Thursday, September 26, 2013


The other day I overheard a classic example of the humblebrag:

"Oh, I just graduated."
"Cool. Where'd you go?"
(pause) "...Harvard."
"Oh, wow. Is it hard to get in?"
"No, I'm actually surprised I got in. I applied to an Ivy League on a dare, and I chose Harvard because it had the easiest application process."

Now, before you injure yourself rolling your eyes, consider this: I, also, applied to Harvard because my thesis advisor recommended it, and I didn't expect to get in, and certainly not with a full scholarship and stipend.

See what I did there? I just humblebragged LIKE A BOSS. 

Now, the humblebrag is a skill (/annoying habit) honed by the insecure. Humblebraggers are keenly aware of their perceived position relative to all others present, and want to demonstrate said position without seeming like a jerk. I've only recently awakened to my own tendency to humblebrag, so if you have been in my company while I obliviously went off on how not-great-but-really-great I am -- sorry! Growing up is a process, and self-awareness is key.

Speaking of, I've also been more attuned to the fights inside my head. There's a bad person in there who is mostly quiet, but she came out in full force at the gym a couple nights ago. I was doing random exercises because my usual class got cancelled, when in walked this girl. She was skinny and blonde and immediately the voice barked, "What the hell? Why is she wearing makeup and pearl earrings? What is with the bracelet and watch? This is the gym!"

"Shut up," I told the voice inside my head, not like a crazy person at all, "I'm wearing a ring with diamonds, for baby Jesus' sake. I'm in no position to hate on her."

"What. Is. She. Doing," the other voice continued nastily. "She's let her hair down and is retying it into a ponytail! Ugh! Just look at her!"

And I did. She was pumping 8-lb. weights like it ain't no thang. She was rocking the medicine ball sit-ups. And she was minding her own damned business. I willed the voice in my head to shut up, and focused on the tiny little muffin top peeking out sheepishly from my pants. That's why I was in the gym, innit? To be lean! To get fit! To be the best Fragrant Elephant I could be!

"ROAR!!!" I roared at insecurity, and insecurity fled. For the moment.

Fear lies at the heart of insecurity. So whenever I feel bad about something, I ask myself: "What are you afraid of?" Often, the answer is: "Failure." Failure is scary because it can lead to more failure; it can keep you down; and you have to fight like the devil to find the lesson and learn it instead of beating yourself up, or worse, start blaming other people.

I'm still learning the lesson, and fear is everywhere. You see it blustering on your TV, you read it in the news, you smell it every time someone rails against change. But I've come this far, I've earned this much, and I'm going to keep going.

...Did I just humblebrag again? Goddammit.

Monday, September 23, 2013

iOS 7 Review

The iOS7 requires 3.1GB of free space on the phone and takes about 20-30 minutes to download and set up. Once I finished reluctantly deleting photos of my kitty, I beheld the wonders of Apple's shiny new software product:

From left to right: the home screen with redesigned app icons, the swipe-down notification center, and, finally, the crème de la crème of this glorious upgrade: the swipe-up single-push controls. I nearly peed myself with excitement at this latter discovery. This handy new shortcut eliminates the tedious, multi-tap process of going to Settings, then hitting Airplane Mode, or WiFi, or Bluetooth, or Display. Yes, instead of two taps (Settings, then "On" for most of these apps), Apple has changed the way I interact with my device -- now I do one swipe, then one tap! And it's prettier to look at!

Seriously, this OS is sexy. It's fast, functional, and pleasing to the eye. The swipe-up feature lets me easily get to the flashlight (to pinpont my cat's location in the dark so I may capture her before she caterwauls in my ear), the clock (to set my alarm every morning), the calculator (crucial when dining out with a group), and the camera.

Speaking of the camera, it is now tricked out with swipe controls for orientation, and there are filters built in, accessible via the bubbles in the bottom right of the screen. I predict ever more "art" shots on Instagram, which is a thing that exists, or so I have heard.

In short, this is a spiffy upgrade. It's the bee's knees. It's rad, hip, and possibly even righteous. In the parlance of my generation, it's epic. Awesome. Pimp. I like it a lot. While I am not moved to purchase an iPhone 5S or a 5C, I will know that they are beautiful on in the inside, where it matters.

Well done, Apple. (slow clap)

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Movie Review: Rush (2013)

Rush is an excellent story about two men driven (wink wink) to become world champion in their chosen sport: going 170 mph in "little coffins on wheels." The movie chronicles the real-life competition between posh Brit James Hunt, played by part-time Norse god Chris Hemsworth, and brusque Austrian Niki Lauda, played by the Spanish/German Daniel Brühl. Both men do an excellent job and are ably assisted by all the accoutrements of film: cinematography, script, and sound editing. The dialog is particularly biting, with "a-hole" being a favorite adjective of many characters.

The story is intriguing because there's no actual villain, unless you count Hunts' near-suicidal urge to win. Instead, Rush depicts two men with vastly different philosophies in life, which influences their decisions on the race track. Hunt is carefree and reckless, whereas Lauda is precise and disciplined. Hunt is a talented and courageous driver, while Lauda knows how to engineer the car to improve its speed. The one thing the two men have in common is their belief that racing is the one thing they're good at. "If I could do something better than this, I would," Lauda tells his future wife. 

Hunt's references to his wild nature and the danger of racing gets a little pointed at times, but they do serve as fair warning when it happens. Those unfamiliar with the story in real life would be best served not looking into the events before seeing the movie, as director Ron Howard and his two leads do a fantastic job of laying the ground work for the pivotal moment that helps define both men's trajectories (wink wink) in the months ahead. 

Rush uses its two-hour running length wisely. It doesn't speed (wink wink) or coast (wink wink) when unfolding the narrative and it navigates the bends (wink wink) of dramatic tension smoothly. It's a solid film and I recommend watching it. 

This post brought to you by persistent pre-dawn meowing and an equally irrepressible urge to be punny. Argh. 

Friday, September 20, 2013

Book Review: Devil in the White City (2003)

Devil in the White City is a nonfiction work that juxtaposes the massive undertaking of building the 1893 Chicago World's Fair with the quiet murders of "Dr. H.H. Holmes," supposedly the nation's first urban serial killer. Author Erik Larson apparently wanted to contrast Daniel Burnham, the architect behind the fair, with Holmes, real name Herman Mudgett, an opportunistic killer. But the fair has so many moving parts and personalities that it sometimes overwhelms the narrative pillar that Burnham is supposed to be. However, a little time and distance from the novel reveals that the two men represented opposing themes: honor and lawlessness, dignity and hedonism, "good" society and the underground, and so on.
The novel begins with Burnham traveling by sea, hobbled by a painful foot and reminiscing. Then Larson plunges readers right into the thick of it: the humiliation suffered by Americans by the Eiffel Tower unveiled during the 1889 World's Fair in Paris; the clamoring in Chicago to be the next host city; and the tensions with New York. Larson vividly paints a period still marked by stratified social standings, governed by profit and pride, and with no shortage of talented men and women when the government awards Chicago the contract to build the fair. Throughout the book, Burnham is plagued by sicknesses, deaths, fractious relationships, and Chicago's engineering problems, but he sees the fair as his chance to shine, and drives the fair toward completion and eventual success. That latter part was guaranteed by the most profitable innovation created for and unveiled at the fair: the Ferris Wheel. Larson creates suspense in the unveiling of this contraption, always setting up the question--What could top the Eiffel Tower?--and readers unfamiliar with this particular time in history will be flummoxed, I say, flummoxed!

At the same time, a small man arrives in Chicago and proceeds to con his way into ownership of a block-long lot, where he builds a "hotel," ostensibly for the fair. As the World's Fair unfolds noisily in Jackson Park, people stream into the city, enchanted by all the possibilities it offers. Many young women disappear. Larson describes Holmes' activities in less detail than Burnham's, probably because there are fewer reliable primary sources for Holmes' crimes. Still, readers get the picture: the charming man, well-spoken and claiming to be a physician, seduces many women, marries a few of them, and then they disappear. His most notorious crime, investigated while he was in jail for fraud, involved kidnapping three children. Spoiler alert: it does not end well for the kids.

Devil in the White City is a great read, although the florid prose becomes a little too much at times. It's a fascinating look into events that led to the concept of American Exceptionalism. As Larson shows, the US is exceptional, all right -- but not everything is roses and neoclassical architecture. The Chicago police were particularly inept when it came to Holmes. 

This book has a lot going on: architecture, engineering, the tragedies of living in non-modern medicine times, even the Titanic! Recommended! 

Oh, and Happy Friday!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

CVS ExtraCare Rewards Must Die

CVS is a national pharmacy that has a big presence in Boston. It has decent staff, self-checkout kiosks, and a good selection of everyday products ranging from shampoo to cookies.

Alas, it also has a “rewards” program that I suspect is secretly a means to drive customers insane so that we go to the pharmacy and buy concoctions that numb us to the pain and fury.

Now, I define a reward as something nice that I receive because I have been good. Petco, for example, will take five dollars off any purchase after I’ve spent a certain amount at their store. I get the coupon by email, print it out, and present it to the register after I’ve loaded up on kitty snacks. For added convenience, I can just show the cashier the coupon on my phone, and s/he will manually enter the barcode number into the machine. (I meant my convenience, obviously, not the cashier’s.)

By contrast, the ExtraCare program at CVS seems to have been designed by a cohort of the criminally insane. It barely makes sense, and you want to expel it from society at the earliest opportunity.
The entire process begins innocently enough, and then spirals into a maddening redefinition of the meaning of “reward.” First, you shop and then scan your ExtraCare card to get any listed discounts. After you pay, the machine prints out a receipt roughly the same length as an NBA player. The receipt contains the pièce de résistance of CVS’ tireless efforts to assail your sense of all that is right in the world. It makes extravagant promises of “X dollars off for…” and, here, here, is where it all goes down the toilet. For example:

$1 off the next $10 purchase of bar soap! …I don’t buy bar soap.

$2 off any L’Oreal Age-Defying Moisturizer! …I just hit my thirties, but thank you for reminding me about society’s obsession with youth and/or looking young.

$1 off any $5,000 purchase of pain medication! …I presume this is based on that one tiny bottle of Advil I bought one time. 

The worst part is that you need to bring the receipt, with its easily-fading ink, to collect said “rewards,” and you usually only have a week to do so. Sure, I understand that CVS wants repeat customers, but does it really think that promising discounts for stuff I usually don’t get will make me come back and buy them? “Oh boy, a dollar off a razor for butt hairs! Better hustle to the nearest CVS! ...Wait a minute.

Also, why can't they put the rewards on my card? I carry that around everywhere.

In short, as far as incentives go, the ExtraCare Rewards program is a pile of stinky poop trying to look like a cupcake. I shall never touch it. I would say to it, in my Inigo Montoya voice: "You keep using this word, 'rewards.' I do not think it means what you think it means." For shame, CVS. 

This post brought to you by sheer mental exhaustion, as if you couldn't tell.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Game Review: Chrono Cross (PS Vita)

Presenting: Another man-versus-nature game from Japan!
This time with world-hopping and possibly time travel!
What do you mean you've seen this before?
Okay. Okay. I have to say this. I must say it – despite my deep and abiding affection for Chrono Trigger:

Chrono Cross sucks.

The 1999 sequel to the 1995 RPG classic is a mess. It fails at two key elements of any game: story and characters. Let me try to put this into a simple list for you, dear reader:

Plot of Typical 90's RPG:

Bad guy appears
Hero must embark on quest
Hero meets new friends
Hero goes on numerous fetch quests
Hero fights bad guy (may or may not be true villain)
Hero fights true villain (may or may not be unexpected traitor)
World is saved

You see how easy that was? Now, it’s going to get a tad bit more complex:

Plot of Chrono Trigger: A boy and his friends are pulled back—and forward—in time because of an extraterrestrial, time distortion-causing parasite called Lavos, which crashed into the planet millions of years ago and wiped out the dominant humanoid reptile species as well as an ancient magitech kingdom that managed to produce at least four survivors who guide and/or antagonize the playable characters throughout the game. Trust me, it all makes sense in the end.

Plot of Chrono Cross: Boogers. Okay, here goes—Schala, princess of the aforementioned ancient magitech kingdom, used her powers back in Chrono Trigger to teleport the heroes to safety during their initial encounter with Lavos. She and Lavos then fused into the Time Devourer, which went into sleep mode in a pocket dimension beyond space and time. A piece of Lavos stayed behind in the physical dimension and came to be known as the Frozen Flame, even though it looks like an angry mutant lychee. Belthasar, one of the sages of the kingdom who had been hurled into the future in Chrono Trigger, established a research facility to study the Frozen Lychee and find out how to control time so he could save Schala. He reprogrammed one of Chrono Trigger’s characters, Robo, to be the Prometheus Circuit in case anything…untoward…happened. Naturally, the supercomputer of the research facility went batshit crazy when Chrono Cross’ main character, Serge, was bitten by a poisonous panther (???) and cried out for help, and Schala heard him and was all, “This one particular child is very important, so I shall send energy to where he is and wreak havoc on the supercomputer, FATE, thus counterproductively placing his life in danger because now FATE wants him dead for some reason, instead of me!” Herp derp.

Oh, and I forgot to mention that the research facility was actually hurled back 10,000 years in the past when the researchers started their main experiment, which then caused an alternate timeline where the humanoid reptile species evolved rather than humans to throw in its two cents worth: the Terra Tower, which fought with the human scientists and lost, so the humans split it into six “Dragon Gods,” which are the source of the six Elements, but actually there’s a seventh one that is the key to saving Schala…

…I’m sorry, I can’t keep doing this. Let’s just say that it’s plot gumbo: anything and everything went in. There's even an androgynous J-Pop singer!

To balance out the ranting up to this point, let me say that Chrono Cross offers good gameplay and unimpeachable music by the very talented Yasunori Mitsuda. The combat system offers a ton of variety because it revolves around Elements, which are color-coded to match the forces of nature (earth, fire, wind, water, darkness, light). Each character has an innate elemental affinity, and so it pays to either switch out characters for dungeon-like environments, or re-allocate Elements to strong magic users so they cast spells that advantage the party.

Meanwhile, the music is fantastic. There are tons of standout themes, like the gentle “Dream Fragments,” the breezily inviting guitar-and-voice combo of “Radical Dreamers (Unstolen Thoughts),” and the beautiful, soaring “Dragon God” for the penultimate boss fight. Coupled with the scaling on the world map—which makes the characters look tiny relative to their surroundings—the soundtrack provides an epic feel to the game.

And now back to the negative: Chrono Cross has too many characters. With only seven playables, Chrono Trigger was able to focus on their backstories and development, and all of them were good choices for fights. By contrast, Chrono Cross floundered badly in this department by having 40 characters, only a few of whom are plot-important, useful for fighting enemies or bosses, or even interesting. Many character abilities and backgrounds are esoteric and need guides; for example, Sprigg can mimic every monster she’s defeated, but apparently she has to beat it, and she has to do it in her original form. And she’s an old lady armed with a stick! I like me some Iron Grandmas, but that sounds like a lot of work. And how did she get stuck in Crayola world? Nobody knows. 

1:3 usefulness ratio; one character out of three actually good.
It’s also annoying to have to switch out Elements and equipment all the time, because I wanted to give everyone a fair shake when they first joined my team. Fortunately, the useless characters distinguished themselves very quickly so I could cut them out of the roster early on. It was disappointing to have so many lame-ass companions, especially when I was trying to save time itself! At least, I think that's what I was doing in the game.

In conclusion, Chrono Cross’ weaknesses deprive it of the timelessness of its parent.

However, since it came out in 1999, the year before the civilization-ending Day of Lavos in Chrono Trigger, perhaps Chrono Cross’ real purpose was to make gamers reflect about Life itself as we asked ourselves the following questions repeatedly for forty-plus hours:

Why am I here?
Who are these people?
What the hell am I supposed to do now?

Or maybe it sucks.

This post brought to you by Nutella that is two years past its expiration date. Still good.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Show Me the Money

A quick observation from when I was in the job market in late 2011 versus early 2013 – employers seem to be trending toward stating the salary range up front, either in the online description or during the first interview. I knew the dollar amounts for every single position I applied for during my most recent quest for a steady paycheck, which is a nice change of pace from the guessing game of two years ago.

Granted, this approach won’t weed out the truly desperate; when I was first told I was laid off, I recklessly applied for jobs that paid 27% less than my earnings at the time. But I became more selective as I got more into the search, or, more likely, I lucked out with finding better-paying gigs thanks to more targeted keyword searches. Plus I had a local staffing agency sniffing stuff out for me, too! One must cover all the bases.

So: transparency is good! Of course, here in the US it’s still mostly taboo to discuss your wages, in complete and utter contrast to the bald-faced declarations of how many pesos one earns in the Philippines. Asking “Magkano suweldo mo? (How much do you earn?)” is common and accepted, as is proclaiming your monthly remuneration without any prompting whatsoever. I speak from bemused experience.

For that matter, Bangladeshis are very open about how much they make, too, and are completely open to finding out how much bacon you bring home, and by “bacon” I mean “income,” because Bangladesh is a predominantly Muslim nation. Now, in the Philippines, which is as pork-loving as all get out, bacon might mean actual bacon, or crispy pata, or whatever heart attack-inducing piggy dish is the regional preference.

In closing, I would like to share two of my favorite things combined into one page of gloriousness: the wise words of cartoonist Bill Watterson (creator of Calvin and Hobbes) and the thoughtful artistry of Gavin Aung Than (creator of Zen Pencils)-- The message here is that the money doesn’t matter, the title doesn’t matter, and the climb to the top doesn’t matter, no matter what that rat bastard Petyr Baelish says.

Gavin and I both agree that Calvin and Hobbes is the best comic strip EVER, period, full stop, and this is coming from a hardcore Garfield fan.

So preach it, Bill. There comes a point when showing the money, and seeing it, and getting it, loses relevance. On to more important things! I shall report back when I find them, outside of cats and video games, of course.

This has been Fragrant Elephant, reporting live from [REDACTED].