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– page 34

Wrong Number

So a few nights ago I got a strange call from a creepy old guy. Below is a transcript of the conversation translated in English:

Me: Hello (In English).

Creepy old man: Hello? (In Japanese)

Me: Yes, hello? (In Japanese)

Creepy old Guy: Aya-chan?

Me: No.

Creepy Old Guy: What do you mean, “no”? …so what’s up?

Me: I’m pretty sure you have the wrong number.

Creepy Old Guy: Don’t tease me you, bully.

Me: No, I really think you have the wrong number. I am not Aya-chan. I am a male foreigner. My name is—never mind, I don’t want to tell you my na-

Creepy Old Guy: Stop playing games! I love you!

I hung up at that point. Maybe living in Japan isn’t so great…

Downloading Media for Free is Theft

My partner Deprava, from the podcast not life, recently had an argument with certain people, who won’t be named (John Green, Zurabi Lominadze), about the legality/morality of downloading media for free. So I thought I’d give my 2 cents on the subject, unless someone takes the information from me for free, and then no one gets any cents. First of all, let me say I won’t argue the legality of downloading media for free because it is not legal. That is a fact. It’s written in legal codes and shit. If you try to argue otherwise you’re a moron. I’m going to address the ethical aspect.

In the interest of full disclosure, let me say that I do download TV shows, music, and movies for free. I’d like to say it has to do with me living in Japan and not having normal access to that media…but really, I do it because it’s free. However, what I do not do is invent fantasies or excuses for those actions. When I download the latest episode of True Blood, I am fully aware what I am doing is theft.

I’m not sure where the term “piracy” originated in the stealing media context, but it seems to be giving a lot of people a lot of wrong ideas about what it means to take a CD for free. Internet downloaders, make no mistake, you are not pirates. You are not swashbuckling romantic figures middle-aged housewives want to fuck, you are greedy, pimply introverts with too many computers and too much time on your hands, taking someone’s hard work for nothing. And yes, you’re taking someone’s hard work. Just because a CD says “Sony Music” on the packaging, doesn’t mean a group of 4 dudes with instruments who probably went through a lot of shit and tough times to get their big break and record with SONY music, didn’t put a lot of hard work into that cd.

“But I don’t want to pay $15.99 for a CD, because it only costs cents to make.”

Fuck you, and stop oversimplifying. First of all, when has a CD ever been $15.99 in the past 15 years? I remember buying CD’s at Media Play (may its soul rest in peace) in Middle School for $12.99 and under. You can buy CD’s on Amazon for like $10, and on iTunes they’re $9.99 ( I know iTunes is only a digital copy, but the point is still he same that you can get music for less than $15.99). So stop saying CD’s cost $15.99! Unless you live in Japan, where CD’s cost $30. Second, manufacturing a single CD costs less than 2 cents. But what good is a single CD? You need to package it, market it, distribute it, oh, and put music on it. Also, record companies don’t grab music for free out of a unicorn’s ass. Recording studios and developing talent also costs time and money. Now, all told, does a CD cost significantly less than $12.99 to produce? I’m sure it does. But record companies are a business, and they manufacture products for our consumption and their profit. Hollywood companies don’t spend $400 million making James Cameron movies for the good of the Earth. Or Pandora.

“Well, companies outsource now, so production costs have gone down, yet cd and DVD prices have remained constant.”

You’re totally right. Completely. Because all other production costs except labor always stay equal through time. And every single company on the planet produces its goods in Malaysia. And inflation doesn’t exist at all, and BOOM! (that’s my head exploding).

“Record companies should sell music like Radiohead did with In Rainbows and have people pay what they want.”

What is wrong with you?! How does this make sense? Just in principle, what gives consumers the right to decide how much they should pay for something? Companies have figured out a CD should be sold for $12.99. I don’t know if they have formulas or a bunch of wizards in a room or what, but they add up production costs, assess risks, and have profit targets and that all goes into the final price. If you don’t want to pay for it, then guess what? Don’t listen to it. I doubt your life will be worse off for not owning the Lady Antebellum CD. But in what world do you have the right to tell that company what you want to pay? Lenin couldn’t come up with this crap in his steamiest proletariat wet dreams. And why only music? Why couldn’t I walk into a Maseratti dealership and demand the salesman pay me to drive away in a 2011 Gran Turismo? Why can’t I buy an ice cream cone and spit into the cash register as payment? Oh right, because everything we’ve ever known would crumble to nothing if we used that as an economic model.

And the Radiohead CD….You know they actually lost money doing that, right? You realize the recording, production, and marketing costs exceeded their profit, right? And you know why? Because 90% of people “chose” to pay nothing. And the other 10% paid like $.10. In fact, Radiohead ended up re-releasing the album later through a record company. Is that because of evil record companies? No, it’s because of cheap, greedy internet pirates. (Editor’s note: All the numbers and percentages stated above are invented. I have no idea how well the in Rainbows experiment worked. I’m just assuming it failed terribly because I know how people are and I myself downloaded it for free. I’m writing this now, so that you can’t call me a liar later.) (Deprava Edit: According to Wikipedia, the most reliable of internet sources, about 1/3 of the people who digitally bought the album paid nothing for it, while the rest paid an average of 4 pounds. What this figure does not represent, however, is the number of people who downloaded the album through torrents or other sites not linked to the official release, so the reality is that more than 1/3 of the people who listened to the album refused to pay for it. Also, the album was a “success” due to sales of the physical copies, which had a set price, NOT the digital “whatever you want to pay” version. Thus you cannot say that business model was successful, and in fact the real conclusion is that it is more profitable for the distributor to set the price than to let the consumer pay whatever.)

This brings up to another point. Most people will never pay anything, not even $.01, if they can get the same thing for free. This has nothing to do with excessive prices for media, and everything to do with the fact no one wants to spend anything if they can get it for free.  Lots of people fault record companies for not embracing digital distribution and embracing this new age etc., but the truth is, they can’t. Even if Virgin records started a site where for $10 a year you get all the music you want, people would still download the albums for free from torrents. Apart from the fact that $10 a year from people couldn’t support a record company and its operations…or the artists who make the music. And I know copy protection and region codes suck and are annoying, but you think record companies would spend the extra money to put in all those security measures if people weren’t raping and pillaging their products? The only reason record companies are still around today are old people who don’t know how to download music, and buy Susan Boyle CD’s. And the companies know it!

I think the main issue here, aside from selfish, greedy criminals inventing ridiculous excuses to justify their illegal practices, is that a lot of people live under the false impression that music, movies, and games are a natural gift. And that big evil corporations are are infringing on a human being’s inherent right to experience media for free. Oh, and they’re also enslaving aspiring artists and turning them into cogs in their unholy money-making machine. This is bullshit. Where in the bible does it say it’s our natural right to view movies, listen to music, and play games for free? God himself charges you 20 EUROS to see the Vatican museum! I doubt he’d begrudge Universal Studios $14.99 for their Blu-Rays. That’s right, kids. The world doesn’t owe you shit, especially not the Dragon Age Origins expansion pack. So pay for it.

Media is a manufactured and marketed product, and the company responsible for the initial investment has a right to charge whatever they want for that product, especially considering this specific item is one of leisure. And you know what? That’s how it’s always been. Did Mozart play his clavichord in the middle of town squares? No, rich effete Austrians paid him tons of money and supported his irresponsible Bohemian lifestyle to create music for them. And they didn’t even like it; they preferred F. Murray Abraham’s uninspired operas, but they still paid Mozart anyway! And don’t start with semantics or any crap about art and human nature and cave paintings or something. I’ll bet Konga charged people nuts and berries or a night with their wives or something to see his finger painting of a buffalo in Southern France. And if he didn’t, he was just a poor businessman.

Another point that seems to get ignored frequently, is that not all that money goes into rich Hollywood Jews’ pockets. Some of it goes to the people who made the music, movie, or game. And guess what? Those pure “artists” enjoy making money, too. There’s plenty of indie game developers willing to start out the hard way and sell their creations for cheap or free, but you know what? That’s just a means to an end. You think any one of them dreams of making World of Goo and selling it for $2.99 on Steam? No, they want to make Modern Warfare 2 and earn billions, then get fired by Activision and sue them for even more millions. That’s true. Deprava and myself do blogs and podcasts for free because we enjoy it, have the time, and our product is so shitty and unpolished even we wouldn’t pay for it. But the first chance we get to earn half a buck on this shit, we’re jumping on that boat. Believe it. And if, I mean IF, we ever hit it big, and you download our podcast for free instead of paying the $1.99 to iTunes, then I promise you an angel will lose its wings. And then punch a baby, that’s choking a kitten, that’s directing another Lady Gaga Video. Oh, and more oil will pour into the Gulf.

I’m really starting to ramble, so I’ll just draw everything to a close right here. I don’t mean to paint record, movie, and game companies as saints or victims, but the fact is these companies put up often large initial investments into these projects, and they have every right to charge you $12.99 for that CD. Just as you have the ability to shit in their face and download it for free. However, that makes you a criminal, not a freedom fighter combating GloboCorp’s evil reign.

Book Review: Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

I had originally planned to delve back into some classical literature, preferably something Greek, to break out of my Roman-only shell just a tad. Unfortunately, in Tokyo, when it comes to ancient texts translated into English, the pickings be slim. Lucky for me, the good people at Kinokuniya had put shiny “New Arrival” stickers on several sci-fi selections, including Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker. Now, I’d never heard of a Boneshaker, nor a Cherie Priest, but Terry Brooks assured me this book was Priest’s breakout masterpiece on the back cover. And who am I to argue with the author of the novelization of  Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace? Some of you might be thinking: “why is he picking on Terry Brooks? leave her alone!” Well, it’s not a she. Terry Brooks is a man! A man with a woman’s name. That is not right.

So anyway, I bought Boneshaker, and I also read it. The novel takes place in 1880 in an alternate universe steampunk Seattle that is infested with zombies. Some of you may be thinking: “What?! That sounds crazy enough to be awesome!” You’d be wrong because the actual product is predictable and uninteresting. However, this would be a poor review if I left it at that, so I will grab my author’s responsibility by the horns and provide a more in-depth look at this mess of a book.

In the 1860’s the Soviets paid an inventor named Leviticus Blue tons of money to create a machine that could drill through ice in the harsh conditions of Alaska to get Yukon gold. I meant Russians, sorry. Soon, Blue told the world he was ready to test his Incredible Bone-shaking Drilling Machine. The next day the ground under the banks in Seattle (conveniently all located in the same place) began to shake and crumble, and gas seethed out of the recently dug underground tunnels. The gas turned people into zombies.  Fast forward 15 years, and downtown Seattle is surrounded by a wall, which keeps gases and zombies within. I wondered how a wall could keep gas inside, and the author explains zombie gas is heavy. That’s convenient. Naturally, the survivors living on the outskirts of the old city outside the walls blame Blue and the Boneshaker for all their misfortunes, which makes life tough for his widow and son. The son does not believe his father was evil, and sneaks back into the zombie city to try and find evidence to clear his name. His mother sneaks in after him because saving dumb shits who happen to be their sons is what mothers do best. Along the way they meet air pirates, crazy scientists, conniving Chinese people, nice Chinese people, bandits, bandits with hearts of gold, drug dealers….and zombies! That’s the basic premise of the novel.

The book is about 500 pages long, but its plot calls for maybe 80-100, so naturally the pacing is terrible. For a book about zombies and death gas there’s also very little tension. I found myself skimming through the zombie chase scenes because they weren’t scary or interesting. There’s a few plot twists sprinkled throughout; unfortunately, every single one is predictable and uninspired. The whole book hinges on the premise of history’s subjectivity, and warping of figures and the truth over time….and then at the end we find out every single thing everyone thought was true. Nothing had been warped or changed…so…ok.

The characters are all pretty boring. The son is bland, and a complete idiot to boot. The mom is a cold bitch for the first 40 pages, and then just turns hysterical for the rest of the novel. the bad guys are uninspired caricatures of stuff we’ve all seen before. All the renegades and hard boiled bandits we meet inside the city are actually nice helpful people, which works out well  for the mom and son because it keeps them from dying immediately upon entering Seattle. But it’s hard to believe for the reader. So, not one of the survivors hardened by 15 years of living with zombies and gas and evil scientists is toughened beyond helping a mom and son? Not one? I guess Priest has a pretty optimistic view of human nature.

The book also has tons of historical inaccuracies. I know that sounds stupid because we’re talking about historical fiction, but what’s the point of even setting it in 1880 Seattle if you’re going to have landmarks appear 40 years before they were built? Why not have it take place in 1905? Can’t you have a steampunk novel take place in 1905? I’m surprised they didn’t fly a steam blimp into the space needle and grab a cup of Starbucks.

I really don’t know what else to say. The book was uninteresting, and I’m finding it hard to keep writing about it. In case it wasn’t clear, I don’t recommend Boneshaker.

Movie Review: Up in the Air

About 10 hours into a 13 hour flight I had exhausted most of the palatable on-board viewing options, including 2 terrible Japanese movies and Extraordinary Measures. “I’m a scientist! I don’t care about money!” Thanks for the memories, Harrison Ford. Anyway, I was in the midst of deciding between Meet the Robinsons and an Italian comedy about a middle-aged man’s sexual escapades (which is pretty much every Italian comedy), a choice even Sophie would find herself hard-pressed to make, when Up in the Air caught my eye. I was reluctant to select it, since it looked really boring and most likely pretentious. Then I remembered that I had actually really enjoyed the last pretentious movie I saw, the criminally underappreciated Synecdoche New York (see, even the title would make a film festival panel gag). Plus, the movie did get some Oscar buzz, so I pushed play. And it was good.

George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, who fires people for other companies for a living. His job necessitates a lot of air travel; this detail is important because Ryan loves travelling. He loves accumulating miles. He loves hotel membership perks. He loves car rental membership perks. He loves airport lounges. He loves faceless and engineered processes and places. He can’t stand home, which is in Omaha (that might explain why he always wants to be away). His apartment has nothing in it but a bed and a closet. I don’t think I even saw a TV.

All of the above is a result of his personal philosophy, which he biblethumps to others during speaking seminars  at hotel venues. His speech is always the same, and is entitled “What’s in your backpack?” The main gist is that all of our possesions, friends, attachments, etc. weigh us down and prevent us from moving forward. This point of view isn’t so surprising coming from someone who spends over 300 days a year away from home. He doesn’t want to travel to see new places; he travels to avoid attachments and familiarity. Ryan can probably describe the interior of every major airport in the US. But has he ever seen the Grand Canyon? Has he gone skiing in the rockies, or seen an SEC football game?

In fact, the main conflict comes into play when a hot-shot young company employee introduces a new online firing system, all done through the computer, eliminating the need to send people all over the country, and of course, lowering overhead. Would this be “insourcing?” How will Ryan deal with spending most of the year in Omaha? In one office? Commuting back home every day? Further complicating matters is the fact Ryan meets someone special on one of his trips, someone who shares his passion for the freedom of the road, but ironically raises doubts for Ryan about the desirability of his empty backpack philosphy.

George Clooney plays Ryan as a great guy, someone you wouldn’t mind hanging out with and talking to. He’s smart, funny, knows the right things to say, etc. But what are his hobbies? What’s his favorite color? How does he feel about healthcare? We never learn much about Ryan’s past either, but seeing as how unimportant it is to him, why should we care? This may seem unfulfilling, but I much prefer the ambiguity to gratuitous flashbacks to an emotionally distant father etc. However, as the movie progresses, we get a sense there is something more to Ryan as he begins to doubt and question his road warrior liffestyle. Not in the sense we’re uncovering a buried, hidden “true self”, but that a deeper person is starting to grow within, and question the motions his shell has been performing.

The rest of the cast is good, too, especially Vera Farmiga, who plays Ryan’s love interest Alex. Like Ryan, she puts forward a friendly face and knows all the right moves and phrases. Unlike Ryan, however, there’s a lot underneath. Hint: it isn’t all good.

The film does get a little heavy-handed during the firing sequences. Wow, so firing people is a brutal, careless process that hurts lives? We’re breaking some new ground here. In some ways, this movie would have worked much better 2 years ago without the pandering for sympathy for the jobless. It’s really the only weak point of the film.

It is well directed by Ivan Reitman’s son. Can’t remember his first name….anyway, it’s much better than his previous Thank You for Smoking. Unlike the previous film, Up in the Air is not a comedy, and is more classifiable as a tragedy though there is humor in the film.

I don’t give star reviews, but I do recommend this movie. Please actively go out and try to see it. It’s one of the better movies of 2009.

Sweden isn’t for Women: A review of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Stieg Larsson’s murder/thriller series about The Girl Who Did This or That has been all the rage recently, especially in Europe, so I thought I’d see what all the fuss was about. Now, the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo novel is thick as hell and expensive in Japan, so I opted for the free downloaded movie instead. Better to waste 2 hours than 2 weeks, I always say.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a by the numbers thriller that offers nothing new, engaging, or even remotely interesting. It does feature plenty of explicit acts of sexual violence against women. So if you’re looking for a bland murder mystery punctuated by rape and incest scenes, have I got a recommendation for you.

The film features a hero and a heroine. The heroine is a tough as nails 24 year-old Goth chick with a troubled past named Lisbeth Salander. At least, I’m assuming she had a troubled past; the movie doesn’t reveal too much back story. But she has tattoos, piercings, fucks women, and makes a habit of watching men burn alive in their cars, so I’m assuming her childhood was rather traumatic. She is a master hacker with a photographic memory; both are convenient traits for the protagonist of a murder mystery. However, Lisbeth is very ably played by Noomi Rapace, who fills the character with just enough intensity to counterbalance her insecurities and weaknesses. She plays against the older, passive pussy Mikael Blomkvist, who is an investigative journalist and a boring human being. He is less ably played by Michael Nyqvist. Mikael was recently convicted of libel, and has 6 months of freedom before he has to go to jail. What does this have to do with the main story? Absolutely nothing. But it does provide nice filler for the beginning and end of the movie, and provides a nice little cash ex machina for Lisbeth to become rich at the end using her hacking abilities. Then again, if all she had to do to get rich was hack wealthy peoples’ bank accounts, why not do it sooner? Treading into spoiler territory now…

Back to the main plot, the two sleuths are brought together by the disappearance and possible murder of Harriet Vanger 40 years ago. Why are they investigating something that happened 40 years ago? That’s a good question, and one the plot never resolves satisfactorily because, honestly, everything could have been resolved 40 years ago…Anyway, Harriet is part of the super wealthy Vanger family, who own a large, rich company, and all live on an island, accessible by one bridge, and who are all shifty, shady individuals that make convenient suspects for the crime. But the limited suspect list is a mystery convention older than sand in the Sahara, so it’s hard to blame the movie for that.

They work well together, and in the course of their investigation, done mostly through Mac OS X and looking at the same 2 pictures for 90 minutes, they uncover even more murders and possible ties to antisemitism and Nazis. A Nazi bad guy?! Someone call the originality police. They also have sex. I’m not sure why. I think the director felt obligated to exploit a love interest somewhere in the movie. Although there’s also a semi-developed love interest between Mikael and an older lady on the island during the first 30 minutes for some reason…I’m not totally convinced the makers of the movie knew what they were doing. Everything builds up to a pretty standard ending, with the killer revealing his exact reasons for doing all he’s done, though in all fairness he does give us a very frank answer with “It was the sex, mainly.” He also conveniently kept pictures and names of all his victims in the room he used to kill everyone. So much in the film is so convenient! Another weakness of the film is that after the killer is discovered and defeated, the movies doesn’t end. It goes on for like another half hour, and adds in the added spice of incest into all the rape we’ve been subjected to. Come on! Just end it!

The chilly Swedish setting fits the thriller atmosphere well though, much better than the plot, unfortunately. However, the forbidding island and its frosty inhabitants feel underused, and there’s never a sense of suspense or urgency, even in scenes involving guns and chases and danger.

The movie also features several very graphic scenes of bondage and rape. They serve to highlight the film’s very feminist orientation, but unfortunately straddle the line a little too close to exploitation for my tastes. Did I mention the film’s feminist leanings? Seriously, having a penis should be a crime in Sweden.  If you’re a woman living in Sweden, get the hell out. Something bad will happen to you, or already has.

In case you haven’t noticed, I did not like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo very much, and do not recommend it. I’ll admit, I haven’t read the book, so it could conceivably be worthwhile, but the film adaptation certainly isn’t.

Well, that's actually only one windmill…