Monthly Archives: May 2010

Google Buzz

Google Buzz is a really cool social internet tool that nobody uses.

Buzz was initially launched as Google’s attempt to tap into the social networking phenomenon. They aimed to make a hybrid of Facebook and Twitter, where people could share ideas, photos, links, or whatever. They did a good job of assembling the interface for this.

But Google had launched another initiative previously. It was called Google Wave, and it could do a million things no site could do. It could work as a chat, a blog, a groupblog, an image hosting service, a nanny, and pretty much anything else. At first, Google sent out account invitations for the Wave Beta the way they did with Gmail–slowly, enticingly, so people would want to use the service after they were wowed by being allowed access to it. But as people were granted access they poked around, realized the site was too complex for their puny human brains and then ran away like scared chickens back to sites like Facebook and Twitter.

When Google launched Buzz, they wanted to make sure people used it. Their solution this time was to integrate Buzz directly into users’ Gmail accounts. Each user was automatically linked with every other Gmail account they’d ever sent email to, with full contact information on display. This obviously led to some privacy issues. It also led to most people disabling Buzz as soon as they had the option to do so.

Now Buzz exists in the same limbo that Wave does. It’s an incredible tool for social interaction, but only a few people use it sporadically.

Buzz lets people post links, pictures or text. In this way, it’s much like Twitter, only without the limit of 140 characters. Like Twitter, your posts–or Buzzes–are shared with those who choose to follow you. The main Buzz page shows the Buzzes both you and those you follow have posted. You can click on each user’s name to see only their Buzzes. In this way, it works like a particularly innovative groupblog.

Unfortunately, it can’t do a lot more. You can’t post more than one link at a time. And even with the added bonus of Google Profiles, which every Gmail user has, Buzz doesn’t work well for social networking. It’s just a really useful tool for sharing ideas, links, and pictures. It should be able to do a few other things. Maybe if more people used it, Google would tweak Buzz so that it had more applications.

Buzz is integrated with Gmail. In some ways, having email, an instant messenger service in Gchat, and a Twitter-like service all on the same page is incredibly useful. But, as was evidenced with the initial privacy-based backlash to Buzz, many people want to keep their Tweeting and social networking and groupblogging separate from their instant messaging and email. As it stands right now, there are enough privacy settings in place that people who follow you on Buzz can’t see your Gmail address. Having all these tools on the same page is just convenient.

In some ways, the fact that fewer people use Buzz makes it appealing. When Facebook was first found it, the fact that few people used the site made it more intimate and less evil. Buzz feels the same way right now. The downside is that there are currently too few people using the site to have meaningful conversations.

I am prolific with my use of Google Buzz, perhaps excessively so. I post every link, picture, and stray thought I find interesting, and I add commentary. Few people notice.

But if you want to follow me on Google Buzz, you can find it on my Google profile.



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Sweet Tooth

Sweet Tooth is a comic book, and it ain’t about superheroes.

It’s a comic about a mutant hillbilly child living in a post apocalyptic world. The mutant hillbilly’s name is Gus, and he’s got the ears and antlers of a deer. Gus lives with his pa, who is not a mutant, until his pa catches some kind of plague and dies. Then Gus is discovered by Jepperd, who is also not a mutant. See, in this story most folks got wiped out by the plague, except for these mutant half-animal children who started getting born about seven years ago, or maybe nine.

That don’t matter much. What matters is that this book has few new ideas and the kind of story that doesn’t usually get told in comic books. At the start, Jepperd tells Gus he can take him to a place where there are other mutant hillbilly children, where they’re protected. The two bond along the way. They have adventures. The world is filled with things that are bad and dark. There’s always the question of where they’re going.

Jeff Lumiere writes and draws this comic. His writing is a bit better than his art, which is loose. His lines aren’t perfect; they’re thick and they wander and make mistakes. People’s faces look funny and misshapen. Lumiere’s got a few issues with light. In one part, when Gus and Jepperd sit at a fire and talk, Lumiere drew shadows on both sides of their noses, so they looked like they had mustaches.

But something about how the art ain’t perfect makes sense. It’s wrong in the way Sweet Tooth‘s world is wrong. The mutant hillbilly boy looks sort of warped the way a mutant should. The art shows the world the way Gus would see it.

After all, the whole book comes down to Gus. He’s the guy who tells the story. We watch as he stares wide-eyed and dumbstruck at the terrible world he blunders through. He’s got a sad voice when he narrates. he’s unschooled, but not dumb. Lumiere did a good job imagining Gus, down to the mutant boy’s love of chocolate and the buzzed-out happy look the kid gets whenever he eats the stuff.

During their adventures, Jepperd calls Gus “Sweet Tooth” because of how much he likes chocolate.  Other than that, the title doesn’t have much to do with the story. You have to wonder how long Lumiere will be able to keep his characters talking about sweet tooths.

It’s nice to see a comic book with a new story and real characters. Maybe some of the other folks who make comics will see this book and make up a few of their own.

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Subway’s New Orchard Chicken Salad Sandwich

It’s hard to understand the concept of a limited time sandwich from a sandwich franchise. I imagine there is probably a secret laboratory deep within the labyrinthine basements of the Subway headquarters where mutant culinary scientists sit around a bong and try to conceive of the strangest but most pleasant tastes with the fewest calories and grams of fat. The Subway New Orchard Chicken Salad Sandwich is not the result of their drug-addled endeavors, and its name isn’t their best work either.

The chicken salad sandwich is served much like the tuna salad sandwich in that the chicken salad is globbed onto the bread in tiny spheres with an ice cream scoop. It has a strange taste vaguely akin to unicorn placenta. It has rasins, little globs of chicken by product, and some sauce that one of the deranged Subway scientists invented by accident one time when he tried to cook crystal meth. It is surprisingly delicious.

The other ingredients taste like the vegetables and cheese and bread that they are. The freshness of the vegetables of course varies from Subway franchise to Subway franchise.

The salad is not as hearty as the Oven Roasted Chicken Breast sandwich, or even the Sweet Onion Chicken Teryaki sandwich that nobody puts sweet onion sauce on. It is not very filling. But this sandwich is priced at $5 per foot. No matter which Subway sandwich you get, that’s a good deal for a lunch. Even this absurd idea of a sandwich is no exception.

Like all great fast food franchise novelty foods, the Orchard Chicken Salad Sandwich is worth trying, if only for a taste of the derangement that lurks within the taste buds of those who invent this kind of thing. This one result is particularly enjoyable. But maybe that’s just because the other ingredients are fresh and delicious–usually.

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There is a fast food restaurant off Union Square in New York City where yuppie scum have subverted the concept of the hot dog.

The place is located off 17th street. It’s named Dogmatic, which is a clever name because they sell hot dogs (get it?). What they’ve done to the idea of putting meat on a bun is atrocious.

They sell gourmet sausages. They put it on expensive bread. Yuppies salivate at these two things.

The bread is a baguette. They use the baguette as a hot dog bun.

How do they use a baguette, a rather crusty bread that doesn’t bend laterally as a bun to enclose a piece of meat?

They put the meat inside the baguette.

They literally drill a hole into the baguette and stuff the sausage in the hole coitally.

And then they pour sauce and cheese inside.

The result is something that is wrong in terrible, Freudian ways. The baguette is not tasty as a hot dog bun, and it is not efficient. Juice inevitably ejaculates out of cracks in the baguette, spurting all over your hands and lips.

Dogmatic calls this abomination a “sausage dog,” a name that is somehow both redundant and an oxymoron. It contains ingredients Yuppies love, claims to be healthy and made of animals that weren’t tortured or injected with hormones. It also tastes exactly like Yuppie cock.

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Megabus offers one of the cheapest and most comfortable forms of transportation between major cities in northeast America.

With Megabus, you buy bus tickets online. One-way tickets are generally cheaper than $25. If you book far enough in advance—usually by about a month, and you’ll have to know the exact time you’ll need to travel—your ticket will only cost $1.50. Regardless of where you’re going, that’s not a bad deal. It’s certainly cheaper than driving, flying, or taking Amtrak. And taking a bus is also eco-friendly, if you’re the type of person who cares about the environment.

The buses are comfortable. The seats are roomy enough that people who aren’t fat can stretch out, relax, and possibly nap. The buses are also equipped with wi-fi and power outlets for people who never stop using the internet, and with bathrooms for people who have to poop. Also, most of Megabus’s vehicles are double-decked, which is nifty.

Megabus drivers vary in terms of safety. Some are dedicated professionals. Some weave in and out of traffic at breakneck speeds before (and after) getting pulled over by police in New Jersey.

The most annoying thing about riding Megabus is the instructional video they play at the start of each ride. In this video, an ugly woman with a nasal voice takes a good twenty minutes to explain that passengers shouldn’t jump out of the bus while it’s in motion or wave their fingers in front of the driver’s eyes. The video is annoying, but at least it’s over well before you reach your destination.

There are other bus companies that transport people around the American northeast. Depending on the time of travel and a dozen other variables, they may be cheaper or more expensive than Megabus. They may or may not have drivers who are more psychotic than those who work for Megabus. Some—like the ones you’ll find in various cities’ Chinatown areas—might be infested with head lice. Few can boast the level of comfort and amenities that Megabus offers.

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Incognito: A Superhero Comic Book

Incognito is another comic book about superheroes.

It’s strange how one genre has defined the entire medium of graphic storytelling. Imagine a world all movies were westerns, or if all novels told Harlequin romance stories. In this world, fewer people would go to the cinema or read books—just like how not many people read comics because most of them tell recycled stories about super-empowered beings in spandex punching each other.

But even in overused genres, stories range from good to bad. Incognito is one of the better superhero stories in recent years. Unlike most of those, this book features new and original characters, and a noirish twist on the tired genre. It’s tightly plotted and well drawn; this book is entertaining. Its creators—writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips—are two masters of their craft who work with synergy.

Incognito tells the story of a man named Zack Overkill, which is a clever name as far as names for superhumans go. Zack, along with his twin brother Xander, used to be a super-strong villain. The brothers were part of a mafia where all the members had superpowers. Their job was to punch people. Then the Overkill twins were double-crossed, Xander was killed, and Zack went into witness protection. His testimony put the Black Death—a superpowered version of Tony Soprano—behind bars.

This story is sheer noir. It examines how a former criminal reflects on the days when rules and laws didn’t apply to his life. That the characters have superpowers is just a convention of the comic book medium. But the plot resembles Raymond Chandler’s stories more than Stan Lee’s.

Before and after they did Incognito, Brubaker and Phillips worked on a book called Criminal, which was a noirish book about criminals. Before that, they worked on a book called Sleeper, which was another superhero noir blend. Incognito plays to their paired strengths.

Phillips does a good job of illustrating this book. His inked art is not breathtaking, but he uses shadows and thick black lines to great moody effect. His renderings have a jagged quality. He is an illustrator of grit and darkness, and an effective storyteller. His strength lies in making his characters emote believably.

This book’s biggest flaw is that all the characters other than Zack Overkill are two-dimensional at best. Brubaker places Zack as the narrator of the story. His hatred of his mundane office job and his yearning for violence are well realized. But other characters like his brother’s former love interest, a mad scientist nemesis, and a Zack’s asshole parole officer all parade through the book like the tropes they are. But Brubaker paces the book fast enough that it’s easy not to notice that not all of the characters are fully realized.

Incognito is one of the few recent superhero comics worth reading. It’s entertaining, well-drawn, well-paced, and it makes for an interesting blend of superhero and noir conventions.

At the same time, it’s hard not to wonder what comic books would be like if every story didn’t have to have super-empowered beings punching each other.

To scratch that itch, I’ll have to read Criminal.


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Ex Machina

Ex Machina is a smart political comic book. Because it is a comic book, the main character has superpowers. It is difficult, apparently, to get comic book stories published unless they are about super-empowered beings.

Fortunately, Ex Machina is not about super-heroics. Its main character, Mitchell Hundred, was given superpowers in a mysterious accident three years before the story starts. The accident remains mysterious so that the origins of Hundred’s superpowers can play a role in the intrigue of the book’s plot. After the accident, Hundred has the ability to talk to complex machines and control them with his mind. He dons a cyberpunk costume and becomes a vigilante. Among other things, he stops the second plane from crashing into the second World Trade Center tower on 9/11.

The story starts with Hundred being elected mayor of New York City in 2002, three years before the book was published. In the year before his election, Hundred had realized that–with the exception of 9/11–him fighting crime with a jet pack attached to his back was causing more property damage than good work. He decided to cash in on the celebrity he earned when he saved the day on 9/11 and become an elected official. In this moment of socio-political commentary, overt references are made to Jesse Ventura and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The book is heavy-handed when it comes to political commentary. In the two collections I’ve read so far, The First Hundred Days and Tag, Mayor Hundred tackles controversial public-funded art and gay marriage respectively. Sometimes these political topics feel like writer Brian K. Vaughan is politically lambasting, but he always gives all sides to each topic equal consideration. These plot lines run parallel to other sources of intrigue, like murder and references to the origins of Hundred’s superpowers.

The story does not run linearly. The story of Hundred’s mayorship in 2002 is interspersed with flashbacks to his time as a superhero, his mayoral election, and moments earlier in his life. These flashbacks serve to accentuate the plot and provide insight into the nuances of his character. Vaughan is a good enough writer that he makes this complex story work both as an emotional tale and an intriguing plot.

Tony Harris, who draws the series, has a unique, phot0-referenced style. A feature not unlike a DVD extra at the back of the first collection shows various steps of Harris’s style. Harris photographs moments from Vaughan’s script, with family and friends acting as the different characters. He then uses the photos of actual people gesturing and speaking as references for his inked artwork. The result is that in this book, which has more scenes of people talking about politics than explosions, the characters actually look like they’re acting and emoting. Scenes another artist might have rendered as boring have a sense of human energy. And unlike other comic book artists who use photos for reference as part of their style, Harris imbues a sense of motion and violence in the book’s few action scenes.

Harris’s final images, inked by Tom Feister, feature deceptively simple line work and moody shadows. He is assisted by colorist JD Mettler, who uses different color palettes to represent the book’s different time periods, and to underscore the mood of each scene. The final artwork is not incredible or bombastic, but it suits the tone of the book perfectly.

The concept behind Ex Machina is not particularly original, but the idea of a superhuman in political office is an intriguing one. The writer, penciler, inker, and colorist working on Ex Machina are all masters of their craft, and the result is a well-executed story.

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