Three Rules for Living

My 8-year-old nephew starts the third grade in one week.  As we were out this morning, walking our dog, we discussed his malaise towards returning to school.  And he happened to ask why school had to be so awful.  I countered by saying “Would you like to know the three secrets to school?  The three things that you can do that will virtually guarantee you that you’ll succeed?”
Smiling like I was about to reveal the greatest secret in all of humanity, he nodded and said “Yeah!”
Rule #1 – Read thirty minutes every day
Rule #2 – Do all your homework
Rule #3 – Be friendly to everyone you meet
Needless to say, he was less than impressed.  Which is a shame because, in truth, those three rules do in fact all but guarantee complete success at school, almost regardless of how you define it.

If you consider school nothing but an academic institution where you go to learn, reading thirty minutes a day is a shoe-in for good grades.  Not even good grades; As and Bs mostly, if not As.  The effects of reading daily, especially for thirty minutes (though, ideally, an hour) is as well-documented as it is staggering.  It’s almost unfair how big a difference is made, grade-wise, between kids who read and those who don’t.

If you consider school to be nothing but a proving ground, where you produce the best results to get into a good college, then homework is the key.  In a typical classroom grading distribution, homework produces the best results for effort of any endeavor.  Homework often trumps quizzes and classwork in grade-point-value and can even trump tests in some classes.  And yet homework often requires the least overall time (though not always; we all had THAT teacher).

And if you consider school to be the domain of social acceptance, a place where kids go to socialize and make connections, then what better method is there than being friendly to everyone, but especially to new people as they enter their life?  In truth, just cultivating good manners and the skills of making a good first impression are invaluable in and of themselves.

The Three Rules extend beyond school, and definitely beyond third grade.  In diet and weight-loss, the three rules are:
Rule #1 – Drink enough water (64oz per day minimum)
Rule #2 – Eat enough protein (usually 1 gram per pound of bodyweight)
Rule #3 – Eat enough vegetables (one serving per meal minimum)
Most everything else is window-dressing.  Sure there are other rules that make a difference, but these key three make up the majority of what anyone needs to know or worry about.  Can you break these rules?  Of course you can…at your own risk.  And if you decide these rules are to be discarded, odds are it’s because you already know enough to know rules to replace them.  But a different set of Three Rules is still Three Rules.

Fitness has similar rules, too.
Rule #1 – Focus on one goal at a time
Rule #2 – Don’t exercise for more than 50 minutes at a time
Rule #3 – Don’t use the same program for more than 6 weeks at a time

You find these semi-magical Three Rules everywhere.  Want to know the Three Rules for living longer in the modern world?
Rule #1 – Don’t smoke
Rule #2 – Always wear your seatbelt
Rule #3 – Learn to take a fall

Want to know how to write female-friendly fiction? Consult the Bechdel Test.
Wanna write a punk song? Learn the C, F, and G chords.
These three rules inform a lot of the world.  Look at whatever you’re doing now and consider ‘what are the three REALLY core elements that make this successful?’  Whether it’s computer programming, surgery, or searching for adorable cat pictures online, almost every endeavor comes down to Three Rules.

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Tools of the Imagination — Scooby-Doo! Mystery Inc

Scooby-Doo! Mystery Inc
Produced by Warner Bros, released 2010, available on DVD

Cartoon Royalty reclaims its throne

 
Scooby-Doo is one of the greatest cartoons of all time.

Normally, I might qualify that statement or give some context, but in this case, none is needed.  The Scooby-Doo franchise is one of the oldest and most beloved series of all time and for good reason.  It was innovative, trend-setting, and narratively unique.  It’s one of the only successful stories in all of human history where the principle protagonists are complete, total, unabashed cowards.

The original Scooby-Doo! Where Are You? first aired in 1969 and since then, the franchise has been running pretty much nonstop.  In fact, there have been only a handful of years during the entire 45-year run of the show that new episodes weren’t being made.  More than that, Scooby-Doo spun off a host of knockoffs and imitators.  The show has been praised by the likes of Carl Sagan and the characters of the show have becoming iconic the world over.

During the 1980s and into the 1990s, Scooby-Doo got away from formula, however.  In a dark era known to be inhabited by a midget monster known as Scrappy-Doo, Scooby-Doo moved away from mystery-solving and turned into bizarre and very generic adventuring.  The 2000s saw a return to the classic format of the show, giving rise to the most recent series, Mystery Inc.

Mystery Inc sets the story in Crystal Cove, the purportedly most haunted place on earth.  The Scooby Gang are already established mystery solvers, despite all being in their high school years.  The town itself is replete with colorful characters, including the Gang’s own families, giving each character a very rich and much-welcome back story.  The narrative is likewise evolved, including a love story between Velma and Shaggy as well as romantic troubles between the capable Daphne and the somewhat incompetent Fred.  All of this creates an impressive texture to the story against which is set the mystery of each new episode.

Unlike the previous versions of the show, Mystery Inc is an animated series, with each episode building on the previous.  An entire mythos is developed involving a previous incarnation of the Mystery Inc, with hidden clues being given by a mystery figure named Mr. E (don’t give me that look; it’s a kid’s show!).  This slowly expands the world of the show, culminating into a complex internal history that’s truly impressive.  All of it leads to a series finale that masterfully weaves the outstanding show into the established Scooby-Doo canon.

Story – 4 out of 5
Mystery Inc is truly outstanding.  The internal logic in the show is more solid than many live-action dramas, which is uncharacteristic for any cartoon, but especially a show like Scooby-Doo.  A major outstanding element to the show’s story is the consistent quirkiness of every single character.  No one person stands out as particularly zany or particularly sane.  Everybody in the show is equally colorful and outlandish, making the story rich and vibrant.

The individual mysteries are a little more complex and far-fetched than previous versions of Scooby-Doo, with the explanations of how criminals got away with their crimes being even more outlandish.  But at the same time, each villain is given tremendously colorful motivations that (at least within the dubious logic of the series’ universe) make some sense.

A real treat for cartoon fans is the outstanding way the show works in tiny nods and subtle references to earlier Hanna-Barbera cartoons, including Scooby-Doo but also many other shows.  In just about every shot involving extra characters in the background, Don Knotts or Mama Cass can be seen somewhere.  Likewise are there references to the aforementioned knockoffs of Scooby-Doo and other Hanna-Barbera shows.  The ultimate in fan-service however is the episode ‘Heart of Evil’ which involves an elaborate story of revenge involving the Blue Falcon with Dyno-Mutt as well as Dr Quest and Race Bannon.

Art – 4 out of 5
The art in the show is really good, but not distracting.  The show looks and feels like what it is; a modern update of a 1970s classic.  As such, the show relies on heavy line work and limited details not seen in form or frame.  Each character is recreated very faithfully to the inspiration in the original series, while also helping to remake them with some modern flair.
The one complaint to the show is the way Velma has been recreated.  While Velma looks and dresses much like her previous forms, she’s noticeably more slim.  She doesn’t come across as being a young woman with a larger frame, which some fans may find undermines some of the character’s appeal.  Others, it may not bother.

Animation – 4 out of 5
While the art is unremarkably good, the animation is stellar.  Action sequences are smooth and impressive, the transition from traditional-style art to CG sequences are seamless, and the effects of lighting and shadow are amazing.  The series is beautifully brought to life and stands out as especially vivid, even compared to other modern shows.

Characters – 5 out of 5
Masterful.  This show beautifully recreates, expands, and evolves some of the most memorable characters in modern entertainment.  Not one single character in the show is found to be flat and uninspired.  Every character, from the leads to the bit-parts have all well-established motivations and inclinations.
The true gem, however, is how the five Scooby Gang members have been reworked.  These teens discover they’re larger role in the world of mystery-solving, while at the same time deal with their parents’ expectations, their own romantic relationships, and the uncertainty of the future.
Few shows achieve the richness of character that Mystery Inc accomplishes.

Acting – 5 out of 5
The voice acting is stellar and equally masterful.  The well-skilled cast delivers great performances.  Series veteran (and heir to the throne of King of the Voice Actors) Frank Welker reprises Fred and Scooby, while others from the original series (like Casey Kasem) return for supporting roles.  Likewise does Matthew Lillard, who played Shaggy Rogers in the live-action films (Linda Cardellini also returns, but not as Velma, sadly).  Other greats like Mark Hamill, Jeffrey Combs, Gary Cole, Patrick Warburton, and Maurice LaMarche help round out the cast.

 

Overall – 5 out of 5
What Scooby-Doo is to animation and cartoons, Scooby-Doo! Mystery Inc is to the Scooby-Doo franchise.  This is a beautiful series that was masterfully done from top to bottom.  Fans of cartoons, animation, anime, Scooby-Doo, modern re-imaginings of classic series, or just flat-out good shows should make it a point to watch this show from start to finish.  It’s funny, innovative, at times poignant, and extremely well-done.
Good cartoons and series come and go, but we get truly great cartoons only so often.  This is one of those cartoons.  See this series.

Straight Edge

Despite the inane delays surrounding Rhest for the Wicked, I am moving forward with other writing projects.  My current project (actually, one of several) features detox and rehab as a theme.  I’ve done a lot of research on these things, and have had friends who have gone through it.  But I never have.

I’ve never been a drinker.  Nor a smoker.  Nor have I done any drugs.  I’ve experimented with all three and never found any of them at all appealing.  Not the slightest thing.  I have friends who are huge alcohol aficionados and more than a few proponents of altered states.  But no experience has given me even the slightest interest in repeating those exposures.

I didn’t really even know the term ‘straight edge’ until the professional wrestler CM Punk brought it to the forefront.  Though that element of his character has largely fallen to the wayside, I still hear mention of it from time to time.  Straight Edge is, simply, an abstinence from chemical inhibition.  You don’t drink, smoke, do drugs, take steroids, etc.  But for many people, this seems to have been some kind of conscious choice, especially within the straight edge movement.  For me, it wasn’t a choice.  It’s just who I am by default.

I’ve lost friends to drugs (both overdoses and as victims of the ‘drug lifestyle’).  And while I haven’t lost a friend to alcohol, I’ve had friendships end thanks to alcohol.  And I’ve been ringside to see the effects of alcohol on families.  Those horror stories were never worth the ‘fun times’ such substances seemed to make possible.

The profession of writing has a long history of substance abuse, whether it being Jack Kerouac, Earnest Hemingway, Hunter S. Thompson, or hundreds of others.  And more than a few people assume that being a writer means, as if by default, a certain level of consumption.  But at least in my case, it isn’t so.

I don’t look down on people who consume.  I don’t think that I’m better somehow.  I just don’t understand the appeal.  And as I research rehab and detox, I realize I really don’t want to understand appeal either.

Tools of the Imagination — Veritech Alpha

Veritech Alpha VFA-6Z
by Toynami, released 2003

The Third-Generation Robotech Fighter Makes Good

 

It seems only natural to go from the forgotten Destroids to the unloved Alphas.  Robotech, being the cobbled-together Frankenstein’s monster of an animated series, is most famous for the first portion, known as the First Generation, which was actually a rewritten version of the wildly-popular and successful Macross series from Japan.  However, Robotech had a Second and Third Generation whom have typically not fared as well in the public consciousness.  Nevertheless, the fans are out there and every once in a while, a toy will come along that will make them proud.
The Third Generation of Robotech, based off the Japanese show Genesis Climber Mospeada, had a strong emphasis of evolutionary development.  As such, it only made sense that the Veritech Alpha be seen as the descendant of the Veritech Fighter made famous during the First Generation of the series.  It is a transformable aircraft that is smaller and generally considered more powerful.  The multiple variations are mostly cosmetic and they generally play a support role to the Cyclones; Transformable motorcycles that act as Ironman-esque power armor.

Because the Third Generation has largely been forgotten about by all but the most ardent of fans, it’s pretty rare for there to be toys for the story.  In fact, it fell to Harmony Gold, the holders of the Robotech license, to co-produce the toys.  The result is a set of four action figures that largely came from out of nowhere and disappeared pretty much without a trace, leaving behind only rumors of how awesome they were.
Appearance – 3 out of 5
The VFA-6Z, like all the Alphas in the series, is nicely colored with a decent range of paints used.  While the colors aren’t terribly extravagant, they are very indicative of the mecha from the show and do a good job of looking straight from the cartoon.  Everything is appropriately colored, no matter how small the space or subtle the attention needed.

Construction – 4 out of 5
This is a beautiful toy that is well constructed out of very high quality plastic.  The arms and joints feel very sturdy and the plastic has a good heft to it, making it feel very solid.  The one flaw in the construction is, unfortunately, a notable one.  The interchangeable hands have to be physically forced out of their docks and the pegs that attach them can break all too easily.

Movement – 3 out of 5
This is a straight-up action figure, which for robots, can be somewhat rare.  This figure has significantly more maneuverability than the Excalibur discussed previously.  And while the range of motion for many of the joints are a touch limited (especially the hip joints), overall the toy is still extremely maneuverable.
The one short-coming, though, and what keeps this from having a higher score is the toy’s inability to transform.  As one of the most memorable aspects of the Veritech fighters, not being able to even partially reconfigure (as they have a middle transformation between robot and jet, known as Guardian in Robotech and Gerwalk in the Japanese series) is a really damning strike that keeps its rating from being any higher.

Extras – 3 out of 5
The Alphas each come with a series of interchangeable hands (a trigger hand for the right arm, two fists, and two open hands) and one gunpod with removable ammo magazine.  Unfortunately, there are no light-up elements or firing missiles (which would be appropriate as the Alphas in the show were bristling with missile bays).  What’s unfortunate is the lack of anything to do with the extra hands.  While it makes sense that there’d be nowhere to put them on the mecha, it still means that you’re left with three hands lying around at any given time.  Also, the lack of a left-handed trigger hand means that if you do buy a second toy, you can’t exactly go all John Woo style.  Which, come on, is a real shame.

Packaging – 2 out of 5
The packaging is devoid of anything but the most basic of features.  The back is completely identical between all four toys, and the front only distinguishes between them with the name written on the bottom from of the plastic. Fortunately, the plastic is quite sturdy and the windows on the front and sides give you a good view of the toy and its additional pieces.  Clearly meant for collectors, there is no diorama to play with and no explanation as to the story or the characteristics of the individual mecha whatsoever.
One place where the packaging is noteworthy is the inclusion of credits.  It’s pretty rare to know the names of the design team behind the toy, but the back packaging gives you the names of the Project Director (George Sohn, because directors always come first), the Sculptor (Shin Tanabe, who did a fantastic job), the Mold Tech and Paint Designer (Daisuke Fukuda, who is probably the most unsung hero of this toy), the Package Concept and Designer (Nitai Kearney, who needs to be talked to), and the Quality Control (Scott Tipton, who deserves a raise).  I’m not saying every toy needs to credit every person responsible for the development, but having a few names to thank in our prayers for good toys is a nice addition to the usual packaging fare.

Overall – 3 out of 5
Three out of five seems a little harsh for an otherwise wonderful toy.  After all, the quality of work that went into its construction simply cannot be praised enough.  This is a very well put-together toy that is a lot of fun to play with, but is just this side of conservative.  There are plenty of elements that could have been done to make the toy more memorable and stand out as truly legendary, but at the end of the day, it seems like adding things like transformable features, firing missiles, or opening compartments, would have just subtracted from the quality construction which is, without a doubt, this toy’s biggest selling feature.

Dr Who Cares

Yesterday, it was announced that Peter Capaldi would be the 12th Doctor on the long-running sci-fi series Dr Who.  This was understandably followed by a huge hooplah and lots of speculation about what kind of a Doctor he would make, how the story will change to accommodate this new version of the character, etc.

What few people seem to talk about, however, is that a huge and monumental surprise has been partially ruined.  The extent of the surprise ruined depends on which surprise you’re referring to: who the new Doctor will be, or that there will be a new Doctor?

Now, it’s true that the finale of the current Doctor, Matt Smith, had already been announced, but the speculation as to when and which would be his last show helps to negate much of the tension of each episode.  Knowing for a fact that the show’s frontrunner will not be leaving until a very specific definite time undermines part of the tension.  And while it is usually pretty safe to assume the show’s frontrunner won’t die in a given episode, in a show like Dr Who, a new doctor could conceivably be introduced at any time.  But by knowing the date and time of the current Doctor’s last episode undermines much of that.

But then there’s still a chance of the surprise at finding out who the new Doctor will be.  What if it was Hugh Laurie? Or Idris Elba?  Or Cate Blanchett?  Or somebody anybody had ever heard of?  Or what if it was David Tennant again? (Oh don’t give me that; it’s Dr Who!  If they want to find a way to make it happen, they could make it happen.)

But now we know.  We know precisely who it is.  We know what he looks like, what he sounds like, and can review his entire acting resume to get an idea of what he’ll act like.  So much of the future of the show has already been defined when it should be a time of great uncertainty and excitement.

Not only has the surprise been ruined, but in many ways, the surprise was already partially ruined by being aware of the surprise.  Announcing Matt Smith’s departure was bad enough, but announcing the next Doctor so far in advance (by ‘so far’, I mean at any time before he appears in-role in the show), a great excitement has been lost.