[Surf’s Up, as published in the St. John's Telegram, on Thursday, October 18, 2012.]
While it’s evidently customary now for stores to start draping
products in orange and black pretty much as soon as the back-to-school sales
feel tired, I actually try not to pay attention to Halloween until, well, about
this time of October.
While I applaud my self-control for not (yet) buying a box
stuffed with tiny chocolate bars – as if the entirety would make it to the
door! – I’ve been checking out a few treats online.
Last year, I loved playing with an app that breathed new
life into A Charlie Brown Christmas, which turned the iconic TV special into an
interactive storybook. This year, the same makers are back with a take on that
other seminal Peanuts holiday classic, It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.
As with the first, it’ll cost you some money (about $5 in
this case), and while I had no trouble recommending the Christmas edition, I’m
not as enthralled at all with the Great Pumpkin.
I have nothing against Linus’s hero, I should note. Rather, I
have a few gripes with how this particular app is designed, and what it expects
users to do.
Again, the app opens with a wonderfully nostalgic tableau: a
child’s record player gently spins while you hear a jazz theme by Vince
Guaraldi. If you want to be transported back to the Sixties, this will do the
The problem is that as soon as you get started, you’re taken
not to the story, but instead to a staging area where you first must create an
account (or log in via Facebook, which I somewhat reluctantly did).
This left a little grit in my mouth, and that uneasy feeling
got worse. I could not proceed until I had created an avatar – and I was not at
all amused to see the creators trying to sell upgrades, all within moments of
getting us to pay for the app in the first place.
Fortunately, you can create a decent avatar and
trick-or-treating costume (your character will join the famously dressed
Peanuts gang) for no extra cost. Still, by the point that I was finally able to
get into the story itself, I was ready to toss an egg at someone’s house.
The saving grace is that the main part of the app is wonderful.
The graphics are crisp and in high-definition, presented as if the elements
were layered paper cutouts. The original voices from the TV special are used,
as well, and a reader can move through the chapters (tug on the bookmark to
advance) or skip to favourite moments. I think this will appeal more to the
nostalgic, but maybe children will love the story, too.
In all, I liked it – but having to go through all those
hoops left me feeling a bit like Charlie Brown on his back, foiled yet again by
the football-swiping Lucy.
Elsewhere this week
Shock Till You Drop When did getting the pumpkin scared out of you turn into
such a huge business? Even beyond their home base of October, frightening
things demand a lot of our pop-culture attention, and if you need proof, just
try keeping up with the movies, shows and games based around zombies alone. Shock
Till You Drop caters to the fans who can’t get enough of what scares them, from
trailers of upcoming movies to tidbits and links to horror-genre goodies.
Ultimate Pumpkin Stencils Carving a pumpkin used to involve a steak knife and a few
minutes. The artistry of a few, though, is now widely accessible thanks to the
web, where templates for fairly complex patterns are easy to find. Search for
free pumpkin stencils (or templates, as an alternate keyword) and you’ll no
doubt find something nice, but if you want something cool and of the moment,
you may well have to pay. I’m recommending this site, which sells templates for
several dollars, often in batches.
All the Angry Birds, for instance? Got them. Same goes for
comic-book heroes, movie characters, music fads (Gangnam Style, meet One
Direction) and even oddball choices, like Walter from Breaking Bad. (That, I
guess, is if you want to scare the wits out of the higher-brow TV aficionado.)
In September, Martha and I had the good fortune to be able to see David Byrne play live in Toronto, as part of a tour with Annie Clark of St. Vincent ... and an eight-piece brass section that blew us away. Most of the songs were new, from the Byrne-St. Vincent album Love This Giant, but Byrne dusted off a few Talking Heads songs, including This Must Be The Place, Road to Nowhere and Burning Down the House.
This fan-shot video, from a performance in Minneapolis last month, shows what the touring band was like. Quite the show.
IFTT stands for If This Then That,
which plays on the type of logic that is one of the cornerstones of programming
languages, as well as math. That is, if [x] is an input, then [y] is the
action, or output.
OK, don’t panic. You don’t need to
know any programming at all to enjoy IFTT, but it will work better if you use a
social media network or platform or two.
Or several dozen, even. IFTT is
basically a connecting device between more than 50 different “channels,” as it
calls them, and lets you configure them any way you can think of.
Actually, you don’t have to even do
that. You can piggyback on the recipes – yes, that’s what they’re called here –
that others have devised. Some examples: if Amazon posts a free MP3 (which they
do all the time, by the way) then you can have a notification sent straight to
Weather alerts? Meet Twitter. Your
Instagram pics? Have then backed up in Dropbox.
The ideas go on and on, and show
some creativity. One of the things that pleases me is the reliance on some
underrated favourites. One of them is good ol’ RSS, or really simple
syndication (to use one of its names), which is far from trendy but which is
the backbone of how a lot of what’s online gets to audiences. Here, you can get
RSS to pull needles out of digital haystacks, and deliver them to you neatly
and the moment they’re found.
Give it a shot. You might discover
a very valuable tool … or three.
The Simpsons do Halloween
Last month, I wrote about a
Simpsons game called Tapped Out, which has been rebooted after an awkward
start. I noted that it was fun, and kind of addictive.
Well, it’s now even more
entertaining. Over the last week, an upgrade for Halloween has rolled out, and
if you’ve ever seen the annual Treehouse of Horror specials, you’ll know the
Springfield crowd go all-out for the bewitching season.
There are new characters,
games-within-games and spooky incentives, but the most fun has to come with the
zombie onslaughts that roll out twice a day or so (including, ahem, from the
pet cemetery – that’s right, Snowball 1 is back!). If they touch regular
characters, the zombiefication takes over.
You can squish a zombie with your
finger (and turn Homer and others back to normal with a tap), and the reward
might include a roll of toilet paper or a package of eggs – perfect for
“sharing” with your virtual neighbours!
Tapped Out is still only available
for Apple devices, but it appears to have overcome its shaky start from last
winter; it’s currently the highest-grossing app for iPhone and iPad, which is
remarkable because you can play it for free. (The money comes from upgrades,
where are packaged in a clever way. I confess to splurging a few bucks to get another
zombie generator. Less than a movie ticket, I rationalized.)
As with the regular game, what
makes the Halloween edition of Tapped Out so charming is astonishing attention
to detail. It also differs from many games in that it is actually written; that
is, the show’s writing staff comes up with the gags and scenarios, and there
appears to be as much care with the Halloween sequences on your screen as with the
latest Treehouse of Horror. (In fact, the two are connected, with some of the
new jokes riffing on plot details from the actual show.)
As I plant a new pumpkin patch
around Willie’s shack, it’s hard not to get in a fiendish mood … and also start
wondering what might be coming to Springfield when the Christmas season kicks
Playing For Change remains a remarkable project, particularly as what I assume was a one-off project (to connect street musicians from around the world, playing "together" through a well-edited video) into something that truly now has legs, with ambitions to do something substantial about international equity and musical education. Along the way, it has continued to connect musicians, including a project last year built around the Rolling Stones' Gimme Shelter.
Check out this video, posted earlier today, on how Playing For Change is maturing.
Brand-new from Coldplay, here's a video for Hurts Like Heaven that is (believe or not) linked to a series of comic books that will come out in the winter, to be released by Bongo, the publisher co-owned by Matt Groening.
Nick and I enjoyed one of the best things about a holiday weekend: a Monday matinee. We (and half of St. John's, I think) went to the mall for the movies. Our choice was Looper, which has been on our list since we first saw a trailer for the sci-fi/crime/thriller.
We liked it. I won't give much away - we benefited from not knowing much about the plot beyond the starting point, and that Joseph Gordon-Levitt had prosthetics to look more like Bruce Willis, who plays his older self - and I quite liked the plot twists. A few involve Emily Blunt, playing a woman trying to run a small farm while raising her son.
One thing I quite liked: a plot pot that is mentioned in the early minutes turns out to be absolutely critical, and nothing is made of it for about (I'm guessing) an hour and a half. It also turns the movie on its head, which is impressive, since the audience is already being given food for thought on things like time travel, fate, destiny, paradox, parenting ... and organized crime in the decades to come.
Here's a collector's item I learned about, like the author of the piece: an edition from three decades ago of Robert Crumb's (or, R. Crumb's, if credibility really, really matters to you) sketchbooks from his truckin' prime.
Dot Dot Dot is Morse code for the letter 'S,' the full message Guglielmo Marconi claimed to have received atop Signal Hill in St. John's in 1901. It ushered in the age of telecommunications. My maternal grandfather worked as a telegraph operator for Canadian Marconi on Signal Hill for many years.
As well, I have a habit of overusing the ellipsis when I write ... as frequent readers might notice.