The Stupid “Socialism” Experiment

One of the radio shows I listen to at work featured the following video and praised it as smart and clever, if not genius:

The message is, of course, that the things you earn in life are yours and no one should be forced to give those things up against their will to assist people who didn’t work as hard as you did, and ended up with less. As the end of the video states, this is a thinly-veiled commentary on the “immorality” of Socialism.

Except it’s really, really stupid.

I am not a socialist, I am not communist, I am not even liberal; I just cannot stand poorly thought-out analogies by people so cocky about their “message” that they haven’t even stopped to think through what they’re talking about.  Nothing in this video makes sense when you really take the time to lay out why a GPA is absolutely nothing like money and therefore presenting the crazy, unfair idea of redistributing higher GPA’s to failing students is not the same as presenting the idea of redistributing mass wealth to people dying of starvation.

Many students signed the petition because (I think) GPA redistribution sounds logical and compassionate at face value to someone who has left-leaning viewpoints.  But I’m not going to call them out for being gullible–it’s hard to catch all the holes in something like this when you’re on the spot and on camera. Some people tried to point out how idiotic this idea is, but just like trying to catch all the logistical holes in three seconds, it’s hard to really be able to pick it apart in all its ludicrousness in the same amount of time.  So I’ll take the time here.

Please take note and remember: I’m not here to advocate socialism or the redistribution of wealth as good ideas (I really don’t think they are); I’m here to demonstrate that you cannot walk around a campus talking about redistributing GPA scores and think you’re making some irrefutable argument about anything other than your own lack of analytical thinking.

1. No one inherits a GPA.  Yes, I get that not every rich person inherited their wealth, and more than a few people born rich became poor through their own bad choices somehow, but that’s not the point.  MANY people DID inherit wealth, and even those who were born into some money that went on to be successful and gain even more wealth were able to do so because of the wealth they had to begin with.  No one gets a good GPA because their great-great grandfather carried a 4.0 a hundred years ago.  Some can afford to not have to work which gives them more time for study, sure–but I defy you to to find me statistics that show that kids who can’t afford to not work through college get lower GPA’s on average.

2. GPA’s are not a resource or commodity.  It’s simply a numerical system created to easily demonstrate a student’s academic status.  Money, on the other hand, is limited.  And if you’re like some of the commentors on that YouTube video that want to say, “If wealth isn’t infinite, then how come the Fed can keep creating currency?”, come here so I can slap you (it’s stuff like that which has kept me, a notorious flame warrior in comment sections, from ever getting into it on YouTube). The fact that wealth and money are finite is the very reason it’s bad that the Fed keeps printing more money! They’re not creating more wealth–they’re devaluing what we already have! The point here is that the reason some students have GPA’s so low that they can’t graduate is NOT because all the GPA points were taken by those with 4.0’s.  They have low GPA’s because, for one reason or another, they didn’t make good grades.

3. A student with a 4.0 redistributing their points to other students does a lot more damage to that one student, and a lot less good for those other students, than a billionaire giving away a fraction of their wealth.  AGAIN–I’m not advocating the redistribution of wealth, but (discussions about the dangers of coming into sudden wealth aside) if everyone’s favorite go-to rich guy Bill Gates took $762.5 million (12.5% of his net worth) and distributed that evenly to five poor people, Gates would have far less damage, and those five people far more impact, than if a student with a 4.0 took 0.5 points and gave 0.1 points to five different students.  There’s technically no cap on total wealth possible, but obviously GPA has a cap at 4.0 (or maybe 5.0 if you go somewhere weird).  You might want to hit back at me with something like, “But the video isn’t actually about redistributing GPA, but is instead about how ridiculous it is to insist that wealth be taken from those who have and given to those who don’t.”  Except the analogy cannot hold up because, even in just this one regard, GPA and wealth are such different animals that you can’t logically say that doing A, which some people think is good, is essentially the same as B, which is obviously unfair.  A and B are not comparable.

4. Every student earns their own GPA, for themselves.  When I worked for McDonald’s, despite all of the long hours, the late nights, the frustrating customers, and the disgusting food and building, I was not doing much for myself.  Every dollar I put into the til, I got a fraction of a penny of that dollar.  The vast, vast majority of it went to the guy that owned the local franchise and the McDonald’s executives.  And I’m not even saying they shouldn’t have; they put in a lot more time, a lot more effort, and a lot more risk into that business than I did–but the other side of that coin is that they never would have earned a cent without people like me keeping the restaurant running and bringing in income.  Now compare that to grades in college.  There is not now, nor has there ever been, a college student who puts in hours and hours of study time, working on papers, pulling all-nighters, and never missing classes, so that the majority of their GPA points go to make the “top 10% of students” have even better transcripts.  GPA is essentially a lone venture, where as your wealth depends on other people as well as yourself.

5. To expand on all of these–if you’re able to actually be accepted into a college and you put in the work and the hours necessary or even more-so, it is VERY hard to flunk out.  Almost impossible.  But if you go out into the world and work hard for a company or put in a hundred hours a week into your own business, you can still fail, and actually, statistically, failing is pretty likely.  This is, I think, where this whole “Redistributing wealth is like redistributing GPA’s” thing falls apart the most.  It makes that horribly flawed assumption that people who are poor are poor because they didn’t try hard enough.  That could not be farther from the truth.  The makers of this video and the holders of this perspective want to push this idea that financial success is directly correlated to the amount of effort put in (like a GPA), but that leaves out things like the social class, family wealth, education level, geographic location, and even the year one was born (yes, I’ve read Outliers).  All college students who are extremely dedicated and work the hardest get the highest GPA’s.  In the world of money and wealth, the vast majority of workers who are the most dedicated and work the hardest most often maintain a comfortable middle class status.

I’m convinced that when the students behind this video were told by the people who spoke up that the GPA redistribution plan was dumb, they thought they were hitting their point home.  What they didn’t realize is that the part they were saying was stupid wasn’t the idea of redistribution, but the idea of comparing GPA to wealth.  I find it unfortunate that despite the gaping holes in their little “experiment,” they’re going to be patting themselves on the backs for years to come.  I think that’s what upsets me the most–I tend to be a bit more conservative overall, and come from a conservative family and background.  So when I see people that I, by default, consider my “brethren” (regardless of how distant the relation), I get upset because they’re poorly representing a perspective that I otherwise think has merit.  Probably.  I’ll get into what I think the serious difference between the hard-working wealthy people in this world and the actual “1%” is, some other time.

Childish Things

The words going through my head today are more introspective and autobiographical than usual; I recently read some Donald Miller, so that might be part of the reason.  I’m going to write about what has been one of the largest crutches of my life, and most recently was the cause of my abandoning my blog once again.

Prior to age eight, I had a small handful of run-ins with video games.  Once with an Atari 2600 at someone’s house my family was visiting.  Another time, one of my younger brothers and I got to play another Atari 2600 when a slightly-older-than-our-parents couple watched us for a day or two.  (They had a pinball machine, too.  That place was cool.)  I remember we played the obscure Atari title Maze Craze until we were dreaming about it.  Yet another time we were at a family friend’s house and she had a teenage son with the mother of all video game consoles, the 8-bit NES.  She let us play it, but we had no idea how to properly use one, so we were swapping cartridges with the power still on, and of course not holding “reset” when turning off The Legend of Zelda.  When he came home he was remarkably calm, especially considering we ruined some of his games.

. . . no, it was like that when we turned it on.

There was no doubt a few more instances thrown in prior to the Christmas of 1988, when my two brothers and I tore open what seemed like the biggest box we’d ever seen in the sight of the loving and weary smile of my recently widowed father.  It was what we’d asked for: a Nintendo.  But this wasn’t just the Nintendo; it was the Power Set.

It came with the Power Pad and three games on one cartridge: the standard Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt, plus World Class Track Meet for use with the Power Pad.  I remember that Christmas was a Sunday, too, because I know we didn’t get go straight to playing it all day; we hooked it up and had to go straight to church.

I don’t think anyone would ever fault a dad for getting his boys what they really wanted for Christmas on what would likely be the saddest single holiday of their lives.  But in the years that were to come, my dad would come to regret it nonetheless.  And now, as an adult, I do, too.

My life for the years that followed mostly centered around video games.  Every birthday and Christmas that followed until mid-high school was the time to get a new game.  In grade school I did the trading thing with my friends at school.  It was safe for the most part, but one day I did notice that my copy of Super Mario Bros. 2 was missing, and I never saw it again.  (I don’t know who I lent it to or who swiped it, but my money’s on Mike Strader.) That was the only casualty, though.  At least for my games; I can’t speak for the games owned by my brothers.  By middle school, my closest friend was also a big video game fan, and he had a lot more stuff than I did.  So my leisure time was games, and my social time was games.

My life revolved around playing video games so much that if I wasn’t playing them, I was talking about them, drawing pictures based on them, or just plain daydreaming about them.  One time I really wanted the game Final Fantasy so I let myself become so obsessed that I read and took notes in the strategy guide I’d gotten a hold of for it, and even at one point spent an entire day of forced chores mumbling “Final Fantasy Final Fantasy Final Fantasy” etc., under my breath.  Yes, it was as nuts as it sounds.

Several months later, I bought it and in the few years that followed, I beat it probably 20 times or more.

The toll it took on the academics of my brothers and me was so great that my step mom would sneak the controllers away at the start of the school year and we wouldn’t see them again until June; unfortunately games weren’t the only issue there, but they were a very large part regardless.  In the summers from around 1991 until 1996 or 1997, my brothers and I worked out this incredible compromise to keep from fighting over the NES: a rotating, hour-by-hour schedule each day.  Written down on paper.  On one hand it kept us from fighting (mostly), but on the other hand most summers, sometimes days upon days, were spent in front of our TV in the basement.  To be honest, we preferred it.

My ruined fourth semester of college was also due in large part to having free and open access to video games at any time, with me staying up until 4 a.m. sometimes playing my PlayStation (I had just gotten a TV for my room for Christmas).  Not long after I dropped the classes to avoid bad marks on my transcript, my parents kicked me out of the house.  When I got a place of my own months later, with no responsibilities other than work, I’d go 16+ hours playing video games sometimes.  Fast forward a few years to my first apartment with roommates for the summer prior my second and final year attending Southern Illinois University, I’d go even longer.  I once spent so many waking hours doing nothing but playing Grand Theft Auto III that one day, when I realized I’d left my phone in a gas station across town the night before, I got into my car and headed out to go get it and caught myself going 80 miles an hour on a 30 mph road.  That’s how I’d done it in the game for so many days, it was instantly natural when I was actually behind the wheel.  I think I first noticed the serious danger of the situation when my rationale overtook my instinct to run a slower car off the road.  Another time I practically locked myself in my bedroom and didn’t see my roommates except to eat and go to work so I could play Ocarina of Time; it took me about two weeks to finish.  In the years that followed, I had more than a few instances like that—game game game work eat sleep game.

So it continued on like that throughout my 20’s.  While sometimes I’d go as long as six months without touching a video game, without really even thinking about it, I’d always eventually get my hands on a new one, or get the urge to revisit an old favorite, and I wouldn’t walk away for months.  And that cycle was something I was content with and wasn’t a big deal until I got married.  The funny thing was, after I got married, I never did reach a point of boredom with gaming to where I’d put it away with nary a thought for a few months.  I couldn’t stop playing them.  That, coupled with entire evenings wasted in front of the TV for no good reason, led to the idea of the year-long “media fast” that my wife and I did.  It took a while for us to really get to the point that we didn’t sit around staring at a wall with nothing to do, but once we did, it was great.  I read tons of books, practiced guitar hours a day, ate dinner at the table.  Great stuff.

But of course it ended.  Funny thing—take a look at when my last blog post was.  September 20, 2011.  That was approximately one year after starting the fast.  At first, I had no desire to go back to playing games.  Dona and I had already began to enjoy evenings watching Seinfeld DVD’s over dinner, but I could take two episodes at the most and I was done.  I really didn’t feel like playing any of my FPS’s on Steam, but I did sit down to try and play Sim City 4, and the enthusiasm for that died within minutes.

“I’ve beaten this,” I thought.  After more than two decades of my life given over to ultimately useless, digital pursuits, I spent an entire year staying away alongside my wife, and had little desire to return.  Then I remembered a game I’d heard about in the year previous.

I knew that Minecraft was supposed to be addicting.  In fact, the first thought I had about playing the game was not a welcome one—I even went on Facebook asking people to talk me out of it.  But it was no use.  I tried out the free version of the game on and subsequently spent something like 36 hours on it over the following three days.  I’m not stretching that number.  Since I could save nothing and had started over thrice, I accepted the inevitable and paid for the game and downloaded it.  At first I tried to restrict myself to an hour a day.  Then that became an hour on weekdays and three hours per day on weekends.  Within two weeks that was completely thrown out, too.

I would go to bed thinking about the game, and wake up thinking about it.  At work I would spend my lunch breaks watching Minecraft videos on Youtube.  I would get home and fight every inch of my being to resist going straight to the computer.  I’d sit down to play guitar, but get irritated over the smallest monotonies, and eventually just put the guitar down and turn on the game.  Eventually I wouldn’t even bother with the instrument at all.  It’s scary for me to remember what it felt like to turn on the game after hours of actively resisting the desire—complete euphoria.  My wife, not one to not let me know what she thinks, was constantly on me about playing too much.  Not so much because of how it affected her, though that was certainly a factor, but because she could see so clearly what it was doing to me and how Rational Braden would be very upset at the sight of that.  She was not treated kindly in response, I’m sorry to say.  Actually “sorry to say” is microscopic to how bad I feel about that now.

I had spent the months before Minecraft thinking out which books to read next, how to structure guitar practice time, or what to write about, or even early thoughts on how to start a business.  Once Minecraft came into the picture, I began spending almost every literal waking moment making plans for super railways, massive underground fortresses, mapped-out continents and oceans, and Nether-based transportation systems.  Perhaps most tragically, I actually found myself wishing for unemployment again, or for my wife to take a weekend trip somewhere, so I could spend days without interruption playing.  I had more than one weekend where I would put in more than 30 hours between Friday night and Sunday night.

Eventually I began to admit to myself under the surface that there was a problem, but it took the better part of two months for me to reach a point that I admitted to myself that I was truly facing a scary reality:  I would have to delete Minecraft and make a personal commitment to never get sucked into games again—even if that meant never playing another game for the rest of my life.

It’s interesting how that played out, because one morning just a few days after realizing that, I got up from my living room chair and sat in front of my computer and deleted everything I could.  I was still waking up a little, which thankfully impaired my rationale.  I did have some momentary freak-outs, since I was essentially deleting weeks upon weeks of “work” in that virtual world I’d lived in, but I went through with it and removed my access to my Minecraft account to the best of my ability (deleting fully is not an option Mojang offers).  Even if I were to get myself back into my account, all my progress would still be gone.  That actually becomes less of a hindrance the longer we go, because the longer it’s been since I played the game, the less I care about what I was working on prior.

But with all that said, I don’t miss the game at all and have no desire to return.  I didn’t like how that time felt.

Yet I’ve not completely beaten my video game bug.  I deleted Minecraft sometime in January, and due to some of my other games not running well in Windows 7, I was able to keep it under control for a couple weeks.  By then end of February, though, I was on Steam playing some of my inexpensive, dated, First Person Shooters, from Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast, to Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy, to nearly the entire Half-Life series, from Half-Life: Source to Half-Life 2 and its subsequent two episodes.  I’ve spent the last week working on achievements in Portal.  

So what keeps me here?  Why do I keep coming back?  For one, it’s very easy time spent on accomplishing what feels like a lot of things.  In the course of two weeks, I went from being a recently-hired theoretical physicist at an Arizona-based research facility to assisting a group of rebels fight a human-alien dystopian oppression.  I’ll say that reading books is ultimately a “healthier” activity, but no matter how well that prose is written, you can’t get immersed in a story the way you can in a well-designed video game, and Valve is undeniably among the best in their field in that regard.  Anyone who’s awed at how connected they get to Alyx Vance or furious they get at Wallace Breen knows what I’m talking about.  One of the most exciting story-based moments ever for me was the start ofHalf-Life 2: Episode 1 when the G-Man gets interrupted by the Vortegaunts block him, and he looks at you and says so seriously, “We’ll see about that.”  It’s hard to really appreciate out of context.

I love creativity; I love a great story.  Video games have evolved to the point that I can have both to my heart’s content and accomplish little else . . . the twist being, of course, that my heart will never be content and satisfied with them because I’m not sure that those innate passions were meant to be fully satisfied.

So here we are again.  Two days ago I deleted Steam and all of my progress of the last couple weeks.  It was a little easier than Minecraft, mind you, because all my Steam games are stories that I’ve finished.  I want to stand on top of a platform and declare that I’ve written off video games for the rest of my life, and that my passions for creativity and great stories will be channeled into music and reading and writing–but I can’t say that.  If Half-Life 3 or HL: Episode 3 ever come out, or when/if Portal 2 gets really cheap, I’m not going to last very long.  I just hope I can keep myself clear long enough to actually accomplish some things in the meantime.

Nine Thoughts After Nine Days of Vacation

1.  I get pretty heated when the ever-arrogant “child-free” masses go on their anti-kid rants, and that topic is way too large to tackle here–that said, I always find myself temporarily joining their ranks when a screaming child is on a plane.  Yet understand that stance is completely reactionary.  Planes are uncomfortable, I’m usually tired, and that kid is really loud, while that kid’s ears are probably popping and they don’t know what’s going on, nor do they have the capacity to comprehend it (this excuse expires when the child is older than a toddler).  A parent can do little more than comfort them.  But I’ll tell you something a parent CAN do.  They can change their diaper.  There are changing tables in the lavatories.  Use them.  We’re 30 minutes into a two-hour flight–CHANGE IT!!!

2.  After a year away from regular TV and video games and movies, I found myself unable to stand television for long periods of time . . . yet still unable to pull away.  Headaches and eye strain galore plus some schlock that the History Channel is trying to pass off as history that I really don’t want to watch . . . but for some reason I still couldn’t walk away and do something like read the book I brought or play more guitar.  I think I’ll purposely stay away from large amounts of TV for a while longer.  Yet with that said . . .

3.  I REALLY like that show Pawn Stars.  When I saw previews for it back when it was starting, I was sure it would be 50% pawn shop stuff (whatever that was) and 50% inter-store drama, much like the way American Chopper was done.  But it’s not.  It’s the rock version of Antiques Roadshow!  There’s a little “inter-store” drama, as I put it, but that’s mostly staged and used to enhance the main focus: the stuff people bring in.   I do call “fake” on at least one part, though.  Chumlee spent $1500 on a “The Gibson” mandolin because none of the other guys were around to help him/stop him.  He took it to a guitar shop to authenticate it shortly after to find out it was a fake worth maybe $100.  I don’t buy it.  No pun intended.  But that’s one small flaw in an otherwise great show.  I wonder if I can find it online.

4.  Using voice control via SYNC to select songs off of my iPod is probably more fun than listening to the actual songs.  And very convenient.  My favorite successful voice command: “Play track there are a million reasons why this may not work and just one good one for why it will.”  Thank you, Moneen.

5.  Some people may be familiar with the episode of Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives where they go to Springfield, Illinois and have a horseshoe.  Specifically, they go to a place called Charlie Parker’s.  The funny thing about Charlie Parker’s is that I spent the majority of my life driving past that place and never cared to stop in, if I even noticed it at all.  But now that it’s been on TV, and because since leaving I’ve developed an appreciation for local restaurants and cuisine for wherever I go, I had to go there, and, well . . . it’s fine.  Nothing bad to report.  But there are better places to get a horseshoe.  Also, I don’t like feeling like a tourist in my hometown.  I felt the urge to make sure my waitress knew I grew up there just to ease my own insecurity.

6.  It’s very sad to me that towns like Springfield, Marion, Carbondale, and Murphysboro, Illinois have these great downtowns and old architecture and so much potential and character, but all new and successful modern development is on the edges, so the heart of the town dies or moves to a place that just feels stale.  I’ll expand on this in a later post, because it’s really bothering me.

7.  Hauling a new guitar with you across the country and back on four planes is very nerve-wracking.  Too nerve-wracking?  We’ll see next time.

8.  Maybe it’s just how I was raised, but there’s something great about sitting down to coffee with a bunch of old(er) guys and just shooting the breeze before daybreak.  Those guys aren’t necessarily the closest of friends, but they all know each other well, they all come and go as their day requires, and the conversation is always a riot.  So many things are comforting and inspiring about it; I kind of wish I had something like that in Seattle.  Sure, I could start my own (I’m certainly not lacking for places for coffee), but it wouldn’t have the same casual and sincere feel to it, let alone the fact guys I know here don’t often get out of bed by 5 a.m. like me.

9.  The thing I like the absolute least about traveling: showers.  I like being able to walk into the bathroom and step into the shower without having to think about it much, and be able to walk out much the same.  When I travel, I have to find and gather my things, find a good place for the towel, make sure I have all my clothes strategically placed so I don’t have to streak any family members, and so on.  Returning to my own bed is very nice, but returning to my own shower is even better.

Writing a Superman Story? Here’s Five Things You MUST Include . . .

I’ve heard it said that Superman is a hard character to write for, since he’s so powerful and finding a good foe or challenge for him can be something of a task.  I say, “Bull!”  Writing for Superman is EXTREMELY easy!  You can tell how easy it is if you read some of his graphic novels or watch some of his movies, because they all tend to do at least ONE of the following five things–usually more.

1.  Make a lot of allusions to Superman being like Jesus. Because, you know, Superman and Jesus are totally alike.  Personally, my favorite parts of the Bible are when Jesus busts through the walls of the Hebrew temple, melts the swords of the Romans with his heat vision, and freezes the Sea of Galilee with his ice breath right before walking out on it.  Therefore, be sure to toss in all kinds of allusions to how Kal-El is like the Son of God.  It makes perfect sense.  Last of an extinct alien race raised on Earth by adoptive parents to grow up and become an indestructible man flying around in his pajamas vs. one-third of a triune, creator deity, born of a virgin, sent to die for the salvation of mankind.  To-may-to, to-mah-to.


2.  Give Superman some kind of power, skill, or ability on a deistic level.  It’s a common misconception that Superman is too powerful.  He’s actually not powerful enough.  Being bulletproof, the ability to fly, vision powers, breath powers, super speed, super strength–all child’s play.  When you’re writing your story, feel free to make some new power up.  Anything.  Actually, the bigger the better.  We’ve seen new powers as small as erasing memories with a kiss, to as large as creating alternate universes inside the Fortress of Solitude.  Feel free to go beyond that, even (though it is tough to think about going much bigger than creating LIFE).  The beauty of understanding this about Superman is that he’s a walking deus ex machina.  It’s IMPOSSIBLE to write yourself into any corner with this guy.

. . . and fanboys everywhere will call your schlock "brilliant."

3.  Destroy the Fortress of Solitude.  Oh yeah, it’s got to go.  First, don’t ask yourself if it’s been destroyed before–not important.  Just blow the damn thing up.  Have someone trash it.  Have a meteor smash it.  Have a ball!  What’s a Fortress of Solitude if Superman is alone there all the time and no one knows about it?  Make it common knowledge, and then have them DESTROY IT.  Couldn’t be simpler.  And be sure to get to it quick, too.  Don’t waste your precious story time establishing it as a true place of refuge for the Man of Steel.  Just assume everyone already knows about it, have the bad guy show up, and BOOM goes the fortress.  Observe below:



Now you win!!

4.  Have some Kryptonians show up.  It’s really very logical when  you think about it.  Part of Superman’s character is there’s a deep lonliness in him because his entire race, his entire planet, no longer exists.  He’s the last Kryptonian.  So what better twist than to have some stray Kryptonians show up?  I mean, if General Zod was such a huge hit, then MORE Kryptonians equals Superman story gold!  Yet we can’t have EVERYONE come out of the Phantom Zone.  Just say they were wandering the galaxy somehow or somewhere.  Without a spaceship.  Oh, sure, there’s the fact that Superman gets his power because of the light from our yellow sun, so Kryptonians wandering around in space away from yellow stars doesn’t actually make any sense–but so what?  Just write it. 

Pictured: The Opposite of Extinct

5.  Do not, under any circumstances, bother with the difference between “dark and brooding” and “confident and serious.”  No one likes a hero who has it all together, right?  I mean, since the mid-1970’s, all of our heroes in comic books and action movies have been nothing but good-hearted, charming, stand-up citizens. . . . BORing.  We need heroes that are conflicted and moody and lonely and disturbed and, oh what’s that word the kids are using these days . . . “emo.”  The point of all of this is to help you understand how writing for Superman is easy, so trying to figure out the right balance between smiling altruist and “humanity” is out of the question.  That’s too hard.  That would require paying attention to his motivations to justify non-happy emotions, like anger.  Instead, just make him dark and angry all the time, OR make him really sad and whiny.  Your choice!

This makes Supes in no way like any other superhero!

Now you know  how to write the perfect Superman story!  Mix and match these five tips and you are guaranteed a winner!  Happy writing!

Hey Man, Quit Wasting That Gibson!

Let’s open with a story.

Years ago a friend and I worked in a department store.  My friend was working one day and had to help cover the registers.  It was shortly after Christmas, probably January or December of whatever year it was (1999-2001).  My friend said he was ringing out a mother and her obnoxious 10/11/12-year-old son.  The son was whining about her not buying him something he wanted, and my friend got the impression that this kid often whined his way to getting his way, but the mother was, albeit sheepishly, resisting this time.  “No, I said!  We just had Christmas,” she said to him.  He returned, pouting, “Yeah, but I didn’t get nothing.”  Mom seemed a little annoyed, “A Gibson Les Paul is not ‘nothing.'”

My friend checked with me later, “Hey, are Gibson Les Pauls expensive?”

Yes, friend.  They are.

Pictured: Cha-ching

Wrapped up in that story is the essence of what I want to address here:  I really can’t stand seeing people own very nice (and very expensive) guitars (or any musical instrument, really) but not really USE them.  It is simultaneously irritating and stupid.  And understand that this isn’t just Gibsons (though they’re the most commonly abused as I’ve seen), but any nice,  high-end guitar or equipment.

Why?  Because those guitars were designed and built by people whose PASSION is guitar.  You can’t be wishy-washy about that instrument and make and sell one over which millions of guitarists melt over the sound.  Sticking with Les Pauls for this example–first of all, that’s the guitar designed by Les Paul.  The man was a walking legend by the time he was 30.  He INVENTED the electric guitar.  He played one professionally until he died at the age of NINETY-FOUR.  The guitar he designed has become synonomous with other greats like Jimmy Page or Frank Zappa or Pete Townsend.  You don’t get a job working in the American factory that builds $2000+ Les Paul guitars because you’re a layman needing work and you filled out an application.  You have to be an artisan.  It’s the same idea for any other high-end guitar, whether made by Gibson, Fender, Gretsch, Paul Reed Smith, or anyone.  Well . . . anyone but Jay Turser, but one really shouldn’t bring up Daewoo when talking about muscle cars.

I’ve known people with really nice guitar equipment that barely learned how to play, and really didn’t care too much to advance.  Look–if you don’t want to advance at guitar or any instrument, that’s your choice, but to have nice stuff and let it collect dust is shameful.  It’s like someone buying a professional-grade mixer and just using it once a month to beat eggs.  Imagine being a professional chef, or a even just a very enthusiastic cook and foodie, and visiting their home and seeing an amazing $700 piece of equipment sitting on their counter and learning that they really only know how to cook speghetti and scrambled eggs and don’t care to learn anything more; when  you point it out they chuckle, “Oh, yeah–that.  It’s nice, but I usually just order out, really.”  It’s close to the same thing for me when I see that Gibson ES-335 sitting next to that 2×12 Orange Combo amp in a corner in the room you never go in.  (note: I’ve never actually seen THAT, but you get the point.)  There’s a certain amount of honesty with ourselves that we should all have to be able to understand that we don’t need $2000+ of stuff if we’re going to use it twice a year.  That guitar and amp would be happier in the hands of someone who appreciates it, and you can go drop $200-400 from the sale on a Squier Telecaster and an 8-inch Peavy amp.  Everybody wins!

Now, to clarify . . . if you have that $700 mixer and don’t know how to cook or bake very well, but you got the mixer with intentions of doing and learning more–go get ’em.  So when a beginner picks up something like a $1200 Fender Strat, I still think it’s a bit of overkill for such early stages, but if they’re really going to work at it, I’ll happily keep my mouth shut.  Like the guy that I recently learned about (through sources I will not reveal in my blog) that spent $3500 on a Les Paul and is a total beginner.  Stupid?  Probably.  But if he sticks with it, what can I say against him?

Well that’s all on a personal level.  I have to KNOW someone before I’ll notice wasted guitars in their home, and if thats the furthest this annoyance went it wouldn’t be worth its own blog post.  But it keeps going . . .


Okay, so the Jonas Brothers are very over-bashed in my opinion.  Not because they’re actually talented (from the little I’ve heard, I don’t believe it), but because before Justin Bieber came along, they were the popular flavor for the internet to hate.  So please understand that I’m not jumping on, nor trying to revive, that band wagon.  It’s that I’ve seen dozens of pictures of these kids around the interwebs, and in so many of them they’re “playing” guitars I’ve dreamed of owning for a decade.  Like lil’ scrunchy-face up there.  (And if you didn’t know what a Gibson ES-335 was when I mentioned it earlier–that’s it, in the hands of a child).  They don’t really USE them . . . do you think  he even touches that Bigsby arm, except maybe to move it out of the way?  It’s all for show, and that’s a waste.  But then again . . . the Jonas Brothers are owned by Disney, so they have the money to throw around.  What about bands that AREN’T funded by milti-billion dollar corporations?

A few months ago a friend commented on a video of the Plain White T’s song “Boomerang” (a band whose style reminds me, in the worst way, of that song “I’ll Never Let You Go” by Third Eye Blind; gross).  I had the video imbedded when I wrote this, but the account has since been removed.  He said that it’s ridiculous that three guitarists are all playing the same chord in the same voicings.  He’s right.  I add that it is also ridiculous that bands like this bother to buy such expensive equipment (they were playing a Les Paul, a Gibson SG, and a custom acoustic of a brand I didn’t notice) when they’re going to just play power chords and not try to do much else.

. . . for example . . .

I guess if you’ve earned the money, there’s not that much wrong with it (plus you can write it off your taxes if you make music for a living), and that leaves me with not much to say against it . . . except respect what you’re holding!  After having your band recording and touring for years, wouldn’t you want to improve your skills to improve your sound?  No?  I guess that’s just me.

A while back I saw a show with four bands.  The second of the four was who I went to see (named Moneen), and the opening band actually stole the show in my opinion (named Moving Mountains).  There were two Fender Telecasters and two Gibson ES-335’s between those two groups.  I should point out that the ES-335’s were VERY used.  Whether those guys bought them new or not I don’t know, but calling their appearance “weathered” is putting it lightly.  In both bands, the guitars were put to very good use; they were clearly loved and played often.  None of those guys are necessarily hair-metal-virtuoso-level guitarists, but they’re really good players that do a lot with their instruments.  You can click that link above if you want to look into Moving Mountains, here is Moneen showing skill and comfort with their instruments:

Then the first of the two headliners got on stage.  Eisley.  I have nothing inherently against Eisley.  Actually, after hearing the song in this video I might look into them a little more.  But take note of the guitarist NOT singing . . .

Since I’ve seen this band live, I can assure you that ALL of their equipment is top-of-the-line.  I was actually a little weirded out by how un-weathered their stuff was, but maybe they’d just done a shopping spree before the tour.  But did you watch the second guitarist?  That’s what she did most of the show, too.  I’m not saying she shouldn’t be in the band; I am saying you don’t need to spend thousands of dollars on guitar equipment if you’re going to play bare-bones basics.  In principle, it is a waste and, in some degree, an insult.

Then there was the headlining band:  Say Anything.  I don’t have much good to say about them in general so there’s not much to say about their equipment.

I think the last and primary point that I want to drive home with all of this is that we should remember that a guitar is a musical instrument made to make music.  It’s become such a symbol of so much else that even players like myself lose touch with that reality.  But what would be the result if people would learn to enjoy spending time with something like actually playing that expensive instrument they bought instead of refreshing Facebook or turning on Black Ops?  I can write some other time about the idea of not assuming that being good at an instrument means you have to join a touring rock band, but as I pull everything together that I’ve said in this post, that’s a large part of what I’m saying.  I think, anyway.  Or maybe I’m just jealous.

The Guitar Store Experience

Several months ago I bought a new guitar.  Since I bought it from a guitar store, it is that store’s policy (as it is with most or all guitar stores) that string changes and set-ups are free for the life of the instrument.  Considering a set-up can run you $80 easily, this ain’t a bad deal.  The advantage to this is obvious.  I now have it set up every time I change the strings.  Also, in my defense, I have THEM change the strings because the guitar has a floating bridge and I don’t feel like dealing with that myself yet.

The disadvantage, though, is that it puts me in a guitar store about once every month to six weeks, at minimum.  (By the way, I’m calling it a “guitar store” to differentiate a place that sells musical equipment–not just guitars–from a “music store” which could be confused with the “record store”).  The reason that frequenting these places is a pain is obvious to those of us who play instruments, but perhaps not so much to those who don’t.  The reason I don’t like going to the guitar store so often isn’t because I’m afraid I’ll spend money–it’s easy to avoid $350 impulse buys–it’s because of the notorious nature of the demeanors of the guitar store employees and guitar store frequenters.  The folks that work or hang out regularly in these places are like some special kind of vampire that feed on feigning extreme superiority over their fellow musicians–and that analogy includes the insatiable nature of their hunger.  *I* for one always thought it would be a neat experience to work in, or even own, a guitar store, but it actually seems like many of these guys are walking through an eternal hell of frustration and simplicity and a general lack of respect for their obvious expertise, dude.  I also thought it would be cool to be someone that was on a first-name-basis with those folks, especially places here in Seattle, because these are guys that real professionals come to and depend on, but those that are are so icy cold to anyone that’s an unfamiliar face that it chills me even to walk by them.  And sometimes I’m not completely sure any of these people are aware of the states of their existence.

So what goes on?  Egos.  Insecurities.  Differences in opinion.  You think it’s bad when you sit a PC nut and a Mac nut next to each other?  Try watching what happens when you put a customer who likes digital effects in front of a staff member who’s all about analog.  Or send a guy to try out an amp that starts playing some Death Cab in front of a guy who started playing thirty years ago because someone played him some Zeppelin.  Much of this is simply being fallible humans with abilities that we foolishly let define our self-worth, but that’s really just the start.  You put a guy who knows how to think about himself and receive for himself due to his skill on an instrument into a situation where he’s expected to think about other people, some of them rude, some difficult, and some frankly completely moronic (i.e., customer service), and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.  Multiply that problem by a couple of generations of staff and turnovers and you have an environment that is bad enough that a very good guitarist I know says he avoids guitar stores as much as possible, now.  He just can’t take it anymore.

And the regulars?  I’ve been told that many regulars actually annoy the employees, too (but that doesn’t get the employees off the hook).  Some of them so obviously to me went there to try to show off how fast their fingers can move that I doubt they know that’s why they’re there.  They’ve lost touch with reality to that degree.  But honestly those regulars aren’t even the worst ones–the worst ones are the buddies of the employees that chat who-knows-what with them all day and make you feel like dirt for interrupting so you can buy some freaking guitar strings.  If  you need to ask actual questions about some gear, you’d better wait until the employee comes to you, lest you be (at best) chuckled at for wanting to check out a solid-state Peavey amp.

It doesn’t take long to figure out that you are looked upon as an inferior animal in a guitar store.  We start out naïvely walking into one hoping to find someone excited about the six-string that’s equally excited to help us improve our knowledge and maybe, a little at a time, our gear.  But we quickly figure out that this is not a retailer-customer relationship.  Oh, no.  It is a skill competition.  Most of the time you just know that the guy is better than you at everything guitar related and you feel him rubbing it in just by him “helping.”

Play anything less than "Eruption" and you're the joke for the rest of the day.

And pray–PRAY–that the guy doesn’t actually demonstrate something before handing you the guitar.  I’ve had that happen.  “You just did 32nd notes across the neck at 120 bpm.  I’m not touching that thing.  I never can.  In fact, I might quit playing.”  Insecurity is a big problem, and if we’d just get over it, they’d have no power over us.  But easier said than done.

Before I go any further, I want to of course offer the disclaimer that not every employee of a music store I’ve ever met is like this.  I can think of . . . six from the fourteen stores I can currently remember interacting with their staff.  Yes, I counted.  (And as I write this, I keep remembering more stores, but not more nice employees.)  So those people–two of which work at the store I currently frequent and one of those changes the strings on my guitar–are cool.  But all fourteen stores had at least one employee that, whether they knew it or not, made me feel an inch tall for even daring to talk to them.  Actually, only one of them had just one, and only three guys worked there and I was personal friends with the other two . . . hmph.

So this is rough, right?  Musicians can’t logically buy their stuff off of Amazon and Musician’s Friend all the time.  You need to try the stuff out; you need to have guarantees of service; you need to be able to hold and compare gear.  Plus the option to trade in isn’t a bad addition, either.  So what to do?  Well, if you’re going to avoid difficult interactions with these people when going into a guitar shop, there are few things you need to do or not do.  Let’s go over some of them.

DON’T . . .
. . . Exist.  I guess we’re off to a tough start.  By merely walking into a music store and actually having a physical presence, you are more than likely going to annoy one of these guys.  So avoid existing.  Got it?  Next . . .

. . . Ask for guidance.  One time I decided I wanted to change the pickups on one of my guitars for purely aesthetic reasons.  They’re not amazing pickups to start, so no harm could be done overall to the guitar if I’m upgrading to something like Gibson 57’s, but my primary motivation is that it would look really cool.

Seriously! Imagine that thing with some chrome humbuckers! YOW!

I asked one guy at one store for advice, and in the tone and body language that made me very sorry for bothering him, he said, “You can’t just change out pickups like strings.”  I went to a different store to ask the same thing and he took one look at the guitar and said with a near-sigh, “It’ll cost more than the guitar’s worth . . .”  For the record, it’s a low-end guitar and I KNOW that, but it’s not a “Wal-Mart guitar.”  Sheesh.

. . . Ask general questions.  There’s no better way to make one of these guys mad for wasting their time.  Rockman on Yahoo! Answers tells his story:

I picked up the guitar in my teens as soon as it occurred to me that I should AND as the opportunity hit just right.  To this day, I play TOTALLY by ear, can’t read a note.  However, I don’t know what this one guy’s thing with me was–perhaps he was put off that I wasn’t “formal”–and he was The Proprietor of the place!  After frequenting his locale for everything from strings to some books, etc, one day I asked him a perfectly innocent question in near-reverent tones of a teenager asking an elder for his personal advice.  In a most condescending monotone he snapped, “You should tune your guitar as often as it needs it!”  I couldn’t believe he thought I’d said that after several convos wherein I know he knew I was perfectly coherent.  What I’d asked was, “How often do you CHANGE your strings?”  I realized during my stroll home that perhaps his hearing had dissipated, but the insult wasn’t even Ethical with me, no, MY thing has remained Intellectual–as in, if anything wouldn’t he’ve looked up and asked me if he heard me right.  I mean, he was on site 6 days a week, he clearly knew his music, he wasn’t dumb or on drugs, he couldn’t’ve been more than mid-40s. …and, as importantly as anything, I wasn’t some kid hangin’ around, blasting amps with hoodlum friends…I never went back, either!

I should add in that I’ve asked how often to change strings and been understood perfectly well, and still talked down to.

. . . Be stumped by a guitar problem, ever.  A good friend of mine had problems with his Gibson SG not staying in tune when he bent the strings.  One of the things you need to do with a guitar is to stretch the strings out so that there’s no stretch left in them when you bend them and they don’t lose their pitch.  Well, he’d done that and figured something was wrong with the guitar.  Maybe the tuners were loose.  He took it to his guitar guy who, before my friend could finish explaining what he’d done, said, “Oh, well you just gotta stretch the strings out.”  This guy stretched the strings out and the problem was fixed.  I can speak up and state with absolute assurance that my friend knows how to take care of a guitar, but he still walked out of there with his tail between his legs.

DO . . .

. . . Know exactly what your tastes and preferences and desires are for any musical situation before even stepping foot in the store.  You cannot browse a guitar store with intent to buy, but requiring salesman assistance, without having to answer a billion questions about your “preferences” that you may not necessarily know the answer to.  But that salesman knows what he wants in every detail and exactly how he wants it and Lord help you if you prevent him from getting it.  So how is it YOU don’t have any idea what YOU want?  You probably suck at guitar.  I once went shopping for some kind of device that let me play guitar through headphones.  I knew someting had to exist, but I didn’t know what.  I was also sure there was a variety of choices available . . . so I asked a guy.

“Well what do you want to do with it?”
“Play through headphones because I live in an apartment.”
“So do you want to record with it?”
“I don’t know.  Maybe someday, but I don’t have recording stuff right now.
“Do you want effects in it?”
“I guess . . . the headphones are what’s important, though.”
[annoyed] “Well lots of things let you play through headphones; I need to know what you want to help you find something.”
“As long as it lets me use headphones, it’s fine.”

See?  The normal approach would be, “You require a single function, these are the other options you have with that single function available.  Which would you prefer?”  Instead I got “You require a single function.  That’s not enough information because there are other options available with that single function.”

 . . . Know absolutely everything about the guitar there is to know–ever.  Oh, the condescension I got in the question, “When was the last time you had this guitar set up?”  Set up?  What’s that?  I didn’t know and I’d been playing for eleven years.  (A “set up” is making sure the neck is trussed right, the strings are intonated correctly, the pickups are sitting the right distance from the strings, and so on).  And the time I mentioned my guitar had a bit of a buzz?  “It’s the nature of the instrument to have a slight buzz.”  Oh.  Funny.  I was always told that a buzz was bad, but if you say so.  Thank goodness I never had to deal with these guys in my early days before I knew what the bridge and the nut were.  I know a lot, now, but I am still susceptible through conversations about wood types, neck contours, tuning machine differences, and so on.  Just a couple weeks ago I was buying some strings.  This store didn’t have my preferred size, so I was stuck getting something else (I was using a Groupon).  I wanted hex-core strings (vs. round-core), but wasn’t sure what brands had it.  One of the guys went into the other room to ask the main guitar guy and came back, “he says 99% of the wall is hex-core, and if it’s round-core it’s marked.”  Well how do you like that?  The guy wasn’t even in the same room and he got me.

So if  you ever end up needing to go into a guitar store, I hope this information can prepare you.  Tough skin is the best defense.  Godspeed.

The Most Ridiculous Comment Section Thread I’ve Ever Been a Part Of

It was a few months ago that I was at KOMO’s website and stumbled over an article called “First Date Tips:  Talk About George W. Bush.”  Now obviously I don’t care about or need dating tips anymore, but the “Talk About George W. Bush” thing seemed at least mildly amusing enough to get me to mindlessly click on it.  Naturally, the article wasn’t that interesting (probably mostly because, as I said, I don’t care about or need dating tips), but at the end of this list of “Do’s” and “Do not’s,” I caught a comment by a user named “Ron Burgandy” (sic) that amused me.

Now like most red-blooded, white, American males who were in their 20’s in 2005, I love the movie Anchorman.  And while it sometimes gets overly quoted, THIS was a good place for it.  It worked, and I laughed.

I’ve heard that quote used before, too.  And when it does, I like to follow up with the next line in the movie.

If you’re as nit-picky as I am, you may notice that I slightly misquoted it.  Ron doesn’t say “any” in the movie, just “That doesn’t make sense.”  As minor as that seems, it is worth noting as we move forward with the story.

Within a few minutes to a few hours, I got an email notification that “Ron Burgandy” replied.  “Fun!” I thought, as I was sure he was going to continue the back-and-forth I’d just stared.


Of course they’re lines from the movie, “Ron.”  I know that; it’s why I said what I said.  My eye-rolling at this was strong enough to overcome a significant portion of my growing comment-section-restraint-maturity that I responded–

Then I went and found that scene in Anchorman on YouTube and added a second comment with nothing but the link.

And that should be it, right?  Done deal.  Guy quotes movie, second guy quotes next line in movie, guy doesn’t get it, second guy provides information for guy to see that he also quoted the movie.  The only logical next action on his part is one of two things.  He could feel silly and keep quiet, never acknowledging that I responded, because he saw what I had said but doesn’t want to admit he goofed; OR he comments with something to the effect of, “Oh, that’s right–my bad.”

But that’s not at all what “Ron Burgandy” did.

Wow.  Let’s evaluate what’s happened here.  It seems that “Ron” took my comment, and the subsequent video link, to mean that I was berating him because he didn’t quote Anchorman 100% verbatim and therefore he got it all wrong and should feel foolish.  Would anyone disagree with my assessment of his perspective?  And to think I was a little embarrassed by slightly misquoting it myself.

A few days later I got around to actually responding, and all I did was briefly point out what I thought would be known in the first place by a guy naming himself after a character in a movie he’s quoting.  I don’t have much else to add.  I just find myself needing an audience when ridiculousness of this magnitude comes my way.