Monday, August 29, 2005

Here’s to the Losers

There’s a great Sinatra song titled, “Here’s to the Losers,” though when I hear it in my head it’s the voice of James Darren that’s singing, and if you haven’t heard his rendition, pick up a copy of his 1999 album “This One’s From the Heart.” While you’re at it, watch every episode of “Star Trek:  Deep Space Nine” in which James Darren played Vic Fontaine, the coolest crooner ever to hit a holosuite.  The lyrics, written by Jack Segal & Robert Wells, remind us to remember those who are currently losing the game of love, “Here’s the those who love not wisely, no not wisely, but too well.”  Right now, I’m thinking of a couple of friends of mine.

Mine’s the phone that tends to ring when relationship worries rear their many heads.  I’ve been with Amanda for fifteen years, of which nine have seen us married.  With that kind of a record, friends figure that I might have some advice to give.  Honestly, I wonder if my situation is too unusual or that my advice will be too dated to be of use.  But when friends are in distress, a guy’s got to try.  

I won’t go into who these friends are or details of their situations, but I will say that they’re from different countries and live on different continents, yet I still believe the advice I give to be solid for both.  So, here’s what I told them:  “opposites attract” is bullshit.  The friction generated might add some heat, but it also irritates, especially in the middle and long term.  If your looking for the long-term committed, seek out somebody like you.  Not somebody just like you --- that’d be gross and possibly illegal --- I mean somebody similar in all the right ways.  Are you solution-oriented?  Do people who like to talk about their problems piss you off?  Then don’t try a relationship with a Woody Allen wannabe.   Are you introverted?  Does the thought of a party tangle you up inside?  Then left the social butterfly float away and find a nice homebody like yourself.  

Big personality traits like introvert/extrovert matter, but so do some more minor ones that you might not initially consider, like music.  We usually start identifying with types of music as teenagers, and I don’t know about where you went to High School, but at Bristol Central High it was music that defined the sub cultures, from the top-40-listening jocks to the hip-hop crowd to the Metallica-tee-shirted metal heads.  This one seems like common sense to me, but I’ve lost count of the friends who’ve ignored musical preference and paid for it.  Just imagine Glory the Goth Chick moving in with Dwayne the Country King.  Ok, that’s an extreme example, but I did know a guy who was a huge fan of They Might Be Giants, while the girl he decided to live with despised them.  That relationship when to hell faster than you can sing “Particle Man.”  

Trust your gut.  You get a feel for a person after the first date, assuming you actually spoke beyond, “Please pass the popcorn.”  No, a movie isn’t a good idea for a first date for that very reason, and clubbing is worse.  Why not clubbing?  What?  What did you say?  I --- I can’t hear you through the earth-shaking beats … please submit all questions in writing.  

And if you don’t know enough about yourself to know what you’re like and what you want?  If that’s the case, you need to be with yourself for a while to find out.  

Here’s to the losers, bless them all.

Friday, August 26, 2005

“It Doesn’t Feel Right If We Don’t Work Weekends …”

I wasn’t planning to write a followup to yesterday’s post, but one of my co-workers, who shall remain unnamed, said something today that brought up another wrinkle in the quality of life issues within the Games Industry, the culture problem.  

My co-workers and I recently finished a six month killer of a contract, what’s we in the business call a death march.  Personal lives go by the wayside during a death march; phone calls from friends and family don’t get returned, children don’t see their mothers or fathers, spouses lose their patience with having to do all of the tasks that they would normally share.  It’s a tying time, especially when you have a family, as most experienced people eventually do.  

Consequently, the weeks and months following the completion of a death march consist of bridge building, fence mending, and general reconciliation.  You spend time with your wife and kids, you sift through the backlog of voice mail and return calls, you fix all the crap that went wrong with your house.  And, hopefully, you do enough concentrating on things that aren’t work to win back points with all the people who couldn’t count on you during the death march, particularly your spouse.  This point cannot be overstated.  Their generosity of spirit enabled your focus on work, and if you don’t believe me then try to not be distracted when you’ve got a major deadline at the end of the day but you don’t have a stitch of clean clothing and the leak under the bathroom sink has flooded half of the first floor.  You’re not only obligated to repay that debt, but you’d be less than wise to not engender that same spirit, such that when the next death march comes you’ll be granted more of it.

So, I could only respond with dry silence when one of my much younger co-workers asked me if I’d be working this weekend.  “I’m going to work out of sheer boredom,” he said cheerfully.  “It doesn’t feel right if we don’t work weekends.”  I bet it wouldn’t feel right if I dropped him out a second story window, but at that moment I briefly thought it might be nice.

His cheery statement highlights the problem that’s not imposed on game development teams by managers, or publishers, or even corporate gods who plan our offshoring with cold detachment --- this problem our culture carries like Typhoid Mary, the lingering meme that working death marches is cool.  Maybe we need our own public service announcements, or a surgeon general’s warning.  “Coding for more than fourteen hours per day for weeks straight has been shown to generate bugs larger than your mom’s minivan and induce a dazed drug-like state without the fun bits.”  

I’m confident that my green friend’s attitude will develop as he lives and works more, but I can only hope that the industry will similarly mature.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Where To Go If Everything Is Going?

I woke up this morning as usual (actually, the bed seemed extra cuddly, so I hit the snooze a couple times more than usual) and headed for the shower.  Amanda was in the bathroom already and after I took off my shirt in preparation for the watery ritual, she stopped me with a “What are those?”  Little red raised bumps covering my back, upper arms and stomach.  They didn’t itch, and I wasn’t showing any other symptoms, but the wife is now a registered nurse and if she doesn’t like the way the bumps are raised then I’ll be seeing the doctor.

The doctor in this case happened to be a nurse practitioner that we’ve seen before, a very sharp woman named Jane.  The bumps turned out to be caused by a harmless virus and would fade in a few days.  The visit quickly turned to my occasional cardiac arrhythmias.  For the previous few weeks, I had worn a monitor in the hopes that one of these incidents would occur, but as they only occur every few months I had no such luck.  “You know,” Jane said, “you need to ensure that your stress level is under control.”  I said that I knew she was right, as stress is the most likely candidate for the cause of my heart doing the off-beat hustle, “But with my working in the games industry, I don’t see that happening anytime soon.”  

The games industry is notorious for long hours, and I don’t mean you work past dinnertime most nights, or you work 50-60 hours per week.  From January to June of 2005, I worked 10 a.m. to 4 a.m. every day, including weekends.  Some nights I didn’t sleep at all and days blurred together.  Thanks to ea_spouse, the issue has gotten much attention, and hopefully things will improve, but I’ve been writing code in the games industry for the past four years and I don’t see sea change rising on the horizon.  

I have fond memories of writing software in the “normal business” world, but really things weren’t that much better.  I’ve usually worked for startups, and even when I worked for a medium sized company I often put in similar hours.  I felt an old frustration shifting its sore weight, and I found myself justifying why I was writing software at all.  “Amanda and I used to teach college-level writing and lit., but that didn’t pay.  Universities have been  eliminating tenure-track positions for years.  When we left the University of Connecticut about 70 percent of all classes were taught by graduate students.  They made a measly $2500 per class and didn’t get any benefits.  When we taught at the University of Hartford it was worse, only $2200 per class, and when you’re required to assign a minimum five page paper each week and you’re teaching three classes that adds up to a 70 hour week.  So we decided to jump into Technology.  We loved tinkering on our computers, and we taught ourselves to write some simple code.  Once we hit it with a successful startup we’d move back to teaching.”

“But Amanda is a nurse now, isn’t she?” Jane asked.  Yeah, after the bubble burst and we had Hazel she changed careers.  Now that she’s passed her boards Amanda’s been saying that it’s my turn.  And I wonder, about a lot of things.

I remember when I first heard the term offshoring.  I was catching up with a friend named Claudio in 2001, one of the best database optimizers in the business, and he was telling me about changes in the New York job market.  He said that software engineers were becoming like American auto workers in the 1980s.  Jobs were moving overseas where labor was cheaper.  Soon enough I saw that Claudio was right, and it wasn’t just software engineers, but accountants and even radiologists.  Having an education and highly-specialized skills didn’t mean you were safe in America anymore.

So I started telling Jane about the offshoring trend, and how I wasn’t sure what field was safe.  Maybe they’re all safe, and no jobs are actually being lost.  Maybe companies are simply hiring more staff then they normally would and not moving jobs away from the U.S. job market.  But I doubt that, because I know too many people in software who’ve lost their jobs because it went to India.  At least one person I know even had to train his overseas replacement while awaiting the pink slip he knew was as inevitable as death and taxes.  

Most medical fields are a safe bet, but I don’t have the stomach for the type of care my wife is comfortable giving, and if fields like radiology are moving overseas then what’s really safe?  I’ve been intrigued by bioinformatics since I first heard about it, but wouldn’t that be easy to send away?  

I don’t begrudge anyone overseas for the offshoring trend, even if there is a net loss of American jobs.  If they’re smart and hard-working then they deserve to get them, and if these jobs raise the standard of living elsewhere then that’s wonderful.  I just want to know what careers will be secure if offshoring really takes off in the games industry.  Where’s a safe harbor?  Where can you go if everything is going?

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

And Here's to You, Mr. Robertson

Pat Robertson --- televangelist, faith healer, founder of the Christian Coalition, and former Republican Presidential candidate --- advocated the assassination of the President of Venezuela on national television two nights ago.  For a guy who’s railed against the exclusion of the Ten Commandments from schools and other public buildings for years, it makes you wonder what part of “Thou shalt not kill” he fails to understand.  

I’ve been a hater of Robertson for years, and it’s the reason that I’m a Republican.  You see, when Pat Robertson (and his soul mate, Pat Buchanan) decided to run for the Presidency I was living in Connecticut, a state where a voter must be a member of a party to vote it its primaries.  Robertson’s and Buchanan’s bids revealed something significant about the Republican party during the late 1980s and 1990s, evidence of a culture war, a schism between fiscal and religious conservatives.  I wanted the religious conservatives to lose, and when Buchanan went Independent I thought that was that, but George W. Bush reversed the trend.

If you’re wondering what’s my beef with Robertson and other Christian conservatives, I can tell you that I distrust them because they’re hateful ignorant fanatics who want to upend the liberty that America was founded on … and I know, because I used to be one.  I was born in North Carolina, and from the moment of my birth to my late teens I was a member of Southern Baptist churches.  When I was thirteen, I was “washed in the blood of the Lamb,” “accepted Jesus into my heart,” was “saved.”  And that’s when I really learned what it means to hate.  I was taught to hate anyone who didn’t believe exactly as I did, no matter what good acts they committed.  Mother Theresa?  Damned to eternal hellfire, because not all her work with the poor in Calcutta could excuse the fact that she was a Roman Catholic, the very Whore of Babylon from the Book of Revelation.  According to my pastor and everyone who worshiped with me, all Catholics worshiped idols, like statues of Mary and the saints, so Jesus would cast them into the Lake of Fire.  Of course, if Mother Theresa would burn forever, so would every non-Christian around the world.  

That’s where things started to break down for me, when I saw the zealotry for what it is.  I was in Sunday school, and the assistant pastor had just finished interpreting one of David’s Psalms to mean that anyone who didn’t look at the beauty of nature and see in it the existence of a living Christ would go to the hot place.  I raised my hand and asked, “You mean a child living in a remote village in Africa is supposed to know who Christ is, even though he’s never met a Christian, and he’s illiterate and has never heard Christ’s name?”  The assistant pastor accused me of attempting to make God’s words meaningless.  Yes, he repeated, the scripture said that child should know Christ through nature’s beauty, so that child’s lack of understanding is a rejection of Christ.  I brought up the fact that the Book of Psalms is in the Old Testament, and that David himself had never heard of Christ because Christ wasn’t born yet, but that didn’t sway his confidence in his understanding.  My mother heard about the incident, and was furious at me for “causing trouble.”  I sat through the regular church service with her smoldering next to me.  

I tried to focus on the sermon, which was about now faith and faith alone carries the keys to salvation, and good works are meaningless.  “A church-going man dies and sits before the pearly gates,” the pastor said, “and an angel asks him why he should be allowed inside.  The man begins listing all of his good deeds, and he had many, and when he was finished the angel said, ‘That’s eight points.’ And the man said, ‘Well, how many points do I need to enter?’  ‘One hundred,’ the angel said, so the man starts digging deeper, until hours later he’s down to each time he helped an old lady cross the street.  ‘How many points is that?’ the man asks?  ‘Ten’ says the angel.  ‘Ten!  If it wasn’t for the grace of Jesus then nobody would get into heaven!’  The angel smiled and said, ‘That’s the other ninety.  C’mon in!’”  I began to look around at the righteous seated around me, solid in their faith, and smugly justified in their inaction.  Not one of these elect had ever worked in a soup kitchen.  People who did such things were “do-gooders,” and they were scorned.  Born again Christians need to proselytize, to speak to unbelievers and testify to their faith.  That was the last day I’d attend services at a fundamentalist church.

So, Pat Robertson, thank you for testifying to your beliefs, for speaking your murderous mind.  I hope the Republican party gets the message.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

A Little More on Willy

I'm in the office today so my style is slightly cramped (I normally work from home), but I'm doing a compile so I've got a minute.

Hazel, my three and-a-half year old, asked to see "the Willy Wonka movie" yesterday, so I broke open the DVD that Amanda bought last week and learned, to my surprise, that the script to the original film was written by Roald Dahl himself (with some script doctoring help ... his script had the film ending with Grandpa Joe yelling "Yippie!" so I'm glad he had people looking out for him). So, I can't buy the argument I've been hearing that the Tim Burton film is closer to the book. Authorial intent is pretty well cemeted in this case, making me wonder what Burton was thinking. The guy seems remake-happy. The original film holds up even better than I remembered, and Hazel seemed to enjoy it. I was afraid that she might succumb to that weird Oompa-Loompa fear that some kids get, but she seemed to like them once I explained that the boy who was stuck in the pipe was going to be alright. She's a sensitive girl, bless her.

Monday, August 22, 2005

The Everlasting Gobstopper and the One Ring

It occurred to me this morning that, in a very significant way, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and The Lord of the Rings are the same story.

The wife and I recently enjoyed a vacation away from the kids at a great place on the Connecticut shore (, and Amanda was adamant that one of the activities we’d take in would be a movie, the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Briefly, here are my thoughts on the remake sans spoilers but with some character details. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a well-made film, beautifully shot with impressive acting from Freddie Highmore, who plays young Charlie. The script has some interesting embellishments, expanding into Wonka’s childhood, and the film is fun, but I prefer the original for several reasons. Depp’s Wonka is mean, actually nasty at heart, and that made him less sympathetic than Gene Wilder’s wry but caring character. Danny Elfman’s treatment of the Oompa Loompa’s songs rock, but the big sound of the music obscures the lyrics, whose moralizing is so important to the movie.

But what’s missing most from the remake is the greatest redemptive moment in film. You might not have noticed it for what it is when you saw the original movie, but it’s there and it’s a wonder to behold. For those who haven’t seen the Mel Stuart, spoiler alert. Near the end of the film, Gene Wilder’s sly and sardonic Willy Wonka retreats to his office, where every item in the room is one half of itself, and he suffers a minor breakdown. The ever-in-control Wonka is broken up because his plan to find a successor has seemingly failed – a few scenes back Charlie stole a sip of one of Wonka’s wonderful creations -- and his desperation shows through. Wilder has previously succeeded in charming us with Wonka’s wit, and we now feel for the man’s anxiety. Then, just after he’s angrily dismissed Charlie and his Grandpa Joe from his half-office, it happens. Charlie carries in his pocket one of Wonka’s greatest prototype candy creations, the Everlasting Gobstopper, and he’s been offered a mint to sell it to Wonka’s biggest rival. After being ordered out, Charlie’s Grandpa Joe is all for making the sale. But Charlie walks to Wonka’s half-desk, removes the confection from his pocket and places it down. As he walks away, Wilder delivers the line that seals the moment, “So shines a good deed in a weary world.”

And that brings me to what Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory has in common with The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s ring symbolizes power and, more importantly, the corrupting influence of power. Frodo resists the power of the One Ring and carries it to Mordor where it was forged in the quest to destroy it. Charlie refuses to sell his Everlasting Gobstopper, instead leaving it in the factory where it was made. This realization makes, in my opinion, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory a more important film than I previously thought. Tolkien gave us one of the most important lessons, especially in our time when power can transfer more fluidly than the land-equals-power equation of the Medieval past, the lesson that power must be recognized as a corrupter and that corrupting influence must be rejected if we wish to remain good honorable individuals. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory gives us the same lesson, and does so with a grace and simplicity that even small children can understand.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

First ...

Wow, what are you supposed to say on the first line of your blog?

My name is Chris, and I'm hoping that this blog, and you (bless your soul) will get me writing on a daily basis. I wish I could promise you something interesting, insightful or at the very least entertaining, but I'm hopeful I'll firmly plant both feet in my mouth and make a fool of myself. Hey, it's a safe bet.