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Game Over Used to Mean Something
Published on August 23, 2011 by Sara Foss

Over at Kotaku, Maria Bustillos writes a fairly thought-provoking and philosophical piece about video game deaths, and how they help us experience "not only the thrill of danger and survival, but the ecstasy of reincarnation."

In her piece, titled "How Video Game Deaths Help Us Live," Bustillos makes an observation I've made before: It's much harder to die in a video game than it used to be. I'm sure there are people out there who think this is a good thing, but I'm not one of them. I rarely play video games now, but when I do, it never feels like the stakes are as high, or like I'm doing anything that really matters. Whereas Super Mario Brothers often felt like a matter of life and death, as well as a major challenge. My goal was to beat Super Mario without jumping any levels, and so I strove to earn as many extra lives as I could; I didn't want to run out of lives and have to start all over again.

Over the weekend, I played a skydiving game on the Wii with a small boy, and I couldn't for the life of me figure out what the point of it was, because death was never a threat. I earned some points, and tried to figure out how to control my skydiver character, but my heart just wasn't in it. Give me a fire-breathing dragon and a princess to rescue, and I might find it in myself to care.


Roger Ebert's Life Story
Published on August 23, 2011 by Sara Foss

Over on his blog, Roger Ebert has posted the opening pages of his memoir, which will be published on Sept. 13.

Here's an excerpt:

"I was born inside the movie of my life. The visuals were before me, the audio surrounded me, the plot unfolded inevitably but not necessarily. I don't remember how I got into the movie, but it continues to entertain me. At first the frames flicker without connection, as they do in Bergman's Persona after the film breaks and begins again. I am flat on my stomach on the front sidewalk, my eyes an inch from a procession of ants. What these are I do not know. It is the only sidewalk in my life, in front of the only house. I have seen grasshoppers and ladybugs. My uncle Bob extends the business end of a fly swatter toward me, and I grasp it and try to walk toward him.

Hal Holmes has a red tricycle and I cry because I want it for my own. My parents curiously set tubes afire and blow smoke from their mouths. I don't want to eat, and my aunt Martha puts me on her lap and says she'll pinch me if I don't open my mouth. Gary Wikoff is sitting next to me in the kitchen. He asks me how old I am today, and I hold up three fingers. At Tot's Play School, I try to ride on the back of Mrs. Meadrow's dog, and it bites me on the cheek. I am taken to Mercy Hospital to be stitched up. Everyone there is shouting because the Panama Limited went off the rails north of town. People crowd around. Aunt Martha brings in Doctor Collins, her boss, who is a dentist. He tells my mother, Annabel, it's the same thing to put a few stitches on the outside of a cheek as on the inside. I start crying. Why is the thought of stitches outside my cheek more terrifying than stitches anywhere else?"


Rural Gardens Link Neighbors
Published on August 23, 2011 by Sara Foss

In her column this week at the DG, my colleague Margaret Hartley writes about the bonds forged between neighbors who garden. Reminds me a bit of the Robert Frost poem "Mending Wall," except instead of good fences making good neighbors, here we have good gardens making good neighbors. Which is a nicer idea, I think.

Anyway, here's an excerpt:

"Gardens make neighbors, the bonds and connections that come from sharing. And when your neighbors are gardeners too, there’s a good chance your garden failures will be compensated for with someone else’s bounty.

Zucchini, for instance. Like the school nurse, we don’t have any. We had plenty earlier this summer, and enjoyed tiny squashes, sautéed or in salads, and not-so-tiny ones sliced and mixed with other vegetables. We even have a fair amount in the freezer.

But we ignored some wilting leaves until it was too late — a borer had gotten in the main stems and killed the plants."


My Personal Account of the Earthquake
Published on August 23, 2011 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I provide my personal account of today's earthquake. Which I wasn't planning to do, as I mention in my post. But then I saw that anyone with access to a computer felt compelled to publicly describe what they experienced - as if there was something unique or interesting about it - and I couldn't resist.

Also, I really enjoyed this blog post from a D.C. resident who also managed to survive the quake.


Philip's Bike Commute
Published on August 22, 2011 by Sara Foss

My friend Philip Schwartz at the Albany Business Review has been blogging about bike commuting. In his most recent post, he writes about biking to Saratoga Race Course for an office outing.


A New Old Man?
Published on August 22, 2011 by Sara Foss

Being from New Hampshire, I was of course incredibly sad when the Old Man on the Mountain, the granite cliffs in the White Mountains that appeared to form a craggy profile, collapsed in 2003.

To anyone who grew up in New Hampshire, the Old Man was a timeless and iconic symbol, appearing on license plates, state route signs and the back of the New Hampshire state quarter. Needless to say, the Old Man's disappearance left a huge void.

But perhaps that void will be filled ... at least in part. In Sunday's Boston Globe magazine, Charles P. Pierce writes about efforts to recreate the Old Man as a visual image.

Here's an excerpt:

"'The inhabitants of this valley, in short, were numerous, and of many modes of life. But all of them, grown people and children, had a kind of familiarity with the Great Stone Face …'
– Nathaniel Hawthorne, 'The Great Stone Face'

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To Catch a Terrorist
Published on August 22, 2011 by Sara Foss

It's always a bit startling to pick up a national newspaper or magazine and suddenly realize you're reading about your community.

Which is why the August issue of Harper's Magazine gave me a bit of a start. This issue, which I only recently got around to reading, contains an article, by Petra Bartosiewicz, that examines the FBI's relatively new policy of catching terrorists pre-emptively - before they've actually committed a crime. The article focuses primarily on a case I'm fairly familiar with - the arrest and successful prosecution of two Albany Muslims in connection with a terrorist scheme; this scheme was orchestrated by the FBI, with the aid of a Muslim informant. The defense claimed that the two men never would have done anything wrong, if not for the encouragement of the FBI and the Muslim informant, while the prosecution contended that the scheme helped reveal the criminal intentions of two dangerous men.

I was awakened by an editor on the morning the two men were arrested, and told to run up to the mosque on Central Avenue - one of the men, Yassin Aref, happened to be the imam there - and interview people. We didn't have a huge amount of information about what was going on, and there was a lot of confusion, but the members of the mosque were convinced that Aref was a good man who loved the U.S. I also attended some of the pre-trial proceedings, which were fairly interesting, and the Harper's article mentions one of the early bombshells: A translation error that made a key piece of evidence seem far less sinister than it had initially appeared.

The Albany Muslims have many local supporters; a woman I'm acquainted with keeps in touch with Aref, who is now in federal prison. The Harper's job does a good job of highlighting why people were outraged about the case, though I hasten to add that there are certanly people who feel the Albany Muslims were, if nothing else, quilty of money laundering. And it also puts the case into a broader context, and raises important questions about how the FBI builds terrorism related cases.

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Thankfully, Memories Fade
Published on August 22, 2011 by Sara Foss

In my column this week at the DG, I write about why sometimes it's good to forget ... at least a little.

Here's an excerpt:

"The one event I’ve been surprisingly successful at moving past is my sister Rebecca’s near-fatal accident, coma, brain injury and surgery. I think about it quite often, of course, but I manage to do this without dwelling on the particulars — the uncertainty of her outcome, the visits to the intensive-care unit, the waiting by the telephone for updates from my parents. She lived and recovered, life returned to normal. Why remember the hard times? What good would that do?

In a recent piece in Harper’s magazine, David Rieff suggests that our capacity for remembering is limited.

His essay aims to put the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 into a larger historical context, but what he manages to convey most is the slow, steady passage of time and the inevitability of forgetting. 'The stark reality is that in the very long run nothing will be remembered,' he writes, quoting the biblical book of Ecclesiastes: 'There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.'

Most interesting and perhaps controversial of all, Reiff doesn’t see forgetting as a bad thing; instead, he sees it as an essential step to moving forward, and progress. 'Will it ever be possible for us to give up the memory of our wounds?' he asks. 'We had better hope so, for all our sakes.'"


On Sidney Lumet's "Prince of the City"
Published on August 19, 2011 by Sara Foss

I got on a Sidney Lumet kick a while back, and watched several of his films, including his 1981 film about police corruption, "Prince of the City," which starred a young Treat Williams as a detective who decides to tell investigators about corruption in his department.

"Prince of the City" is a darker, more ambiguous film than Lumet's most famous police corruption film, "Serpico." In that film, Serpico was depicted as a saintly fellow who simply couldn't tolerate corruption, and felt compelled to do something about it. In "Prince of the City," Williams' motive are less clear, and he's far from a good guy; unlike Serpico, who never did anything wrong, his motivation could be guilt, and a hope for redemption.

Over on Press Play, Steve Santos explains why "Prince of the City" is the more interesting film, and laments that the film has not gotten its due. Personally, I'm not sure that Lumet has gotten his due. He received a lot accolades when he died, but I didn't get the sense that people fully appreciated just how great his films are. If you want further proof, check out his underseen 2007 crime melodrama "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead."


Tommy Stinson Rocks
Published on August 19, 2011 by Sara Foss

The Replacements disbanded some time ago, and bandleader Paul Westerberg has since transformed into a sensitive singer-songwriter.

But Mats bassist Tommy Stinson is still making raucous, punkish rock and roll, and is set to release his second solo album, One Man Mutiny, later this month.

The Rolling Stone website features an item about Stinson and his new album, and a recording of his new single "It's a Drag."

I saw Stinson perform with the Saratoga Springs-based band The Figgs a while back at Valentine's in Albany, and he absolutely rocked. I was hoping he would play some Replacements songs, but he didn't, but he was still very much worth seeing.

Here's a video of Stinson's old band, Bash and Pop, performing the song "Fast and Hard" on the Dave Letterman show.


Can the Middle Class Be Saved?
Published on August 19, 2011 by Sara Foss

The Atlantic Monthly latest issue features an excellent cover story by Don Peck on whether the middle class can be saved, as well as a roundtable discussion on that topic. My theory, just from reading stuff, is that the recession and painfully slow recovery have exacerbated trends that already existed, such as wage stagnation and widening economic inquality.

One of the greats things about Peck's article is that it examines why economic inequality matters; I recently sort of dated someone who did not understand why this was an issue and his inability to understand this was something I just could not get over. (Although, in his defense, it's seldom explained.) "Why should Bill Gates care how much money I make?" this guy wanted to know, and I immediately suggested that the example of Gates was a poor one, as Gates has actually developed a pretty strong interest in philanthropy. I also suggested that a robust middle class is one of America's great strengths, and that the decline of the middle class weakens the entire country, because it means fewer and fewer people are able to meet basic expenses without going into debt or relying on government assistance. I don't want to live in a country where the majority of people are doing worse than their parents, and I don't see why I should have to.

Here's an excerpt from Peck's piece:

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In Defense of Brand Loyalty
Published on August 18, 2011 by guest author: Tatiana Zarnowski

Brand loyalty is a way of life for my grandfather. He gravitates toward Ford vehicles; keeps his house stocked with only Yuengling lager, purchases either Maytag or GE appliances and has never owned a computer that wasn't an IBM.


So I was more than a little surprised to get a mass email from him last week noting that his email address had changed from his long-held AOL account to a new Comcast extension.


My grandparents signed on with AOL in the mid-90s. They were the kind of 70-somethings who wanted to stay on top of technology, so they picked a market leader and forked over their per-minute charge for dial-up.


As far as I can tell, my grandfather mainly uses the Internet to forward joke emails, but also keeps in touch with my cousins in Seattle, a former in-law in Florida and even friends in Australia.


But now my 86-year-old grandpa has silenced his "You've got mail" account, as he's apparently gotten a better deal and has one fewer bill to pay by packaging his cable and Internet together. Frankly, I'm surprised. He never minded paying more than $25 a month for dial-up in the early 2000s, though I thought it was an outrageous price for slow service.

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Lists of Books
Published on August 18, 2011 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I consider which great books I think are overrated, which books I think are awesome and which books I feel kind of blah about. For example:

Overrated: To Kill a Mockingbird

Awesome: Catch 22

Kind of Blah: My Antonia

Also, I still love Stephen King's "It" and John Irving's "The World According to Garp."

I simply can't help myself.


Thinking about "The Help"
Published on August 17, 2011 by Sara Foss

I read "The Help" because a local flack thrust it upon me and told me it was the greatest book in the world, and that I absolutely had to read it. I was immediately suspicious, because my basic experience with books other people say I MUST READ, RIGHT NOW is that they're always a disappointment, never as good as the person claimed. And since in this case the booster was a cheerful flack - the antithesis of much of what I stand for, essentially - I was even more skeptical than usual. And so it was with reluctance that I took the flack's copy of "The Help" back to my apartment.

Normally, I let new books sit around for a while collecting dust, but I could see that "The Help" was a phenomenon, and that if I didn't read it I'd be missing out on ... something. Not necessarily a good book, but something. The chance to participate in a larger discussion about race and class and gender in America, maybe. So I read "The Help," and although I had some real problems with it, I went easy on it. It was, if nothing else, a reasonably entertaining yarn - it never bored me, and I was genuinely interested in the characters and the twists and turns of the plot. But I also questioned the use of dialect, and the tired device of having a white character serve as the catalyst for almost every important development in the narrative. And I also felt that the book was so good-natured and fun that it failed to capture what it would really have been like to be black in Jackson, Miss., during the civil rights era, despite some somber moments after Medgar Evers is murdered. And I wasn't sure I appreciated the book's softening the edges of what was an extremely tense and dangerous - as well as courageous, let's not forget that - time for a whole lot of people.

That was my take on "The Help," but what do I know? I'm a white person from New Hampshire. There was one black person in my high school, and none in my middle school or elementary school. And so I emailed my old college classmate Kiese Laymon, a Jackson, Miss., native who now teaches English at Vassar College, to see what he thought of "The Help." He didn't like the book, not one bit, and recently he re-posted an old personal essay he wrote a couple years ago in response to the book on his blog, Cold Drank.

Here's an excerpt:

"While my Grandma worked full-time as buttonhole slicer at a chicken plant in Forest, Mississippi, one of her side-hustles was washing clothes for this family called the Mumfords. The first Thursday in August of 1985, when Grandma got off work at the Chicken Plant, we went to Mumfords because Grandma had grown-folks business to take care of. I had heard a lot about the Mumfords but had never been to their house except to pick up and drop off packages with Grandma.

The Mumfords lived right off Highway 35 and I was always amazed at how the houses off of 35 were the only houses in Forest that looked like the houses on Leave it to Beaver and or even What’s Happening. I was and always will be a fat black boy, so like most fat black boys, when I imagined the insides of rich folks’ houses, my senses locked in on the kitchen. I imagined gobbling up hands full of Crunch and Munch in their walk-in pantry and filling up my cup of cold drank with ice that came from the ice dispenser built into the outside of their tar black refrigerator."

Now that "The Help" has been turned into a movie, it's getting more attention than ever, and although some of the response has been negative, I've also read a lot of positive commentary, from both black and white viewers. (Salon has a pretty good piece on the wide variety of responses to the film.) And since "The Help" is likely to get nominated for all kinds of awards come Oscar season, I'm going to have to go see the damn thing, and wade into the discussion myself.

 

 


Dolphins In New York City?
Published on August 17, 2011 by Sara Foss

I love dolphins, and on a trip to the Everglades a couple years ago, I was fortunate enough to see two dolphins frolicking in the wake of our tour boat as we cruised out into the open sea. But apparently you don't have to go to Florida to see dolphins. According to this report, they occasionally show up in New York City, most recently swimming in polluted Newtown Creek and East River.

In a post on the Natural Resources Defense Council blog, Sarah Chasis explains that the presence of dolphins in New York City is a very positive sign, because "it suggests that the water is cleaner and that there are more baitfish to be eaten." She also explains that "These dolphins also can be found offshore in the deep, biologically rich submarine canyons and underwater mountains off our coast. These canyons, including the Hudson Canyon southeast of New York Harbor, lie on the edge of the continental shelf. In the cold depths of many of these canyons, brilliantly colored corals, sponges, and untold numbers of invertebrates are found and great schools of fish, like squid and herring, that dolphins and whales rely on. Without these ocean oases, we might never have the chance to see a number of marine mammal species near New York City."


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