Saturday, June 18, 2005

Mind Reading Site

It took me about a minute to realize what they were doing to make you think they could read your mind. Can you figure it out?

Creative Restriction

When people think about creative expression, they also tend to think about the need for “creative freedom” – the freedom to do anything they can think up. But in a world where special effects allow us to bring even our most bizarre imaginings to life and cable television shows can say or show explicitly what once had to be implied, I think we are forgetting the creative value of working within a restrictive space.

Take, for instance, a piece of paper. If I tell you to create something using paper, you may use markers or pencils or crayons to draw a picture. You may use scissors to cut out a shape. You may cut out shapes from several pieces of paper and combine them onto another sheet. Or any combination of things. While you are certainly creating, some of those solutions require less creative thought than others. And because you have no limitation, there is a risk that, given so many choices, you may take the simplest path. Now what if I tell you to create something using a piece of paper and nothing else? It may take considerably more thought. Anyone who has ever tried origami knows that folding a piece of paper to look like a swan is somewhat more difficult (or a least less apparently possible) than drawing a swan. Thus, the restriction requires the artist to think harder about the possibilities.

Let’s look at horror movies for a second. It used to be that special effects were so pitifully horrible that actually showing a ghost or monster or whatever was just as likely to produce laughter as screams (see many, many 50’s B-movies). It was more effective to visually obscure the source of horror at least partially if not entirely. Throw a few strange sounds on the soundtrack, glimpse something in the shadows, and let the audience’s imagination fill in the blanks. As we became more capable of rendering truly frightening images, they were more likely to be shown. In an effort to display their own imaginations, directors and special effects crews have taken away the most frightening element of all – the unknown.

Verbal taboos can also be dealt with in creative waves. It’s sometimes interesting to hear how different radio stations will handle songs with certain words in them. Some words won’t be censored at all on one radio station but will be censored on others. Other words are edited out no matter the target audience, but they may use different editing techniques to cut them out. You may get silence over part of the word, silence over all of the word, or any number of sound effects that cover up the word yet still signal “something naughty was here”. On broadcast and basic cable television, different shows deal with their restricted vocabulary in different ways. Farscape and Battlestar Galactica both have invented F-words (and BG’s “frak” is the only linguistic holdover from the original, which invented a whole slew of curse words). On many shows, characters will often get cut off by a scene change or some distraction when they start to utter a forbidden word. Still other shows will use mild words and phrases in place of harsher ones. Spongebob says various sea and seafood-related words (Tartar sauce! Barnacles!) when frustrated.

Supply and time restrictions can also force you to be creative. This applies even to non-artistic creativity. If you’ve never seen Junkyard Wars on TLC, it’s a reality-type show where two teams are asked to build something given a junkyard full of stuff (almost certainly pepper purposefully with potentially useful objects) and a limited amount of time in which to plan, find parts, and build. MacGyver would always come up with creative solutions given few tools and often little time. Films with smaller budgets for stunts and special effects are forced to focus on (gasp!) characterization and plot.

It’s not that it is not possible to have good characterization in a movie with action sequences or to use swear words in new and creative ways or to create nightmare inducing images without resorting to smoke and shadows or to make a truly original and entertaining movie with a $300 million price tag. But restrictions force you to make a choice. They force you to ask yourself, “Is this really necessary, or can I do this in a different way?” When the possibilities are endless, you spend your time flailing to find something to cling to. It’s much more interesting when, given few options, you are fighting to stretch the limits of a box.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Serial Killer or Programming Language Creator?

So, I finally checked my AOL mail after about a month and a half of neglect. And I found this little gem that Diana sent to me. I got 9 out of 10 right. So I guess this means I should be able to spot any serial kills among my co-workers. Hooray?

Webcomics Hit the Papers!

Sort of. Washington Post has an article today about webcomics. Scott Kurtz, who does Player vs Player, was mentioned. And Pete Abrams, creator of my favoritest webcomic, Sluggy Freelance, is quoted. The article doesn't really tell the reader what the webcomics are about, just that they exist and are capable of making money without the help of newspapers and syndicates. But it's a start. (Convert the masses! Worship the comic! Is it not nifty? *thunk* Quiet you! You'll scare the natives). ;)

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Lawyers Sue Eachother and Themselves

It was bound to happen eventually. Lawyers are running out of people to sue. A former law student is suing the law school she attended for violating her Constitutional rights by giving her an F... in Constitutional Law. Then there's the lawyer who accidentally sued a company that he owned (scroll down to third case under "Litigious Society").

Sunday, June 12, 2005


My dad is not the only source of strange childhood memories. My mother, a mathematician-turned-stay-at-home-mom, devised a rather strange system when it came to an allowance for my sister and me. I started getting an allowance at the age of four. This may seem young, but I figure if the kid is old enough to beg for candy while you’re waiting in line at the grocery store, they’re old enough to get a small allowance and waste their own money on the candy (coincidentally, I was about four when I turned to my dad and said “Commercials are lies, aren’t they?” Perhaps I had purchased something with my new allowance and found it didn’t live up to my expectations. Who knows?) Remember, it’s better for a kid to make small mistakes with a small amount of money early on rather than making big mistakes with a lot of money once they are out on their own. The allowance started out simple – one quarter a week for every year of age. We had to buy non-necessities, including toys, movie tickets and refreshments, in-state amusement park tickets, and desserts (soda counted as a dessert, by the way). In the summer, our allowance became $5 dollars so we could buy snacks at the snackbar at the pool. To prevent us from buying and eating tons of desserts, there was also a limit of three desserts a day, with Mom defining what quantity of any given food constituted a desert (six Thin Mints, 4 Tagalongs, 3 home-made cookies, 2 pieces of fudge, one bowl of ice cream, etc.). However, because part of the point appears to have been to limit our sugar intake, desserts already in the house had to be purchased from Mom. This included home-baked goods like chocolate-chip cookies and mint peanut-butter fudge (yes, you read that flavor right. It’s the only flavor my mom likes that the candy industry hasn’t stolen. Shhhh!) There was a whole price structure:

Home-made cookies: 10 cents a cookie
Fudge: 25 cents a square
Soda: 25 cents a can (I also recall 10 cents a glass when taken from a 2-liter bottle)
Girl Scout cookies: each cookie was the cost of the box divided by the number of cookies – Thin Mints were cheapest at 6 cents a piece
Ice Cream – 50 cents a bowl maybe? Can’t remember. Didn’t have it quite as often.

Whenever company came over, I would get excited if for no other reason than dessert would be free that night. Christmas and birthdays meant free toys as well as toys we weren’t patient enough to save up for. Which brings me to savings.

Apparently, when I was little, I lost something important to me but did not have enough money to buy a replacement. I panicked and threw a fit and finally my Mom leant me the money, but ever since I have been a compulsive saver. I saved up for and purchased my Nintendo and a TV for my room (Nintendo came first and was stationed in the family room until I got the TV a couple of years later). Grandma’s Christmas and birthday checks helped, but most of the money was from saving my allowance.

My mother started to realize that my sister was not developing nearly the level of savings habits that I was. So when she upped our allowance and added clothes to the list of things we had to buy ourselves, she created a budget. Half of each week’s allowance had to be set aside for clothes. Fifty cents was for offering at church (Tithe? Methodists don’t tithe!). I think there was at least a dollar or so we were suppose to save for gifts to friends and family. This kept either of us from spending all of our allowance on non-necessities only to find we had ten dollars to buy a season’s worth of wardrobe with. Even K-Mart ain’t that cheap.

These days, my sister still spends money more freely than I do, but she’s way better at saving than many of her friends. While her peers beg their parents for spending money, she’s paying for part of a trip to India that she is taking starting next week with money she saved from her job. My parents are paying the rest. (It’s college-related. My parents were kind enough to pay for both of our college educations. Nice, eh, what?) My parents hear their friends complain about how their kids want $90 shoes or refuse to buy anything off the “Sale” rack. “How is this a problem?” my dad says. “If they want it, they can buy it themselves.” So spoiled by us, my parents are. :)

Now, not everyone can afford to give their kids an allowance. But I think allowances are important for the middle-class and upper-class kids who have everything provided for them, particularly if their parents have trouble saying “no” and meaning it. It’s more difficult to gauge the value of money when the supply seems endless or at least dependent only on how much you whine.