Friday, October 26, 2012

A Halloween Tradition: Storytelling

"Minos, King of Crete," Gustave Dore, illustration for the Divine Comedy
Everything you can think of is true,
And fishes make wishes on you.
We’re fighting our way up dreamland’s spine,

Red flamingos and expensive wine...

Out along the edge is
Always where I burn to be:
The further on the edge,

The hotter the intensity. 
"Danger Zone," Kenny Loggins

For the last several years at Halloween, my roommates and I have gathered our varied acquaintances in our home to do something that adults rarely do these days: read aloud together.

I personally love reading aloud; I enjoy the feeling of community it generates, the opportunity to discuss something read immediately after reading it, and the chance to use one's voice to, to almost become someone else. I suppose it's like acting, but more accessible to non-actors.

Here's the thing, though: my roommates and I aren't really trying to revive some lost cultural institution of communal reading aloud, withered on the vine of human entertainments as radio, film, and television have sucked up its nutrients. (If you'd like to read a brief opinion piece on that subject, this one is good.) No, what we're trying to do is freak each other out.

You see, I've never liked haunted houses, and I don't usually go in for horror movies or suspense films (exceptions: Alien, The Thing, and early-middle M. Night Shyamalan movies). My roommates have similar tastes. Reading scary stuff aloud is a nice way to freak ourselves out without having to venture into those danger zones.

It is also, admittedly, a good excuse to get a bunch of people into our house and eat gigantic quantities of baked goods and other treats (viz. puppy dog chow1). BUT let us not go into that; instead, allow me to narrate a typical Halloween at our house for you, if you've never joined us.

As the guests arrive, the iPod speakers in the living room are set up with a playlist of more-or-less lighthearted Halloween mood music, e.g., Tom Waits' Everything You Can Think (Of Is True), Dead Man's Bones' My Body's a Zombie for You, or Sufjan Stevens' John Wayne Gacy. People mill about, cupcakes and brownies and the like are distributed. After a period of socialization, the readings begin.

When we read, the book or papers with the story are passed around the circle of folks, each person who wants to read taking a turn. I usually take on the role of "guy who knows about this sort of thing" and give people advice about how to read aloud effectively (read a little slower than you feel is natural, try to speak clearly and deliberately, and have fun with it).

We usually start with something quite short, often with a sort of twist ending; something that's not obviously horrible all the way along, but ends up nasty. The Chaser by John Collier2 has often filled this role, but this year I'm considering trying out Skin by Roald Dahl.3

After this come one or two longer stories, usually marked by more suspense and intensity throughout. We often use science fiction for this, having read the unsettling Inconstant Moon by Larry Niven4 and the mesmerizing Nightfall by Isaac Asimov,5 though we have also filled it with The Adventure of the Speckled Band by Arthur Conan Doyle.6 This year, I think I'm going to try M.R. James' Oh, Whistle and I'll Come To You, My Lad, 7 but I don't know; I might go track down a copy of Neil Gaiman's Smoke and Mirrors and pick out something. Also, we'll probably do The Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allen Poe.

All this time there's usually some background music going, something atmospheric but not necessarily terrifying. But with the last thing we do, that changes a bit.

The last story is always H.P. Lovecraft's The Colour Out of Space. This may seem like an odd choice to end things with, as it is quite long, quite old, and very slow, not to mention full of obscure words and occasional weird, nigh-unintelligible rural speech approximations.8

However, what this story lacks in momentum it more than makes up for in slow-building, gut-wrenching horror; and it's the best kind of horror: the horror of the unknown. What exactly is at the back of the terrible events of the story is never made completely clear, as Lovecraft builds a series of increasingly unusual, unpleasant, and upsetting events into a mysterious, terrifying climax.

As we read the story, I put on the most unsettling ambient music I can scrounge up out of my archives, typically some William Basinksi and some music (called, improbably, "Pasibutbut") from Taiwan's native people that is really, really unnerving, at least to me. When the end finally arrives, and strange lights are flashing in the sky, the earth is trembling, and the trees are swaying in a wind from some other dimension, I put on the really weird stuff, take the story in hand, and read in my most wild-eyed, burning voice. People, including myself, tend to freak out. And it's great.

1. AKA "mud buddies," apparently.
2. A very brief story about a young man buying a love potion he doesn't understand the consequences of.
3. About a homeless man with a tattoo on his back done by a famous painter.
4. About a night when the moon is suddenly fiercely bright, indicating that the sun has expanded or flared, destroying the day side of earth, and that this likely is the narrator's last night, along with everyone else's.
5. About a place where night only happens once every several thousand years, causing madness among the planet's population and the destruction of civilizations.
6. A creepy Sherlock Holmes story about a mysterious death, a weird uncle with exotic pets, and a young woman stuck in a huge freaky old mansion.
7. About a dude who finds a whistle that summons a ghost.
8. E.g., " must a’ come in that stone . . . pizened the whole place . . . dun’t know what it wants . . . that round thing them men from the college dug outen the stone . . . they smashed it . . . it was that same colour . . . jest the same, like the flowers an’ plants . . . must a’ ben more of ’em . . . seeds . . . seeds . . . they growed . . . I seen it the fust time this week."

Friday, October 19, 2012

Best of the Old Internet

Part of a series of Lists of Cool Things.

This week, I'm out of any meaningful ideas, so I'm just sharing some of my favortie things from the Internet of 5+ years ago.

Do you remember the Internet before YouTube? Or before Facebook, or Google? There were interesting things out there, but finding them was a much different process than is typically used now. Nearly all my favorite things from the Internet in high school and college were things I discovered through word of mouth and visiting a few key (and now largely forgotten) websites. I wanted to share some of them here.

The GI Joe PSAs
Back before YouTube, someone told me about these old GI Joe cartoon PSAs that had been remixed in bizarre, eccentric, and sometimes slightly off-color ways, with hilarious results. I first learned of these over the summer between high school and college from a friend; we sat up in the late hours of the night, giggling uncontrollably at their humorous weirdness.

Take this classic, in which a child confronts a strange dog, and then meets a man who claims to be a computer:

Or this tale of a boy who loses his friends and meets someone with poor communication skills:

Here's the whole list. (Some inappropriate dialogue.)

Ask a Ninja 
Ask a Ninja was a popular comedy video series in which fans would write in to a ninja and ask him for advice or for understanding on certain topics, which he would answer in roundabout and highly ninja-esque fashion. The best one, in my opinion, was this highly overblown (but also quite accurate, really) takedown of Pirates of The Caribbean 2: Dead Man's Chest. "Here's my advice to you regarding this movie: save your money; just dress up like a clown, jump into a giant aquarium, and sing the lyrics to 'Hit Me With Your Best Shot' by Pat Benetar backwards."

40 Worst Rob Liefeld Drawings
One of the funniest blog entries I've ever seen deals with the terribleness of one of comics' most prolific artists, a man named Rob Liefeld. I cannot read this without rolling around and laughing silently from lack of breath. Sample:






S***, who needs to explain why they're jumping together in front of a yellow wall with a spotlight on them, it's DEATH BLOOD MATE SHOT RARRRRHHH

Quick question: Why does Rob Liefeld think guns have two spots at the end of the barrel for bullets to come out?"

Here's the link (warning: curse words aplenty).

Additional links:
Old XKCD webcomics, including this gem.
This laborious musical joke, which is not original to the Internet, but which I first encountered there. 

Friday, October 12, 2012

Creative Madness: the U of C Scav Hunt

Part of a series on Stuff You Might Not Know About.

It's really the wrong time of year to write about this, as the annual University of Chicago Scavenger Hunt (typically shortened to "Scav Hunt" or simply "Scav") takes place in May, not October. But Scav is great and I want to talk about it.

Sometimes in the middle of a conversation with a friend, often one I've known for quite a while, some topic will come up regarding insane amounts of creativity or fanatic zeal for an obscure and seemingly futile cause. And I'll say, "Have I ever told you about Scav Hunt?"

Scav is U of C students' yearly opportunity to expend massive amounts of creative energy to no practical end, for fun and for glory alone. Every year at 12am on the Thursday before Mother's Day, the Scav Judges release the List of that year's 300 or so items, which they have spent the previous 12 months meticulously researching and describing.

Some of these items will be straightforward to understand but somewhat difficult to acquire, like "A big rock. Really big. [Up to 30 points]"1 or "A De Lorean. We've got seventy-five bucks riding on this one. [You've got seventy-five points riding on this one]."2 Some are easy enough to understand, but require lots of time and creative energy to make, like this one:
An original table-top wargame playable with only coins, small office supplies, and other things I might reasonably expect to have in my pockets. (And no, I don’t reasonably expect to have three d12s in my pockets. Nerds.) On Thursday starting at 1:00 p.m., you’ll have 15 minutes to give me a copy of the rules, explain them, and play part of a battle with me. Playtests will be scheduled at Captains’ Operatory. [12 points]3 
Some items require specialized knowledge just to understand what they are asking for (see, for example, item #44 on 2009's list, which requires that you know [I assume] Chinese). And some items are intentionally vague, left open for the Judges to drop on you when they choose; there is very often an item marked simply "TBA."4 There are also a list of "Scav Olympics" items that describe competitive events held on Saturday morning after the List is released (including a whistling contest,5 in which I placed third for the virtuoso whistling performance of a medley of Star Trek themes).

Me, whistling in a Scav Hunt whistling contest.

The participants in Scav are organized into teams, usually based on what college dorm they live in, though you need not be a student to participate, as evidenced by such teams as the FIST (Federation of Independent Scav Teams) or the GASH (Grad/AlumScav Hunt team). There are a number of powerhouse teams that usually vie to be the best; their power comes from large numbers, budgets, and/or a culture of extreme dedication to Scav Hunt. I participated on a smaller team that knew it would not place first and wanted to have lots of fun. We succeeded.

Each team delegates items as they see fit; some have "page captains," people who are in charge of assigning and following up on items on individual pages of the List. Others, like my team, just wing it, often coming up with items just a few minutes before they are due.6 One function without which no Scav team is complete is the Road Trip, a band of four team members who dress in a designated costume, decorate their car, and head out on a 1000-mile-or-so journey to somewhere designated by a series of items. Past trips have circled the Great Lakes, struck out for Georgia, or headed to the Badlands.

On Sunday, (aka "Mother's Day," and some Scavvies do indeed forget to call their mothers, though I was never such an one) the teams gather and present their items. First there is the Showcase, made up of the big, impressive, challenging items (like a vending machine that dispenses List items7 or a robot that juggles8). And then there is the Judgment: the teams gather at their respective tables in the Judgment location (in Ida Noyes) and the Judges come around and look at their items, secretly notating and tabulating points. Points are rarely discussed with teams; sometimes the Judge will tell you if you got "full points" or not, but typically they just tell you whether or not they are satisfied/impressed, and move on. No team has any real idea how many points they have before the Judges' Judgment is declared.

Scav Hunt is a great time. I loved it, and sometimes I still go back to see items at Judgment or watch Scav Olympics on Saturday of Scav. If you're interested in learning more, the official website is here, and I've found the Wikipedia page to be interesting and helpful.

I will conclude with this, the only item still in my possession: Item #207, 2009.9 It was hastily composed at my apartment over the course of an hour or so, and I performed it all myself, changing my voice for different characters and playing sound effects I had downloaded onto a CD. I was and am still quite proud of it, as most other teams used a whole team of people to do what I managed solo.

Old Time Radio Show - Scav by James Davisson

1. Item #3, 2009.
2. Item #51, 2008.
3. Item #45, 2012.
4. For example, Item #215, 2009, which was apparently worth 10 points.
5. "You know how to whistle, don't you, Scav? You just put your lips together and . . . blow. Steadily, with an even pitch, and for as long as possible. And then, impress us with a virtuoso performance." Item #9, 2009.
6. My personal favorite was our last-minute response to Item #27, 2008: "Oh, I wonder wonder wonder what's in a WonderBallTM? No, really, what's in there? The more surprised I am, the more points you get. [30 or fewer points]," for which we hastily cut open a tennis ball, shoved in a black spot on a page of the Bible (scandalous!) and quickly made eye patches and tin foil swords; the Judge in charge of the item opened the ball and looked at the black spot as we put on our eye patches and took out our swords, and when it dawned on her what she was looking at she turned and said "Oh no..." and we all roared a pirate cry and she FELL DOWN IN TERROR. It was great.
7. Item #250, 2009, "Build a vending machine. Vending machines must be coin operated, with multiple button-selected options to choose from. In addition to whatever sugary goodness you choose, machines must vend three other List items when you type in their item numbers. [250 points]"
8. Item #183, 2011, "The dark side of the gleaming steel and bright lights of modern robotics is unemployment among laborers. Automobile assembly, heavy manufacturing, and even book retrieval in the library have been taken over by tireless, many-armed machines. And now, even the jugglers are being pushed out of work by their robotic counterparts. Build an automaton that juggles by tossing or bouncing at least two objects. Automata will be evaluated for their ability to continuously juggle multiple objects in a complex pattern. [250 points]" 
9. "Bring back the golden age of radio for at least 10 thrilling minutes! We'll give you the time slot at WHPK, you provide script, sound effects, impersonations, wit, humor, and drama. Your broadcast must have an original serialized radio drama, punctuated by an annoying call sign and commercials, no less than once every three minutes. All breaks from the action must leave us on cliff-hangers that compel us not to change that dial. The Judges will provide you an encoded message to broadcast for all "junior judges" to decipher with Item 217. Teams must combine decoded messages from all teams' radio broadcasts to figure out the secret instructions. [40 points, 10 points for advertizing your serial in the Reynolds Club in the proper `30s style, and 10 points for decoding the message]." Note that I did not include a decipherable message, for reasons I do not remember. 

Friday, October 5, 2012

How Books Are Like Kings

 Image on left is under a Creative Commons Share Alike license; source is here.
Take all my money,
Take all my dreams,
I'll swim across your ravaging seas.
"Bring Me My Queen," Abigail Washburn

I had a minor epiphany the other day that I wanted to share here: I realized that, for nearly twenty years of life, there has never been a time when I wasn't in the middle of reading a book. Often, I've been in the middle of several at once. This struck me as somehow significant.

I was trying to explain why I thought this was in any way remarkable to a friend of mine as we sat together in a CTA Blue Line car one evening. There was something moving and fascinating about the unbrokenness of the thing; I sensed that there was this invisible chain or line extending across so much of my life, accompanying it and watching over it, in a way. It's like a line of kings, I said, extending back in an unbroken succession to the day I picked up my first book not assigned by a teacher. It makes me feel protected and guided, like a subject living in the realm of a good king.

My friend was startled and amused by the metaphor, and so was I. I wondered if it would hold up as a good analogy for always having been in the middle of a book, or if it would break down quickly. More importantly, I wondered if the metaphor could make me understand myself better; this is, after all, the function of a good metaphor: creating understanding in a mind. And so I set out to see where the metaphor "Books = Kings" would take me.

Books are like kings for me in a number of other ways, I realized. Like a king whose sons and daughters are princes and princesses during his lifetime, awaiting the time when their parent will pass on and they can rule, the main book I am reading is often supplemented by other "side books" that do not have my full attention, and won't until I am done with the main book. And sometimes, like a usurper deposing a king before his time, a side book becomes so interesting that I abandon the main book in its favor. (I suppose a metaphor of a succession of presidents would be more appropriate to my national origins, but who ever heard of a VP assassinating the president? At least in this country. I'm open to examples from others.)

The metaphor holds up in some unpleasant ways, it turns out. Books often command my allegiance at inconvenient times, distracting me from the task at hand or wooing me into an anti-social state, just as feudal kings could call upon their subjects to fight in a foreign war when they ought better to be, say, harvesting the year's crops. I've talked before about Einstein worrying that reading too many books can tax one's creativity (or wallet: I buy quite a few books each year), and how I see that playing out in my own life. Kings tax people too, and it's not always popular.

Finally, like a royalist defending the divine right of a king to rule, and counting too much on his ability to do so, I remembered that I sometimes find myself leaning too heavily on the authority of books, believing and trusting what they have to say and not spending time trying to articulate their ideas for myself, or to look elsewhere for ideas. Alain de Botton puts it this way in an essay on the philosopher Montaigne:
It is tempting to quote authors when they express our very own thoughts but with a clarity and psychological accuracy we cannot match. They know us better than we know ourselves...But rather than illuminating our experiences and goading us on to our own discoveries, great books...may lead us to dismiss aspects of ourselves of which there is no printed testimony...Montaigne knew one man who seemed to have bought his bibliophilia too dearly:
Whenever I ask this acquaintance of mine to tell me what he knows about something, he wants to show me a book: he would not venture to tell me that he has scabs on his arse without studying his lexicon to find out the meanings of scab and arse.
...[A]s Montaigne recognized, the great books are silent on too many themes, so that if we allow them to define the boundaries of our curiosity, they will hold back the development of our minds. (The Consolations of Philosophy, 161-162)
In summary, thinking about books this way helped me examine their dangers. I tend not to think of books as dangerous, but they certainly can be. Perhaps a break in the line of succession is in order, sometime soon.