Posts from May 2003.

Darth Vader Made Me Cry

Note: An expanded version of this story is now available here.

Click here to see the handiwork
of The Dark Lord of Sith

When I was seven years old I received the best Christmas present ever: a copy of The Star Wars Storybook. On the inside front cover my parents had written “To Matthew – Merry Christmas in 1978. From Mother and Daddy with lots of love.”

I was fairly certain that this was a gift beyond improvement. But a few months later I saw in the paper that Darth Vader — the Darth Vader! — would be coming to a nearby department store. I begged my mom to take me. She agreed, and we visited the mall on a Saturday afternoon so I could get Vader’s John Hancock.

Upon our arrival we found ourselves at the end of a long line of parents and youngsters eagerly waiting their opportunity to meet Darth Vader. Kids would be allowed to approach Vader singly or in small groups; they would approach and exchange a few words, or ask for autographs, or simply stand there awe-struck. It was like visiting Santa Claus, except the guest of honor was more renowned for breaking necks than for dispensing candy canes. And, to the best of my knowledge, no one sits on Darth Vader’s lap.

As I got closer to the front of the line, I could feel my excitement reach fever pitch. Finally it was my turn. The attendant waved me through, and I rushed forward to meet my anti-hero. But once I actually entered Darth Vader’s Personal Space, I was abruptly cowed. He was huge! And he had exactly the sort of dominating presence you’d expect of an Imperial Dark Lord. I was struck dumb, and stood there like a field mouse that had just spotted an owl.

At some point I managed to squeak out my request — or maybe I just held the book and black marker out, I honestly don’t recall. In any case, Darth Vader took the Storybook, quickly wrote something inside, and handed it back. I stammered out a thank you as we were ushered off to the side.

As we walked away I was filled with combination of terror, relief, and exhilaration. After snapping out of my daze I urged my mother to stop walking so I could see the autograph, and opened the storybook to find the words “Darth Vader” scrawled on the inside cover. I immediately began to proactively gloat, thinking about how jealous my friends would be when I showed them Darth Vader’s autograph. But then, just before I closed the cover, I noticed something else. While signing my book, he had also taken the opportunity to scratch out the word “love” in the inscription “From Mother and Daddy with lots of love.”

Stunned that the Lord of Sith could be so mean I immediately burst into tears, and continued to bawl as my mother led me to the escalator. The kids still in line watched me with curiosity, and then glanced at Darth Vader with fear in their eyes.

* * *

Know Thyself

The other night The Queen and I were watching The Big Forever Last Buffy Episode Ever Forever, and, during the break, there was an ad for Direct TV that I had never seen before. In it, a pair of sexy girls are at a party, sitting on either end of a large couch. Into the frame walk two stereotypical nerds — glasses, terrible hair, pocket protectors, the whole nine yards — who wedge themselves between the ladies and begin various fumbling attempts at small talk. The women first look mortified, then annoyed, and then a little panicky. Finally, one of them grabs a remote control sitting on an end table, points it directly at the camera, and presses a few buttons.

Now we get a reverse shot, where we discover that there is a TV directly across from the couch. The television screen flashes through a few menus (presumably in response to the girl with the remote) and then settles on Star Trek.

In the last shot of the ad we again see the nerds, who are staring at the television mesmerized. But unbeknownst to them, the two ladies have disappeared, leaving the duo alone on the couch.

“Hah hah hah!” I said when the commercial reached the punchline. “That was pretty funny!”

There was a pause while The Queen looked at me oddly. Then she said, “I think it’s great that you can laugh at yourself.”

* * *

Treasure Hunt 2003: There’s No Place Like Home

On April 27, 2003, I held my Seventh Annual Birthday Treasure Hunt on the campus of the University of Washington.

First, some history. While a student at The Evergreen State College, I read this article on the annual MIT Treasure Hunt and decided that I wanted to host a similar (albeit greatly scaled down) event for my friends. So in 1995, the first Birthday Treasure Hunt was held in lovely downtown Olympia, WA.

Two years later I held the second “annual” Hunt in La Paz, Bolivia, for two score Peace Corps Volunteers. Since my return from South America, the Hunt has been run more-or-less-every year, always on the University of Washington campus. The first four Hunts were abstract, with generic puzzles and solutions, but in 2000 I switched to themed Hunts, and have since held “Treasure Hunt 2000: Down the Rabbit Hole” and “Treasure Hunt 2001: A Puzzling Odyssey“. The theme for “Treasure Hunt 2003: There’s No Place Like Home” was The Wizard of Oz.

April 27 turned out to be a beautiful day for a hunt. After oscillating between “crappy” and “also crappy” for weeks, the whether took and abrupt turn for the lovely that Sunday morning, and remained so for the rest of the day. So when the 30+ Hunt participants gathered on the north side of the UW fountain, they did so on what seemed like the first true day of spring.

As in previous years, the mechanics of the Hunt were straightforward. Players assembled into teams of 3-5, each of which received a sealed envelope. Upon my word all teams opened their envelope to find a map and the first clue. The map (seen here) showed a subset of the campus, with only 30 building names listed. All further clues would be found in one of these 30 buildings, a warning noted. The first clue, as with all clues, was a puzzle which revealed the location of the next clue. The object of the Hunt was to be the first team to solve all six clues and get to end location.

At 2:15 I gave the signal and the Hunt began.

Clue One: Welcome To Oz: The first clue came in two parts: a sheet of paper with instructions and a small ziplock baggy full of Jelly Bellies. The instructions said that that there were seven different types of Jelly Bellies in the bag, and that each distinct flavor represented a different letter of the alphabet (as shown on a chart at the bottom of the page). Players were told to first determine the seven letters, then “anagram the seven letters to spell out two common, uncapitalized words — the first with three letters, the second with four. The two-word phrase is a synonym (of sorts) for where you should go next.”

Based on color and flavor, teams had little difficulty determining the seven flavors: licorice, coconut, peanut butter, lemon, banana, cinnamon, and pear. (I was skeptical about the last one, but, by jimminey, it really does taste unmistakably like pear.) These seven flavors corresponded to the letters KLOPRSY, which can only be anagrammed into a single three-word / four-word phrase: “sly pork”. Teams that didn’t automatically assume they had made a mistake when confronted with “sly pork” looked at the list of buildings and quickly found the “synonym (of sorts) for where you should go next”: “Cunningham”. The second clue was posted in that building’s main entrance.

Clue Two: The Scarecrow: Next up was the S.A.T.: the Scarecrow Aptitude Test. The puzzle had ten multiple-choice questions — from antonyms to reading comprehension to problem solving — all having to do with brains and each with a numeric answer from 1-4. Players were told to add all their answers together, plug the sum into an equation, and write the resulting six-digit number into a series of blanks: __ __ / __ __ / __ __. Written thusly, the solution gave the combination to a locker, in which the next clue was hidden.

Clue Three: The Tin Man: This was the toughest clue for many teams, because it revolved around a type of puzzle that most people have never heard of: the nonogram. In these ingenious brainteasers, players use logic to determine which squares in a grid to blacken and thereby reveal a picture.

Unlike most nongrams, this one had letters inside the boxes, and the note: “Ignore the letters in the boxes until the puzzle is complete, then use them to determine the building and room number where the next clue is located. Remember: “It’s what’s inside that counts!” This was a reference to the fact that, when the nonogram was complete, the letters inside the picture (a heart, of course) spelled out: ARTTWOTEN. And that’s where the next clue was to be found: on the door of room 210 in the Art Building.

After the hunt, many participants expressed an desire to do more of these kind of puzzle. So here you go: this is my favorite online Nonogram site, here are a bunch more.

Clue Four: The Cowardly Lion: The next clue featured three Quotefall-style puzzles, the kind routinely found those “Penny Press Puzzle Books” available in airports worldwide. This may have been the easiest puzzle in the whole Hunt for a couple reasons. First, crafty teams discovered that they could deduce the full solution to the clue after solving only two of the three Quotedrops. Also, all three of the Quotefalls contained the word “courage,” and figuring that out generally “unlocked” the rest of the puzzle.

Clue Five: The Wicked Witch: “I’m mellllllllllllllllllllllting!!!!” That was the theme to this, the fifth puzzle in the hunt. The puzzle consisted of a table containing 27 numbered cells in three columns and nine rows, with shaded boxes between each of the columns. (Oh fer crissakes, just go look at the damned thing.) Below, definitions were given for each cell, along with the following instructions: “Write the five-letter answer to clue 1 in the first space. Then drop one letter to get the answer to clue 2. Put the dropped letter into the shaded box between the two columns. Drop another letter (again putting it in the shaded box) to get the answer to clue 3. Follow this pattern for every row in the puzzle.”

When completed, the letters in the shaded boxes were: CAPFOUNDONCARTIRES (e.g., “cap found on car tires”). A glance at the sheets listing the building names should have revealed the answer: the “HUB” (Husky Union Building).

Clue Six: The Wizard Of Oz: This was it, the final clue. The clue was in an envelope, which also contained a set of nine tiles. The clue said “Place the nine tiles into the frame of your map so that there every road leads to Dorothy, a house, or Kansas (i.e., there will be no dead ends). The orientation of pictures and letters on the tiles do not necessarily correspond to the correct orientation of the tile itself, so do not rely on them as guides. Once the path is complete, just follow the yellow brick road!” The “map” indicated was the small map that was included with the first clue.

One of the tiles had a hole cut out of it, and it was fairly simple to place it onto the map in such a way that the final building was indicated: Mary Gates Hall fit in the cut-out hole perfectly. But the clue was fairly well hidden within the building, so teams who dashed off to Mary Gates without solving the entire puzzle generally looked in vain.

Those who managed to place all nine tiles onto the map, however, could trace Dorothy’s path all the way to Kansas and jot down all the letters she passed on here journey to spell out: MARYGATESHALLATTHEBOTTOMOFSTAIRONE. (“Mary Gates Hall At The Bottom Of Stair One”). Sure enough, those who went to the stairwell labelled “Stair One’ and walked down it all the way to the bottom found a map of Kansas squirreled away down there. This was the final location and solution to the Hunt.

The first team to arrive at the final location (and win the Hunt) was Toto’s Teeth: Josh Davis, Gunilla Eriksson, Linda Mitchell and William Pross — not coincidentally, the exact same team that won last year’s hunt under a different guise.

Congratulations to Toto’s Teeth, and a big thanks to everyone who participated!

* * *

The Lockjaws: Graduation Day

Since first professing my love of The Lockjaws (see: Finally, A Place Where People With Lockjaw Can Meet Online!), people from all the world have been sending me updates to let me know how they’ve been doing. For example, I recently received word that The Lockjaws were purchasing a home and pursuing the America Dream together.

Well the great news continues to roll in. Today Mike Wolfe wrote to tell me the latest event in the life of The Lockjaws: their children are graduating from college!

America is truly the land of opportunity. Kids, never let anyone tell you that an infection of the bacillus Clostridium tetani can stand between you and your dreams.

* * *

Purported Hart Tape Urges Al-Qaeda To ‘Never Surrender’

An new audiotape encouraging Al-Qaeda resistance is said to have been recorded by fugitive Corey Hart.

The 4 minute, 52 second communication, broadcast today on Al Jazeera, told listeners that "no one can take away your right to fight," further urging that they "never surrender." The US terror alert level was raised from yellow to orange after the release of the tape because of what some believed to be veiled threats encoded in the missive, including one portion that ominously warns Western forces that "just a little uncertainty can bring you down."

Although Al Jazeera broadcasters credited the tape to Hart, intelligence experts have been unable to authenticate this claim, as most have found it difficult to listen to the message in its entirety.

Corey Hart has been in hiding and at the top of America's "Most Wanted" list since last year, when the United States bombed and invaded his home country of Canada. Democrats have criticized the White House for failing to capture Hart even after boasting that his arrest was all but inevitable. At one point, when US forces had the outlaw surrounded, Bush went so far as to call Hart "The Boy In The Box."

* * *

Books: Look At Me

(No, it’s not another weblog handbook …)

Looks are everything. That may not be the take-home message of Jennifer Egan’s Look At Me, but it’s the philosophy guiding the novel’s myriad of characters.

We first meet Charlotte, a model whose trade is her face — at least until said face is crushed in a car crash and has to be reassembled with the help of 80 titanium screws. Now a woman who was recognizable to complete strangers has to identify herself by name to those she’s known her entire life.

We later meet Moose, a professor hovering over the line of insanity, whose dissertation examined the invention of clear glass. When glass allowed the populace of the middle ages to see into the dirty corners of their homes and view their own visage in mirrors, and Moose argues that the result was a radical cultural transformation as society became abruptly obsessed with appearances.

Nearly everyone else who traipses through the pages of Look At Me illustrates some aspect of image consciousness. A high school student seems to be a normal teen but is actually living a dangerous double life. The identity of a teacher is a complete fraud — in truth he is a cipher with a mysterious past. A husband works as a marketer, inventing stupid products that Americans will impulse-purchase at first sight.

By the midpoint of this book, I was ready to declare it “The best book I’ve read since The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay!” But my enthusiasm waned somewhat from that point on. Egan’s writing is engaging, and she skillfully creates a host characters that come across as both illustrations of her central thesis and as human beings, but after spending the first half of the novel establishing them she doesn’t do a whole lot with them thereafter, with the plot aimlessly zigging and zagging its way to a finale that could have come 100 pages sooner.

But despite these flaws, Look At Me is an excellent book about an fascinating topic, and is, yes, the best book I’ve read since The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Egan has somehow managed to write a remarkable deep book about the perils of superficiality.

This is a brief and mostly spoiler-free interview with Jennifer Egan.

This Slate article reveals some of major plot points, but does discuss a rather astounding aspect of this book’s timing that I, ever the spoiler-phobe, opted not to mention here.

* * *

My Cred Is Intact

A coworker walked by my office and overheard the mp3 I was listening to. “Oh my God!” she exclaimed. “Are you listing to The Backstreet Boys?!!”

“No, of course not!” I replied guiltily. “Like I’d listen to The Backstreet Boys! Yeah, right! Hah hah! Hah! No, this is a parody of The Backstreet Boys called ‘E-Bay’.” By Weird Al Yankovic.”

Whew — that was close! Thank goodness I was able to explain to her that I was listening to Weird Al — otherwise she might have thought I was a dork.

* * *

Slogans and Subjectlines

  • Lean Cuisine’s new slogan is “It’s not just lean, it’s cuisine”. Apparently consumers were unable to deduce this from the name. In other news, Coke’s new slogan is: “Coca-Cola: it’s a beverage for drinking.”
  • Free joke for your stand-up routine! “Election season is starting to heat up: Bush has filed for reelection and the Democrats have held two debates. And both parties announced that they will be running on Clinton’s 1994 slogan, although each will emphasize the half that they feel is their strong point — the Democrats will highlight the ‘It’s the economy!’ part and Bush will focus on the ‘Stupid’.”
  • Today I was rummaging around in my spam-filter folder, and came across an email entitled “HERE ARE YOUR GANGBANG PICTURES!!!”. But when I opened the email it turned out to be some complete stranger’s gangbang pictures instead (!!). Oh boy, what an embarrassing mix up. Anyway, if you recently got my gangbang pictures by mistake, drop me a line so can get this all sorted out. Thanks.
  • * * *

    Mother Of The Year

    I was on my morning commute, sitting in the seat across from the bus’s back door. In the last row sat a mother and her two-year old daughter. The young girl was loudly wailing in that half-assed manner that indicated that she was neither in pain nor upset about anything in particular, but just wanted some attention: “whuuuuUUUAAAAAAAAAAAHHHH!!!! {pause} whuuuuUUUAAAAAAAAAAAHHHH!!!! ” The mother was chatting on her cell phone and looking out the window, the only person on the entire bus able to ignore the child’s screams.

    We arrived at a stop in downtown Seattle. The mother hastily wrapped up her phone call, yelled “C’mon this is our stop we gotta go MOVE IT!” in the general direction of the youngster, and bolted from the bus. As her child tottled down the aisle and warily stepped down the first of the three large steps that led from the bus to the curb, the mother began walking briskly away.

    Then a whole bunch of things happened at once. The bus driver, unable to see the small child in the stairwell, closed the doors right in her face. I leapt to my feet and yelled “back door!” The girl, meanwhile, stood stunned for approximately 7/10 of a second, then shrieked, then burst into tears, then turned around, then climbed back up the step, and then latched onto the first thing she came in contact with, which was me. By now the rest of the bus had taken up the chorus of “Back door! Hey, there’s a kid back there! Back door!” The bus lurched forward before the driver realized what was going on, then abruptly came to a stop. I frantically patted the kid on the shoulder and mumbled “there there” and “see? we’re stopping” while the girl continued to bawl and remain affixed to me like static cling incarnate.

    Finally the back door reopened. The mother — who, at some point, had apparently realized that the total number of offspring in her company had recently dropped by 100% — charged up the two steps, grabbed the girl, and yelled, to me, “Get your hands off my baby!”

    What I should have said, at this point, was: “Yes, you’ve got me! I am a skilled kidnapper whose modus operandi is ride around on public transportation until some abandoned child attaches itself to me like a tick, whereupon I take it to my secret lair, which, fortunately, just happens to be on a bus line.”

    But of course I was too surprised by the whole chain of events to say anything so clever. Instead, in my very best “I can’t believe I won a million dollars!” Lotto-jackpot-recipient voice, I said “Take my, wha-?! Fuck you, lady!”

    As the bus pulled away, I could see Mother Of The Year on the curb hollering at her kid, while the girl sucked in several cubic yards of oxygen and prepared to resume her wail.

    * * *

    Movies: X2: X-Men United

    (For real this time.)

    To any of the many kids I argued with in eight grade that are reading this blog: I guess you were right after all.

    You know those lunkheads who get all worked up about the whole Ford / Chevy thing? When I was in middle school, the crowd I ran around with was kind of like that. But instead of arguing about auto makers, our big schism centered around a debate that rages in schoolyards around the nation to this very day: which is better, DC Comics or Marvel?

    Me, I was a DC man myself. If the “Calvin Peeing On The Marvel Logo” sticker had been around in 1984, I probably would have owned one. The Flash was my favorite superhero, followed by Batman, Superman, Green Lantern — pretty much the entire Justice League was on my reading list. (Red Tornado four-part mini-series? Bought it!) Sure, I read a few Marvel titles, but they were just filler, something to tide me over until the next issue of “Blue Devil” arrived.

    What I wanted in my comic books was simple: wisecracking guys in costumes beating the crap out ridiculous supervillians. And that’s pretty much all the DC Universe provided (at least until Alan Moore and Frank Miller and Neil Gaimen showed up and, like, made everything sophisticated and stuff). A typical Flash comic book would go like this: Captain Boomerang (no, seriously) would escape from the Central City Penitentiary in a giant flying boomerang and then he would rob a boomerang factory and throw boomerangs at a bunch of people and then The Flash would show up and they would fight and Captain Boomerang would unveil his new Super-Speed Homing Boomerang that he carved out of soap or something while in the pokey but then The Flash would vibrate his molecules at a special boomerang frequency or some shit and win, the end, woo!

    Marvelites regarded these kind of comics the way Roman Polanski regards “Becker”. They were forever going on and on about how much better the Marvel Universe was, because it grappled with “real issues”. Peter Parker was a introverted dweeb. The Hulk had rage issues. Iron Man was an alcoholic. Daredevil had a disability (the kind that allows you to jump off buildings and make-out with Black Widow, apparently).

    And the X-men — oh brother. Why not just call them “The Angst-vengers” or something? Every time I accidentally read an X-Men comic book it was all like:

    Wolverine: Magneto is going to blow up Switzerland, bub! Let’s go!
    Kitty Pryde: I can’t! Because I’m an outcast! With menstrual cramps!
    Storm: Wolverine, let’s slow down and talk about this for a really long time. I mean, saving the world is important, sure. But it’s equally important that I spend the next 47 panels pontificating about diversity.
    Wolverine: *Snikt!!*

    Holy crap, who would want to read this stuff?! Why not just wear a sign that says “I’m a girl who likes to read soap operas written for girls??!!!!”

    Anyway. Seventeen years went by…

    I finally got around to seeing X2: X-Men United last night. Catching this particular flick wasn’t exactly my top priority for a couple of reasons, even in addition to those mentioned above. First, while I enjoyed the original X-Men movie just fine, it didn’t leave me burning up for a sequel. Second, have you seen the X2 poster? It has, like, 49 faces on it. It looks like one of those wedding-photos-gone-awry, where the photograph says “okay, now let’s just have the bride and the groom and their cousins” and then someone asks “what about the spouses and children of the cousins?” and the photographer says, okay, cousins and their spouses and children, and then someone else says “what about the spouses of the children of the cousins?,” and then, 18 months later, you’re looking at that picture and wondering why the caterers are in it. That’s what the X2 poster looks like. And the reason the whole Batman movie series imploded, aside from the fact that Batman Forever was apparently “written” by sea cucumbers, was because they were introducing four new characters per film, complete with back stories and alter egos and side romances and blah blah blah. And it looked to me like that’s all X2 was going to be: 120 minutes of new character exposition and back story, with maybe a seven minute fist-fight wedged in the middle somewhere.

    Not so! X2 hits the ground running and never lets up. For example, a brand new character, Nightcrawler, is introduced in the very first scene of the film — except that he’s not really “introduced” at all, he just shows up and, without further ado, starts kicking every ass in his path. Who is he? What is his power? Why is he blue? They don’t tell you — not for a while, anyhow. Instead they just hand you a spectacular opening sequence and move on. Now we’re with Wolverine, out in the middle of nowhere, looking for some military compound. Hey wait, military compound — didn’t they talk about this in last movie? Who knows? They never bother with a recap. If you remember X-Men, great; if you don’t, well, so what? Rent the DVD next weekend, we don’t care.

    Some of the reviews I’ve read since seeing the film lament this very aspect of X2. “Literally, for the first hour of this movie, you have no idea what it’s about or what’s at stake,” writes Stephen Hunter from the Washington Post. “This is what happens: First they run over there, then they run over here.” Memo to Mr. Hunter: duh! It’s a superhero movie, dude — what we’re you expecting X2: My Dinner With Andre? Two of the things that make comic books so appealing is that (a) they generally have, at any given moment, 913 subplots for diehard fans to keep track of, and (b) if you’re not a diehard fan and don’t give a rat’s ass about the subplots, that’s perfectly okay because there will also be lots of punching.

    Instead of squandering our time with recaps and backstory, X2 plunges right into a sinister and eerily contemporary conspiracy story. As in the first movie, a number of Inter- and Intra-governmental forces want all mutants registered or incarcerated. (Hello John Ashcroft!) Professor X, as usual, seeks a peaceful solution to the crisis, while Magneto instead advocates his pet solution to every social ill (i.e., “kill everyone!”).

    What makes the X-men so interesting is that there is no sharp division between Good Guys and Bad Guys — although Magneto plays Malcolm X to Dr. Xavier’s Martin Luther King, the two are pretty much on the same team when it comes to “The Mutant Problem.” This paradox — the enemy of my enemy is also my enemy — is a hell of a lot more interesting than your standard “Flash vs. Captain Boomerang” comic book balderdash.

    Which is a long way of saying, okay, you win. I finally get it. The Marvel Universe and its whole talking-about-contemporary-social-problems-through-allegory methodology really does make for a better story. And working with this model, X2 provides the best of both worlds: non-stop action and something to think about afterwards. The film isn’t afraid to ask some hard question, and doesn’t cop-out by coughing up a bunch of facile answers. In fact, it respects the audience enough to suggest that there simple remedies may not exist for fear and intolerance. And in that, X2 pull off a pretty neat trick: it creates a four-color, comic book universe that doesn’t paint the world as black and white.

    Also: Mystique is hot and Wolverine turns a bunch of people into deviled ham. Recommended!

    * * *