Incidental Insights: Why I Hate Happiness


By James

Happiness is the most boring emotion. If you can take nothing else away from this article, know that happiness is boring. Now, I’m not necessarily saying that it’s a bad thing, just boring. My favorite books, movies, and even songs, are all tinged by dark characteristics. For example, my favorite movie, Adaptation, features a heartbreaking killing. The next movie,Being John Malkovich, features the loss of free will, and the slow but eventual onset, as a man spends his days trapped in someone else’s head. In fact, scrolling through my list of my twenty favorite movies, it is almost impossible to find a movie that isn’t in some way depressing. The only comedies on the list are Hot Fuzz, Dr. Strangelove, Death at a Funeral, andLock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. As it turns out, even my taste in comedies is dark. My musical predilections are similarly peppered with grim titles. My favorite album is calledHunger and Thirst, and contains such lighthearted songs as “White Liars”, “The Sickness Unto Death”, and “Happy People”, which oddly enough is not that happy. I would not consider myself a very dark person. Sure, sometimes I brood, and occasionally I stay up at night, convincing myself I am a vampire, but who doesn’t? The problem then resides in the material rather than my tastes.

I don’t search for depressing films. I really don’t. Of the movies that I watch, only around fifteen percent try to evoke sadness. And even if a film contains death, it doesn’t necessarily make me cry out with ecstasy. The book Hidden Empire by Orson Scott Card contains a major character death part of the way through, yet I didn’t find the book particularly entertaining. The movie Sweeny Todd had more blood than Dracula in a room full of polycythemia verics (for the record I had to look that one up).  Therefore, it isn’t the drama created by death itself. The only thing that I can think of that could explain my appetite for sorrow is the fact that sorrow is far more interesting than happiness.

Bear with me for a moment here, because the argument that I’m going to make would sound appropriate for the bassist in a grunge band. Which I definitely am not. One of the deeply imprinted social constructs is the pursuit of happiness. We are driven towards happiness through a biological imperative. Happiness is food, sex, and sleep. It’s only through abstract thought that we can find happiness in looking at art, and listening to music. The happiness that we get from movies are similar abstractions. You are happy because the imaginary woman that you knew for an hour and a half found her imaginary love who she knew for a few days. You are happy that an imaginary character managed to escape from the alien beasts, while learning about the value of friendship. Nothing in this is particularly natural, as a great depth of abstraction is required to identify with a person that you don’t know in a place that might be imagined. However, due to the residual drive towards happiness, abstractions still tend towards happiness, driving people to like happy media rather than sad.

Now for the question: Why is happiness boring? Well, what I said before is something of misdirection. Happiness itself is not boring in its own way. What has gotten boring however is the overuse of happiness in media. The gut reaction of most producers seems to make things happier. Books get adapted with fewer hard choices and more romance. The movie adaptation of Nicholas Sparks’ novel Dear John allowed the two protagonists to be together. The reason was purely economic. Producers didn’t want the movie to tank, and made the calculated risk that a happy ending fixes everything.  The evisceration of the source material is expected, but the overuse leads to an immunity from real danger. Take Transformers. Sure, we were all sad when Optimus Prime died in the third movie. But did you really think for one second that his death and sacrifice would mean anything? The note of finality leads to a level of pride. A permanent sacrifice is noble. A temporary sacrifice is an inconvenience. Comics, of course, are the worst offenders, with a Superman that refuse to die for longer than a few months. But the happiness felt at the return of a character feels cheapened by the knowledge that death is impermanent, as lowering the stakes removes any drama. Nowadays,the easiest way to show that you are counter culture is therefore to make a movie sad. I’m not talking about romantic tragedies, with idealized deaths and an almost Victorian penchant for drama, but the gut wrenching tragedies wrought by the horrible realization that one man’s death may not mean a lot. We need the break from happiness, and from ultimately the repetition of the same emotion: static happiness, because while happiness is all well and good, we need a little sorrow once in a while.


Incidental Insights: Monkeys,Typewriters, and Pokemon


By Allen
It’s easy to define pop culture fans as hard to please, uncooperative, and fickle. It doesn’t take more than a few seconds online to find an article or forum post filled to the brim with outrage over some minor casting change or game DLC plans. However, 2014 has been shaping up to take the Internet’s hive mind mentality and meld it into some of the most unique experiences we’ve seen. Specifically, the TwitchPlaysPokemon stream and Pivot’s new show HitRecord on TV exemplify this new shift towards collaborative content creation.
The existence of TwitchPlaysPokemon is somewhat of an anomaly. As with many viral sensations, it gained popularity through word of mouth and sheer prevalence in colleges and social networks. Essentially, TPP is a 24-hour livestream of an emulated copy of Pokemon Red being played by the Twitch livestreaming service’s chat window. Every input is entered as it arrives, and the company’s new 20+ second delay on chat commands reaching streams has turned this simple social experiment into a beautiful blend of everything the collective Internet can do given the time and resources. The stream itself is not particularly fun to watch, with the chat guiding Red the trainer into incomprehensible circles and basically every wall around. At face value, there is no inherent worth to watching a stream where approximately 60% of people are trying to make progress, and 40% are trying to ruin the game as much as possible. However, the moment I realized that this project was worth watching was when I realized that they were making serious progress. Just like the old saying about monkeys and typewriters, if you throw enough idiots at a simple game like Pokemon, they will eventually bumble their way to success.
Plenty has been written about TwitchPlaysPokemon, with many comparing its “Democracy/Anarchy” voting system to real life political theory. Originally, the game was always played in Anarchy, meaning that every command is accepted by the game. After enough people complained that no progress was being made, Democracy was voted into play. This meant that every ten seconds, the most voted for command is accepted. Although this lead to plenty of progress (and the eventual finishing of the game), many were disheartened by how boring it made the whole experience. In Anarchy mode, Red’s highest level Pokemon, a Charmeleon named “ABBBBBBK” or “Abby” was released into the wild when the chat guided Red to a PC. Memes surfaced around this time, as well as when they chose the dreaded Helix Fossil at Mt. Moon, which was hence referred to as Lord Helix due to their constant futile selecting of it during battles. They (notice I now refer to the chat as a collective “They”) caught Zapdos with a Master Ball in Anarchy, they jumped off of ledges constantly to impede progress, and so many of their greatest achievements occurred in Anarchy mode. This mode to me represented TwitchPlaysPokemon at its most pure; an unfiltered, unmonitored stream of people contributing to a common goal. This could only be achieved in 2014, with Twitch’s prevalence in not only the new generation of consoles, but in PCs everywhere. It may be frustrating to watch sometime, but like the audience in The Truman Show, we just can’t get enough of it.
Similarly, cable television is finally starting to blend in with this collaborative Internet hive mind. Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt and his deceased brother Daniel started the “open source production company” HitRecord back in 2010. The website allows people from all over the world to contribute audio, visuals, art, and all other types of media to collaborative film projects. Those who simply knew the actor for his roles in 500 Days of Summer and Looper were surprised to see that this side project of his had been optioned for a television series. Broadcast on the new independent channel Pivot, the first season was structured very similarly to the science podcast Radiolab. Each episode was centered on a one-word theme, and each of the films presented were created by the HitRecord community, and introduced or performed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and his many friends in the acting business. It was a beautiful season of television to watch grow over time, and the production values of each short film were short of Hollywood professional work. But HitRecord on TV could not exist at a better time than now, when smartphones now allow people to record and edit videos with minimal experience or equipment required. In one particular film for example, in the episode “Re: Money” Levitt and co. reenact a user-submitted story about a relative who tried stealing her family’s fortune, with graphics, music, and script also created by users. By putting this power in the people, beautiful work was created.
Although one is run by basically anyone with a computer and the other by anyone willing to record and submit content, these two new projects represent a huge shift in how we consume and create content online. Had TwitchPlaysPokemon been sponsored or managed by a large corporation, it would never have become the delightful experiment run by thousands that it is today. And if the community of HitRecord weren’t so talented and well-managed, their new show would not exist. I’m not suggesting that putting the power in the hands of the users is how we solve Internet negativity, but it is certainly contributing to a future of togetherness and cohesive vision.

Incidental Insights: Piloting Your Worst Nightmare


By Allen

I’ve been thinking about fear a lot lately. Whether it’s things that scare me personally, or just tropes that apply to all facets of pop culture, horror is an integral aspect of the media we consume. While not a fan of horror games myself (I can’t stomach taking control of someone who is walking into a horror movie situation by my hand), I do like to indulge in a few horror films around Halloween. The origins of this tradition came from a fairly dark place in my life, and I think it’s the same dark place in everyone that explains the popularity of a genre focused on scaring people to their very core.

A few years ago, my grandfather passed away from old age. Although I had only spent a few weeks spending time with him, I felt like I lost a part of my own mother as well. The lessons that he imparted on her trickle down to me even today, and his presence was sorely felt hundreds of miles away from his home in Syria. For a while, I didn’t know how to cope with this loss. I first heard the news on the way to school, my mom barely able to tell me while holding back tears. And I, being the self-centered high school student that I was, couldn’t figure out how to feel. I still remember sitting at my grandparents’s house, telling them both that no, I didn’t want to eat or drink anything.

It was around this time of year when I heard the news, and my first instinct that weekend was to watch a movie. I believe it was Bram Stoker’s Dracula that was free on some digital download service, and I decided that it would do as background noise as I thought about other things. For those who haven’t seen the film, it’s basically a chintzy, very bizarre retelling of the classic vampire story, but with a much greater emphasis on the opulence and sexuality of its titular villain. It’s not an amazing film, but now I associate it with all of the emotions that come with losing a family member. The best horror films are the ones that strike a particular, deeply personal nerve with the viewer, which is why I find it difficult to recommend films of the genre to other people. Scenes, settings, and even specific kills all resonate with people differently, and I think that the best way to dive into the horror genre is to try a little bit of everything. Although it’s not a great film from a critical point of view, the 2009 remake of The Last House on the Left has stuck with me for a while because it dealt with sexual assault and parental nurturing in a really visceral, disturbing way. Replace the girl who is killed in the first act with my sister, and replace the parents with mine, and you basically have a recurring nightmare of mine. The thought that kind people could be brought to the brink of madness by the loss of a child is one of the scariest things I can imagine, and although there are objectively “better” horror films, these two came at just the right time for me to be disturbed by them.

As I said earlier, I have less experience with games in the horror genre. The genre as a whole is too intense for me, and I don’t need that much pressure when sitting back and playing a game. However, I won’t deny that there are some genuinely amazing things being done with the genre in the last few years. Amnesia: The Dark Descent scared me enough to delete it off of my hard drive after 15 minutes of play time, and even Gone Home plays with your expectations of a haunted mansion in some clever ways. However, the most interesting advancement in horror video games to me is the Oculus Rift. The Kickstarter-funded VR headset already has several first person demos available that showcase its ability to trap the player in a constructed universe. I can get through games like Dead Space, where the player has the ability to stop in a safe zone, and fight back with an arsenal of weapons. But as soon as the game occupies my entire point of view, and I can’t look away, that’s the point where I will never be brave enough to play games. It’s so easy to pause and look away, just to catch your breath or get away from whatever monster is chasing the protagonist. Just thinking about it makes me sick. I think this fear of being too engrossed in a scary experience comes from a genuine fear of responsibility in me. It’s easy to say that the characters in a film are dumb and deserve to die, but putting me at the wheel of an avatar’s fate requires a commitment and level of authority that I just don’t have. As I said at the beginning of this article, it’s to each their own when it comes to horror. Play a few games yourself, watch some scary movies with friends, and decide for yourself how invested you’re willing to be when the blood starts spraying, and the other line just won’t pick up the phone.

Incidental Insights: The Benefits of Life

Passionate PitsBy James

As I waited in a line that went down three blocks, I started to dread the main attraction. The first band had already started to play, and even from outside the building, I could tell that it was loud. As we reached the front door, the possibility of escape was cut down by the dread of another long line. I was in for the duration of the concert. The room was already packed, a quarter mile track filled with both fans and apathetic observers. The concert stage was set, and the only thing missing was the band. After a half hour wait, tension was at an all-time low and high. While everyone had gotten sick of the nervous agitation that comes before a performance, the waiting made the concert even more anticipated. Finally, with a muffled explosion of a roar accompanying their entrance, Passion Pit took the stage. And I had no idea who they were.

When I heard that Passion Pit was coming to Case Western, my first reaction was to look up who they were. After listening to their top hits on Spotify, I felt confident that I knew what type of band they were. To me, they represented the “indie” brand of popular radio that seems to be so prevalent. I expected little and, in return, believed there to be little to find. Then the music started to play. The music wasn’t fantastic. It had all been done before, and by better artists. When the music started to play, my opinion had not changed. In fact, I still believe their music is trite and somewhat uninteresting. During the middle of the second or third song, one of my friends was lifted into the crowd for some crowd surfing. Then things started to get crazy. The energy of the crowd just went through the roof. The better part of a thousand kids started to pulse, jumping up and down, waving hands and screaming like lunatics. As I stared at the rolling crowds, I thought about how stupid everyone looked. Then I noticed that I was jumping too.

In some ways, being in a live audience is like joining a mob. Every action is fickle and prone to a sort of adrenaline high. The performance becomes an outlet for energy, a catharsis for all agitation. Halfway into a song that I didn’t know, I caught myself shouting along with lyrics that I couldn’t remember. The energy of the crowd was captivating and raw, an unprocessed emotional force that swept everyone along.

In a way, that is the real power of concerts. The music is immaterial in the face of the fact that the entire audience is united in their love of music and noise, in the primordial sense of unification of a group. It does not matter that the audience is enjoying an event; it is the energy that makes a concert so special. From the obnoxious drunkards to the unlikely revelers, it is hard to find a place that is quite as diverse as a college concert. And so, an hour and a half later, I walked out with my ears ringing, my voice hoarse, and a happy grin on my face.

Incidental Insights: The Practicality of Insanity


By Allen

It’s 10 in the morning, and the sun is now sitting comfortably outside of your bedroom window. You’re hunched over a wooden table, agonizing over a few diagrams in a dusty old textbook. Hours melt away in seconds, and people come in and out of the room like ghosts, only to be greeted and sent away. If this scene sounds familiar, you also have studied for exams before. In all the greatest works of art, there is a mad human being at the center. In any work, creativity stems from obsession, be it with the craft, or a dream, or even just an idea. These seeds are what fuel the creators of our favorite pieces of pop culture, and we the consumer give back to them by also obsessing over these works. No matter how many times I’ve seen Almost Famous, I know that Cameron Crowe has thought about and written about it more. It’s his baby, and works like that show a craft and care that so many people fail to realize is happening in dorm rooms and homes everywhere.

As a premed student, I do a lot of studying. From the very beginning of a semester, I’m already predicting what will be on the first exam. And as soon as that one is over, I’m thinking about the next one. When I leave the lecture hall to discuss that test, it’s hard to take the conversation away from work. Whether it’s the triumphant feeling of success or the agony of failure, it feels too good to share that with others. When we leave those halls and go home to our families, it’s hard to convince them how much this work has consumed us. It becomes a part of your very being, it worms its way into your quotidian thoughts and conversations, and it always feels like you could do better. If I just crammed the night before, I could have gotten #11 for sure. Next time, I say. Next time, I’ll be ready. There’s always a next time.

I’ve started to notice that are quite a few similarities between this aspect of school and the pop culture world. I doubt that Leonardo Da Vinci received drafts of his work back with low grades on them, but he definitely sat in a room alone, gazing at Mona Lisa, looking for some crack in the paint or coloring error in her hair. What we see on the big screen at a movie theater or on our TVs at home isn’t just the results put in front of us to view and control; it’s the combined effort of thousands of hours of thought, trial and error, fear, and acceptance. It’s why I find director’s commentary so fascinating, if only to hear them say how long a single scene took to shoot. Some would argue that it removes some of the inherent magic in film when one knows how it’s made, but, on the contrary, it enhances the feeling of accomplishment and wonder in each frame. When I was younger, the games I played and films I watched were simply what was on the screen and nothing else. Now, when I see something like the intro of God of War III or the car scene in Children of Men, all I can think is “Wow, that must have been expensive.”

In a way, committing yourself to one piece of work is a form of obsession. To envelop yourself in its flaws and rough edges, to work day after day to iron one corner over, just to present it to an audience that you will never meet all of. At face value, it seems pointless. However, some of the greatest achievements in pop culture were products of one passionate person who was willing to see them through to the end. Even when there isn’t something to present in the end, the road there can be paved with hardship, unparalleled creativity, and invaluable experiences for everyone involved. One of the perfect examples of this is 2002’s Lost in La Mancha, which details Terry Gilliam’s attempt to make a film based on Don Quixote. Although it is, at times, incredibly depressing to watch such a clever vision fall apart so quickly, it also shows how devoted Gilliam was to his vision. At the end of the film, with most of his actors either sick or out of commission, he doesn’t throw out the entire idea. Instead, he states with resolution that he WILL make the film someday, and it WILL stay true to his vision. This uncompromising determination is inspiring to a student like me, since it doesn’t always feel like there’s a bottom to this mountain that defines my career of choice. Knowing that someone, against the advice of so many, refuses to quit or change what he started out to do, and what had completely engulfed his life for years, is invigorating. And like the titular monster slayer of Gilliam’s failed project, I will keep my nose to the ground, with the knowledge that I’ll be able to help at least one person at the end of this wonderfully insane road.

Incidental Insights: Nintendo, A Legacy

Nintendo, A LegacyBy James

The death of Hiroshi Yamauchi has been put in the national spotlight recently. Hiroshi Yamauchi was the president of Nintendo for more than 50 years, and in those 50 years, he transformed the company from a playing card manufacturer to one of the biggest video game creators in history. Yamauchi was a gaming giant, and his legacy included Super Mario, The Legend of Zelda, and other classic Nintendo games. The life of Yamauchi is well-documented, and his legacy is well-told through countless stories. I would highly encourage reading this New York Times article: As great as his legacy is, his story has been told by various news outlets. My own commemoration of Hiroshi Yamauchi is therefore going to be one of my personal experiences with the company that he developed, and the legacy that his company left behind.

For me, Nintendo has always been the predominant source of video game activity. I remember the first time that I saw somebody play Donkey Kong on a Game Boy. I was intrigued. How could something so tiny hold so much data? In preschool I became more accustomed to the role of the Game Boy. The very first game that I remember playing was a copy of Pokémon Blue. I accidentally erased a save file, and experienced the bliss of choosing a starter. Though I never got to carry out my game, I still remember the excitement as everyone crowded around a tiny screen to watch a four-year-old inexpertly mash the attack button to see Warturtle use bubble beam.

My next memory of Nintendo happened in 4th grade. We had just had a snow day, and the 6 inches of snow precluded venturing out into the white, wild unknown. School was canceled, and my brother and I had grown tired of playing in the snow. We had just curled up in our blankets, to settle down with a book and some cocoa, and my mom brought down a big box. To this day, I can still remember the moment when she brought out the old SNES, and set us down to play Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt. Later, my mother played Dr. Mario while we watched, and we played Super Contra multiplayer with my father.

My next experience with Nintendo came in 6th grade, when my brother’s godfather bought us each a Nintendo DS. We didn’t have any games, so instead we spent hours marveling over Picto-Chat. That was about the same time when I started to make friends, and started to go over to people’s houses. Super Smash Bros. abounded, and with it the hatred and torment that goes along with playing games with friends.

Every memory I have of Nintendo is incidental to my family and friends. The fondest memories I have of games and Nintendo come from the times that I spent with friends. My DS has gone through hours of battles with my friends in Pokémon Heart Gold.  My Wii was probably used for playing Super Smash Bros. Brawl with my brother in excess of hundreds of hours. I never really loved playing catch with my brother, as I was always too afraid of the ball, and hated baseball. Instead, our interactive medium was through video games. It was always a competition to see who could get a better score in Duck Hunt, or reach a higher level in Super Mario Bros. Nintendo provided a medium where we could interact. The video games were not violent, nor were they dull. Instead, the games were age appropriate. The classics of a different era came to life in the hands of us, the new generation. And yes, the games were hard, but they were always enjoyable. But the best part was the sense of camaraderie and companionship. Some of the best conversations I have had with my brother were conversations that we had while playing video games late into the night. That’s the legacy that Nintendo has with my brother and me.

Hiroshi Yamauchi once said “I have better things to do” when asked if he liked playing video games. To an extent, I agree with him.  Video games can be fun, but they can also be mindless, and they can seem like a waste of time. However, given the right set of people to play with, games can be a relaxing and engaging social activity, more of a bonding experience than a time-killer. Nintendo always brings that spirit of gaming to light, creating family games instead of mature material. And that is why Nintendo can still stand up to heavy hitters like Microsoft and Sony. While the debates run on over the graphics and gameplay of each system, Nintendo continues to put out its phenomenal family games, to let new generations of siblings fight for the controls. Nintendo releases the familiar and the heart-warming, allowing you to relive your childhood, no matter how old you are. And that is why, even as a college student, my Nintendo DS sits in a place of honour on my desk.

Incidental Insights: It’s O.K. To Be Alone Today

Gone Home More Like Gone Boner

By Allen

Here at Pop Modern, we pride ourselves on a holistic knowledge of pop culture of all types. Each of us has his own interests, and one of my favorite things about this little blog we made is how diverse our tastes are. I myself have probably finished the most games of the group, and I tend to lean towards fun, well-crafted action and comedy films when I’m sitting down to watch a movie. However, this massive cache of media that I’ve consumed didn’t come from going to the theater with a bunch of friends. My pop-culture background, which I take a fair amount of pride in, came from “me time.” That period where time is just a number on the clock, my phone is set to Do Not Disturb, and the folks have gone to sleep.

With seven billion people on this planet and counting, I always thought that loneliness was the failed state of a Friday night. As I move head-first into my 20s, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking. What I’ve done with the last two decades, who I’ve met, and how I’ve spent my time. And, realizing that a significant chunk of that time was spent in a darkened room by myself, eyes glued to a screen with headphones on, I’ve begun to wonder if I missed out on a more conventional childhood.

In an effort to make this less of a story about my life, I’ll reference something that’s still fresh in the public mind. I recently played The Fullbright Company’s first-person narrative game Gone Home. Without spoiling much, the story concerns two people falling madly in love as teenagers, and the repercussions of that relationship in their lives. It’s a well-told narrative that doesn’t rely on the tropes and lazy techniques of some modern video games to convey its message. Rather, it presents the player, who controls a young girl returning to her home in Portland after a year abroad, with a house full of mystery. It’s a short affair, but I felt like I got what I needed out of it in its brief completion time. What stuck with me about Gone Home wasn’t the exploration of the home or its 90s pop culture references. Instead, it was the response that I didn’t have, and others did, to the game’s central relationship.

Several reviewers of the game have lauded it as being an accurate representation of being a teenage love. Since the main characters are not even 18, they find this new desire for physical contact with another person both strange and exciting. Reading about the girls dying each other’s hair and feeling the softness between their fingers, or how they write notes to each other during class, it all just felt alien to me. I never had that, and Gone Home let me experience it. Through this three hour game that I played on a laptop, I was able to experience a facsimile of young love.

I’ve been meaning to write an article like this for a long time. I feel like this blog can’t be truly personal without bringing up some deeper internal issues. Loneliness has been on my mind lately as I return to college for the fall semester. I made the choice a long time ago to commute to my college in the city via public transportation for several reasons. For one, I get to see my family every day. Growing up in a Middle Eastern household, I’ve always held family over just about anything. Even when it starts to feel like I’m trapped in a cabin with crazy people, it’s the thought that they’re still going to be there every day, with very little variation to their personalities that keeps me coming back every afternoon. There are plenty of other reasons that I chose to commute to school. But, the main reason, the one that I don’t tell everyone who asks, is that I need a moment of blissful solitude every day.

Over the summer, I did a lot of walking. Three miles, on relatively the same scenic route, every day that I could manage it. In that time, all I did was think and walk. Ponder my mortality, my life, and all the other existential crises that go on in a young man’s head sometimes. But it was at those times, where I questioned what my place was in the universe, that I felt most at peace. Those walks were where I started to see the appeal of meditation and spirituality, and the benefit of exercise. Maybe I’m never going to live with a bunch of friends in an apartment somewhere, and maybe I’m not going to go on a road trip where I discover the meaning of love, but maybe I will. The important thing is that I can sit here, listen to some jazz music, and tell the world about how dull my life is in retrospect and still be happy. At some point, worrying about whether or not you’ll meet the girl of your dreams tomorrow or your untimely demise is a waste of time. I’d much rather spend my brief time in life absorbing the world around me, processing it, and delivering it back for someone to see and, hopefully, get something out of. Being alone lets me do that, even if it is just for an hour or two a day.