Thursday, October 23, 2008

John Green's "Paper Towns," And Then Some

(above: Paper Towns covers)

Any discussion of John Green almost invariably includes his brother, Hank Green, and the project they started on the first of January in 2007. The project was called "Brotherhood 2.0." The two brothers made a video blog entry every day, alternating each day, for one whole year. The result was a conversation had in public about what it means to grow up and to be brothers and what it means to be in a community. The result was a fellowship of young people, self-named Nerdfighters, with the common goals of thinking and appreciating each other and appreciating themselves. This unintended result of the project is likely the most impressive.

But another stated impetus for the project, the one on which I wish to focus, was for these two brothers to get to know each other as adults. Hank and John really only knew each other as their younger selves, the two brothers who grew up together. This project was a way to learn how each of the brothers had grown up, what kind of adult person each one had turned into.

It's a lofty goal, and it's one that the brothers Green took seriously. The project lasted the whole year, and Hank and John still make videos to this day. Over the course of these videos, the full architecture of each of their personalities came into full relief, and we got to know them as well as they got to know each other.

That brings me to John Green the young adult author. He's written some award winning books (An Abundance of Katherines! Looking for Alaska!), and over the course of his videoblogging project, he has been writing his newest book. It's called Paper Towns, and I'm here to discuss a really important thematic similarity between the book and Brotherhood 2.0.

In essence, a teenage boy called Q finds himself drawn into the enigma of a teenage girl named Margo, his next door neighbor and the object of his desire. The two share a night of pranks (inarguably a classic "night of passion" without the classic trappings of a "night of passion"), and then, as in all of John Green's books, we make camp inside of our male narrator's mind and examine what happens when an important figure in his world disappears.

Also as in Green's previous works, the absent female cornerstone becomes far more important in our protagonist's mind than in the narrative. Put differently, the male lead's conception of the absent female leaf is far more important
throughout the novel than the actual female lead. In point of fact, calling Margo a female lead is pretty hugely misleading, as she is thought about more in this novel than she is actually in it.

That said, Paper Towns can be seen as a capstone on some of the important ruminations in John Green's previous works. In Paper Towns, more so than in those previous books, people are misunderstanding each other, and it's having serious consequences for their development and interaction. People have these thin versions of each other in their minds, and the book chronicles those thin versions filling out.

Paper Towns is an engrossing, witty, real-feeling book.
It crackles at times with the same intensity and clarity that characterized Alaska and Katherines. But it finally grabs some of the side themes of those works and hammers at them. It describes something we have all done. We have all deified or vilified others. We have all underestimated the complexity of those around us. The book shows us, in a pretty visceral way, the effects of this kind of drastic misapprehension.

This is clearly the textbook that informs all of Brotherhood 2.0. John Green and Hank Green had these thin versions of each other in their minds, and throughout their video project, these versions filled out.
Maybe even more impressively, the thin versions of the band geeks, literature nerds, and D&D dorks inside of us all fill out, and we learn to appreciate each other more completely through the connection of good books, inside jokes, and even charity projects. I recommend the book highly, but I recommend the Brotherhood 2.0 and Nerdfighting experience even more highly.

If you believe that people are complex and important and awesome, and thinking otherwise is dangerous, check out Brotherhood 2.0. If you need more proof of that danger, read Paper Towns.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Where We Should Put Our $700 Billion: NPR

(above: Michale Slatoff's disorienting photograph)

I understand so little about this recent financial crisis. In fact, as with most things I know anything about, most of my knowledge comes from reading, listening and asking questions in conversation. But in this case, one source has made these conversations a little easier. That source is NPR.

Earlier this year, approximately May-ish, NPR's "This American Life" did a story called "The Giant Pool of Money." This story explained, in clear, concise, and engaging language, the genesis of the mortgage crisis. When I heard this story, while I didn't become an expert, I was finally able to start thinking about the issue in 3 dimensions, turning it around and pulling it apart, examining even the internal consistency of NPR's account.

And that's what the story meant to do. It didn't mean to explain it all or to make us all understand. It meant to get us thinking about the complex issues, to get us talking about them.

If that wasn't enough, as the global financial crisis developed, "This American Life" followed their first financial story up with another one called "Another Frightening Show About the Economy." This hour-long episode updated the financial story and tackled the substance of the bailout plan that's been floating around. The two minds behind these shows also started their own podcast on money matters, called "Planet Money."

Again, these NPR stories and podcasts don't want to clear the whole thing up or make it sound simpler than it is. All of this careful, enlightening work by the NPR staff merely seeks to make us talk, to make us think. NPR's coverage encourages, above all else, conversation.

As I said, nearly any pseudo-expertise I have comes form conversation. And for my money (bad pun!!), NPR is doing more for that conversation than even economists and politicians right now. You should give it a listen. And if you are a financial expert, you should let me know if NPR got anything really wrong. You know, we'll have a conversation.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Spore: A Case-Study in DRM

(above: the title card of sorts for "Spore")

Recently, "Sim City" pioneer and creator of "The Sims," Will Wright, came out with a new simulation game. This one is called "Spore." It's meant to be a sort of Sim-everything, in that you start the game playing "Sim Amoeba" and end up with "Sim Interstellar Diplomacy," hitting every Sim-step in between.

I'm not here to talk about how well the game achieves this rather lofty goal. Instead, I'm here to talk a bit about "Spore" as a case of bad DRM or, at the very least, people finally noticing DRM and responding to it.

Let's start from the beginning. When you buy "Spore," you throw the disc in your computer and install the game. But before you can play it or get involved in the Sim-circus, you have to register online. You submit some information on yourself and you get the game essentially unlocked. Basically, your right to access your digital copy of spore is granted.

But let's say that you have three computers, and you want to install "Spore" on all three. Well and good, the "Spore" team says. You can register online up to three times for different rights to different digital copies. Now let's say one computer malfunctions and you want to install "Spore" again. Without getting a specific dispensation, your crack at the digital right of playing "Spore" is gone.

Another hypothetical: say the Sim-team decides that "Spore" isn't as popular as it used to be, and say they decide to stop running their registration service for "Spore." In this case, you can't unlock your digital rights to play "Spore" anymore. At all. Your copy of the game has become, as one Amazon review says, a colorful plastic coaster.

And speaking of Amazon reviews, that brings us to the response to "Spore." You'd think that Amazon would be a wealth of information on how good the game actually is. Instead, the people who have bought "Spore" have lashed out against the DRM on the game. There are tons of 1-star reviews of the game already posted, and nearly every one cites the DRM as the reason for the bad review.

So what do we take away from this? I suppose we learn that, yeah, a game can be revolutionary and do things games have never done before, but people won't buy it if they can't use it the way they want to. As CBC podcaster Jesse Brown said on his program, "Search Engine," consumers of Will Wright's games love the idea of creating your own world and your own players, but they also demand playing those games on their own terms. They want to expand Wright's idea of making your own rules within the game to how the game is distributed.

The key point to take away from this is that even though fighting oppressive DRM is a geek concept now, it is a) spreading into the mainstream consumer environment, and b) it becomes pretty serious when your target audience is a geek audience.

We have a right to get pissed when a company wants to turn our "purchases" into lease agreements. It's time for copyright rules to reflect our understanding of what "copy" means. And what "right" means.

(lots of info from Fred Benenson's blog, via BoingBoing)