Sunday, May 27, 2012

Perl blog post #7

Happy Memorial Day Weekend to everyone.  I’m doing another tech blog this week, although it isn’t quite done yet.  It’ll be up soon and then I’ll come back here and edit this post to have a link to it.  Probably in such a way that you thought the link was there all along.  It’ll be like magic.  Wooo.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Tabula Rasa Filled

As a parent, you get to watch a lot of kid’s television.  Some of it is educational, some just mindless entertainment, some downright bizarre, some a combination of two or more of the above.  (For instance, in the downright bizarre but still educational department, it’s hard to beat Yo Gabba Gabba, at least for sheer bizarrerie.  Then again, my parents probably felt the same about H.R. Pufnstuf, and that seemed perfectly normal to me.)  You’re sort of forced to watch these things, whether you like it or not, and you eventually start critiquing them as if they were high art.  SpongeBob SquarePants is funny, but ultimately pablum; The Upside Down Show was a brilliant bit of engaging, educational fun that deserved more than its one measly season; The Wonder Pets may have a few funny moments every now and again, but that doesn’t stop you from wanting to drive hot pokers through your eardrums; The Wiggles need to be shot; Adventure Time takes a while to grow on you, but is really quite enjoyable; Steve from Blue’s Clues may have driven you crazy, but you didn’t know how good you had it until Joe came along, and the whole thing just jumped the shark when Blue started to talk.  And so on, and so forth, ad infinitum.  It mostly just all swirls together in a twisted melange of primary colors and giant numbers and casually tossed out Spanish phrases and animated animals, until you can’t keep them all straight in your head any more.  I’ve had 13 years of it now: trust me, I know what I’m talking about.

And then, every once in a while, you find a real gem.  Something that’s not only entertaining for your kids, but also for you.  You treasure those, because they’re so rare.  From my own childhood, The Muppet Show is the classic example.  I loved it, my parents loved it, and I loved it all over again when I got the DVDs from Netflix to introduce it to my own kids, who also loved it.

For my kids, at least for right now, it’s Phineas and Ferb.

It’s a bit hard to describe Phineas and Ferb if you never seen it.  You know how sometimes you watch something and you think it’s really dumb but then you watch it again, and again, and eventually you realize it’s brilliant?  (Think about the first time you saw Beavis and Butt-Head, or even Monty Python.)  Well, this is not like that.  This is more like when you watch something and you go, “well, that was sorta cute,” and then you watch it again and you go, “actually, that was pretty funny,” and then you watch it again, and you go “damn, this is really good!”  Part of that is the running gags, of which P&F have dozens, and part of it is that there’s so much going on that it takes you a few viewings just to get past the giddiness of it all.  In fact, Wikipedia tells us that the show’s creators (who had worked together previously on Rocko’s Modern Life) pitched the idea, off an on, for 16 years before they could get anyone to buy it, because it was “too complex.”

I told this to my eldest.  He drew his eyebrows together and frowned at me.  “I don’t get it,” he said.  He didn’t bother pointing at his 6-year-old brother, who obviously was having no problems following the episode we were watching at the time, but he might as well have.  The point was obvious: he couldn’t understand why people would think this show was complicated.

I tried to explain.  “Well, just imagine the pitch meetings,” I said.  “It would have to go something like this:”

Okay, so there’s these two kids, right?  They’re stepbrothers—one American, and one British—and they’re both really brilliant, and the British one hardly ever speaks, but then when he does say something, it’s really profound—he’s got a whole Silent Bob thing going on.  Okay, and they have this sister, and they ... wait, it’s summer, okay?  And, to keep from getting bored, they’re always building stuff.  But, they’re really brilliant, like I said, so they’re building stuff like time machines and warp drives and that sort of thing, and their sister is constantly trying to “bust” them: you know, get them in trouble with their mom (who is actually Ferb’s stepmother, but that doesn’t matter so much).  Okay, except Candace—that’s the sister’s name—can never actually bust them, because their inventions always disappear at the last minute.  Which mostly has to do with their pet platypus, who is really a secret agent ...

I mean, you can see how a children’s televison executive’s head would be spinning by this point, right?  And we didn’t even get to the boy that Candace is always trying to impress, or the mad scientist who is the nemesis of the secret agent platypus, or any of the various friends and neighbors who are always stopping over ...

My eldest still looked dubious though.  “I guess ...” he said, perhaps still not quite getting it.

Because, you see, here is the real point I wanted to make: kids are not stupid.

Now, I’ve written before that I believe that kids are people, and, really, this is just a specific example of that general principle.  Because, you know, some people are stupid, and some people are smart.  Kids are no different: some of them are stupid, and some of them are smart.  To go even further, most people are smart sometimes and stupid other times, and most kids are the same way.  Honestly, when it comes to some things (“getting” Phineas and Ferb, for example) I think you’ll find that most kids are going to be even smarter than us non-kids.

I’ll give you another example.  I’ve talked about one of my favorite hobbies: Heroscape.  And I’ve also talked about introducing my younger son to the game; remember, now, he was a month and a half shy of being 6 years old when I wrote that.  Finally, you may recall that I wrote a little bit about being a part of a community which creates “custom” units for Heroscape.  Now, officially, Heroscape is “for ages 8 and up,” and this is often tossed around when we design new custom units.  When coming up with a power for a new unit, people will often point out that it needs to be “simple enough for an 8 year old to understand.”  The problem, though, is that many people seem to have a very low opinion of the level of complexity that the average 8 year old can comprehend.  And meanwhile I’m sitting here thinking that I’ve now taught this game to several kids even younger than 8, using the “master” rules because the “basic” rules were too simple-stupid, and I know what the “average 8 year old” can understand.  And it’s a lot more than most people seem to give them credit for.

And, as long as I’m on a quoting-myself jag, I may as well throw one more out there: in my rant on ageism, I pointed out that the one thing that’s true of “adults” making decisions for “children” that isn’t true of (say) men making decisions for women* is that all such adults were once children.  Which makes this attitude even more baffling.  Do all these adults have such low self-esteem that they remember themselves as being stupid when younger?  Or do they imagine that they were brilliant children and it’s just everyone else who was a moron at that age?  What is it about getting older—and especially about having children of our own—that seems to tend to make us completely forget our childhood experiences?

In my “kids are people” post, I noted in passing that your kids come to you “knowing literally nothing.”  This is the tabula rasa concept that you’ve probably heard of before, and it’s really true.  I never imagined how true it was before my first kid was born.  Even as infants, they should know some things, right?  Nope: nothing.  As the ultimate expression of this, you have to teach them how to breastfeed.

Think about that.

Without this, they’re going to starve to death.  And you have to teach it to them.  Now, they do have some instincts, of course.  If anything hits the top of their palate, they’re immediately going to start sucking.  But this is no more actual “knowledge” than the fact that you will blink if someone snaps their fingers in front of your eyes: it’s just a primitive reaction to stimulus.  And, most importantly, it isn’t sufficient.  Necessary, but not sufficient.  If your kid wants to breastfeed, to actually receive sustenance from his or her mother, “knowing” to suck when something is stuck in his or her mouth is only the beginning.  The big thing is knowing how to “latch on,” which takes a while for both mother and child to get right.  They have to learn that, and you have to teach them.

So, yes, kids come to us as a blank slate, and we have to fill them up.  But that’s a far cry from them being stupid.  And by the time you’re 8 (or even 5), which is old enough to start playing Heroscape or start watching Phineas and Ferb, you have accumulated a staggering amount of knowledge, and (most likely) applied an amazing amount of intelligence to it.  We forget that, I think ... because things like walking and talking and using the toilet instead of our underwear are so utterly ingrained in our mental facilities, I think we forget what accomplishments learning those things were.  You had to be pretty bright to pick up all that stuff ... remember?  Bright enough to understand that Obsidian Guards standing in molten lava can hit enemies 3 spaces away, or that it’s funny that Ferb ends up helping Vanessa get the perfect ingredient for another of Doofenshmirtz’s evil machines, which will inevitably be used against his own pet platypus, even if the exact concept of irony is still a bit over your head.

But even if you don’t really remember how totally smart you were back then, you should still check out Phineas and Ferb.  Will you enjoy it, regardless of how old you are?  Yes.  Yes, you will.

* I can’t help but note what I wrote about men and women in this context: “When men make decisions about women (at least in modern times), they at least allow the women to say something about it (usually).”  In light of some recent events, it appears in retrospect that I was amusingly naive.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Hollywood Pairs

Long ago I developed a theory of why Hollywood movies seem to come out in pairs.  I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.  The canonical example is generally Armageddon and Deep Impact, but I first noticed it when Volcano followed hard on the heels of Dante’s Peak (or vice versa; I forget).  Since then, it’s happened again and again: Antz and A Bug’s Life, Mission to Mars and Red Planet, Tombstone and Wyatt Earp, Madagascar and The Wild, Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line, The Descent and The Cave ... I could go on.

Sometimes they think they’re going to fool us by waiting a while before they release the second one.  Zoom was a full year after Sky High, but we still know it’s the same movie, right?  Or sometimes you forget there was a pair, because only one of the movies achieved any popularity.  I mean, after you saw The Matrix, you can easily be forgiven for forgetting about The Thirteenth Floor.  And The Sixth Sense really overshadowed Stir of Echoes, even though the latter movie is just as good (and maybe even a bit better, upon repeat viewing).  Or, to dip into the cheesy horror flick realm, remember Orphan?  Okay, now remember Case 39?  No, of course you don’t.  But there it is: same movie, different actors.

And it just keeps on happening ... tell me you haven’t, when watching a commercial for Wrath of the Titans, said to yourself: “wait a minute ... didn’t we just have Clash of the Titans?  Or wondered if we really do need two simultaneous movies about Snow White, even if one is serious and the other not? 

So I was sitting down the other night, watching Super and going “wait, how is this different from Kick-Ass again?” (although, to be fair, Super has a goofy, gory revelry that surpasses even Kick-Ass, although I still think Kick-Ass wins it in the end), and I was reminded (for the 87 thousandth time) of my theory.  It goes like this:

Have you seen The Player?  In this movie, which is about Hollywood elite types, and done by the amazingly awesome Robert Altman, we see what I deeply suspect is a very true-to-life depiction of how movies get made, mostly happening in the background of the primary plot.  (This movie, by the way is very good; if you haven’t seen it yet, go out and rent it.)  I suspect this because, by all accounts, Altman is just the sort of subversive director to do such a thing as reveal the duct tape and icky bodily fluids behind the curatin, and also it would perfectly suit the vibe of the movie if it were all true.  Thus I imagine that all the mini pitch meetings that Altman portrays really happened ... yes, even the one where someone says “it’s sort of Ghost meets Manchurian Candidate.”  And, in all these pitch meetings, the pitchee passes.  Can you visualize it?  “So, let me get this straight: an active volcano just suddenly appears in the middle of a major metropolitan area?  That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”  (It helps if you can picture Tim Robbins’ studio executive character saying it.)  “Go peddle that crap somewhere else.”

Which of course they do, right?  I mean, you’re a scriptwriter in Hollywood: pitching is what you do.  One guy says “no,” you just find another guy.  Ask enough guys, and someone is bound to say “yes” ... right?

Now flash back to the original guy who said “no.”  “Wait, someone picked up that story?  Maybe it wasn’t as bad as I thought ... what do they know that I don’t know?  No way I’m getting fired for missing the boat on this one!  Find me another writer to write a volcano story: pronto!”  And, poof: we have Volcano and Dante’s Peak.  Or whatever and whatever.

I have no clue if I’m right or not.  Although here is a blog post by someone who says they’re a real scriptwriter and it sounds remarkably like how I always envisioned it.  (Also he remembered a few pairs I forgot about ... Infamous and Capote: nice one.)

So maybe I’m onto something.  Or maybe not.  Maybe it’s just a coincidence that The Howling and An American Werewolf in London came out the same year.  Maybe two completely different people thought up the concept of movies about CGI talking penguins.  Or maybe it’s a giant Hollywood conspiracy.  Here‘s a list of pairs going back to the 1930’s and two films about Abraham Lincoln.

So obviously I’m not the first person to notice this.  TV Tropes (of course) has a name for this: “dueling movies.”  (Careful when visiting TV Tropes: wiki walks can consume large portions of your life.)  It offers even more great examples, like Treasure Planet and Titan A.E., or The Book of Eli and The Road.  Uncharacteristically, though, it offers no theories on why the phenomenon exists.

The thing I like about my theory is that it goes beyond just saying “Hollywood is so unoriginal,” which is itself a rather unoriginal statement.  No doubt true, granted, but surely we can do better than that.  Besides, if you think about it, it takes quite a while to develop, sell, produce, and market a movie.  If it was just a matter of studios copying each other, there would be a lot more time between the halves of the pairs.  Plus, it’s not like a movie like Sky High was so awesomely successful that it made a piece of dreck like Zoom inevitable.

So my theory still sounds appealing, at least to me, and I was even able to dig up some circumstantial support for it.  You gotta dig it, right?  It’s sort of like Out of Africa meets Pretty Woman ...

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Night Life

So, I was reading this blog post the other day, and it was full of mostly good advice, but then I hit this statement:

Do the most important thing first in the morning, ...

And I thought: spoken like a true morning person.

If I tried to do my most important task of the day in the morning, every day would start disastrously.  Assuming I could manage to even remember what the most important task was.  Which, most likely, I couldn’t.

Because I’m a night person.

Now, for many many years, I’ve had a theory that the difference between a night person and a morning person is the ability to roll over and go back to sleep.  I think we all wake up at various and sundry ungodly hours of the morning.  It’s just that some of us have the good sense to look blearily at the alarm clock and say “fuck that shit!” and drift right back off.  Well, I say “good sense” with tongue planted firmly in cheek; the truth is, I’m lucky enough to have the physical ability to do that.  I’ve known people who simply cannot.  Once their eyes open for the first time in the morning, they’re done for.  May as well go ahead and get up, because there’s no way they’re going back to sleep.

I tend to sleep late.  Consequently, I stay up late.  My friends who are morning people all get up early.  By the time midnight rolls around, they’re exhausted.  And I’m just getting started.  So, there you have it: instant explanation of morning people vs night people, based on simple physiology.

Of course, we don’t have to trust my pet theories.  We have a whole Internet to consult.  Sure, I could point you at loads and loads of articles and blog posts.  I could tell you that your morning or night tendencies are called your “chronotype,” that it generally changes as you age (you’re most nocturnal during your teen years, and most diurnal starting somewhere in your 60’s), that some scientists say that instead of two types (morning people and night people), there are three: “larks” (from their habit of annoying chirpiness in the mornings), owls (obvious), and hummingbirds (somewhere in the middle / a little of each, from the practice of flitting from one end of the garden to the other).  I could tell you that, being a night person, I’m supposedly smarter, more creative, and that both my mood and my physical strength increase throughout the day ... and that I’m supposedly less reliable, less punctual, less proactive and therefore less likely to succeed in business, more emotionally unstable, and more prone to addictions.  At least compared to you morning people.

But screw all that (although most of that stuff is true, in my experience).  All it really means is that I’ve spent quite a bit of my life working out how to avoid having to be at work early in the mornings.  And, mostly, I’ve succeeded.

You see, us night people are hard to wake up early, and, even once we do wake up, we’re groggy, grumpy, and pretty well useless.  I’ve had to be at work early before, of course—I haven’t led a charmed life or anything—and I can tell you pretty much exactly how it goes.  I spend the first few hours concentrating on being physically present, staying awake, and responding in a more or less coherent fashion.  That literally consumes all my brainpower.  Then I eat lunch, then I fall asleep at my desk.  I generally wake up just in time to start wrapping up for the day.  When I have to be at work early, I basically accomplish nothing, except theoretically satisfying mid-level micromanagers who think that a body in a chair is the epitome of employee achievement.

This is not my fault, as near as I can tell.  It’s just the way I’m wired.

Of course, those articles will tell you that your chronotype, like so many aspects of your personhood when it comes to questions of nature or nurture, is a bit of both.  You have genetic tendency towards one or the other, as you may have a genetic tendency towards alcholism—but the latter doesn’t mean you’re doomed to become an alcholic, and the former doesn’t mean you’re stuck being awake at 4am (one way or the other).  But your genetic tendency toward alcoholism may very well be so strong that you’d better not ever start drinking, and your chronotype may be so firmly set that you’ll only ever have limited success changing it.  I know I certainly have.

I don’t think you “larks” (or even you “hummingbirds,” if such things truly exist) have any concept what it’s like to be an “owl.”  I get the impression that you think we’re just lazy.  We should just drag our sorry asses out of bed a little earlier and stop whining about it.  Ah, would that it were so easy.  Back in the days when I used an alarm clock, it was utterly ineffective.  I’ve tried multiple alarm clocks.  I’ve tried placing the alarm clock across the room.  I’ve tried using an radio alarm clock tuned to a type of music that I can’t stand (country, in my case).  Nothing works.  Yes: I can get up, cross the room, and turn off the alarm clock—in my sleep.  Once, I was crashing for a few weeks in the dorm room of two friends of mine (this was the college years, so we were all owls at that point).  One of my friends bought an alarm clock that was so loud and strident that it sounded like a fire alarm.  The first time it went off, we all lept out of bed, terrified—it was that bad.  After a week or so, though, we began to sleep through it, and eventually the real fire alarm went off in the dormitory ... and we slept through that too.

During the years when I ran my own consulting company and mostly worked off-site, I gave up on alarm clocks completely and just woke up whenever the hell I felt like it.  Generally, this was around noon.  Of course, I was also staying up till 3 or 4am, generally working.  I like to work at night.  I can think at night; my brain is firing on all cylinders.  I can think in the afternoon too ... but only if I slept late enough.  It’s not that I’m requiring more sleep than other people.  I generally sleep around 7 hours a night at this point.  But if that 7 hours ends at 7am, I’m useless for the majority of the day.

From the time I wake up until the time I get to work is about 3 hours.  45 minutes of that is the commute time, of course.  It takes me perhaps 30 minutes to attend to my daily hygiene—shower, teeth, hair, clothes, etc—sometimes longer if I’m particularly groggy, but I think we can safely say that no more than an hour and a half is spent actually getting ready and driving in.  So where does that other hour and a half go?  Well, there’s breakfast, which in the past few years I’ve been successful at forcing myself to eat (when you wake up around 10, it often makes more sense to just wait a couple hours and have lunch for breakfast, although it turns out this is a bad habit, for many medical reasons).  But mainly that extranneous hour and a half is spent just ... waking up.  Yes, it’s literally around 90 minutes—on average—just for me to get into a state where I can function as a normal human being.  I’d like to tell you I spend this time with my family, but the truth is my family knows better than to try to talk to me in the morning.  Fruitless, that is.  I generally get some work done during this time: I find that mindless tasks like answering emails are perfect for this period, when I’m pretty mindless anyway.  But mostly it’s just a really long, extended warm-up time.  Like, you know in the old days, when you’d turn on the television set and then you’d have to wait fifteen minutes before the picture would show up?  That’s my brain in the morning.

I’m actually very fortunate to be very good at what I do.  Even after I stopped working for myself, I managed to find two jobs in a row (8 years now, between the two of them) where people didn’t care that I don’t show up until lunch time.  And that’s mostly because I’m worth waiting for, if I do say so myself.  They’ve learned that the time they see me physically in the office is only part of the time they get out of me.  At night, when the rest of my family is off to bed, I kick back with my laptop, and I get some serious work done.

Right this second, in fact, it’s 10 minutes to 3.  AM, that would be.  Sometimes I write these blog posts during Sunday afternoons, but mostly I like to do them late Saturday night (hey, after midnight it’s technically Sunday, right?).  Unless I have some other work to do.  But I get to stay up late at night, despite having 3 children, because the mother takes the early shift and deals with them in the mornings.  That way, she can go to bed early and count on me to deal with whatever craziness is going on after 10pm.  So, right now I’m finishing up a blog post, true.  I’m also waiting on my daughter to wake up so I can deliver her to her mom.

So I’m lucky to have found a way to live and work much of my life at times when my brain functions best.  I know that many people aren’t so lucky, and I feel for them.  And, then, there’s you morning people.  You will always have an easier time than I do, because the corporate world is geared to your schedule.  As several of those articles point out, there aren’t any sayings about us night people getting the worm.

I suppose I’ll just have to content myself with being smarter than you.  It’s a burden, but I’ll manage somehow.