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October 23, 2007

I’m still writing, just not here. Go here to read my stuff and other stuff too.

Home is where the baseball is

September 18, 2007

(From The Spin)

It was just about a year ago that I started to feel homesick.

I was studying abroad in London, a whopping 3,500 miles from New York. But it wasn’t the distance that made me long for home. It wasn’t England’s funny currency, or the funny way English people talked. It wasn’t even their funny way of driving on the wrong side of the street.

It was baseball.

See, the UK follows baseball like we follow Buzkashi. People just didn’t care.

Sure, there were some options. I could Skype a friend and have him give me a play-by-play, but my friend was no John Sterling. I could go to the one sports bar that claimed to show baseball games, but thanks to the time difference it closed before most games even started.

So I settled for my only other option: I bought MLB.tv, baseball’s expensive and buggy online service.

In theory, MLB.tv gave my laptop live access to all games. But in practice, it only gave me access to a frozen image of A-Rod striking out and a never-changing caption that read “Buffering… 5%.” Trying to get MLB.tv to work was the nadir of my study-abroad experience, and probably my life. I still have nightmares.

So it’s kind of a downer that now, only about 100 miles from Yankees Stadium, I’m having the same frustrating experience. Baseball fans know that these two weeks are the most important in the entire season – whether your team makes it to the playoffs or not gets decided in the next dozen or so games. And baseball fans who aren’t “phans” know that practically none of these games will get televised. For Yankees faithful, a game against the Devil Rays is just as crucial as one against the Red Sox. Unfortunately, Philadelphia cable providers don’t feel the same way.

But there’s some hope. The Fox & Hound, located at 1501 Spruce Street, is a sports bar chain that prides itself in showing “national, regional and local sporting and other televised events.” Does that include Yankees games? “Oh yeah,” said a perky F&H employee. “I feel like whenever I’m here the Yankees are on. We definitely have a package or something.”

And if you want to stay on campus, College Sophomore Adam Mandelsberg insists that MLB.tv is reliable: “It freezes up sometimes, but AirPennNet has pretty good reception.” All I know is you want to stay away from it if you’re a Mac user.

As a last resort, Yankees fans can fashion a tinfoil antenna/helmet, go to the rooftop lounge of High Rise South, tune into 880 AM, and face whichever direction the Yanks are playing.

Through all that hissing static, you might just hear a little piece of home.

The elephant in the closet

September 15, 2007

(From The Spin)

In the midst of the Larry Craig scandal, I never anticipated Arlen Specter coming out of the closet.

The Democratic Party’s closet, that is.

To recap: in June, Larry Craig, the Republican senior senator from Idaho, plays footsie in a Minnesota bathroom with the man in the adjacent stall. That man is an undercover police officer. Craig pleads guilty to disorderly conduct and vehemently denies being gay. No one believes him and his Republican colleagues call for his resignation, which he turns in September 1.

Case closed, right? Not quite. Just as it’s dying down, Arlen Specter rekindles the scandal by publicly encouraging Craig to fight the case and reconsider his resignation. To the dismay of his Republican colleagues, Craig listens and files to withdraw his guilty plea, ensuring that the controversy will remain in the headlines for months to come. Democrats and the media rejoice.

It’s a move so damaging to the Republican Party that there’s only one possible explanation:

Arlen Specter is not a Republican at all.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that Specter isn’t right. He was a prosecutor, and he knows the law as well as anyone. You can definitely claim that Craig didn’t actually do anything illegal. You can posit that Craig’s arrest was unconstitutional. You can say that Craig’s guilty plea is invalid because it was made under extreme emotional duress. All these arguments are legitimate, but they’re all tangential to the key issue.

By defending Craig, Specter has betrayed his party. And by encouraging Craig to withdraw his resignation, Specter has initiated a process that will haunt the GOP when elections come a year from now. Along with the presidential race, 34 Senate seats are up for grabs. 22 of those are currently held by Republicans.

If Larry Craig has found a friend in Arlen Specter, so too has the Democratic Party.

Just come out of the closet, Arlen. We know.

Damn it feels good to use a loofah

September 10, 2007

(This was written for The Spin, opinion blog for the University of Pennsylvania.)

I still remember my first time.

I was a Sophomore living in High Rise North. The water in my apartment wasn’t running so I went next door to use my friends’ shower.

My friends were girls.

Stepping into their shower I took in a bewildering scene. Every surface was crammed with bath supplies. Big baby blue bottles touting immediate results. Little pink ones claiming to fill needs I didn’t know existed. Was skin even supposed to “glow”?

I clutched my shampoo/bodywash all-in-one and felt afraid. That’s when I saw her, dangling enticingly from the spigot like an exotic forbidden fruit. I reached out and seized her by her slick white rope. She felt good in my hands. Coarse, yet feminine. Rough, yet somehow soft. She was a delicious paradox.

She was a loofah.

nick_barr_spin_9_10_loofah.jpg

The events that transpired in the next fifteen minutes would be more fittingly documented by Lindsey. Suffice it to say that it was almost as hot as a Bill O’Reilly fantasy.

And it got me clean, too. The exfoliating action gave my skin new life; the spongy absorption ensured total coverage. That day I went to Fresh Grocer, bought my own loofah, and never looked back.

Until now. Just the other day a close friend and casual homophobe saw me carrying my periwinkle loofah to the shower and said something along the lines of:

“Dude, that’s really gay.”

His comment pierced my heart with doubt. Does using a loofah – a product targeted and definitely colored for women – compromise a guy’s masculinity? I wasn’t sure, so I turned an ear to the the vox populi.

Said College Freshman Jared Newman, “Loofahs are girly. I’m a bar-of-soap kind of guy.”

Newman’s words were troubling, but I wanted to know what the fairer sex thought. “Loofahs are great,” said College Senior Rita Schmidt. “They clean and exfoliate. Everyone should have a loofah!”

But when asked whether or not she would want her boyfriend to use one, Schmidt hesitated. “I like men who groom, but I don’t want to know about their grooming utensils.”

Schmidt’s ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ stance is all too revealing. Loofahs may be great for men and women alike, but they’ll never be seen as acceptable for guys until companies market them accordingly.

It shouldn’t be that hard. You wouldn’t even have to change anything – just repackage loofahs as “Man Scrubs” and give the colors impressive-sounding names like Macho Mauve and Fierce Fuchsia.

Are you listening, CVS?

Explore the World of the Walkthrough Writer

August 27, 2007

Friend, are your Ready for the Journey that lies ahead of you? Then access your Inventory to Equip the **150 Page Video Game Walkthrough .txt File.** Fight past the **Lvl. 37 ASCII Art** to reach the treasure chest at the bottom left of your map. Open it to find **An 8th Grader’s Grammar Skills.** Continue through the Corridor until you reach the Boss, **THE WALKTHROUGH WRITER.**

**THE WALKTHROUGH WRITER** is indeed a Fell Beast. A Hardy Species, he can be found in such Diverse Habitats as the Philippines, Eastern Europe, or the Deep South. Yet despite his near-Ubiquity, he can be Hard to Spot. Generally Quiet and Brooding, he often avoids direct Combat, choosing instead to seek Refuge in his parents’ Basement.

There, **THE WALKTHROUGH WRITER** will Engage in any number of Activities common to his Breed, including, but not limited to: Watching Anime, Drawing Anime Characters, Creating Anime Music Videos, Dressing Up as Anime Characters, Watching Anime Music Videos, Listening to Video Game Music, and Playing Video Games. Occasionally, **THE WALKTHROUGH WRITER** will Communicate with fellow Brood-members through a Mystical Device known as **The Message Board.** There he will Brag about his Extensive Knowledge of Non-Canonical Gundam Trivia or Participate in Ritualistic Competition regarding Superior Computer Specifications.

But his most Impressive activity, and certainly his most Fascinating one, is what gives him his Namesake: The Writing of the Walkthrough. Nothing less than a Rite of Passage, it is an Intensely Difficult and Lonely Process, the Details of which have always been Obscure to Outsiders. Indeed, while all Avid Gamers are Familiar with the Walkthrough, few have ever dared Investigate the Manner of its Creation.

For that reason, I have Dared to Approach one **WALKTHROUGH WRITER** and Speak with him so that I may Learn about his Ways. The Document is Copied below for your Convenience:

Noble Studier of Beings (NSB): Oh Great Walkthrough Writer! Be not Alarmed, for I come Bearing no Ill Will towards you or your Kind. I come instead to gain Knowledge! Please tell me of Yourself! Tell me of your Main Hobby!

Walkthrough Writer (WW): My name is Kevin Hall. I’m 27 years old, live in Mississippi. I’m currently unemployed though I’m in the process of getting a job at the moment. My main hobby is video gaming, which I suppose is very evident. It’s been my main hobby for quite a while now.

NSB: Kevin Hall, Mighty Writer of Walkthroughs! When didst Thou Forge from the Depths your Very First Walkthrough?

WW: The first walkthrough that I wrote was in the summer of 2001. I had a bunch of extra free time during college semesters, so I decided to try to write one for GameFAQs. I actually wrote it to try to win one of their bounty prizes. And yeah, I did win that prize if you’re wondering. It was much more enjoyable than I thought it would be, so I started working on guides during the summers when I didn’t have anything else to do then I slowly started to write more often on a regular basis.

NSB: Mighty Kevin, You Crafted one of the Finest Walkthroughs to date, that for Final Fantasy XII. Surely this was your most Challenging Venture?

WW: Yeah, it has been the hardest so far. But the experience wasn’t near as bad as I thought it would be since I enjoyed FFXII so much during my first playthrough and didn’t mind playing through it again or writing about it whatsoever. I used to sit back and wonder how in the world a guide writer could write a walkthrough for an RPG. There’s so much info! I suppose it all depends on how much you like the game. I would spend about 5 hours a day (maybe more) on FFXII. I started in November and I guess you could say the guide was complete by January. I still don’t view it as complete, but I’ve stopped working on it for the most part. There’s still a few areas that I’d like to add… and I might do that before the year is out.

NSB: If what Thou sayst is True — and I Doubt it Not — then the Process Endured well over 600 hours. Why Undergo such a Trial? Mayhaps for Compensation?

WW: I write them because I enjoy it. It’s the ultimate cure for boredom, and also I do it because it adds a lot more replay value to the game for me. With some of the games that I write for, I would usually toss the game aside after completing it fully, but while writing a guide, it gives me a new reason to go back through the game. I usually play through the game at least once before writing for it.

And no, there is no payment for the most part. I have done some Featured Guides that are exclusive to one site and received payment for those guides and I have received gift certificates or free games/services every now and then from other sites.

NSB: Do you Converse with your fellow Walkthrough Writers, such as Famed Alex? Is there Territorial Competition amongst you?

WW: I don’t keep in touch with other authors myself, though I do visit the GameFAQs contributer board every now and then to read about some of the stuff that is going on with them and the site. The GameFAQs contributor board is a very solid community with a bunch of fine writers on it. There’s a little competition among us. There has to be some there for all of us to write well. I think every writer is a little conceited in their own way.

And no, I haven’t spoken with Alex, or any of the other guide writers for FFXII, though I have emailed Split Infinity and sephirosuy a bit to discuss a few minor details on FFXII. I’m the kind of person that prefers to work alone. That’s just my style, though I would be open to some collaboration with the other writers at some point if they didn’t mind.

NSB: Yet surely you could not have Uncovered all the Secrets of the Game yourself. I Think of the Zodiac Spear, which can only be Obtained by Not Opening Certain Treasure Chests. How Discover you such Mysteries? Do you Communicate with Game Developers?

WW: Yes! The Zodiac Spear in particular was one secret that I had to find online – the GameFAQs message boards. There are a few treasure chests that were looked up online as well. I try to verify every single thing before I add it to a guide of mine, even if that means going through a long section of the game again.

And no, there is no help from the developers, either I learn through the info online or it is from my own experiences. Some of the boss stats were taken directly from the FFXII Bradygames guide since it’s impossible to find that info otherwise. Most of the writing in the walkthrough is based on my own experiences or reader submitted.

NSB: Having successfully written several Walkthroughs, how has your Life Changed? Have you Gained Friends? Does your Family support your Noble Venture? Dost Thou Seek Professional Employ in this business of Walkthrough Writing?

WW: I definitely have more online acquaintances. Not so many friends though since I tend to keep to keep a low profile most of the time. My family is slightly supportive. They know all about this hobby of mine – throughout the family. Though it’s not really something that I can sit down and discuss with them that often.

I’m really not sure how one gets into the business of writing a strategy guide professionally. For Bradygames and Prima Games, I have read that you basically just send off your resume after you post a guide up on GameFAQs (with a link to that guide) and hope for the best. I still haven’t tried that. If you look on Gameindustry.biz you’ll find a resume of mine up with the other resumes though. I’ve just recently posted that up.

NSB: Kevin, Walkthrough Writer, your Words have Struck great Rays of Light through the Obscurity of your Trade. I thank you, nay — the very World thanks you, for your Time.

WW: No problem. Glad to speak with you.

Judd Apatow and Fairytale Sexism

August 23, 2007

I know it’s a little late to be talking about Superbad, but this is less a review than it is a reflection on Judd Apatow’s two newest and successful movies, Knocked Up being the first one. It should be noted that Apatow is credited only as a producer on Superbad, but the two films have essentially the same personality. While that personality might be actor/writer Seth Rogan’s, I’m assuming it belongs to Apatow. It doesn’t really matter either way. What does matter is that behind the big laughs and revenue these movies have garnered lies something a little more sinister. I don’t know exactly what to call it — misogyny is too strong — it’s more like fairytale sexism. By that I mean an extremely crude simplification of women characters for the sake of the male protagonist and his ego.

What I don’t mean is the sort of thing that no-name critic Angela Baldassarre talks about in her review. She accuses Superbad of having “misogynist undertones” because it “shows insensitivity when it steps out of character and focuses on, say, the merits of menstrual blood or why women don’t get excited at erections. A line should have been drawn.” How dick jokes are out of line for a character who is obsessed with drawing dicks is beyond me. The characters, and by extension, their humor, lack “sensitivity” when it comes to women, but as we see their awkward come-ons and painful rejections, isn’t that the whole point?

What I’m talking about is more along the lines of what no-name critic Carina Chocano talks about in her review of Knocked Up: “Knocked Up is so enamored of Ben and his insouciant charm that it fails to wonder what it must feel like for the girl. It’s one thing to go with the idea that Ben and Alison dwell in different leagues, which after all is the point of the movie. It’s another thing altogether for the heroine, who in true girl-on-pedestal form is beautiful, smart, successful, nice and pretty much cool with everything, never to get even the tiniest chance to wonder if maybe she might have done a little better.”

This is what fairytale sexism is. It’s idolizing the woman at the cost of her identity. By making Alison essentially perfect, Apatow prevents her from noticing what any real woman ought to: Ben is an overweight deadbeat pothead. A funny and kind guy to be sure, but probably not marriage material. That Alison never even takes this train of thought is a fatal flaw to the movie’s structure.

So it’s extremely disappointing to see Superbad make the same mistake, only worse. An otherwise solid movie culminates in a bizarre scene at the mall. Seth, Jonah Hill’s character, sees his crush Jules at the escalator. The previous night, Seth had drunkenly tried to make out with Jules, who rejected him. Following this he wept and then headbutted her in the face as he passed out on the ground. To top it off, Seth is even fatter and less attractive then Ben in Knocked Up, while Jules is fairly hot. So this encounter at the mall shold be intensely awkward. Yet for some reason, Jules eats up Seth’s graceful apology and invites him to go buy makeup with her. (She needs something to hide that black eye.)

What the fuck? How could a movie all about superficial lust and pre-college sex preparation end with a girl ignoring all aesthetic and social cues to hang out with Seth? What is Jules thinking?

The answer is, apparently, that she’s not. At their best, Apatow’s women characters are as shallow and horny as their male counterparts. But when the fat guy needs to get laid, shallowness and horniness aren’t going to cut it. Neither, for that matter, is an emphasis on personality, because Apatow’s fat guys aren’t particularly good people. The result is a golem, a clay princess, someone designed to give herself away without ever questioning her own feelings. A patient Rapunzel letting some porker clamber up her hair when there are better, and lighter, princes out there. It’s this failure to locate the woman’s motives, this fairytale sexism, that spoils Knocked Up and Superbad for me.

Animal Cruelty vs. Gambling: Which Do I Give Less of a Shit About?

August 15, 2007

Professional sports are going through a rough patch. Tim Donaghy, an NBA referee, just pleaded guilty to felony charges of conspiracy and gambling. He gave inside information to bettors and went so far as to bet on games he was reffing. Donaghy faces up to 25 years in prison. Meanwhile, Michael Vick, the immensely talented but underperforming quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons, has been charged with sponsoring dog fights. He’s currently working on a plea bargain that will land him no more than a year in jail, but if it falls through he could face up to 6 years. We’ll see what kind of punishment Barry Bonds gets for using HGH and then lying to a jury about it.

Pumping steroids, dogfighting, illegal gambling — these sound like the national pastimes of most countries in the EU. So I don’t get why the US is so infatuated with dishing out immensely harsh penalties for them.

Let’s be honest: our government is hypocritical when it comes to gambling. It’s illegal, unless you’re an American Indian. Or you’re on a boat. Or you live in any of 15 states that allow it. Or, as is the case with the Lotto, the government is taking advantage of you directly. Then it’s fine.

As for dogfighting, it’s like the poor black urban version of Dungeons & Dragons. You give your dog all sorts of potions (read: cocaine) to enhance its performance. If you win, your dog gets (along with crazy XP) to rape the other dog’s bitches. If you lose, you have to drown your dog or something. I dunno, maybe it’s nothing like D&D. But I bet it’s pretty sweet. Besides, there’s no scientific literature showing that dogs are happier sitting around getting obese than they are tearing the shit out of each other.

But in the end, it’s not about condoning gambling or dogfighting. It’s not about showing how ridiculous the national attitude toward gambling is (really ridiculous) or about how lame groups like PETA are (really lame). It’s about looking at those crimes and realizing they’re way too petty to get the jail sentences — and the media coverage — that they do.

Sure, these guys have damaged the reputation of the NBA and the NFL, so if you want them out of those sports, fine. But sports should exist outside and beneath the “real world.” The fact that even now the Senate is conducting an investigation on steroids in baseball is the perfect symbol for our distorted national priorites are.

As a side note, when is this guy going to die?:

Death of Phil Rizzuto

August 14, 2007

I was about 9 years old when my grandfather gave me a baseball signed by Phil Rizzuto, some old guy who I hadn’t really heard of. Gramps had met “Scooter” at a charity golf tournament and, jokingly, asked him to sign a baseball for his grandfather. I guess he was looking for a laugh, but apparently Rizzuto didn’t get it, and just asked, “Sure thing! What’s your grandfather’s name?” Joke having sailed way over Scooter’s head, my 65 year-old Gramps dutifully responded, “Nick,” and so I got my ball.

rizzuto.jpg

I’d come to learn that this wasn’t Rizzuto’s only oblivious moment. During his Hall of Fame induction speech, he mentioned that he thought New Guinea was full of Italians. When keeping score during games, he coined the notation “WW” for plays where he wasn’t watching. Scooter’s scorecards must have been brimming with WWs, because some guys were able to make a poetry collection out of all his in-game musings. A few examples:

Two balls and a strike. You know what they had on TV today, White? “Bridge on the River Kwai.” Everybody should have gotten an Academy Award for that movie. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen it. About forty times. Alec Guinness! William Holden! Three and one the count. I just heard somebody whistle. You know that song? That’s what they whistle. Nobody out. And he pops it up.

Or,

The legs are so important.
In golf, they’re very,
People don’t realize
How important legs are in golf,
Or in baseball,
And football, definitely.
Track.
O, in track.
All-important.
Jumping.
Soccer.
Is there anything, what?
Is there anything where the legs
Are not the most important?

This guy was like Yogi Berra, minus the hidden insight. And like Berra, he’ll probably be remembered not for his on-field brilliance but for his off-the-field quirkiness. Not that I have a problem with that — it probably makes my ball more valuable. I’m accepting offers now at alphazeromail@gmail.com.

Poem by Isuba Nikora

August 7, 2007

My Japanese poet friend has been working on her first poems in English, and asked me to post this one. Her name is Isuba Nikora, she’s pretty well-established in her home city of Kagoshima, which she says is the inspiration for all her work.

Karrupusamy

what has she?
height, iran, oreo, coach, a knee.
two (oh you will be) (oh he she me)
green, oh touchy bone, a trunkless ashy.

so rare, I know, cheek, a coo day,
fun, sigh sorry, to visage
no use or she soon you carry dome,
or son,
a coat soon a hand boon
she calm me me, she wallow
say, rarely talk:

what has she, no name?
has ozymandias oh no oh day I rue:
me decide what has she
knows she go to,
cue die
not yet
oh you be set soon bony!

zen boots or no,
got one, no not any more.

no foe, show note:
I’m don’t coming back
erasure base
we hate nothing, have took only nobody.

Sunshine and Immolation

July 30, 2007

I saw Sunshine yesterday, a great movie to check out while it’s in theaters. A visual masterpiece, and not totally lacking in substance either. Director Danny Boyle throws in just enough stylistic flair and creativity to ensure that Sunshine is more than just a “Steve” to 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s “Doug.”

I’m not going to waste time writing a lengthy review because other critics, particularly Anthony Lane of the New Yorker, have been dead-on. The plot is illogical, sometimes ridiculously so. The final third of the film takes a jarringly sharp turn, and is objectively inferior to the rest of the story. Sunshine smoothly sets up the characters to lose their sanity, but instead the director loses his own by introducing a ridiculous antagonist, cannonballing the film into chaos just when it was enticingly dipping its toes into it.

The cast is somewhere between subdued and listless.

Weigh all that against the awesomeness of a big-screen space odyssey, and then make your decision. I have no regrets about mine.

But what I really want to talk about is how Sunshine confirms what I’ve been saying for a while. If you could die in any way you wanted, wouldn’t you choose immolation?

A lot of my friends disagree, saying instead that they’d prefer lethal injection or some similar pussy death. I don’t get it. Wouldn’t you want your final moment to be an incredible experience? A challenge of thresholds never before tested? An extraordinarily painful and enlightening revelation? In Sunshine, character after character chooses to die by unfiltered exposure to the sun, validating my point of view and placing me in the company of planetary heroes.

So for those of you who would choose to die by the needle, like an old dog or a human vegetable, watch Sunshine and see if it changes your perspective.