Saturday, April 30, 2005

Sin City

Today I finally got to see Sin City. The Five and Drive in Moberly failed to get the movie and then my trip to Texas prevented me from seeing it in Columbia. At last I was able to make my way to the Hollywood Stadium in Columbia to see the film. I can definitely say it was worth the wait.

For those of you who don't know, Sin City is based on the series of graphic novels of the same name by Frank Miller. Both the graphic novels and the movie are set in the fictional town of Basin City, nicknamed "Sin City" because of its extraordinarily high crime rate. Co-directed by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller, this is absolutely the most loyal comic book adaptation ever made. The movie reproduces the graphic novels practically frame for frame, complete with dialogue and even narration. I daresay that it departs from the three stories it adapts ("The Hard Goodbye," "The Big Fat Kill," and "That Yellow Bastard") hardly at all.

The greatest strength of Sin City lies in its visuals. The movie is shot in black and white with splashes of colour for emphasis (for instance, the red blood that often covers the character Marv). Robert Rodriguez's cinematography is at its best in this film. His editing helps in reproducing the look and feel of the Sin City grahpic novels. This is one comic book film that is loyal not only in spirit to the original, but to the letter of it as well.

The movie is also bolstered by some strong performances. Mickey Rourke was perfectly cast as Marv, a violent ex-con possessed of his own skewed sense of honour. He is entirely convincing in the role, so much so it is hard to believe Miller didn't have him in mind when he originally created the character. Bruce Willis also gives one of his best performances as disgraced ex-cop Hartigan. Even the minor characters are played excellently, an example being Powers Booth as the evil Sentator Roarke.

I do have to offer a word of warning to anyone thinking of seeing this film. It is exceedingly violent. The violence begins in the first few frames and it is practically non-stop for the rest of the movie. If you are the least bit squeamish about violence or outright object to it, I would not recommend seeing this film. I definitely would not recommend letting children see it. Besides the violence it does have some nudity, not to mention that it deals with subjects not suitable for children.

If you don't mind violence and you enjoy a well written, well filmed, and well performed movie, on the other hand, then I would definitely say that Sin City is for you. It is a a must see for Frank Miller fans, as well as anyone who can appreciate a good film with well told stories.

Friday, April 29, 2005

What's in a Name?

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." (William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene II)

It has come to my attention that there has been some confusion about my non de guerre, Mercurie. A blog I ran onto a few weeks ago apparently thought the name was feminine, as the author insisted on referring to me as "she." A lovely, young ladyfriend of mine (the same one who hit a cow) thought it was simply a mispelling of modern English Mercury (she is at least partially right, as I am about to explain). For those of you who are wondering, Mercurie is the Middle English/early modern English version of Mercury. It entered the language via Old French (brought to England by the Normans), which in turn stems from Latin Mercurius. Of course, Mercurius is the Latin name for the Roman god we call Mercury, the Roman god who governs trade, commerce, money making, and mediation, among other things. He was identified with the Greek god Hermes from an early time and is often depicted in the same way: wearing a winged helmet and winged sandals, and bearing a cadeseus (sort of a winged staff).

The god Mercurie (or Mercury, if you prefer) is referenced in a good many Middle English sources, chief among them Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Below are a few quotes mentioning Mercurie:

The children of Mercurie and Venus
Been in hir wirkyng ful contrarius,
Mercurie loveth wysdam and science,
And Venus loveth ryot and dispence.
And for hire diverse disposicioun
Ech falleth in otheres exaltacioun,
And thus, God woot, Mercurie is desolat
In Pisces, wher Venus is exaltat;
And Venus falleth ther Mercurie is reysed.

The children of Mercury and Venus
are contrary in their lives.
Mercury loves wisdom and science,
and Venus loves pleasure and expense.
And for their diverse dispositons
each falls when the other is ascendant,
and God knows, Mercurie is desloate
in Pisces, when Venus is exalted,
and Venus falls when Mercury rises.
(Geoffrey Chaucer, "The Wife of Bath's Prologue," The Canterbury Tales)

Hoold thou thy pees, thou poete Marcian,
That writest us that ilke weddyng murie
Of hire Philologie and hym Mercurie,
And of the songes that the Muses songe!

Hold your peace, you poet Marcian,
who writes of theat merry wedding
of Philology and Mercury,
and of the songs that the Muses sing.
(Geoffrey Chaucer, "The Merchant's Tale," The Canterbury Tales)

Upon a nyght in sleep as he hym leyde,
Hym thoughte how that the wynged god Mercurie
Biforn hym stood, and bad hym to be murie.
His slepy yerde in hond he bar uprighte,
An hat he werede upon hise heris brighte.
Arrayed was this god, as he took keep,
As he was whan that Argus took his sleep;
And seyde hym thus, "To Atthenes shaltou wende,
Ther is thee shapen of thy wo an ende."

Upon a night as in sleep he lay,
he thought how the winged god Mercury
stood before him, and bad him to be merry.
His sleep givng wand in hand he bore upright,
a hat he wore upon his hair bright.
Arayed was this god, as he took keep,
as he was when Argus took his sleep,
and said to him, "To Athens shall you go,
There will become an end to your woe."
(Geoffrey Chaucer, "The Knight's Tale," The Canterbury Tales)

Of course, the spelling of the name as Mercurie lasted into early modern English, so that the name Mercury is spelled Mercurie even in Shakespeare. Again, here are more quotes:

"The words of Mercurie, are harsh after the songs of Apollo...." (William Shakespeare, Love's Labour's Lost Act V, Scene II)

My Father nam'd me Autolicus, who being (as I am) lytter'd under Mercurie, was likewise a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles.... (Wiliam Shakespeare, The Winter's Tale, Act IV, Scene III)

Look here upon this Picture, and on this,
The counterfet presentment of two Brothers:
See what a grace was seated on his Brow,
Hyperions curls, the front of Iove himself,
An eye like Mars, to threaten or command
A Station, like the Herald Mercurie
New lighted on a heaven-kissing hill:
A Combination, and a form indeed,
Where every God did seem to set his Seal,
To give the world assurance of a man.
(Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 4)

You are for dreams and slumbers, brother priest; You fur your gloves with reason. Here are your reasons: You know an enemy intends you harm; You know a sword employ'd is perilous, And reason flies the object of all harm. Who marvels, then, when Helenus beholds A Grecian and his sword, if he do set The very wings of reason to his heels And fly like chidden Mercurie from Jove, Or like a star disorb'd? Nay, if we talk of reason, Let's shut our gates and sleep. Manhood and honour Should have hare hearts, would they but fat their thoughts With this cramm'd reason. Reason and respect Make livers pale and lustihood deject. (William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, Act II, Scene II)

Is leaden servitor to dull delay: Delay leads impotent and snail-pac’d beggary: Then fiery expedition be my wing, Jove's Mercurie, and herald for a king! Go, muster men: my counsel is my shield; We must be brief when traitors brave the field (William Shakespeare, Richard the Third, Act IV, Scene III)

As to why I chose the name Mercurie, that is simple. I have always had an affinity for the god know among the Norse (often erroneously called "the Vikings"--"Viking" is a word for a profession, not an ethnicity....) as Odhinn and among the Anglo-Saxons as Woden, In the interpretation Romana, Woden was identified with Mercurius. Since the name of Mercurius in every moden English language was taken, as well as Latin Mercurius, I settled upon the Middle English version--Mercurie. There are times being a student of the Engilsh language comes in useful! Anyhow, for those who are wondering, that is the explanation behind my nom de plume and the reason why I adopted it.

Some Late Night Music

Okay, here's another song that has been going through my head of late. The Dave Matthews Band aren't The Beatles, and the clip gives out about a quarter of the way through, but it is the only streaming RealAudio clip of the song I could find (besides the Anne Murray version...bleh...):

"You Won't See Me"--The Dave Matthews Band

Thursday, April 28, 2005

The Decline of the Sitcom?

Of late there has been a lot of talk about the death of the sitcom. I personally think that, as Mark Twain once said of himself, the demise of the format is great exaggerated. For better or worse, sitcoms have been around since the 1920s and they will be around well past the 2020s. That having been said, sitcoms have obviously seen better days.

Looking at last week's Nielsen ratings, sitcoms would appear to be in decline. Only Everybody Loves Raymond and Two and a Half Men ranked in top thirty (Everybody Loves Raymond even made the top ten). At least CBS had two sitcoms in the top thirty, ABC and NBC couldn't had none. ABC's highest rated sitcom, According to Jim, came in at #40. At NBC, Joey and Will and Grace came in at #55 and #45 respectively.

I suppose the obvious question to ask is, "Why are sitcoms faring so badly in the ratings?" Well, I think there are two basic reasons. The first is purely my opinion and may be taken with a grain of salt, but, quite frankly, there aren't many good sitcoms on the air these days. With the excpetion of Two and a Half Men, CBS has insisted on filling its schedule with pale imitations of The King of Queens. Still Standing is just The King of Queens with kids. Yes, Dear is just The King of Queens living with their inlaws. Only Three and a Half Men is different, and I don't particularly care for it myself. At NBC things are equally bleak. Until The Office debuted a few weeks ago (not as good as the original Britcom, but very funny nonetheless), NBC hadn't debuted a good sitcom since Scrubs (now about four years old). While Joey and Committed are hardly as bad as some of the sitcoms the network aired in the Nineties (anyone remember Veronica's Closet or The Single Guy?), they hardly match NBC's classics either (Cheers, Seinfeld). ABC may well be in worse shape than NBC. With the possible exception of The George Lopez Show, which is passable, I don't think they have debuted a good sitcom in over a decade. With the airwaves filled with mediocre to bad sitcoms, I rather suspect that viewers have simply opted to watch something else. Indeed, with the exception of Scrubs and The Office, I can't recall the last time I watched a sitcom in primetime (other than on TVLand, of course...).

The second reason that I think sitcoms are now getting low ratings is, quite simply, television runs in cycles. Currently, television seems to be in cycles towards police procedurals and reality shows (although both cycles seem to be slowing down now). With viewers tuning into police procedurals and reality shows, the ratings for sitcoms will naturally suffer. There is then no reason for networks or sitcom producers to be particularly alarmed. Eventually, television will go back into a cycle towards sitcoms. It could be this year, it could be the next, but it will happen eventually. In the early Eighties, many thought the sitcom was dead, then Cheers and The Cosby Show brought attention to the format once more and revived it.

Regardless, I do think it might be a good idea for the networks to concentrate on the development of newer, better, and different sitcoms. While television will eventually go back into a cycle towards sitcoms regardless, it could be rough going for the networks until that time arrives. Traditionally, the networks have depended a good deal on sitcoms for ratings. Indeed, since the Eighties sitcoms have been the source of nearly all of NBC's ratings victories. With Everybody Loves Raymond going off the air this year, CBS could see itself stuck with a batch of mediocre sitcoms that will tank in the ratings next year. As to NBC, they may actually be in a little bit better shape. Their American version of The Office is actually good. If viewers realise how good The Office actually is, it could draw viewers back to NBC. Along with Scrubs and some new sitcoms of similar quality, they could actully rebuild their Tuesday and Thursday night line ups. At any rate, it seems to me that the networks really cannot afford to waste their time on medicore sitcoms. If last week's Nielsen ratings are any indication, viewers simply won't watch them any more. They need something new and different, another All in the Family or Seinfeld, not more clones of The King of Queens.

Some ELO in the Morning

For some reason this has been going through my head the past two days...

"The Fall"--Electric Light Orchestra

I have to apologise for the sound quality. It sounds like they recorded it off vinyl, that good old "pop and hiss..." For those of you who don't know, the song is from the movie Xanadu, for which ELO provided about half the soundtrack. Xanadu is one of Gene Kelly's last movies, and while hardly his worst, it is far from his best....

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Ahoy There, Maties! (Pirate MMORPGs)

I just saw on Yahoo News where Disney has plans to release a MMORPG (Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game) called Pirates of the Caribbean Online, based on the movie Pirates of the Caribbean: the Curse of the Black Pearl. Needless to say, as a fan of both pirate movies and pirate fiction, not to mention a student of the Golden Age of piracy, my interest is piqued.

The game is currently being developed by the Walt Disney Internet Group's VR Studio. It will retain the flavour of the movie, complete with humour and plenty of swashbuckling adventure. Not only will players be able to make their own characters, but they will also be able to form their own pirate crews! As in Pirates of the Caribbean: the Curse of the Black Pearl, players will be able to fight other pirates and the undead (I have a friend who claims Pirates of the Caribbean is "the most historically accurate undead/pirate movie ever made..."). The game will be suitable for anyone 12 and over. They have yet to decide if any of the characters from the movie will appear in the MMORPG. They also have yet to settle on pricing for the game. Right now they are looking at a release date in summer 2006, roughly coinciding with the release of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (the sequel to Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl).

Of course, Disney is not the first company to start development on a pirate game. Flying Lab Software has had Pirates of the Burning Sea in development for years now. The game is set in the 18th century Caribbean. Players will be able to serve in the navy as commander of a ship of the line, get a letter of marque as a privateer, or simply "go on the account" as a pirate. Players can even create their own content, making their own 3-D models and textures and submitting them for approval for inclusion in the game.

Pirates of the Burning Sea sounds very interesting to me. Unforutnately, from reading the system requirements it looks like I would have to get a brand new, top of the line PC just to play it. The games requires very high resolution and either a DSL or cable modem connection. Those of us with standard dial up modems cannot even play the game! Anyhow, Pirates of the Burning Sea is sitll in development and no release date has yet been announced.

Another pirate oriented MMORPG is The World of Pirates, this one from the WOP-DevTeam. It is set in the 17th century Caribbean. The emphasis in this game seems to be on strategy, construction, and trade. The player can operate as a pirate or even the governor of a province. He or she can own cities, engage in diplomacy with other nations, and, of course, experience swashbuckling on the high seas. The World of Pirates seems to take the opposite approach from Pirates of the Burning Sea. The graphics are strictly 2-D. The World of Pirates is currently in beta testing.

I'm not sure that The World of Pirates would interest me that much. It sounds almost like an online cross between two Sid Meier games--Pirates and Civlization. Now I have always enjoyed such strategy games myself (I've spent literally hours playing Civlization), but a strategy game is not exactly what I want out of a MMORPG. As to the graphics, if I am going to play in a MMORPG, they had best be 3-D and as a high a calibre as my PC can handle.

As to whether any of these games will be successful, that is hard to say. With the movie Pirates of the Caribbean: the Curse of the Black Pearl behind it, I am guessing that Pirates of the Caribbean Online will be fairly successful. I imagine that the general public, especially children, might well flock to it. As to whether serious MMORPG players will find it to their liking, that may be a different matter. I have no idea if Pirates of the Burning Sea or The World of Pirates will meet with success. With regards to the former, I am thinking that its system requirements might limit its potential subscriber base. As to the latter, I am not sure that most MMORPG players are going to want a 2-D strategy game. At any rate, I do think that there are enough people interested in pirates that a pirate themed MMORPG could be a hit.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Ratings Systems

I just read on Yahoo News where the wireless industry has begun work on a ratings system for wireless content. This has been precipitated by the emergence of ringtones that are actually song clips (some lyrics not being particularly suitable for minors) and interest on the part of the adult entertainment industry in offering wireless content. The ratings system would essentilaly filter content so that those underage would not be able to access it.

I am not absolutely sure what the first ratings system classifying the content of any given medium was. I am thinking that the first ratings system may have developed with the foundation of British Board of Film Censors (now the British Board of Film Classification or BBFC). The organisation was founded in 1913 as an independent group, free of the government. At that time their ratings system was very simple, consisting of only two ratings: U (Universal, meaning the film was suitable for all audiences) and A (Adult, meaning children must be accompanied by an Adult). The ratings system has undergone many changes throughout the years.

In 1932 they introduced the "H" rating (for Horror, in which no one under 16 could be admitted). In 1951 the "H" rating was replaced by the "X" rating (essentially the same thing at the time). While here in America the "X" rating would become associated with pornography, in Britain at the time it was not unusual for horror movies or action films with significant violence to be rated X. Of course, the Sixties saw more sexual content emerging in films, so that in 1970 the age for attending an X rated film was raised to 18. For those British Invasion fans, you might recall the line from Peter and Gordon's song "Lady Godiva:" "He directs certificate 'X'...," sung of the movie director in the film. Since the Seventies, the British ratings system has changed even more, to where it resembles the American MPAA ratings system to a large degree (complete with a PG rating).

While the British utilised a ratings system, here in the United States, the motion picture industry had depended upon the Production Code of the Motion Picture Association of America since the Thirties to control content in movies. While many, many great films were made under the Production Code, it was so restrictive that many subjects could not be covered in film at all and many situations could not be portrayed realistically. By the Fifties many producers and directors defied the MPAA and simply distributed their films without Production Code approval. The Production Code was then abandoned. Not surprisingly, as the Sixties progressed, films became more explicit in violence, sex, and profanity. Both Bonnie and Clyde and The Dirty Dozen pushed the envelope on screen violence for the time. The "F" word was used in both the screen adaptation of Ulysses and the movie I'll Never Forget What's His Name in 1967. The MPAA then decided to create a ratings system based on the content of any given movie.

The original ratings system instituted in November 1968 consisted of: G (General Audiences, meaning everyone), M (Mature audiences, parents are advised to accompany their children to the movie), R (Restricted, children under 17 must be accompanied by an adult), and X (Children under 17 not admitted). The ratings system initially caused some confusion, as many people thought that the "M" rating indicated content that was more adult even than that of an "R" rating. In 1969, M was then changed to GP (General audiences/Parental guidance suggested). GP would be changed to PG (Parental Guidance suggested) in 1970.

Since then the ratings system has undergone two changes. The first was the creation of "PG-13 (indicating parents should think twice about taking children under the age of 13)" rating. In 1984 two PG-rated films were released that caused controversy among parents of young children as to their content. One was Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which featured a somewhat graphic scene of human sacrifice. The other was Gremlins, which included a scene in which one of the title creatures meets his end in a microwave oven. The MPAA decided it might then be time to create a rating for content suitable for older children, but which might be objectionable for younger kids.

The second change was the replacement of "X" with the "NC-17 (No one under 17 admitted)" rating. The reason for this was that the "X" rating had become associated with pornography, making it impossible for any serious movie with such a rating to have any sort of audience. Exhibitors simply refused to show them. As to why the "X" rating became associated with pornogrpahy, that was because the MPAA did not trademark the rating as they did others. As a result any producer could simply place the "X" rating on his product, which pornographers naturally did. The creation of NC-17 (which is trademarked) gave the MPAA their own "adult" rating, but it still did not entirely solve their problems. While pornographers are not running around rating their own movies NC-17, many exhibitors simply refuse to show movies with the rating. As a result, most producers and directors try to avoid an "NC-17" rating as much as they once would have tried to avoid an "X" rating.

While the idea of a ratings system originated with the movie industry, movies are not the only medium subject to a ratings system. In the mid-Nineties, the American television industry once more found itself under attack for violent content. The relatively adult content of TV series like NYPD Blue (then a brand new show) and the violence of mini-series, such as Murder in the Heartland (a 1993 mini about mass murderer Charley Starkweather), even attracted the attention of lawmakers. There were two end results of this backlash against the TV industry. The first was the creation of the V-chip, a chip installed in television sets that permits parents to screen out objectionable content. The second was the creation of the television ratings system. The TV programme ratings consist of: TV-Y (programmes suitable for all children, even those under 6), TV-Y7 (programmes suitable for children over 7), TV-G (programmes suitable for all audiences, but not specifically made for children), TV-PG (Parental Guidance recommended, the programme may not be suitable for younger children), TV-14 (the programme is unsuitable for children under the age of 14), and TV-M (Mature audienes only, unsuitable for children under 17). In addition to these ratings, there are also content descriptors, indicating possibly objectionable content, such as langauge (L), graphic violence (V), and so on.

While ratings systems originated with the movies, they are not the only media which utilise them. The Entertainment Software Rating Board is a voluntary organisation which enforces ratings on video games. The system uses the ratings EC (Early Childhood), E (Everyone, suitable for everyone over the age of 10), T (Teen, suitable for anyone over the age of 13), M (Mature, suitable for anyone over the age of 17), and AO (Adults Only, the equivalent of an "X" rating--for those 18 and over only). The ESRB also uses a number of content descriptors, indicating everything from alcohol use to violence.

While many media have opted for ratings systems as a means of regulating content, others have sought different means. In 1954, when the comic book industry was under attack for violence and other objetionable content, the Comic Magazine Association of America (CMAA) did not even consider a ratings system (of course, even the American movie ratings did not exist at this time). Instead they created the Comics Code Authority, which determined what content was acceptable in comic books. The problem with the Comics Code was that it was very restrictive, so much so that it reduced most comic books to little more than children's literature (the classic EC horror comics were impossible under the new code). Over the years the Code was revised so that it was not quite so strict, but eventually publishers would seek other ways of dealing with objectioanble content. In the Eighties, DC Comics started labelling certain titles for Mature Audiences Only. In 2001 Marvel Comics went one step further and abandoned the Comics Code Authority entirely. They chose instead to institute their own ratings system.

While ratings systems now exist in many different media, there are some instances where they simply have not taken hold. I remember in the Eighties, when the PMRC (the Parents' Music Resource Centre) created a tempest in a teapot over the lyrics in rock music, there was some talk of a ratings system where music was concerned. In the end, no such ratings system emerged, although the music industry started placing "Parental Advisory" labels on certain titles.

While ratings systems have existed at least since 1913 (with the creation of the British film board) and are utilised by many media, they have always had their share of detractors. Indeed, the MPAA ratings system has been under attack by various individuals and groups for years. Perhaps the most common complaint is that the system seems somewhat arbitrary. In 2001 the produers of the independent film L.I.E. appealed that film's "NC-17" rating, feeling that the MPAA had arbirarily given the movie that rating. In 1999 star and co-producer of the film This is My Father, Aidan Quinn, complained about that film being rated R. The reasons given for the movie being so rated was brief profanity, a sex scene (tame by the standards of some films), and a hanging scene which was no more intense than Judas Iscariot's suicide in Jesus Christ Superstar (in 1973 that film was rated G). In fact, some independent producers have gone so far as to accuse the MPAA of being more lenient on films from the major studios than they are on independent films. In some ways I find it hard to argue against this. While This is My Father was rated R, the Austin Powers movies, Saving Silverman, and Eight Crazy Nights all recieved "PG-13" ratings. It seems to me that either the MPAA does go a bit lighter on films from the big studios or they simply don't find raunchy humour that objectionable.

One complaint about the MPAA's ratings is what is known as "ratings creep"--that is, the idea that what would have once been ratied R is now being rated PG-13. I am not so sure that this is actually happening. I can think of plenty of instances in which a film rated PG-13 years ago contained material that would warrant an "R" rating now. A perfect example of this is the first grown up movie I ever saw, Logan's Run. Released in the mid-Seventies, the film was rated PG, yet it contained both nudity and violence. Another example is National Lampoon's European Vacation. Released in 1985, the film actually featured nudity, yet it was only rated PG-13. Today, with but few exceptions, nudity in a movie warrants an "R" rating. Even if there is no "ratings creep," the fact that what is acceptable in a "PG-13" rating varies from year to year would create a bit of a problem. Consider the dilemma of a parent trying to determine what movies are acceptable for his or her children to watch? It is quite possible that they might let their kids watch National Lampoon's European Vacation, not realising that in 1985 nudity was accetpable in movies rated PG-13.

Yet another complaint levelled at the MPAA ratings system is that it tends to be stricter on langauge and sexual situations and more lenient with regards to violence. Crtic Roger Ebert has argued consistently for the creation of an "A" rating that would restrict teenagers from attending films with high amounts of graphic violence. There have also been questions as to how much profanity, violence, nudity, and so on. in a film warrants a "PG-13" or an "R" rating.

While ratings systems have their drawbacks and will probably always have their detractors, I do think that they are preferable to the alternatives. First, I do not think that there are very many of us who want children to be exposed to material for which they simply are not ready or simply are not psychologically equipped to deal with. For that reason, a laissez-faire approach, in which films, TV shows, video games, et. al. are released with no sort of parental advisory or any means of keeping children from accessing objectionable material is not favourable to me.

Second, if we wish to regulate the content of movies, TV shows, books, and so on, the only other alternative to a ratings system of which I can think would be some sort of code. Knowing my history of pop culture, however, it seems to me that this would not work. I do not think it can be denied that many great films were produced under Hollywood's Production Code from the Thirties into the Fifites, but the fact remains that the Code was so restrictive that many great films made since that time simply could not be released. As mild a film as The Graduate (from all the way back in 1967) might seem to us today, it could not have possibly been released in 1937 under the old Production Code. A more severe example may be the Comics Code instituted by the comic book industry in 1954. For many years thereafter, content in comic books were so restricted that they became little more than children's literature (as many thought them to be anyhow). Ratings systems permit content that may not be suitable for children, while at the same time insuring that, for the most part, such material does not reach children.

I then think it is a good idea for the wireless industry to create a ratings system for regulating content. I will admit that I do not like the idea of adult entertainment being accessible through wireless technology myself, but as a supporter of the First Admendment I cannot see banning it either. Since a "code" for the wireless industry could impede creative expression, it seems to me that a ratings system might be the best route to go.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Geeks Versus Nerds

For much of society, the words geek and nerd are synonymous. It seems to me that this is not the case in geekdom, for lack of a better term, where the two words refer to two similar sorts of people with some fundamental differences. It seems to me that most geeks perceive a difference between geeks and nerds, and I have noticed the words do tend to be used differently. Indeed, I consider myself a geek, but in no way do I conisder myself a nerd.

To get an idea of the differences between geeks and nerds, it might be a good idea to look at the history of the two words. The word geek stems from a Scottish dialectal word, geck, meaning "fool," itself deriving from Middle Low German gek. The word geck appears in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night: "Why have you suffer'd me to be imprison'd. And made the most notorious gecke and gull that ere invention played on?" A variant spelling, closer to modern geek, also appears in the Bard's Cymbeline: "To taint his nobler heart and brain, with needless jealousy, and to become the geeke and scorn o'th' others villiany?"

By the 19th century the word geek was being used in the United States as a word for an offensive or undesirable person. It was not long before it also attained one of its most famous senses, that of a sideshow performer who would commit bizarre acts, such as biting the heads off birds, swallowing live bugs, or pounding nails into their skulls. Geeks were considered the lowest form of life even in carnival sideshow circles, and this was perhaps for good reason. Many geeks were either drunks who would literally do anything for drinking money, while others were simply deranged. Still, there were yet other geeks who were simply skilled performers, although the skills they possessed were outré to say the least. From an undesirable or offensive person or a very specialised (to say the least) sideshow performer, the term geek took on the meaning of someone who is intensely devoted to something outside the mainstream. The keywords here are "intensely devoted" and "outside the mainstream." One can be intensely devoted to the movie Gone With the Wind, but one cannot be a Gone With the Wind geek. The reason is because Gone with the Wind is part of the mainstream. One can have a casual interest in Star Trek, but he or she would not be a Star Trek geek. While Star Trek arguably lies outside the mainstream, it takes extreme devotion rather than casual interest to be a Star Trek geek.

If the modern use of the word geek as someone with an intense devotion to something outside the mainstream stems from its use for a very specialised sideshow performer, I think this might say something about the nature of geekdom. Quite simply, geeks are geeks by choice. Arguably, except for those who were hopelessly deranged, sideshow geeks could have chosen another profession, yet they did not. By the same token, modern geeks do not have to be slavishly devoted to Lord of the Rings or anime or computers, and so on, but they choose to be so. Indeed, they choose to do so even though this may well place them at odds with the rest of society's tastes in books and movies. Quite simply, a geek is a nonconformist with an extreme devotion to something outside the norm.

While the origins of the word geek are more or less well documented, the origins of the word nerd are more obscure. In fact, the word seems to be unknown before 1950. As to how or where the word originated, no one can say for certain. A word nerd appears as the name of a creature in Dr. Seuss's If I Ran the Zoo: "And then, just to show them, I'll sail to Ka-Troo And Bring Back an It-Kutch a Preep and a Proo A Nerkle a Nerd and a Seersucker, too!" In the book, the nerd is a very thin hominid. Given that Dr. Seuss does not tell precisely what a nerd is and the illustration tells us little more than nerds are thin, it seems doubtful to me that the modern slang term derives from If I Ran the Zoo by Dr. Seuss. Yet another etymology maintains that the word nerd could derive from a variation on the last name of ventriloquist Edgar Bergen's dummy Mortimer Snerd. The one problem I can see with this derivation is that the word does not appear before 1950, a time when Mortimer Snerd's fame was not what it once was, making it unlikely that a variation on his last name would enter the language as a slang term.

Regardless, the word nerd may have been an established slang term by the late Fifties. It appears in 1957 in a regular column devoted to teenage slang called "ABC for SQUARES" in the Glasgow Sunday Mail. There it is defined simply as "a square." It could well have been an American slang term, as the word "square" itself was. Of course, a square is someone who is out of touch with the latest trends, someone regarded as coventional, a rigid conformist. If nerd was an established part of American slang by the late Fifties, that might explain why philosopher Timothy Charles Paul Fuller adopted the term to describe a reclusive intellectual with poor social skills in the Sixties. It would appear that this is the meaning that stuck, as by the Seventies nerds were regarded as intelligent individuals who have poor social skills, a meaning it has retained to this day. While geeks are nonconformists who have chosen their lot, nerds are simply socially inept individuals with little choice in the matter but to improve their people skills.

This brings us to what I feel to be the fundamental differences between geeks and nerds. A geek is simply a nonconformist who chooses to be extremely devoted to things that lie outside the mainstream. It is not that a geek lacks social skills or cannot get along with people, it is simply that he or she chooses not to conform to society's expectations. Just as sideshow geeks chose a profession that was outside the mainstream, a geek chooses pursuits that are outside the mainstream. On the other hand, a nerd lacks social skills. He or she simply does not know how to interact with people. In many respects, a nerd is a "square" in that he or she is to a degree out of touch with society. To put it more bluntly, a geek may well have an active social life. He or she may date, go to parties, and do everything that other people do. A nerd might well spend his or her evenings in his parents' basement watching old reruns of Lost in Space. While a nerd may be hopeless devoted to, say, Farscape in the same way that a geek may be, he or she does not have the social skills to have much of a life beyond fandom (often not even that).

In fact, the implication of intense devotion inherent in the word geek seems to be another area in which geeks differ from nerds. I have observed that the word geek is often used where we might expect the words fan or devotee, i.e. Lord of the Rings geek, computer geek, and so on. The word geek appears to me to differ from the words fan and devotee in that it implies a higher form of devotion (one bordering on obsession, perhaps) and, as pointed out above, it implies a devotion to something off the beaten track (Star Wars, heavy metal music, et. al.). As near as I can tell, the word nerd implies no such devotion. It is fully possible for one to be a nerd and not be devoted to anything.

To get a better idea of the differences between geeks and nerds, we might well look at pop culture. To me the perfect example of a geek is Q from the James Bond movies. Q is clearly devoted to the creation of unusual gadgets. He will gladly explain to 007 what each gadget can do and chides him when he doesn't bring those gadgets back intact. Yet, Q gets along quite well with people. In fact, he seems to have a high degree of social skills. The perfect example of a nerd would be the Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons. Overweight, unattractive, and wholly abrasive, the Comic Book Guy simply rubs people the wrong way. In fact, one wonders how he stayed in business all these years, given the fact that he could well drive off all his customers with his personality! While he has a devotion to comic books that a geek might well have, he lacks the social skills that a geek would have as well.

Given that I do have social skills and I do have a life beyond the computer, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, et. al., I believe that I am a geek rather than a nerd. Geekdom is something I have chosen for myself. I can and do interact with "mundanes" and talk about such normal things as sports and the weather, topics which may be out of reach for the typical nerd. Unfortunately, for the most part I am not sure that society at large realise the terms refer to two different types of people. While the average person may look at me and know I am not a nerd, at the same time they probably do not realise I am a geek (thinking the two words synonyms). Whether using the terms correctly matters beyond geekdom, well, that is a topic for another time