Gears of War 2, the New Yorker, and Nathan Englander is a gamer

In what must be the smartest profile I’ve ever read about the video game business, Tom Bissell profiles Epic Games designer Cliff Blesinski in this week’s The New Yorker. Blesinski designed the uber-successful game Gears of War, which I received once as a gift. Although I’ve never been a fan of shooters, there was definitely something different about this game. Bissell’s essay puts the game on the level of art and calls in Nathan Englander to help him make his case: 

The novelist Nathan Englander, a fan of the game, cites its third-person viewpoint, in which the player looks over the shoulder of the character being controlled, as a key to its success. “In literary terms,” Englander told me, “it’s a close-second-person shooter. It’s Jay McInerney and Lorrie Moore territory. You’re both totally involved and totally watching.” As for the collapsed architecture and blown-open spaces of the Gears world, Englander said, “There’s the hospital from ‘Blindness’ and the house from ‘The Ghost Writer,’ and I know that beautiful, ruined world of Gears as well as either of those.”

What really got me about the piece isn’t just the convergence of video games and literature, but rather Bissell’s location in the game of something—some emotion—that is very mournful and mature and sad that he traces through its advertising campaign:  

The advertising campaign for the first Gears was centered on a strangely affecting sixty-second spot in which Fenix twice flees from enemies, only to be cornered by a Corpser, a monstrous arachnoid creature, on which he opens fire. But it was the soundtrack—Gary Jules’s spare, mournful cover of the 1982 Tears for Fears song “Mad World”—that gave the spot its harsh-tender dissonance. This helped signal that Fenix was something that few video-game characters had yet managed to be: disappointedly adult.

Bissell continues later in the piece: 

Gears also contains what Bleszinski calls a “going home” narrative: “There’s a sublevel to Gears that so many people missed out on because it’s such a big testosterone-filled chainsaw-fest. Marcus Fenix goes back to his childhood home in the game. I dream about my house in Boston, basically every other night. It was up on a hill.” In Gears of War, the fatherless Fenix’s manse is on a hill, too, and getting to its front door involves some of the most harried and ridiculously frantic fighting in the game. When I told Bleszinski that Fenix’s homecoming was one of my favorite levels in Gears, he asked if I knew where its title, “Imaginary Place,” had come from. I thought for a moment. Earlier, he had made a nicely observed reference to the novelist Cormac McCarthy, and I was attuned to the possibility of an altogether unexpected window into his imagination. Was it from Auden? No. It was a reference to a line from Zach Braff’s film “Garden State,” in which “family” is defined as “a group of people who miss the same imaginary place.” When you start to peel back the layers of the Gears world, Bleszinski told me, “there’s a lot of sadness there.”

Bissell’s accomplishments in this piece are many, but the two most obvious are

  1. He takes the level of discourse around video games to a whole new elevation.
  2. He makes me want to play Gears of War. 

That second point, I think, is the the height of non-fiction writing about any subject—whether it’s art or sports or technology or business: the writing drives the reader towards its subject.

Britney Spears having a headache, or Joe the Plumber is a sham

Joe the Plumber, who gained notoriety during Wednesday’s debate is, according to today’s Times, a bit of a fraud. Later in the article he refers to himself as feeling like Britney with a headache. 

Thomas Joseph, the business manager of Local 50 of the United Association of Plumbers, Steamfitters and Service Mechanics, based in Toledo, said Thursday that Mr. Wurzelbacher had never held a plumber’s license, which is required in Toledo and several surrounding municipalities. He also never completed an apprenticeship and does not belong to the plumber’s union, which has endorsed Mr. Obama. On Thursday, he acknowledged that he does plumbing work even though he does not have a license.

His full name is Samuel J. Wurzelbacher. And he owes back taxes, too, public records show. The premise of his complaint to Mr. Obama about taxes may also be flawed, according to tax analysts. Contrary to what Mr. Wurzelbacher asserted and Mr. McCain echoed, neither his personal taxes nor those of the business where he works are likely to rise if Mr. Obama’s tax plan were to go into effect, they said.

Tucker Carlson used to wear bow ties and now he’s funny

I still know him as the guy who Jon Stewart derided on Crossfire for wearing a bow tie, but Tucker Carlson actually displays some great wit in his review of last night’s debate over at Tina Brown’s new venture, The Daily Beast.

But the strangest moment of all came when McCain raised Rep. John Lewis’ slur against him. If someone called you a bigot, likened you to George Wallace and the Alabama church bombers, would you describe him, non-ironically, as “an American hero”? Yes, Lewis behaved honorably during the civil rights movement. But the sad truth, known to virtually everyone in Washington, is that Lewis is a mediocrity as a congressman, and has been for many years. It would have been nice to hear a little straight talk from McCain on that subject.

Incidentally, if you think that’s an unfair description of Lewis, tune into to C-SPAN some time and listen to him speak for 20 minutes. Then ask yourself an honest question: Is this man really smarter than Sarah Palin? He’s not.

Not that any of this matters for the purposes of the election. It’s over. Obama won.

Joe the plumber is not representative

Of course, people are gullible, and the McCain campaign is seizing on that gullibility. But let’s get the facts straight here. From today’s Times: 

According to figures compiled by the Small Business Administration, there are fewer than six million small businesses that actually have payrolls. The rest are so-called nonemployer firms that report income from hobbies or freelance work done by their registered owners, earning as little as $1,000 a year.

So are there “millions more like Joe the Plumber,” as Mr. McCain contended? Probably not. Mr. Obama may well have been correct when he stated that “98 percent of small businesses make less than $250,000.”

Of these, according to a calculation by the independent, non-partisan Tax Policy Center, fewer than 700,000 taxpayers would have to pay higher taxes under Mr. Obama’s plan. But even some of these are not small-business owners in the traditional sense; they include lawyers, accountants and investors in real estate, all of them with incomes that put them in the top tax brackets.

It’s all about words, words, words

Hillary Clinton did it, now John McCain are doing it too: expressing a disdain for Barack Obama’s command of language. James Wood has a piece in this week’s New Yorker about use of the Republicans’ use of language, which concludes: 

. . . when [Palin] was asked about Obama’s attack on McCain’s claim that the fundamentals of the economy are sound. “Well,” Palin said, “it was an unfair attack on the verbage that Senator McCain chose to use, because the fundamentals, as he was having to explain afterwards, he means our workforce, he means the ingenuity of the American people. And of course that is strong, and that is the foundation of our economy. So that was an unfair attack there, again, based on verbage that John McCain used.” This is certainly doing rather than mere talking, and what is being done is the coinage of “verbage.” It would be hard to find a better example of the Republican disdain for words than that remarkable term, so close to garbage, so far from language.

This reminded me of an interview with former JFK speechwriter Ted Sorensen that appeared in the New York Times Magazine earlier this year. In it, Sorensen cites the power of “Kennedy’s rhetoric when he was president [which] turned out to be a key to his success. His mere words about Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba helped resolve the worst crisis the world has ever known without the U.S. having to fire a shot.”

Obama’s deputy speechwriter Adam Frankel worked with Sorensen on his memoir, and Sorensen himself has lent his hand to the Obama campaign.

Calling California expats to vote by mail

If you’re a California resident living somewhere else or even a California resident who, for whatever reason, can’t vote in-person on November 2—vote from your couch, your office, wherever—please vote by mail. The deadline for your request to be received is October 28. So, hurry!

Hemingway’s baseball field

The Times has a story about Ernest Hemingway’s baseball field in Cuba, which I somehow didn’t even know about before. 

Hemingway rounded up a dozen boys from the barrio to play baseball with them. And just inside the black and white gates of the farm, Hemingway set up an odd little ball field where he would pitch for both teams as they whiled away the hot afternoons.

The New Yorker digital edition is already a disappointment

I spent two hours yesterday waiting in line, unsuccessfully, for tickets to the New Yorker Festival event with Haruki Murakami. The tickets sold out, though they lasted longer than I had anticipated. A walking tour with Calvin Trillin and an event with Stephen Colbert were the first to sell out. You can even see me standing in line on the New Yorker’s current homepage above.

Today I stood in the line in the same place for about 50 minutes to get books signed by Murakami, whose wife stamped them after he signed them. Of interest was a kiosk set up to preview the New Yorker’s digital edition, which the magazine expects to launch in one month. They’re currently offering four free issues and a free digital subscription for print subscribers through the end of their current subscription term. It sounded like they still haven’t settled on a pricing model for the digital edition. Or, if they have, the reps at the Festival headquarters weren’t aware of it. The magazine plans to make each week’s issue available digitally at 12:01 am on Monday morning and to provide digital access to their archive.

Digital issues don’t appear to be downloadable, though the New Yorker rep said that users would be able to print from the magazine using the digital edition. The magazine is forcing users to use an online, web-based viewer from Realview Technologies. Unfortunately, that means no PDFs and no offline access. Moreover, the printing functionality seems to be severely limited and only lets users print one page at a time. It would be nice if I could just print the entire magazine on Monday morning, but it would seem essential that users would be able to at least print out an article or two for later reading.

One of the great advantages of the magazine is that it’s portable. Once I get my copy of the New Yorker in the mail, I can read it in class, I can read it in bed, I can read it in a cab or on a plane. I can even read it in the subway when I have no reception on my BlackBerry. I don’t even need my computer or an Internet connection to read it. Yes, I also happen to hate reading on computer screens and even print out op-ed articles from the Times out of my preference for paper over pixels. By restricting both printing and offline access, the digital edition becomes far less useful than the print magazine or its website. Given a chance to expand its reader base and further engage existing readers of the New Yorker, it appears the magazine has failed with its digital edition to do any more than create a niche product with infinitesimal appeal. I really wanted to like the digital edition, but I don’t see how it, in any way, improves on the magazine.

I suppose that’s no surprise, though, given the New Yorker’s previous experience with digital content. Its website was absolutely anemic for years and years, and it prevented all but the savviest users from copying the New Yorker Archive DVDs to their hard drives, which created a slow product. Because the New Yorker has such great content, such a great product, I feel it has a responsibility to put user experience above its fears of digitization. Its digital edition offers another chance to get that right. Let’s hope it does so before next month’s launch.

On another New Yorker note, their Festival blog is excellent.

Update: I’ve now had a chance to try the launched digital edition. 

Yes We Can


It took me a little while to find the audio track from the Yes We Can video, so I thought I would post the “Yes We Can” MP3 here for anyone who’s interested.

Foreign policy for the next four years

I still can’t believe Sarah Palin is running for second-in-command after her display of foreign policy credentials and her inability to name any Supreme Court cases during her interview with Katie Couric. Meanwhile, I’m still hoping that Richard Holbrooke will be our next Secretary of State.

Sarah Palin won’t say genocide

Three very brief observations from last night’s debate: 

  1. Sarah Palin apparently winked during some of her responses. Seriously, what is the woman thinking?
  2. Joe Biden strongly advocated intervention in Sudan. However, Palin a) lied about her support for the divestment of Alaska’s Sudan-related investments and b) did not use the word genocide to describe what is, plainly, genocide. I was disappointed that Gwen Ifill didn’t press the candidates on this issue. 
  3. Joe Biden’s description of his family history towards the end of the debate. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but one day later, it’s sticking with me as a raw, unscripted, and completely moving moment from an evening often filled with attacks and boring talking points and transparent evasion of questions. This, more than Palin’s “white flag or surrender” or Biden’s attack on McCain’s Iraq policy, is what I remember from the debate. 

Today in the Times

As is the Sunday ritual, I went through the New York Times today and noted the following:

  • Apparently, the B52s stay at the Bowery Hotel, the same hotel where I stayed during BEA last year. My room won points for being relatively quiet, having an iPod dock, and having MSG, which, by pure coincidence, happened to be showing an excellent game from the 2003 ALCS during the last night of my stay. Its being a two-minute walk from the Whole Foods on Houston didn’t hurt either.

  • Matt Bai has two stories in the paper. One is in the Magazine on Obama’s surprising success in racially homogenous states and his failure in diverse ones. The other contrasts the advertising-influenced of David Axelrod with the poll-driven nature of Mark Penn. (Note: I’ve met both Penn and Bai as part of my work, but, alas, not Axelrod.)

  • n+1 editor and Harvard alum Keith Gessen has the back page essay in the Book Review this week, which covers a few books about the struggle for college admissions. Of particular interest is The Runner: A True Account of the Amazing Lies and Fantastical Adventures of the Ivy League Impostor James Hogue by David Samuels. I remember being fascinated by this story when it broke a few years back, probably because of its Gatsbyesque nature. I mean, how can you not be impressed by a guy who, at nearly 30, fakes his way into Princeton. And what could possibly be a better story for criticizing the whole college admissions game in the first place? Which reminds me of an op-ed piece that ran in the Times last weekend. Mark Leyner wrote a wonderful criticism of all the unjustified column space that’s lately been given to stories about literary hoaxes. The piece takes the form of a news story about the discovery that Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” is actually a work of nonfiction. I’ve long argued that it doesn’t make much of a difference to me whether a work is classified as fiction or nonfiction. After all, I’m judging the work that a writer has produced, not her life. (But you say, “Her work was her life.”)

  • Finally, the paper ran a story about Samantha Power in which she’s quoted as having foreshadowed her own political demise as an advisor to the Obama campaign. The article tends toward gossip at times, but I found Power’s prescience to be disarming. But then again, I’m a fan looking for the positive.

After Ms. Power joined the Obama campaign, as an unpaid part-time adviser on foreign policy, people who knew her wondered — and worried — whether a person who is so naked about her passions could survive in the political world, where tact and coolness usually trump spontaneity.

Ms. Power herself worried. “That’s the one thing that terrifies me: that I’ll say something that will somehow hurt the candidate,” she told The Chronicle of Higher Education last year.

Change Audi A4 B6 ignition coils yourself


If you have a B6 platform Audi A4 like I do, you’ve probably experienced the failure of an ignition coil while driving. You know the feeling—you suddenly lose power, the car shakes when you accelerate, and the check engine light flashes. This has happened to me three times in the past five months, including one on the Golden Gate Bridge in December. It happened to me again last Friday on my way to work. And, although it’s no fun and potentially dangerous to be driving when a coil fails, replacing it is a snap. All you need to do is remove the engine cover to access the coils. The only frustrating part is that, unless you have a VAG-COM or some other way to read the CEL code, you’ll need to find the bad coil by replacing one at a time and starting the car until the CEL disappears. Nonetheless, the whole thing can be done in about five minutes, and you’ll save time and about $150 in so-called “labor” costs at the dealer. Honestly, I’m not sure how such a quick procedure can cost so much, but the dealers will get away with what they can. Changing an ignition coil on this car is far easier than changing a headlight or windshield wiper blades. You can buy the coils here for about $30 each.

Giants Super Bowl parade


I made it back to New York last Tuesday morning and caught the end of the Giants Super Bowl victory parade down Broadway. Overheard afterwards on the street was a man asking a police officer, “Officer, do you know at which bar in the City I can find the cheapest beer?”

My favorite things


Well, actually, these are Kate and Andy Spade’s favorite things. I recently discovered the “Things We Love” page on, which contains everything from Moleskine notebooks to the band Architecture in Helsinki to red velvet cake. Of particular interest to me were the French sweets at Laduree and this set of Pantone pens made by Pentel. If anyone knows where to find these pens, let me know!

And, as you may be aware, I’ve long kept a page here on this site of things I recommend.

Shout Out Louds and Impossible


I have been listening often to “Impossible” by Shout Out Louds over the past few weeks. Emotionally, it touches similar territory as David Gray’s “Shine,” though on a different level. Anyhow, the point is that right around the four-minute mark of “Impossible,” the song seems to be winding down, but then it returns when you least expected it—just when you thought it was over, it isn’t. I could get into the way that the formal break here in the song echoes its content and question whether you can actually separate form from content, etc., etc., but I’ll leave it at that.

Lorrie Moore on Hillary Clinton

In this weekend’s New York Times, one of my favorite writers, Lorrie Moore, dismisses Hillary Clinton’s appeal as a woman in the 2008 election cycle, asking: “Does her being a woman make her a special case? Does gender confer meaning on her candidacy? In my opinion, it is a little late in the day to become sentimental about a woman running for president.”

Moore continues:

Boys are faring worse [than girls] — and the time for symbols and leaders they can connect with beneficially should be now and should be theirs. Hillary Clinton’s gender does not rescue society from that — instead she serves as a kind of nostalgia for a time when it might have. Only her policies are what matter now, and here — despite some squabbling and bad advice that has caused her to “go negative” — the Democrats largely agree. But inspiration is essential for living, and Mr. Obama holds the greater fascination for our children.

Mr. Obama came of age as a black man in America. He does not need (as he has done) to invoke his grandfather’s life in colonial Kenya to prove or authenticate his understanding of race. His sturdiness is equal to Mrs. Clinton’s, his plans as precise and humane. But unlike her, he is original and of the moment. He embodies, at the deepest levels, the bringing together of separate worlds. The sexes have always lived together, but the races have not. His candidacy is minted profoundly in that expropriated word “change.”

The amateur athlete

When I interviewed Moneyball author Michael Lewis back in September, he mentioned a piece he was working on, which argued thatt college football players should be paid for they create a product that generates a significant amount of revenue for their universities. Growing up, I had a somewhat romatic notion of the amateur athlete who works on and displays his skills, untained by commercial interests. Of course, commercial interests are all over collegiate sports, so why not just call a spade a spade? Lewis writes in today’s New York Times:

College football’s best trick play is its pretense that it has nothing to do with money, that it’s simply an extension of the university’s mission to educate its students. Were the public to view college football as mainly a business, it might start asking questions. For instance: why are these enterprises that have nothing to do with education and everything to do with profits exempt from paying taxes? Or why don’t they pay their employees?

This is maybe the oddest aspect of the college football business. Everyone associated with it is getting rich except the people whose labor creates the value. At this moment there are thousands of big-time college football players, many of whom are black and poor. They perform for the intense pleasure of millions of rabid college football fans, many of whom are rich and white. The world’s most enthusiastic racially integrated marketplace is waiting to happen.

But between buyer and seller sits the National Collegiate Athletic Association, to ensure that the universities it polices keep all the money for themselves — to make sure that the rich white folk do not slip so much as a free chicken sandwich under the table to the poor black kids. The poor black kids put up with it because they find it all but impossible to pursue N.F.L. careers unless they play at least three years in college. Less than one percent actually sign professional football contracts and, of those, an infinitesimal fraction ever make serious money. But their hope is eternal, and their ignorance exploitable.

Sox win!

Just before midnight on the East Coast, the Red Sox secured their 11th ever World Series victory with a convincing victory over the Cleveland Indians. Didn’t David Ortiz look cute with his goggles on, ready to celebrate?

With the Yankees sadly eliminated early this year, I’ve felt free to root for the Red Sox throughout the Cleveland series. There’s nothing like October baseball in the Northeast.

Premium Denim and the Great Gatsby

Last weekend, by chance, I ended up at the Blues Jean Bar in the Marina. They have jeans, jeans, and more jeans. It’s rather impressive. However, I did a little research and it seems that their prices are over retail, so I doubt I would ever buy anything there. I also don’t like the fact that they keep all the jeans behind the “bar,” so you have to ask for everything. One thing I hate when shopping for clothes is interacting with the sales people.

Since last weekend I’ve given myself a minor crash course in premium denim. No, I definitely can’t distinguish the pocket design of one brand from another, but I did find a pair of jeans from AG called Great Gatsby. Being a complete sucker for all things Gatsby, I immediately wanted them. Not only did they bear the Gatsby name, but they also reminded me of another Gatsby-related piece of apparel, the Gatsby shirts from J. Peterman, which I first encountered in the Peterman catalog ten years ago when I was in high school.

However, after thinking about it, the AG jeans just seem downright stupid to me. While the Peterman shirts at least claimed to be inspired by Gatsby—the very shirt that Gatsby wore! the same sort of shirt that he would toss on the floor causing Daisy to weep!—I could never imagine Gatsby wearing AG jeans, not then and not now.

Though I can believe in the Peterman shirts, silly as they—and his whole catalog—may be, I can’t really believe that there’s anything at all Gatsbyesque about the AG jeans. It’s sort of like Moleskine notebooks, where the labels claim that Picasso and Hemingway used them. And, in fact, they actually did use similarly designed notebooks. Dave Eggers and many others actually use Moleskine notebooks themselves, which adds to their appeal. Of course, having the right tools counts for nothing if you don’t know how to use them, but their inspirational power—commercial and exploitative as it may be—also carries a degree of reality.

Weekend notes

  • Conversational reading has a fairly sharp piece about one of my favorite literary critics, James Wood.

I don’t think Wood believes there is much value in metaphors like Flaubert’s because as a reader he doesn’t appreciate what use they have in a novel. Wood is comfortable dissecting how an author attaches character traits to realistic people, but when an author tosses in an enigmatic metaphor, Wood finds it too fuzzy, and therefore meaningless. I think, perhaps, if he were better at imagining his way into the psychology of a work, he might better understand the value of metaphors like Flaubert’s.

Esposito seems to go a little over the top to make his point, for, after all, enigmatic metaphor and social commentary doesn’t really matter much without the existing creation in the novel of one real human being.

  • Prompted in part by this New York Times article, I’ve been reading up on recent cancer research. Most articles I’ve read, are, unfortunately, unlinkable (like this one), having come from ridiculously expensive medical journals. One of the recommendations I encountered in the Times is essentially to spend more resources on soi-disant “blue sky” research. One of the places that I became aware of at the beginning of this decade that actually works on this sort of stuff is the Webb-Waring Institute, which operates free of commercial interests.
  • An era ended in New York last week with Joe Torre’s departure from the New York Yankees. The teams from 1996 through 2001 played an essential part in my sense of who I am as an individual—Mo; Jeter; Posada; waking up at obscene hours in France to listen to the 2000 Subway Series; the 2001 playoff games that started on one day and finished the next, ending in October—and I’m rather sad about the end of things for Torre. These letters to the Times sports section express that sadness better than I can right now.