aggrandizing Bill McNeal; Beth’s over the top incompetence made her no less endearing; and I love the UFC, but Joe Rogan’s TV career peaked with his role as Joe …what was that last name again?

And the show never took itself too seriously, a mistake made in the later years of many popular sitcoms. Hell they even turned a network mandated funeral episode into a farce by eulogizing a rat and throwing it in an incinerator.

rat-funeral

Anyway, to make a long story short, News Radio kicked ass. If you’ve never seen it, you need to see it.

If you saw it and you didn’t like it, you are wrong.

Wanderlust – Destination: Costa Rica

I hate the winter, so I’m moving to Costa Rica.

Well, there are other reasons, but chief among them is the fact that any weather which requires me to wear long sleeves makes me irritable.

Other reasons include: the lower cost of living (which will be important since I’m in the start-up phase of beginning a business and frugality is crucial), time zone proximity to my business partner in the US, cheaper cost of living, desire to learn Spanish (but not to be stranded in a place where I can’t function without it), and the need to sate my wanderlust which, if put it off any longer after 2 years of grad school, will demand that I move to Papua New Guinea for the next decade.

Costa Rica is one of the countries that US citizens can go to without a visa and stay in for up to 90 days (this also played into my decision). As luck would have it, the next major business milestone that requires my geographical presence will take place in Beijing after the holiday season; my 90 day excursion neatly falls between now and then.

Other than basing major life decisions entirely on first world problems and minor annoyances, I tend to be a very meticulous and organized person, so after choosing the destination (and buying my plane tickets to stomp out any last minute wishy-washiness), I went about researching everything I could about Costa Rica and ended up finding a fantastic sublet in Playas del Coco (pictured above) for the exact dates of my trip. Playas del Coco is a small town in the northwest of Costa Rica and my place is just a few short blocks from the beach.

Incidentally, I don’t know a single person in Costa Rica. This is new for me. As much as I’ve traveled and lived abroad, I’ve never really gone anywhere where I didn’t know anyone. I figured it might be a good challenge. Everyone seemed to be impressed that I moved out of the country 5 years ago but, though I had less of a life plan then than I do now, I did have a close friend to help me figure things out when I got to China. As glad as I am for that, and as confident as I am that I can survive without that type of crutch now, I want to actually DO it. And why wait?

The biggest question I get asked is why I feel the need to leave the country at all. The answer is complex, but what it boils down to is that there is nowhere in the US where I feel entirely comfortable. With the possible exception of my time living in Hawaii, I have never been entirely satisfied by what any one place has to offer.

seek-geographic-solutions-cry-for-help-ecard-someecards

I doesn’t only boil down to some existential need to find the “perfect” place. Really what it means is that, if I don’t feel a very strong connection to any one location, why settle when there’s a whole world out there to explore? Though I have many places that I love in the US and where I have family and amazing friends, for some reason none of them are very attractive to me as places to live permanently.

I don’t really know what it is that makes me want to GO. I just feel like there is so much that I have yet to experience, so many perspectives I want to better appreciate. Perhaps it’s the fact that every time I travel I feel like I come back a different person; I’m addicted to the changes in myself that travel brings, the shifts in understanding that learning new languages brings, the understanding of myself that being foreign brings.

Or maybe I just love the beach. In any case, next stop: Costa Rica. After that is anyone’s guess.

Shut Up and Talk

 

“So are you guys celebrities or something?”

At the moment I ask this question we’ve been sitting at cruising altitude for about 15 minutes in the crowded American Airlines flight. The 2 seats beside my exit row window seat are occupied by two pretty young women. They have been approached twice by the stewardess who is “a big fan of their show.” They look to be about Miley Cyrus age, so I quickly run through the list of celebrities in that category that I know. The list goes: Miley Cyrus. Begrudgingly.

Well, my curiosity was piqued. I cast sidelong glances at them for a few minutes wondering if they were anyone who I might recognize, but my peripheral glances give me no hint. Now, at this point, my usual MO is to take the urinal approach: eyes forward, attention anywhere but on anyone else. Been doing it on flight for years; hasn’t gotten me killed yet. But by the same token, it’s also never yielded an interesting experience… unless you count awkwardness as interesting, which I do not.

This time, though, I was stuck in a difficult position. See, I had recently made the pledge to myself that anytime I get that awkward antisocial feeling, I have to do the opposite of what my instincts tell me to do. Having been, for many years, the type of person who purposely and systematically avoided connection with other people, this is difficult for me. It requires a reexamination of situations and a reorganization of my priorities about life and what I want out of it.

At the end of the day, to quote the film Ghost Town (one of the better romantic comedies of recent years, btw. Watch it), “This business of… being such a fucking prick, what is it really getting me?”

The answer turns out to be: nothing, as you might expect. Hence the pledge, hence the situation which we now return to.

“So are you guys celebrities or something?” I ask the girl 1 seat away. The girl between us, her sister I would soon find out, had left to go to the bathroom. She turned towards me, a little embarrassed, and self-effacingly explained the situation:

She (Jill) and her sister (Jessa) were traveling back from Washington DC where they had been visiting their brother, Josh. They were 2 of the cast members on the reality TV show 19 Kids and Counting.

The Duggar family, which my single serving friends are a part of, is a fundamentalist Christian family who… well, you can read about them here (and may God have mercy on my soul for linking to TLC). Basically, they’re famous for their mom popping out an exorbitant number of kids, all with “J” names over the years. 19 to be exact, hence the name of the show (it started out in 2008 as 17 Kids and Counting).

dfamily

After graciously answering my possibly indelicately asked query, the two sisters (Jill more so than Jessa who seemed a little shy, but who came out of her shell as time went by) and I talked for the remainder of the flight. They were both VERY nice, but not fake-nice, like the way you expect “celebrities” to act when confronted by people who recognize them, but genuinely so. They spent more time asking me questions about myself than they did talking about themselves, which is rare in anyone. I gave them ample opportunities to go back to not talking to the weird window seat guy, but they seemed perfectly content to chat, and I really enjoyed it.

They of course asked me if I went to church or was a Christian (no and no), but they weren’t pushy or invasive about it, just curious as anyone whose life revolved in a large part around Christianity might be. I didn’t even know they were fundamentalist until Jill gave me a postcard with their family photo, and it had more bible quotes on it than the actual bible. After that, I took notice of their long hair and skirts and realized that they were dressed about 90% Amish. I am not an observant person.

Anyway, for any fans out there, they didn’t give me any cool behind the scenes gossip or anything (I doubt there is any). The point of this story (Yeah, there is a point, shut up) is more about the interesting experiences I’ve found myself having more and more as I open myself up to actually talking to people. In some ways it’s a lot harder than just judging them, and going about my day, but in many more ways, it’s extremely rewarding and interesting. And, as someone who does like to challenge myself, it is also a challenge to step outside of myself and do things that are hard for me. You type A-ers and extroverts out there might not quite understand, but that’s cool. You’ve got your own issues, I’m sure.

In any case, this challenge has turned out to be one well worth undertaking, which I’m starting to notice is a trend. I’ve still never seen an episode of 19 Kids and Counting, and I probably never will, but now I’ve got a story to tell. And for the first time in a while, my airplane ride wasn’t just a nuisance.

Jeez, looking at the last three FYMPlanet entries this blog sure has gotten preachy, huh?? Don’t worry, I’ll bash some of your favorite movies soon.

The Tao of Ashton

 

Guest post by Matt Huttner

The stage is set. We are at the Teen Choice Awards, which, if I remember my classics, Dante referred to as the 6th Layer of Hell, and Ashton Kutcher steps up to the plate to deliver what will undoubtedly be absolute drivel. This is the star of such cinematic gems as Dude, Where’s My Car? and My Boss’s Daughter, a man whose scene-chewing acting cannot stand up to the likes of Cameron Diaz and Katherine Heigl. He has just been handed a strangely appropriate giant surf board, and turns to address his adoring fans. The content of this speech should fall safely between ‘Woooo! ” and” Yeaaahhh!” What does he do?

He fucking KILLS it. His speech is insightful, structured, and important. He speaks with a passion and clarity rarely seen anywhere, let alone in D list celebs. He is self-deprecating and honest, and delivers a message that should and will inspire a generation of future leaders.

Now, I had heard that Ashton was branching out as a tech investor, but I assumed that was the typical vanity project of an overly-capitalized star. We no longer just have to contend with celebrities going after the acting-singing-modeling trifecta (see Murphy, Eddie and the seminal “My Girl Wants to Party All the Time”) but nowadays when Snoop Dogg runs a Pop Warner football team or Britney launches a new fragrance, no one bats an eye. These ventures are usually successful, but only in the way that things powered by unlimited money and global fame often are.

Ladies and gentlemen, this changes everything. If Ashton possesses this kind of talent, we need to move quickly. Let’s bring in Seann William Scott to hear his thoughts on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Do you think Gucci Mane is available for the next carbon offset summit? Hell, Dennis Rodman is already helping out with the North Korea situation.

What are the takeaways from Chris Ashton Kutcher’s breakout performance? First of all, although he summed it up far more eloquently than I will, the principles of his speech are worth repeating here: opportunity looks like hard work, smart is sexy, and build a life, don’t just live one. Really powerful stuff.

From a higher level, if you’ll indulge me in a conceit, I think this teaches all of us to ask the following question: what if Ashton Kutcher’s career up to this point, or any other inexplicable annoyance in our lives, is nothing more than akin to drinking a warm can of PBR beer? Hear me out.

Many of us, in our vulnerable early teenage years, are introduced to drinking via bargain-basement, terrible beer. And indeed, smuggled cans of Natty Ice furtively chugged in the back of Teddy Lee’s Subaru are just gross. Unless you can appreciate them as the first steps of a life-long journey; as a rite of passage that might lead to a rich, nuanced world of adult pleasure.

Going forward, when I encounter something obviously offensive (much like almost all of Kutcher’s movies), I’m going to pause for just a minute. What if this is heading somewhere? What if this actor, musician, artist, teacher, coworker, or parent has a deeper level, and all it will take is a few face-twisting swigs before I can get to it?

All of us are guilty of pigeonholing people, most of all ourselves. I’m not saying everything has a silver lining, and this is certainly not another tired plea for you to be nicer to that geek in high-school, because one day he will be a wealthy entrepreneur. Or to go ahead and rewatch the Fast and the Furious heptalogy to mine undiscovered genius. Spoiler alert; Paul Walker is a moron.

But it is a call to seek talent in unexpected places and keep an open mind. I for one am now examining my own life, and seeing where and how I can completely step out of the ways I have previously defined my personality, lifestyle, and career and surprise everyone in a positive way.

God

 

As a younger man, I was considerably more prone to philosophical waxing in my writing than I am now. Though it is often embarrassing (usually when I’m confronted with horrifically trite high school era poetry) every now and then I find something that surprises me with its competence. What follows is one such example. Though its linguistic pretension is occasionally unsubtle, I’ve always loved this piece. It says everything and nothing about a subject of little interest to me, but which at one time I felt was worthy of this small exploration: God.

————————————————–

Currently, I am standing on a ball of infinitesimal size, hurtling through a vast and empty blackness, seemingly without end. I am standing on this ball and trying, in vain as always, to feel that movement. Alas, I cannot.  This does not stop me from standing, however, or walking, or sitting, as it were, all the while straining to feel that ineffable speed, awed by its scale.

Invariable I am confronted by a stranger perplexed or offended by my slack jawed mien. Whenever this happens I usually cease my sensory experiment and go about my daily routine which begins as follows: my first order of business is a visit to the bathroom to admire my haggard morning face, stretch, wash, et cetera, et cetera. When I am done with this, I commonly dress and begin my day in earnest.

This beginning to my day, as commonplace as it may seem, is anything but. Millions of cells working in concert are responsible for all of these actions.  They die by the thousands with every move I make, and are born in just as great a number synchronously. They themselves operate by mechanisms with strange names like mitochondria or Golgi apparatus which in turn are composed of even smaller particles called atoms which are made up of electrons, protons and neutrons and so on and so forth. In all likelihood, these atoms and ribosomes and cells, sad to say, do not care about me. This has no a reflection on my own intrinsic worth; it is merely a function of the nature of such things. I don’t much care about them ether, small stupid things that they are. And if I die, they die. It is also true, however, that if they all die I also die; so in that respect we are on even footing.

Digression aside, my contemplation of size on a universal scale is obviously futile. I have neither the frame of reference, nor the synapse strength required to fathom such a thing. I continue to try. This is not out of a stubborn refusal to accept my limitations, nor is it an innate arrogance which drives me to attempt the impossible. No, this is something much simpler: an inability, of sorts, to relinquish the nuances of a concept once introduced to the idea. Perhaps relinquish is the wrong word since, technically, understanding of the nuances was never really mine, nor anyone else’s for that matter. A man who could envision the boundlessness of space in its entirety would likely be driven mad. His insanity would not come from the vastness of his vision, but from his impotent fury at being trapped on this speck of a world hurtling through the heavens. And at the same time, his presumed insanity would merely be a function of our limited viewpoints. As sanity and its opposite have always been functions of the prevalent perspective, this, unfortunately, would make him no less a lunatic. And yet, still there are those like I, staring upwards into the night, worshiping that awesome gyration, gleefully attempting to calculate those eons of light, and clawing recklessly towards that beckoning madness.

Cells in my shins and femurs, eyes and nose, arms and heart, live and die almost infinitely, perhaps dreaming of endoplasmic reticula and cells, of bones and tissues… of organs at a stretch.

If they can imagine those things, and dream them as they are, as I, in my personifying arrogance might imagine, then they have transcended the scale of my dreams by fathoms; but still, they have never dreamed of me.

Your Summer in Movies

Here are a few short intros to just a few of the films you can expect from Hollywood this summer. I know, the summer is half over already, but shut up. Don’t act like you’ve seen ALL the summer movies already. And there are plenty more coming out before it’s over. So you’re welcome.

Thor: The Dark World – Finally, the not-that-long awaited sequel to the beloved action movie whose plot you can’t remember. Wait, wasn’t it the one where…  No, that was The Avengers. Thor and his enchanted hammer, Mjolnir, are back for another action-packed unmemorable extravaganza. Get ready to play “what was that movie about again” again!

thor-odin-movie-marvel(something about this, maybe?)

This is the End – Get ready to get your yearly comedy fix for this quarter of the decade. Though plenty of comedy’s are produced, Hollywood is only allowed 1 (maximum) actually funny movie per year; this is it folks. Insider tip: best ending of any summer movie this season.

The Lone Ranger – Get ready for the return of the greatest action hero your parents ever told you about that one time. Along with trusty steed, Silver, and sidekick, newly racist Johnny Depp, the Ranger will do his best to remind you why he faded into obscurity. As you watch remember that someone thought this was a good idea.

Pacific Rim – Giant Robots, extra-dimensional monsters, Ron Perlman in gold wingtips, Pacific Rim’s got everything! Try to follow the action as earth’s poorly thought out last line of defense battles its greatest, poorly coordinated threat at night and in the rain. Switch your mind off and enjoy the ride.

Man of Steel – Watch Superman the way you never wanted to see him: dark and moody with an incoherent origin story. Watch as Superman develops his moral code entirely independent of any positive influences in his life, and then disregards it completely for the rest of the film. If you like near-genocidal super heroes and mind numbing action, this is the movie for you.

After Earth – Watch as Will Smith, marooned on a far-future Earth, learns the harsh lesson that there’s only one thing that can negate his star power: Jayden Smith.

Will smith disappointment

World War Z – Zombies, Brad Pitt, that actress from The Killing; what’s not to like?

Now You See Me – Now you Don’t.

Kick Ass 2 – Watch the sequel to the inexplicably popular crapfest that was the first Kick Ass. Get your bad-taste violence, bad acting, and ridiculous story kicks for the summer all in one place courtesy of Mark Millar, the Michael Bay of comic books.

White House Down – A black/white buddy cop movie with a twist! The black one’s the president! Channing Tatum plays a Secret Service washout with a…. What? No one cares? Ok then…

2 Guns – A black/white buddy cop movie without a twist! Denzel and Marky Mark give us another derivative movie to round out the last 3 decades.

R.I.P.D. – Men in Black 4!

The Wolverine – Get ready for the sequel to the worst super hero movie of all time, and yes, that includes Spider-Man 3 and Green Lantern. Hugh Jackman suits up for another insultingly stupid, unforgivably poorly written and developed bag of garbage. Seriously, how do you mess up Wolverine?? Watch and see… again.

wolverine 2(if you think something cool is about to happen, you are wrong.)

An Open Letter to the Special Effects Driven Film

Dear [insert CGI driven movie title here],

I just watched Pacific Rim, and overall I enjoyed it. For all its flaws and illogic it was generally fun to watch and engaging enough to keep me interested the whole way through. However, despite my general enjoyment, Pacific Rim still fell into some of the same traps that so many of your contemporaries find themselves in. Because I like you, and because I want what’s best for you (and, yes, for me as well) I decided to write this letter.

I know that you are busy saving the world, exploring space, fighting evil, etc., so I’ll be as brief as possible to let you get back to that important work.

My first point has to do with light. We know that the alien invasions, monster attacks, epic battles, etc. wait for no man. However, for your audiences sake, please try to delay them by about 9 hours next time, giving the sun a chance to come up. We as humans do not share your ability to operate at peak efficiency night or day. As an unfortunate accident of evolution, our eyes are only made to function with 100% effectiveness in the light of day. For this reason, when your inevitable climax or mid-way battle takes place in the middle of the night or in a torrential downpour (or both, as we often see), we are often at a loss to appreciate the full magnificence of your victory over your opponents.

I understand, of course, that there are budgetary constraints with regards to the creation of special effects, and that nighttime and/or thunderstorm offers a protective fog that makes fooling the human eye easier without spending much more money on rendering. I also understand that your budget has to fill an hour and 45 minutes of a 2 hour movie with action in order to keep our goldfish attention spans engaged. But still, I propose a solution: instead of having 20 nighttime/rainstorm battles during your 2 hour run time, how about only having 15 battles overall?

Wait, just hear me out!

By having only 15 battles, the production funding which would have been spent on the other 5 is now available to augment your rendering of the remaining battles. In this way, we the audience can be spared the trouble of guessing what is happening during the majority of your action sequences. Yes, we understand that our hero or an enemy is now flying through the air. We assume he’s been struck or thrown. But we would love to actually KNOW.

My second point has to do with the stupid human brain. And I know this is not your problem; you have far greater concerns than what my simple ape brain can handle visually… defending the galaxy for instance. But I would still ask that you indulge me for a moment.

The simple fact is: my brain simply can’t handle all the visual debris that you throw at it.

When you start with a close up of a fist, then quickly switch to the face of a swiftly moving enemy darting past the camera, then zooming away (much faster than a human could ever move) before swiveling the point of view around, over, and under the two characters before the fist connects causing an explosion, my brain interprets one thing maybe: fist?

(get any of that?)

I need a few things from you, if you decide can help me out with this. 1) I’m gonna need you to slow it down. Not everything has to be in slow motion, but it absolutely cannot be in super-fast motion. Movies are a visual medium as I know you are well aware, and if I’m not able to actually see what is going on, it defeats the entire purpose. The IMPRESSION that something cool and epic may have just occurred is not enough. I need to know.

And 2) we get it, you are very good at realistically rendering debris. Thanks you. But now, we would like some more emphasis put on the characters themselves than on the destruction they create collaterally. Some of that is excellent, certainly. But when explosions, falling buildings, and shrapnel are actively obscuring our battling dynamos, whoever they may be, well then we have derailed.

I’d really like for us to be able to work together on this one. I think there is a lot of growth potential, and profit in it for both of us. I get a better viewing experience, and you get the satisfaction of a job well done.  I know you’re capable of doing this, because you’ve done it in the past with great success. Let’s learn from our triumphs, [special effects driven film], and save the world together.

 

Play: The Last of Us

How the Best Zombie Movie of the Last Decade Could be a Video Game

Guest post by Ryan Ring

There is hope in video games, and I have seen it in one of the most bleak and hopeless places imaginable; no, not Detroit, but rather post-Apocalyptic America as depicted in The Last of Us.  A lot has been made of the increasing status of video games as a form of entertainment, and even a form of artistic expression (though I would argue there has been “Art” in video games since, in 1983, Shigeru Miyamoto introduced the most famous Italian brothers this side of the Corleones).  However, despite this tantalizing tagline, few games have really been able to transcend the limitations of their platform, and gaming culture in general, to deliver something that is truly culturally significant from a storytelling perspective.  In fact, those games that have broke into the cultural consciousness have done so for purely superficial reasons (extreme violence, new technology, commercial success, etc.) instead of for their artistic viability.  That is, until now.

There are already innumerable articles on the merits of The Last of Us as a game, and it is a great game, but my intent here is to focus on the merits of its story rather than its gameplay, and what it could mean for video games as cinema.  Now, I fall in the camp of people who don’t believe spoilers ruin a viewing/reading/playing experience, but before I go on, I should mention it will be difficult to discuss this game without divulging some of the critical plot points and events in the game, so you should assume from this point forward there will be some spoilers, though I will attempt to limit their impact.

For those of you unfamiliar with The Last of Us, the story is roughly a mix of Children of Men, The Road, and 28 Days Later (if that doesn’t entice you, I don’t know what will).  The story takes place after the fall of civilization to a progressive fungal infection that causes hyper-aggression in the host, and the declaration of martial law in what few American cities are left standing.  The player assumes the role of Joel, a grizzled Texan smuggler in the Boston Quarantine Zone, who has never quite recovered from the untimely demise of his teenage daughter 20 years earlier at the hands of a conflicted soldier (witnessed in the gut-wrenching opening scenes of the game).  Through a confluence of circumstances, Joel and his smuggling partner Tess are entrusted by the leader of the “Firefly” rebellion group to transport a young QZ inhabitant, Ellie, to safety.   As it would turn out, Ellie is immune to the fungal infection plaguing mankind and represents humanity’s sole hope for vaccination.  As one would expect, things go awry, the Fireflies fail to make the meet, Tess dies, and Joel is left trying to figure out what to do with this girl he never wanted to be responsible for in the first place.

This all sounds dangerously cliché, but the game navigates banality surprisingly well by skirting overt analogies between Ellie and Joel’s deceased daughter and playing on Joel’s role as something of an anti-hero in what winds up being one of the most expansive and rewarding post-Apocalyptic stories in recent memory.  As such, The Last of Us has shown the potential for the video game medium to provide a viable alternative to big-box Hollywood and all it’s trappings.  One of the major limitations encountered in most video games is the shoddy voice acting, and the seeming disregard for a coherent story.  Some games even pride themselves on the ability for the gamer to determine the outcome of the plot through multiple endings.  Not so for The Last of Us on both accounts.  The voice acting for the main roles is impeccable and the script is subtle and smart.  The cinema isn’t limited to cinematic “cut scenes” either, but is sometimes delivered through in-game conversations and cinematic sequences.  The story is also surprisingly tight, and the inherent length of an epic game like this (anywhere between 12 – 15 hours) allows the writers to fully flesh out the slow progression of the relationship between Joel and Ellie in a realistic and complex way.  The dynamics of that relationship are elegantly mirrored by juxtaposition within the mise-en-scene.   As Joel and Ellie traverse ruined America, they don’t only encounter toddler-size corpses, hanged military officials, anthropophagist butcheries, and other grim scenes, but also settings of sublime beauty like when Ellie stalks a wounded buck through a snow covered wood.  The mood is further accentuated by a superb and understated score by Gustavo Alfredo Santaolalla (Babel, Brokeback Mountain).   It’s apparent the importance of atmospheric details was not lost on the game’s creators.

This brings me to the central question:  What does The Last of Us mean for the viability of video games as an alternative storytelling medium?  As with anything, there are positives and negatives.  A significant problem of course is not everyone has the equipment or the time to play, let alone beat, an epic game like this.  Similarly, the narrative is necessarily spasmodic.  A game must still be a game, after all, and you can hardly avoid the narratively superfluous tutorials, combat sequences, and puzzles present in most games.  In addition, any non-playing spectators would probably be bored to death as my character stumbled through dead ends looking for loot or sat still for five minutes trying to stealthily kill an unsuspecting marauder.

However, despite these drawbacks, there are notable advantages to this platform as well.  Video games, while still subject to some Hollywood-style commercial considerations, seem to suffer from fewer limitations when it comes to subject matter and commercial appeal, at least in terms of story.  In the case of The Last of Us, the content is extremely challenging and at times downright disturbing.  In one scene, the player assumes control of Ellie in a situation where one false step (literally) can lead to her nearly being chopped in half with a machete in a gruesome death sequence.  The game uses this unsparing brutality as tastefully as possible and as a measure to demonstrate the stakes at play at any given time.  The player cannot be certain that either Joel or Ellie will make it to the end of the game, and even if they do, you’ll probably have to witness them perish in any number of ways before you get there.  As such, games in general can offer a level of suspense and uncertainty most conventional films fail to match.  Moreover, the plot of The Last of Us itself resolves in a morally ambiguous way that I find it hard to believe would ever make it through the major motion picture studio screening process.

This is not to say that I believe video games will come to replace movies as visual media, and the realm of games is certainly no stranger to unending reams of sequels and unoriginal properties.  Yet perhaps works like The Last of Us will be the vanguard of a new generation of video games with artistic sensibilities, a refuge for those of us craving original thought, creative storytelling, and ultimately inspiration.  Of course, The Last of Us also teaches us that hope can kill, so until the day the industry regularly releases games of this caliber we will just have to “endure and survive.”

Why You Should Keep an Airplane Journal

When I was 21 years old I realized something about myself: I didn’t have what it took to keep a journal. Not the traditional kind of journal, anyway: the kind where most nights you open it up and write something about your day and your state of mind. I had tried before, and failed. I might write an entry or 3 over the course of a few weeks and then never pick it up again; ultimately, the perceived drudgery of most of my days (at that age) kept me from writing daily. Even now, when my life is much more interesting than it was then, I still can’t imagine having something worthwhile to write every day, or even most days.

And this is from someone who loves to write.

I did however want a log for posterity of what I was doing at that time in my life. I wanted to have something to look back on that would tell me what and how I was thinking so that I could compare and contrast. I wanted to know if I was changing.

So I invented the airplane journal. One thing I knew for certain, even then, was that I wanted to travel. A lot. I had traveled some up until that age, mostly in the United States, but also to the Caribbean a few times. And to me, at that age, those were the memories I cherished most. I associated travel with freedom and escape, two things I felt eluded me at the time. I’m glad now for that largely illusory powerlessness because it led to the creation of the airplane journal.

My Airplane Journal is a marble notebook that I take with me whenever I take a trip. I’m a fan of arbitrary rules, so for me the rules are: I can only write in airplanes, and only when the plane is off the ground. And I HAVE to write every time I fly.

I started off writing mostly rhapsodically about life and the world, but as I got older I began to write entries as letters to myself. I fill my future self in on the events that have taken place since my last trip, and also talk about where I’m going, both literally and metaphorically. Every entry is dated and tagged with both my destination and my departure point (ex: 11/9/2010 PEK –> SFO). I’ve been doing it for over 10 years now. I have over 60 entries now and have almost filled two books.

Anyone who has ever successfully kept a long term journal can attest to the feeling that comes from being able to take a glimpse into your own past. There is a catharsis in reading about the concerns of yesteryear and realizing how far you’ve come (and, occasionally, how little has changed).

Now, not everyone travels very often nor even has the desire to. In that case an airplane journal might not be the most suitable undertaking. However, a conditional journal, tied to a life activity which is relatively frequent and enjoyable, makes the process of keeping a log much easier and also gives you more bang for your buck. It’s easier to go back and review as it covers longer stretches of time, and it is linked to those milestone moments in life that are the most important to you.

Sometimes I go back through my journal and it’s like reading the words of some other person. I barely remember where I was living 8 years ago, much less what the most pressing concerns in my life were at that point. My airplane journal catches me up on who I was and also reminds me who I am.

Two noteworthy revelations have come from reading back through my airplane journals. 1) My handwriting is getting much, much worse; damn you digital age. And 2) on a whole I’m much more content than I used to be.

It’s nice to know that some things do change.

I Want my FYMTV, Pt 2

So I’ve been bashing a lot of shows lately, and I feel like I should switch gears a bit to talk about why I do it. Refocusing on the FYMPlanet mission is probably in order here: the goal is not just to slam mediocre shows or to try to shame people into not watching their favorite guilty pleasure. Far from it. You’ll notice that I personally watch all of the shows that I criticize for their lack of impact. I’m not against the shows I trash here, I simply don’t think they work and I do my best to outline why.

At the end of the day, what I really want is for the mediocre and bad shows that people watch to be a backup option rather than the go-to.  I also want people to be able to recognize the flaws in the shows they watch. That’s not to say this will cause them not to watch it anymore; it won’t. But it will dissipate the shared delusion that popularity and profundity are the same things.

I think that understanding the fundamentals of storytelling and the elements that go into good TV is important.

Not for some arbitrary aesthetic reason, but because the more people recognize mediocrity in all its various forms, the more they will seek out things that are better. In the long run, this may lead to better programming overall as studios realize that the drivel that has been successful in the past is no longer making the cut. We’re not there yet, but TV is definitely producing more worthwhile content than ever before. Is that simply because it’s producing more content period, and that percentage-wise the number of “good” shows is staying the same? I don’t know, but what if all of the mediocre shows could be tweaked so they were BETTER?

Wouldn’t it be great if someone made a show like Dexter with dynamic characters and good acting? What if The Walking Dead featured an engaging storyline and quit treating its characters like cardboard cutouts.

I want to watch THOSE shows. I want to watch shows like AMC’s The Killing which pulls no punches as it draws you in and breaks your heart. Or shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer that took a campy comedic premise and turned it into something amazing and unexpected.

Years from now, you’ll remember that Dexter was a show about a serial killer killing serial killers and that The Walking Dead was about zombies, but you’ll remember the details of Tony Sopranos dreams. You’ll remember Stringer Bell’s hubris and Omar Little’s code. You’ll remember every step of Walter White’s descent. You’ll remember the minutiae of those characters because they lived for you in a way that the one dimensional Dexter Morgan or Rick Grimes never will.

It can’t be a bad thing to want all of your TV to be that good, can it?

So yeah, I trash mediocre shows from time to time, but only in the service of the idea that there’s better out there and availing yourself of it will not only please your palate but evolve it. If our tastes continue to develop then our media will follow suit. I admit that it would be a dangerous world were all shows good. I doubt I’d get much done. But good or bad, I don’t want to settle for less.

I don’t know about you, but I want my FYMTV.

Don’t Watch: Dexter

(For reviews, recommendations, and more check out the FYMP Podcast!)

Dexter, since its 2006 inception, has been breaking Showtime records and entertaining millions of underdeveloped minds with its anticlimactic progression and willfully stagnant main character.

Let’s explore some of the elements that make this show not worth your time.

First off, the show is plagued by bad acting. Though the worst acting I’ve ever seen on television was displayed by Erik King, who played James Doakes in seasons 1 & 2, since his timely on-screen demise other “actors” like Desmond Harrington (Quinn), Lauren Vélez (LaGuerta), Jennifer Carpenter (Debra Morgan), and pretty much everyone else in the show continue to plumb the depths of non-acting and have established themselves as accomplished hacks in their own right. Watching them stumble through their scenes is hard enough without taking into consideration things like character development, which is entirely absent. It’s like the show’s writers thought character development was something you only had to do BEFORE the show starts. 7 seasons in and no noticeable change in anyone.

Michael C. Hall, who actually has it in him to be a decent actor (though not a consistent one by any means), doesn’t really have the chance to do anything outstanding since any emotion Dexter is “able” to express is painstakingly described in dull monologues rather than displayed.

Which brings me to Dexter himself. From the very first season, which consisted mostly of monologues by Dexter describing how dead he is inside, we are constantly bombarded with instances during which this claim is resoundingly refuted.

Pretty much every quirk Dexter displays (aside from his murders) could be attributed to a mentally competent, non-psychopathic, socially awkward teenage boy. Dexter’s personality defect really boils down to simple immaturity… with a side of homicidal tendencies.

Still, we are meant to buy into Dexter’s dishonest self-description even though almost all evidence stands to the contrary. In fact, the only time that Dexter’s supposed universal apathy really seems apparent is when he’s confronted with the pleas of his victims. Every other circumstance seems to elicit an actual emotion, and more often than not it’s something that a normal human could empathize with. So there goes the myth of Dexter’s detachment and social alienation.

(SPOILERS BELOW)

In light of that, Dexter’s inability to change is inexplicable. If he were a real person, Dexter’s refusal to change despite devastating life changing occurrences would be frustrating and confounding. Fortunately, we don’t need to wrestle with this paradox; it’s wholly attributable to bad writing. Dexter’s wife Rita, who we know he has developed real feelings for, dies; and yet, instead of the show making an interesting and desperately needed paradigm shift where Dexter has to deal with that event and his guilt over it, the next season begins with Dexter back on the job like nothing ever happened. Not because Dexter is dead inside – we know he’s not – but because of the writers’ inability or unwillingness to follow up on a decent plot twist. Way to go guys.

Additionally, as the seasons go by, one of the most interesting parts of the mediocre show, Dexter’s kidnapping/murders of other serial killers, happen less and less frequently, and usually become just another excuse for the main character to monologue and soul search at the viewer’s expense. Dexter’s angsty pseudo-apathy was disingenuous in season one; now, approaching season 8, it’s positively farcical.

The show consistently fails to have an impact one way or the other. After having watched the entire series to date (don’t ask why, just be glad I did so I can tell you why not to), I can only single out a few episodes that I would consider “well done.” The show is a fluff series that avoids true introspection at any cost while still trying to keep the audience engaged and stimulated… not an approach that traditionally yields quality results.

The moral ambiguity inherent to vigilantism, and particularly Dexter’s unique brand of serial murder, is never more than perfunctorily explored. The side stories of the rest of the cast which frequently pop up so that the show can pretend to be multi-faceted are largely uninteresting and underdeveloped. The “Big Bad” foe of Dexter that has come to characterize each season of the show is usually overwrought and underwhelming. The whole thing is a mediocre mess.

So, season 8 is coming in a few weeks, and mercifully it’s the last season. Let’s see how the writers decide to limp their way across the finish line. I’m just glad it’s over; this show has been my Dark Passenger for far too long.

Above and Beyond

What feels like a lifetime ago, I was a height safety and rescue trainer for a German safety equipment manufacturer in China. A friend of a friend helped get me the job, for which my only qualifications were that I spoke decent Chinese and was of sound mind and body.

To teach me…well, everything about safety and rescue, the company first sent me to their home offices in Germany for two months of training.

On the flight over, after transiting Moscow on the way to Frankfurt, my plane encountered the worst turbulence I have ever experienced. The young Russian guy next to me gently and expressionlessly closed his laptop (playing Russian sitcoms) and vomited violently into the provided barf bag. Good start to the trip.

The fun-filled months I spent there included trying to get by in a tiny German town without speaking a word of German, and climbing up and down training towers for hours each day doing my best not to kill myself and others. I also got to visit a few nearby cities and reconnect with an old military friend who was stationed about an hour from where I was. Also, abseiling out of a 100 meter-high wind turbine is pretty fun, so it wasn’t all bad.

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Once back in China, the training wheels were suddenly, and somewhat prematurely, ripped out from underneath me and I became the dedicated trainer for all of East Asia overnight. Almost immediately I began to get summoned away for 2 to 10 day training trips in parts of China I’d never heard of. Once there, I was presented with the challenge of training experienced industry workers on equipment that they used daily, mastering the entirely field-specific Chinese vocabulary used in the height safety/wind power industry, and doing both things while attempting not to embarrass myself or damage the good name of the company. I give myself credit for my overall success in rising to the challenge, but it didn’t always work out…

Though most of my training was geared towards the wind industry where most of our business was focused, I was occasionally called upon to perform demos or trainings for other industries on behalf of my company. These included areas which my trainers in Germany had almost completely glossed over believing it would not be of much relevance. And so it was that, with only a one-day training session on tree climbing under my belt, I was called upon to lead a tree climbing demo in Hong Kong.

I proceeded to resoundingly embarrass myself in front of actual professionals. I recall dangling exhausted from my ropes after managing to get 5 feet off the ground using my hand ascender, and looking up into the tree at the winner of the national rope tree climbing championship (yes, that exists – possibly solely to shame me) who I was supposed to be demonstrating equipment usage to. I also got bitten well over a hundred times on both arms by vicious mosquitoes. Overall, not one of my better days.

Despite those occasional glitches, I became fairly adept at conducting the training for the wind industry. The on-location trainings were almost always in tiny towns where the wind farms were located. The local turbine maintenance crews who were the recipients of the training were always so endlessly fascinated by this Chinese speaking foreigner with the fancy pants who came to train them that I’m certain that about 90% of the training fell on deaf ears. In any case, there was little chance that the stringent German standards I taught and advocated would be adhered to in the corner-cutting culture of the Chinese wind industry.

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Like anything, the more I did it the easier it got. After a few months of training around China (and a random one in Uruguay) the 80 to 125 meter ladder climb was a breeze for me. I knew the various types of turbines inside out, and knew what course to take in almost any rescue scenario that might occur.

Once the stress of uncertainty was out of the way, I could just enjoy the process; and I lived for the silence at the top of the tower where I could briefly be alone with the wind.

I arrive for work and 30 minutes later I stand atop an 80 meter wind turbine in Inner Mongolia, 70 miles of gravel road between me and the nearest town, nothing but towers, sheep, and the open plains spread out below me. The nacelle sways gently in the wind, and the blades creak on their hinges, eager to turn. The wind whips around me like a living thing; it’s a sound like shouting, like rejoicing, like life.

And all the world is a flawless wonder.

I’ve had worse jobs.

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Don’t Watch: The Walking Dead

*Can they be called spoilers if the show is already rotten? If so, they’re ahead*

The Walking Dead is a profoundly mediocre show. It’s greatest strength is that it manages to keep otherwise rational people watching it, long after it has proven itself not worth their time. Commenter Nial said it best in his comment on my Public Service Announcement post: “The Walking Dead TV show is like super sizing your combo meal at the drive thru. I know it doesn’t have much substance and it’s not good for me but I can’t help myself. Afterwards I feel unfulfilled and dirty.”

Robert Kirkman, the creator of The Walking Dead comic book and an executive producer on the show, is one of my favorite comic book writers of the decade. The Walking Dead comic along with one of his other monthly serials, Invincible, are two of my favorite comics of all time and consistently the best of my monthly reads.

As the creator of The Walking Dead’s source material, Kirkman is unsurprisingly one of the biggest advocates of the show. It is his brain child after all. Though it saddens me to think it is so, I can’t help but harbor the sincere hope that his constant praise of the show is nothing more than lip service. It wouldn’t do for a show’s creator and executive producer to badmouth the changes made to the story. Changes which have, by the way, effectively neutered one of the best zombie stories ever told. As The Walking Dead comic continues to impress and stick to its awesome guns, I have to believe that deep down Robert Kirkman sheds a tear for each nonsensical detour in the show’s storytelling and bides his time until his next project.

But let’s not nerd out too much and fall into the trap of being blind purists. The show is crappy for many reasons not tied to its deviations from the comic. And don’t get me wrong; The Walking Dead is not even close to being the worst show out there. I could point to almost the entire roster of any other basic cable network and find 95% of the listings to be worse. But that’s not what we do here; leave the lowest hanging fruit to some other site.

The Walking Dead isn’t terrible; it’s just mediocre. And making a show poorly when it has the obvious potential to be amazing is worse than making a flat out crap show to shovel to the cow-public.

Here are some things about The Walking Dead that piss me off:

  • The Walking Dead is mired by stiff performances, uninspired writing, and an utter lack of direction. It’s just not building towards anything like a good show should (see Breaking Bad for reference). While some might say “the journey is the destination,” to that I say “only if the journey keeps me engaged.” It doesn’t. At all.
  • Pacing (noun/verb) – 1: a rate of activity, progress, growth, performance, etc.; tempo. 2: walking at a steady and consistent speed, esp. back and forth and as an expression of one’s anxiety or annoyance.      The show runners confuse definition 1 with definition 2.

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  • I love good Zombie gore as much as the next man, but just as Michael Bay uses explosions to substitute for plot, The Walking Dead uses zombie gore to distract us from the fact that the story isn’t going anywhere. It doesn’t work.
  • The Walking Dead comic book is characterized by dynamic characters who are constantly changing (and more than occasionally dying) as they and the world around them very quickly becomes unrecognizable. The show is characterized by static characters whose greatest change is their miraculously decreasing ability to act. Here are some of the characters and their “developments.”
    • Rick: whether praying or talking into a handheld radio, Rick monologues his way through 2 full seasons. He grows some stubble and a pseudo mullet and creases his eyebrows slightly more as episodes pass.
    • Carl: changes from uninteresting background character to ruthless and uninteresting background character.
    • Lori: dies. I think that counts as character development.
    • Andrea: whines her way to an uninteresting and unnecessary death after several seasons of pouting.
    • T Dog: this character is black and is named T Dog and someone thought that was a good idea. He also mercifully dies.
    • Shane: is thankfully killed off, sparing us a further season of watching him try to act.
    • Michonne: is silent and abrasive by turns, but consistently unremarkable. If the most interesting thing about a character is their weapon, that character is a failure.
    • I don’t remember any of the other characters in the show…
  • The show pulls almost all of its punches. The comic never does.

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AMC, the network which produces The Walking Dead, is one of my favorite television networks. From Breaking Bad to the Killing to Mad Men, AMC has been leading the charge for quality dramatic storytelling for the last few years. All of which makes it that much harder to believe that they would take a slam-dunk show concept like The Walking Dead and drag it facedown through gravel for 4 seasons.

Obviously, The Walking Dead wasn’t a misstep for AMC as a network; the show holds the honor of being the most watched TV drama in basic cable history. As anyone’s Facebook feed or water cooler chit chat experiences can confirm, the series is obviously beloved by many an errant soul. From a business standpoint and by any other quantitative metric I can think of, it’s a huge success. If I were anyone else, I might even start to question myself. Maybe the show IS that good; maybe I’m too hung up on the comic to give it the chance it deserves; maybe I can’t recognize the true genius behind the story.

But no, the show really is sub par. By any critical standards it simply doesn’t measure up.

Do yourselves a favor and read the comic instead. See Rick Grimes the way he was meant to be.

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Sarutobi Parkour

What feels like a lifetime ago, I was a parkour instructor in Beijing, China. I was definitely the first foreigner to teach parkour there, but I may have been the first period. Back in 2009, when I started, there wasn’t anyone else teaching formal parkour classes, and there were only a few informal groups practicing around the city.

The classes were taught as martial arts classes with a strong focus on technique and real life practicality. That meant no flips, no showmanship – just how to get from one place to another as fast and efficiently as possible. The martial discipline made it easier to keep the kids in line in my younger classes, and the program (Sarutobi Parkour) fit well as the “flight” component for all the “fight” courses taught in the martial arts venues where I held classes.

I myself was never a freerunning daredevil, willing to scale tall buildings and risk life or limb jumping off of them in a single bound. Though those videos are often the most impressive and fun to watch on Youtube, I think parkour at its best is strictly utilitarian and minimalist; one of the benefits to this is that it is repeatable and teachable, like any martial art. Being a high level practitioner of parkour means you scale up the basic skills you’ve learned in practice to be effective in real life environments. It also means you can employ those skills effectively where it counts and when there are no second takes, not only for a highlight reel.

And on that note, here’s my highlight reel!

OK, so not technically a highlight reel. This video was meant more as a promotional piece to advertise for the class. It never made it out of pre-production (as you can see), but the friend of mine who produced it did a pretty awesome job of making it presentable in almost no time. Its main purpose was going to be to introduce students (and younger students’ parents) to what parkour was and to show some of the basic techniques taught in the classes.

After about 2 years of teaching parkour, several things happened that made me stop:

1)      I got bored of teaching.

2)      I hyperextended my toe doing a cat leap (it happened right before the first shot in the above video where I appear to be posing.. I’m really wondering how badly damaged my toe is and trying not to show how much agony I’m in.) It took about 2 years to fully heal.

3)      I decided I wanted to make some actual money.

Though I practice very little these days, I still love parkour. It embodies everything about fitness and working out that I am attracted to: functionality, fun, and total engagement. For people like me who find it almost impossible to sustain the long term motivation to go to the gym or run a few repetitive miles, parkour was a great way to keep active without feeling like I was working out.

It’s one of the best ways to get in shape that I know of and it’s also a great skill to have if you ever find yourself in a tight spot.

*For those of you who don’t know anything at all about Parkour, here’s an interview that explains a bit more about it.

C’est la Visa

When I first went to China, it was on a tourism visa which lasted for 3 months.  This was in the weeks following the Olympics, when visa regulations were just beginning to ease slightly.  I arrived unsure of what I would do at the end of those three months, or even of what the rules would be when the time came.

Friends all told me to simply wait and cross that bridge when the time came.  I was understandably less Zen, having never been through this process, and understandably nervous seeing as how that “bridge” had not yet been built at the time.  Thankfully, when the time came, I was able to obtain a 6 month visa with no trouble at all.

Almost a year later, my employers at the time began the process of obtaining a new work visa for me.  This proved problematic to say the least.  As any foreigner in China can tell you, visa troubles are a rite of passage.

In the lead up to the 60th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party in 2009, visas had begun to be increasingly difficult to obtain and renew.  Work visas had become almost impossible to come by for normal humans.  As heightened security measures were put in place during that time period, the procedure for obtaining visas of any kind had become considerably more complex and more expensive.  There is no recourse for visa-seeking residents but to comply.

In the days after the process began: I made over 4 trips to the local Kodak kiosk for visa pictures of varying size and background color as the regulations shifted by the moment; I scrambled to transfer money from my bank in the US to my local bank in China, a Sisyphean task I somehow managed to accomplish, only to be told it was unnecessary several days later; I cried uncontrollably for several hours every day; and, finally, I took a trip to the outer limits of Beijing to take a mandatory medical examination, presumably to ensure that I was indeed a human person and not a cyborg infiltrator.

The medical exam needed for gaining a work visa was once available at a more or less easily accessible location within the city.  Due to the 60th anniversary, however, that was no longer the case.  The only facility administering such tests was now out in the Northwest corner of Beijing near the mountains which, up until the time I went there, I had not known even existed.

The drive to the facility where the medical exams were given was an adventure in itself.  To begin with it was decided, by someone who has yet to receive the full extent of my wrath, that it would be a good idea to head out at 7AM: the exact beginning of Beijing rush hour.  The drive, which off-peak might have taken an hour or so, was thus stretched out to 2 and a half hours.  The five occupants of the compact car managed to go through all of the 5 stages of grief during the course of the drive, reaching acceptance only a few minutes before we actually found the place.  It did not help that our driver had never been before, and so we spent much of our time driving through back alleys, ditches, and hutongs.  To his credit, he finally got us there which, had I been driving, would never have happened.

Upon our arrival at the facility we were glad to find that the parking lot was nowhere close to full, perhaps we would get back before nightfall after all.

We walked in the door tired and afraid, still suffering from post traumatic stress disorder induced by our lengthy, hellish drive.  A small woman dressed in nurses white and a thin face mask sitting behind a counter beckons me forward.  Her eyes are smiling and I begin to relax, maybe the worst is over.  When I reach the desk, without explanation or preamble, the small woman pulls out a gun and puts it to the center of my forehead.

Due to the recent H1N1 scares, many schools, hotels, and office buildings have begun screening everyone who entered with fever detectors.  I had heard of this policy and, having never experienced it personally, had only some vague idea about disposable mouth thermometers.  It turns out that they actually use a temperature sensor in the shape of a small gun which they hold to your forehead for a few seconds after which it shows your temperature in a digital readout.  Pretty cool technology, actually.  Unfortunately, my indoctrination into its use was unfortunately abrupt and more closely resembled a mugging.  I only narrowly avoided the need for a wardrobe change.

When my heart began beating again, I filled out some paperwork and dove right into the exam.

We spend a few hours at the medical facility being bounced around to different rooms where we are poked and prodded by turns.  In one room I wore a lead vest and stood in front of a gigantic humming machine for a few minutes.  I cringed in mock fear as if the radiation burns me… The doctors were not amused.  In another room I was laid down on a table and had wet suction cups attached to my upper torso. I still have no Idea why.  The nurse seemed to find this process as amusing as I found it disturbing.  In yet another room I had my blood pressure taken by a man who looked to be about a thousand years old.

All in all, after the drive, things went pretty smoothly.  The trip back was uneventful and we were all able to laugh at the morning’s antics, though there was a certain harried tenor to our forced joviality.  And when, several days later, I found out that I hadn’t really needed the exam after all, even I couldn’t tell if I was laughing or crying.

Read: Daemon

I read a lot.

I pretty much have to read before I go to bed or I’ll just lie awake and stare at the ceiling even if it’s 3 in the morning. Even if it’s just a page or a few paragraphs, I find it very difficult to pass out without reading something.

Kind of a false start, that. It doesn’t really relate to what the rest of the blog is about, but I’ll leave it in as a fun fact about myself.

Anyway, recently I finished wading through the 5 book Gap Cycle series by Stephen R. Donaldson which wasn’t bad, but burned me out on science fiction which I had been reading pretty exclusively for the past two years or so… I go through phases like that where I only read one genre or one author for extended periods of time.

I wanted to make a soft transition to something a little different rather than completely diverging and picking up a Thomas Pynchon novel or something. I remembered a recommendation I got from a friend several years ago that I had never taken for a book called Daemon by Daniel Suarez so I grabbed it.

It’s a technothriller so still kind of sci-fi-esque but less fantastical.  In any case it was a good transition book, and a pretty good read in general.

The story takes place in the present or very near future and follows the effects on the world of a background process program (daemon) written by a dead genius/madman computer game developer named Matthew Sobol which infiltrates the global net and begins to disrupt the world economy and balance of power in interesting ways.

The Daemon’s queue to begin operating is the headline announcing the death of its creator. Through backdoors built into Sobol’s video games, it siphons the computing power of legions of unwary gamers and begins to systematically enlist the disenfranchised to accomplish its goals. It shifts its strategy and initiates pre-planned contingencies in response to keywords in media headlines. The Daemon causes death and destruction as well as silent infiltration as it begins to dispassionately execute its functions with brutal if-then logic bereft of considerations for consequence making it more dangerous than any person could ever be. And its mission is to change the world.

I immediately thought the concept was pretty cool. The writing style is very direct and utilitarian; there are very little embellishment added to the fictional events, yet somehow the story still doesn’t feel heartless. Some characters are better developed than others, and some of the character arcs feel a little forced, but generally speaking they feel and act like real people, which is nice.

The storytelling is well paced and the author never falls into the trap of making the technical explanations (of which there are many) unwieldy or tedious; as a non computer guy (I mean, I own one and know how to turn it on and off. I know how to defrag it… when it gets all fragged. But I’m not a hacker or anything. Does anyone say hacker anymore? Are those still a thing? I digress) I was pleased that the jargon and the technical detail didn’t go over my head.

The concept of the Daemon is interesting because it really feels like something that could almost be realized today. Given unlimited time and resources, the systems the daemon employs to accomplish its goals don’t seem all that impossible…only highly difficult and unlikely. This closeness to reality adds another interesting dimension to the story. It’s like imagining a world where Steve Jobs secretly programmed every iDevice to silently call your mom whenever it sensed you having sex.

At times it’s a little far-fetched in that the Daemons scripted response are too spot-on to have been pre-planned even by a super genius like Sobol, but the author still makes it seem somewhat feasible so I’m able to suspend my disbelief.

The book is also surprisingly bloody and violent at times, but the author’s use of violence is very particular. The violence is brutal when it occurs, but it doesn’t occur throughout and when it does it still has an emotional effect because it is so frugally used.

In any case, at the end of the book things are getting pretty serious and the scale of the vision of the Daemon’s creator is just starting to be revealed. The book is a pretty good non-preachy examination of some of the implications of technology in our net dependent civilization. When money and information exist primarily as electrical impulses being shunted around the world at light speed, the question of cyber security and its underlying assumptions becomes more and more crucial. And as the tangible world becomes increasingly and inextricably linked to the virtual one, the immediacy of the danger of its exploitation is increased exponentially.

It was a good book, and I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, Freedom™.

I Want my FYMTV

I won’t say that TV is getting better.

Thanks to the spew of reality TV programming that dominates much of the airwaves these days, TV is more likely, on average, getting worse. However, the number of very good shows, while not quite balancing out all the crap, IS growing at an unprecedented rate. A discerning viewer today has FAR more options than they did a decade ago, and that trend is likely to continue as new networks and outlets begin vying for the audiences that have flocked to quality TV.

Unfortunately, viewership of mediocre, traditional-style shows like Law & Order, The Big bang Theory, and CSI: Poughkeepsie (or whatever), is also still high. And, also unfortunately, in many cases the viewing of new, good TV doesn’t stop viewers from continuing to watch sub-par TV as well.

Through my own personal mixture of narcissism and benevolence, it always seems like a pitiable travesty when I watch otherwise reasonable people subject themselves to middling televisions shows. One reason for this is exposure; most people don’t watch all that much television. And when they do, they do it on an actual television set where they have limited channels, options, and inclination to explore. They see the latest episode of Bones on and say “why not.” I always think to myself: “Someone should do something to help those poor people!”

I understand that most people don’t take their fiction as seriously as I do, but I still ask: why does an end-of –day diversion have to be mundane and formulaic when it could be stimulating and enriching? Many of us watch TV as an escape from our daily routines; why not make that escape memorable.

To that end, and to give a head start to those of us that want to pull ourselves up out of the mire of daytime drama, I’ve listed below some of the best shows made in recent years in no particular order. If you haven’t watched these shows, there’s no reason to be watching anything inferior to them. In addition, while these shows may be the 5 star top of the heap, there are tons of 4 and 3 star shows that should still take precedence over NCIS, Burn Notice, or whatever other nonsense you’re watching because your finger got tired of changing channels.

Work your way down to the crap TV, not up to the excellent.

1)      Louie

2)      Firefly

3)      The Wire

4)      Breaking Bad

5)      Extras

6)      Battlestar Galactica (new series)

7)      Avatar: The Last Airbender

8)      Deadwood

9)      Survivorman

10)   The Office (British version)

11)   Misfits

12)   Generation Kill

Last Night Aikido Saved My Life

I’ve been training martial arts for most of my life. I’ve done karate, jujitsu, Brazilian jujitsu, aikido, and some tai chi chuan. Despite all that (or maybe because of it) I’ve only been in one real fight in my life.

Well, I guess it depends on your definition of a fight. I reflexively punched a younger kid in the face as a grade schooler over some perceived slight during a baseball game. As a freshman I was once given a bloody nose by a high school pal during a friendly bout of slap-boxing which didn’t feel very friendly. I’ve sparred a lot during my years of training martial arts, but that doesn’t really count.

No, I’ve only ever been in one real fight, where, as an adult man, another adult man actively attempted to do me harm. Well, actually, adult “men” would be more accurate, there were 4 or 5 of them. So I guess technically, I was jumped.

In that case, I’ve still never been in a fight; I’ve been jumped. Once.

It sucked, as you might expect, but it was also a great experience. If I’d ended up with my skull bashed in by a bottle I might not think so, but since I made it out none the worse for wear, it was a worthwhile learning experience.

Maybe I should just relate the story:

It was Valentine’s Day 2011 and I was out with my girlfriend at the time in the popular bar district in Beijing, China. Following a nice meal and some drinks, we ventured into a nearby yet infinitely seedier section of bar street to have a drink and dance, at her insistence.

We ended up in a bar called Butterfly, which was one of the many places on that particular street where dreams went to die. The entire area has since been walled over with concrete, which is for the best. In typical fashion, the bar was packed to the gills with rowdy expats and Chinese aficionados of the species. Rather than braving the dance floor immediately, to build our resolve we stood at the bar for a while chatting and having a drink (poured from a bottle within which was definitely NOT the alcohol advertised on the label).

Suddenly an arm pushed between us with deliberate malice. A hand reaches down into the stool that we were using as a hat rack, grabbed my hat, threw it aside, and a gruff voice said in Mandarin: “This is my chair.” I look up and there is a tallish, smirking mouth breather making “come at me bro” eyes at me.

My girlfriend immediately began gathering our things and pulling me towards the door, eager to avoid a confrontation. Somewhere beneath my instinctive male ire I found this interesting because her insistence implied that she thought that I might be inclined to chest puff and monkey dance with the guy. For the record, I don’t do that, partially out of maturity and a general disdain for posturing and showmanship, and partially due to cowardice and a general self-preserving desire not to be accidentally beaten to death.

Still, in front of my girlfriend I had to keep a little bit of face, and I WAS annoyed, so I give the guy my best smirk and “If-it wasn’t-for-my-girlfriend-I’d…” look and slowly followed her out of the bar. A helping hand guided me on my way as I turned to go.

Now, despite being a coward and general pacifist, I also have a rule that goes like this: don’t touch me. So I knocked Mr. Helpful’s hand off of my back, which was exactly the signal that his 3 or 4 friends were waiting for to attack.

What follows probably lasted for all of 10 seconds, but when I replay it it feels like 5 minutes. Long story short: I was separated from my girlfriend and attacked from all sides; I dodged a few poorly thrown haymakers and managed to grab a guy and commenced using him for Operation Human Shield. Thankfully the genius squad attacking me was using the tried and true “movie ninja” method of attacking one at a time, so I was able to keep them at bay, make my way to the door, and throw my trusty shield back at his friend before exiting the fine establishment with my girlfriend and beating a quick retreat to a waiting taxi.

Now, I’m a fairly small individual. I stay in good shape and am pretty athletic, but I’m not tall or large. And as my fighting experience outlined above (namely the lack thereof) might tell you, I’m definitely not a battle hardened tough guy.

Therefore I attribute my general success in the encounter to a combination of 3 things: the fact that it was well past drunk o’ clock which rendered my attackers’ already inept fighting skills useless; the fact that at the time I was training several martial arts regularly and thus had somewhat increased physical and situational awareness; and the fact that after the plan A of immediately dragging me to the ground for a head-kickfest failed, the plan B of actually slugging it out with me seemed less attractive.

I managed to make it out of the encounter entirely unscathed. My then-girlfriend also made it out fine. Thankfully the attention was all on getting to me. She stayed out of harm’s way pretty easily once they swarmed. Being from Korea where pugilism is anything but irregular she was also almost completely unfazed by the events of the evening.

I, on the other hand, had an adrenaline dump going that kept me up until the wee hours. During that contemplation time, some things about situations like the one that had just transpired were highlighted in my mind. One was that the vast majority of people in the world don’t know how to fight. Even in places where fighting is common, there are very few people who really learn to fight. The other was that most people, even assholes who want to participate in a good old fashioned jumping don’t really want to fight. Oh, they want to beat someone up alright, but they don’t want to actually risk anything for it… hence the underlying conceit behind jumping.

The last thing had to do with my martial arts studies. I’d been mostly studying Brazilian Jujitsu and Aikido at the time, and I could definitely feel the usefulness of my Aikido studies.  Especially in today’s MMA saturated world, lots of people denigrate Aikido as overly exaggerated and useless in practical application, but it was probably the only reason the situation ended up as well as it did. While staying entirely defensive also probably helped keep the situation from escalating, knowing how to move around multiple attackers, knowing how to keep an opponent off balance while maintaining my own, and knowing how to respond to the various angles presented helped keep me safe that night.

My petty desire to have cracked at least one of those clowns in the teeth not withstanding, I couldn’t have asked for a better first brawl.

Public Service Announcement

 

These random popular things are mediocre; you should not like them as much as you do.

1. The Big Bang Theory (the show… not the actual theory)
2. Tom Clancy books (yes, all of them)
3. Shameless
4. Taken
5. Sons of Anarchy
6. Dan Brown books (yes, all of them)
7. The Dark Knight Rises
8. Dexter
9. The Walking Dead (TV show)
10. Anything from Mark Millar

Here at FYM Planet, we don’t go after the low hanging fruit. For a list of some truly BAD things, just find anything popular with high schoolers. We stick to maligning the not-that-good, the could-be-better; the …meh.

This list is in no particular order, and it is far from exhaustive, but it’s a good start. If you get really excited about anything listed above…

…don’t.

You Don’t Have to be a Tool to Use One

We’ve all heard it before. Sanctimonious friends telling us how much their formerly pathetic lives have improved since they got rid of Facebook and its evil lure of artificially sustained acquaintanceship. The perceived disservice done to True Friendship™ is an oft cited reason for dumping the service, e.g. “maintaining friendships takes more than ‘liking’ a status or typing an extra exclamation point on someone’s front page Happy Birthday message.” Rather than sharing pictures on Facebook of their latest weekend mountain biking (or whatever) to constantly project an image of a fun and active lifestyle, these friends achieve the same result by working their disuse of the service and associated happiness into every conversation.

Those who haven’t quite made the plunge often wax dramatic about their addiction to Facebook or the time they waste on the social networking site, often set against the backdrop of a fantasy world where their productivity levels far outstrip their real world potential. Still others cite their annoyance at the constant stream of drivel that emanates from their feed; to hear them tell it, Facebook itself spews these inanities, not the friends they’ve chosen.

Here’s the thing: any tool is only as effective as its user. If you use a splitting maul to slice bread you’ll get frustrated very quickly. You are also a moron. Throwing the maul away in disgust is certainly an option, but only as long as you don’t ever need to split any wood. Heavy-handed metaphor aside, the point is: if you’re using Facebook in a way that is causing you distress, stop using it in that way.

Here are a few ideas about Facebook use that may help in this process:

Choose your friends wisely: If your Facebook feed is constantly filled with lengthy bible verses, blow by blow reactions to the latest episode of Real Housewives of Schenectady, or passive aggressive attention-whore status updates like “real friends wouldn’t treat each other that way, just sayin’,” the fault lies in one place and one place only: Your crappy choice of friends. Not only do you have complete control over the people you add on Facebook, you also have complete control on the updates you get from them. Here’s a thought: don’t add people you know you don’t want to hear opinions from, and if for some reason you decide you have to anyway, add them as an acquaintance or unsubscribe from their updates. Also feel free to delete people you don’t think you want as friends. Trust me, the anguish they suffer at being unfreinded by you will pass, and in time they may even go on to live normal productive lives.

Own your procrastination: Now, I consider myself something of an expert on wasting time. At the same time I score pretty low in self-deception which makes for a pretty frustrating experience at times. Another side effect, however, is that at no point do I pretend that my time wasting is a function of anything other than my internal laziness, no matter what external outlet I may find. The idea that in the absence of Facebook I might somehow be hopelessly cornered into doing actual work is pretty preposterous. My procrastination isn’t so fragile a thing. There’s a whole Internet out there to distract me from important things I should be doing. And barring that, there’s an actual world outside full of even more distractions, or so I’ve heard. Facebook isn’t making you waste your time, you are. And who knows, if you own up to that then maybe you can even start to do something about it. Or not, whatever.

Convenience is not the enemy of friendship: If your interaction with your close friends really comes down to a few “likes” a year, it can mean one of several things: 1) you didn’t have anything to say lately – this happens; 2) you don’t value that friendship as much as you thought you did – this is probably good to know, 3) The friendship isn’t the type that needs constant maintenance – when the urge hits you, you’ll reach out and vice versa. The one thing that all of these things have in common, is that they have nothing to do with Facebook. If you feel awkward about the perceived superficiality of your Facebook outreach, that’s a personal problem. If you care enough, you can always call or write your friend (you could even do both of these things ON Facebook). And if you don’t care enough to ever call or write, why do you care about feeling like you don’t care enough to ever call or write? In any case, that you do or do not do those things has nothing at all to do with Facebook. Additionally, if having casual acquaintances offends you on some fundamental level, see the first point above.

Now, I personally could care less if you never plan to use Facebook, delete your current account, or decide the internet is altogether not for you. If you’ve got neo-luddite tendencies than by all means embrace it, you’ll be much more prepared when the apocalypse hits. But even if you don’t want to use it or dislike it for other reasons, it’s important to remember that Facebook is still simply a tool. The amount you use it and how you use it is totally up to you. So if you don’t blame a hammer for building a crappy house, then don’t blame Facebook for being a crappy experience.

Watch: Attack the Block

Imagine a film that will both highlight socioeconomic issues in low income UK housing projects, and also tell the story of adolescent hooligans thwarting an alien invasion.

This sounds like the first line of an overambitious final project proposal by a first year film student who will end up actually making a four minute animated short about a lonely hedgehog before graduating to work at The Home Depot. Actually, though, it’s a pretty good one line introduction to Attack the Block, one of my favorite movies of the past few years.

When I watched Attack the Block the first time, I was expecting a low budget, run-of-the-mill action comedy; run-of-the-mill meaning the action would be sub-par and the comedy would fall flat. Aside from the genre, I had no idea what the premise of the movie was which probably contributed to my enjoyment of it.

Needless to say, the effusive nature of this review should lead you to guess that I was pleasantly surprised. Here’s why:

  • The comedic moments were actually funny! The action was actually exciting! In today’s action comedy world where explosions usually play the role previously occupied by actual action choreography, and the use of “comedy” in the genre title could easily refer to the laughability of the plot, it’s amazing to see a movie with clever, witty dialogue, AND action sequences thought out a bit further than cool posing and slow motion (though both techniques make awesome appearances in the film).
  • Across the board, the characters were fully realized and treated as actual nuanced human beings; something you rarely see in movies featuring “disenfranchised youths” as either antagonists or protagonists.
  • While the movie obviously did not have  a budget as large as travesties like Transformers, the special effects were budget appropriate, good looking, and innovative.
  • The climax can make or break a movie, and the final scenes in Attack the Block are as cathartic as in any movie I’ve seen in recent years, with all the inspiration, excitement, and badassery that an audience wants to see in a finale.
  • The soundtrack fit the movie. No higher praise can be given.

As directorial debuts go, it’s been some time since I’ve seen a stronger one than this first film by Joe Cornish. Let’s just hope he doesn’t pull an M. Night Shyamalan.