Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Tea Beats Cigarette Butts

Yesterday, for the first time in months, Cockatoo forgot to smoke her daily 3 or 4 discarded cigarette butts, which she usually spends about an hour each evening trolling around her neighborhood for.

You might think it's gross, but there are really very few diseases you can catch from smoking someone else's cigarette after it's been exposed to the elements for several hours. And even if it has only recently been smoked and is still warm and moist, what are the chances that the original smoker had TB or some strain of herpes that Cockatoo doesn't already have? Besides, all the walking makes for a relaxing ritual, it's good for the environment (reduce, reuse, recycle, remember?), and it's very easy on the wallet. It's also a highly effective way to keep the addiction under control; there are never any packs of cigs lying around, calling to you, siren-like.

Anyway, 2 am rolled around and Cockatoo suddenly remembered that she hadn't smoked. And now it was too late to smoke because the nicotine keeps Cockatoo awake at night (technically morning and afternoon.) So what could have made her forget to take her medication? The only thing that keeps at bay the urge to strangle her own pretty birdie neck?

TEA. The magical properties of tea. Specifically, the fact of drinking home-brewed tea compulsively, as in cup after cup after cup after cup after cup. And then maybe one more cup. And another. It seems Cockatoo unwittingly replaced an unhealthy, addiction-based ritual with a healthy, compulsion-based one.

All the tea Cockatoo was drinking yesterday in the hopes of curing her emerging appendicitis (or whatever else may be causing the persistent slight pain in her lower right abdomen that she's forced to treat with alternative remedies because she can't afford to get it checked out by a doctor thanks to the current cost of health insurance, the psychological and physiological ailments impairing her ability to hold a regular job, and her irrepressible desire to have absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the world,) must have somehow knocked out the nicotine cravings.

(Oh, and about the pain, it's been around for months, so, actually, it probably isn't appendicitis. The appendix would have ruptured by now. So it's probably more like a tumor or large ovarian cyst or something. Nothing tea can't handle.)

There is something very relaxing about guiltlessly indulging in a compulsive behavior. Cockatoo says "guiltlessly" because she's quite the ascetic, and normally any kind of indulgence, especially in a somewhat pathetic, unproductive, compulsive type of behavior, will make her feel guilty for not being all she can be. This doesn't actually stop her from indulging, though, since it's hard to be ascetic when you lack will-power, so Cockatoo tends to carry around a very large load of guilt. It's like a caravan of guilt, with every man, woman, child, camel, dog, cat, and large, named rodent (these are pet-loving people) representing a different source of guilt.

Anyway, tea drinking, fortunately, is one of those activities that is totally socially sanctioned and, if anything, improves productivity, by improving over-all health, even when done compulsively. (And I'm using "compulsively" in a loose way here - mostly just because it's a nice, sexy word - meaning that it was an act repetitive to the point of being slightly ridiculous, not that it was something irrational I couldn't help doing. Cockatoo doesn't do irrational.) Because it's totally good for you and totally socially accepted no matter how much you drink, it's one of the rare activities you can go TOTALLY WILD with. You can be that CrAZy tEa DRiNkER you always wanted to be!!! (WOOOOIIIIIEEEEE!!!)

But let's be serious. Tea drinkers are serious people. So let's be serious.

Repetitive behaviors are comforting, that's part of the reason people like rituals, because their repetitive. Repetition means familiarity, the familiar is comfortable. So allowing for a few exceptions, like when the familiar is the beating you're partner gives you every night (someone please help me), that's Cockatoo's theory. And compulsive behaviors are generally highly repetitive behaviors, so it kind of makes sense that they'd be comforting.

I wasn't really into the tea drinking yesterday because it was compulsive, though. No, Cockatoo was drinking all that tea because she liked the idea of mega-dosing on all those wonderful antioxidants. She really does believe it will cure whatever's malfunctioning in her lower-right abdomen. Those chest pains, too. And the tingle in her left foot.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Job title: Linchpin. Job description: Cogging.

Cockatoo, feeling guilty about her slacker ways a few weeks ago, went on a hunt around Craigslist looking for possible employment. (As in "real employment," not the kind of Demand Studios-type joke-work that anyone could get, but no one could actually live off of.) Browsing around under the writing section, I found a post for a part-time book-report writing gig that included a link to a video existing somewhere else, far away in internet space. Following the link, I came to the video, in which a 40-ish, froggish, smooth-talker-type guy described for about 10 minutes what the job entails: reading business books, writing up notes, and coming up with a PowerPoint presentation following the format the guy outlines in the video.

So basically the job consists of following a lot of directions. The funny thing is, the guys says the first book you'd have to write a report about is Seth Godin's latest, Linchpin. This book is all about learning to be indispensable in today's new economy; an economy where even white-collar workers are becoming increasingly replaceable as their jobs become increasingly codified, standardized, and regimented. Godin emphasizes the need to make your own rules, go beyond the system, employ creativity, and bring your humanity to work - this is how you make yourself irreplaceable, a linchpin. And the guy in the video says at one point that this is actually what they're looking for - linchpins. The thing is, how much self-direction, system-abandonment, creativity, and humanity can one pour into a few pages of MSWord notes and a PowerPoint presentation? Especially when you've been told how many slides you have to come up with and what topic each slide has to deal with? Just doesn't seem to leave much room for linchpiny-ness.

Cockatoo knew the job wasn't for her when she was rereading the book and came across the following quote:

"If you want a job where you are treated as indispensable, given massive amounts of responsibility and freedom, expected to expend emotional labor, and rewarded for being a human, not a cog in a machine, then please don't work hard to fit into the square-peg job you found on Craigslist."

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Those Long-Awaited Tips

Okay, for those of you still writing for Demand Studios or just thinking about it, here are those tips I've been carroting for weeks now. (Yes, "carroting": the gerund of "to carrot", meaning "to use an object for the purposes of inducing some short-sighted behavior in an other, while surreptitiously preventing the object from being obtained and deriving personal gain from the other's behavior. From the popular metaphor "carrot on a stick". Cockatoo's New World Dictionary, 7th ed.)

Okay, I don't actually think you're short-sighted. Cockatoo was just trying to be snarky. Sorry.

So Tip #2 (Tip #1 is in a previous post): As I recently learned, beware the plagiarism police. Now notice, I'm not saying "Don't plagiarize." Demand Studios is pretty much stealing from you, so why shouldn't you steal too? Yeah, two wrongs, blah, blah, blah... You need a paycheck, right? Well, Cockatoo is all for you minimizing the amount of time you spend on any particular article and thus increasing your pay rate. And doing this might require you to, discreetly, copy another piece from the internet onto your little Demand Studios work desk, right? Right. Except, the site checks for plagiarism on every piece that gets submitted.

So how do you evade the police?

Thesaurus, thesaurus, thesaurus, rearrange, rearrange, rearrange. Take that clause, move it to the front, change "start" to "commence", "illness" to "ailment", take that bit out there, add a couple words here, et voila! Basically, change the words and move things around. Their program checks for "shared content" which just means it checks to see if a lot of the same words can be found in some other document. So, mainly, avoid using the same words, and you'll be fine. If you still get flagged, though, and you've rearranged things enough, it just might keep the editor that has to look over your stuff from giving you the ax if it looks like you at least tried to hide your lifting.

Tip #3: Write $7.50 pieces. The $3 pieces will probably take you longer than a total of 12 minutes to find, research, and write. However, there are plenty of $7.50 pieces that can be done within half an hour, giving you an hourly rate of $15. Plus, you're getting paid $7.50 for 150 words (if you stick to the minimum, as you should), whereas with the $15 pieces, you have to write at least 400, which is $7.50 per 200 words - less money per word.

Tip #4: Skip anything unnecessary, like adding photos, and make sure to stick to your word count. If you do more than the minimum, not only are you doing unnecessary, unpaid for labor that no one cares about, but you're also running the risk of having to spend even more time on the article, rewriting it to the proper word count. They're nit-picky about having articles of the proper length. (Don't want to end up eating into sacred advertising space with all that pesky content.)

Tip #5: Don't suggest titles. They only pay you $5 for a 400 word piece if it was a title you suggested yourself. You'd have to be able to come up with the title, check that it's available, submit it for approval, find a reference, and write the piece, not to mention possibly do some rewriting, all in 20 minutes if you wanted to make at least $15 bucks an hour. This might be theoretically possible, but for the average person is probably not very feasible.

Tip #6: If you're actually serious about making some money through this aggregator b.s., consider investing in voice-recognition software. A couple of people on the Demand Studios website have mentioned using it and finding their productivity tremendously increased. Just remember for every dollar you make, Demand Studios probably makes about 20. Every article you write is more advertising space for them to sell and a better rating for them in the search engines. In other words, you're probably doing Demand Studios more of a favor than yourself.

Tip #7: Stop being so damn lazy and individualistic and quit Demand Studios. Get yourself a real job, where, yes, you might have to wake up early in the morning and deal with other people, but you also might be appreciated for the unique human being that you are (by these other people), rather than as just a content-regurgitating cog in a machine. Where you might get to do more than just rearrange other people's ideas all day, while passing them off as your own. And where you might get to make more than the $9/hour you're averaging now. Yes, the economy is still sucking, but there has to be something better for you out there. Something where at least you might get a decent reference once you leave or some decent clips that might help you land a better job. You can't get either from Demand Studios - your editors always remain anonymous, and the writing standards are too low to be impressive anywhere else.

Hmmph. Cockatoo promises to start taking her own advice any day now.

Demand Studios Eats a Cockatoo

One of Cockatoo's articles recently got flagged for plagiarism on Demand Studios.

Well...guilty as charged. The entire content was pulled from a single article found on the web, which happened to contain everything I needed (Yay!) to write the grubby $15 piece. Unfortunately, Cockatoo got lazy and didn't reword things diligently enough, apparently. Damn it, could have used those 15 bucks. Oh well.

I guess this is a sign Cockatoo will have to start preparing herself for braving the outside world again, since her prospects for making a buck in total isolation (oh the sweetness...) seem to be dwindling. No, Cockatoo will not become a computer programmer. She dislikes computers only slightly less than she dislikes people. Freelance writing was an idea, but that would probably sooner or later involve talking to people - editors, interview subjects, etc. - so it's not really ideal either. It's probably the lesser of many evils, though. And by "evils" I mean "crappy job possibilities that at least preserve my dignity as an intelligent human being who is capable of at least some small degree of independent thought".

(I think what I would really like to be, actually, is a certified nail technician. Just because I like clipping nails and trimming cuticles, my own and others'.)

There's nothing like a degree in philosophy for not only making you less marketable, but also making you less desiring of being marketable. Or maybe these are just the conditions that make you want to get a degree in philosophy in the first place. In any case, not at all a recipe for success. Then again, who needs success when you have philosophy?

No, I didn't forget about the tips. They're up next. Go grab a snack.

Cockatoooooo(smoker's cough, cough, COUGH, phlegm, spit, ahhhh...)

Sunday, March 7, 2010

On Scamming Demand Studios : Tip 1

Okay, okay, so, finally, here're (yes, I meant it that way) the tips on how to scam Demand Studios back. Okay, actually, (don't hate me) Demand Studios is a machine unconquerable by any measly human being, and there isn't really any way for you, for me, or anyone else - working alone that is - to scam them. Really, these are just tips on how to avoid getting scammed by them. These tips will help you to make at least $15 per hour, which, although a modest rate, I'm sure is not what Demand Studios wants to be paying each of their writers.

Tiparoo #1:

Whatever you do, stay away from the revenue share articles. This is probably the scammiest aspect of Demand Studios. Here's what they say about it: "There is no guarantee that a revenue share article will earn more than the flat fee payment would. However, we specifically choose the assignments that we believe will generate the most revenue"(FAQ, Demand Studios, 3/7/10.) Apparently, they would like to share this additional revenue with you, and so, for a "revenue share" article, they withhold the typical flat rate paid for the article. Instead, they only pay you depending on how much your article actually earns.

The problem is they nowhere explain just how your payment is calculated, or, in other words, what percentage of the total revenue brought in by the article you would actually get paid. They seem to try to distract the writer by giving them a list of other things that determine her earnings: "article views, the category your article is in, the website or websites your article appears on and more" (FAQ, Demand Studios, 3/7/10.) I guess the "and more" is a way of leaving out the most important bit of information - the percentage of revenue you'll earn - without technically lying.

So for all the writer knows, if that article makes $100 that first month, she might see $75 (I doubt they'd pay more than 75% of revenue. Hubpages, another aggregator, pays 60%, according to Writer's Digest [November/December 2009].)

Or she might see $2. But who knows? Demand Studios never mentions that little percentage. And why would they? Why, when they can just let the writer unconsciously assume they're getting 100% of the revenue? Why encourage writers to think about the large chunk of money Demand Studios is pocketing? Or how that chunk can be made larger at any time - because if they don't tell you the percentage, they're not going to tell you when they decide to change it, either... Why, when they can just conveniently forget to mention it at all?

And then there's the question of whether it's even true that these "revenue share" articles are the cash-cows of the site? I mean, is there any way to verify this? It's not like Demand Studios is going to start publicizing the algorithms they use to figure this out any time soon.

Given their lack of transparency, it may well be that the truth is the opposite of what they claim: revenue share article titles they make available to writers are actually the ones least likely to bring in significant revenue, and therefore the ones Demand Studios would be most interested in paying less than the standard rate for. Which they could easily get away with by saying "Oh, it'll make plenty of money, just give it time, give it time..." And paying the person keeping the secret a whole lot of money.

Why is it that in the forums, the only person who talks about having a consistently good experience with the revenue share articles is someone with a real position at Demand Studios, the "community moderator," who I'm sure would lose his job as soon as he stopped making Demand Studios look good? Most people probably wouldn't even stick around long enough, working for Demand Studios, to see whether they eventually made anything significant off of their revenue share articles.

Which actually means that even if Demand Studios were telling the truth, they'd still be bordering on scam. "Entice writers into doing articles with pseudo-promises of big earnings. By the time those earnings start to come in, the writer will be gone, and we'll be left with the cash..."

Okay, I guess Cockatoo might be sounding a little paranoid. Time to chill. More tips to come...


Friday, March 5, 2010

Evil Eye on Demand Studios

So to finish off that rant against content aggregators... (And please do visit one of the many sites furnished with inane content by the bleeding fingers of desperate writers like Cockatoo: eHow, Answerbag, Life123, Livestrong, Gardenguides, just to name a few. Cockatoo promises you will not be not disappointed.)

Continuing from last week, here's Catch #2: The miserable pay rates.

True, Demand Studios, unlike other content aggregators, does redeem itself a little just by the fact that it offers them at all - most aggregators only offer pay-per-click compensation where, in order to get paid, people not only have to read your article, but also click on some of the beautiful advertising that decorates every inch of its perimeter. And, actually, I guess because it wasn't finding its flat-fee-payment scamming methods lucrative enough, Demand Studios also offers this kind of maybe/maybe-not compensation.

(You'll have to excuse the change to first-person - Cockatoo gets tired of saying "Cockatoo.")

They call it "revenue sharing". Yes, from the side of the naive writer, that's a way to put it. From the side of Demand Studios, though, it would have to be "revenue-stealing." That is, if they were honest, which of course they're not. On their website today, I read that the average writer supposedly makes $20 an hour.

HAAAA!!! HAAAAAAAAAA!!!! (You should imagine Cockatoo's eyes bulging while she yells this maniacally a la Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire.)

Here are the reasons for the HAAAAA's:

1. As mentioned in the previous post, you have to waste a lot of time sifting through either stupid, undo-able, or mis-categorized titles before you can find one to write on.

2. You have to waste a lot of time researching and learning about topics because their selection of articles doesn't allow you to write about anything that you might actually know something about. Not only that, they require you to cite at least one reference for every article, presumably to lend their content an air of legitimacy and reliability. And pretty much all factual claims have to be backed by references. My first article, "Fashion Hairstyles for Men" had to be backed by references. Yes, the references can be crap. You can cite almost anything, so long as it's not Wikipedia, or one of the many sites that get their content from Demand Studios like eHow and Answerbag. It doesn't seem to matter. I guess they've figured out that most people won't actually click on the references to verify their quality, so as long as they just have something to stick there at the bottom of the article they're fine. Still, needing to find even bogus references means research is inescapable, no matter how idiotic the topic or how familiar you are with it. And that means more time wasted.

3. Now they actually require you to find a photo in their database to put at the top of certain articles. Oh. My. God. (Eye's bulge.) If you don't find one, you have to give a reason why you didn't. So there goes more time wasted not only putting together, but also making pretty, a stupid article that very few people are actually going to take seriously.

4. Finally - the ridiculous rewrites and rejections that eat up even more of your time. I had an article rejected because I didn't define "market capitalization." Today, on the Demand Studios site I read a writer complaining that she had an article rejected because she forgot to add "as of 2010" after some salary info she cited - even though the editor knew that this was precisely what was omitted and could have simply thrown in the 3 words herself. It makes sense that this is what writers would experience, though, since copy editors at Demand Studios are payed a flat-rate per article edited, something like $3.50. So editors are motivated to get through as many articles as quickly as possible. A lot of the time it's probably faster to send a rewrite request or reject an article than to give the writer a break and do the work of fixing it.

Sifting, researching, learning, prettifying, writing, rewriting, at a rate of $15 for a 400-500 word article, $7.50 for one of 150-200. To make those $20 bucks an hour, you'd have to write about 450 words; go through this entire process, from sifting to rewriting, in less than an hour. Yeah. Okay. From my experience, on a good day, the pay rate is something like $10 an hour. On a bad day, when it takes me forever to find a write-able title, to comprehend the topic, to cite everything, to write to the precise word-count, and then, on top of it all, I get a rewrite request, the rate can plummet down to about $3 an hour. Your probably wondering why I'm still doing it.

Because Cockatoo is Cuckoo. She suffers from severe social anxiety and finds it nearly impossible to hold down a job for more than 6 months. (Really, this is just code for "she hates people and waking up early.") Writing for Demand Studios allows her to earn money without having to deal with people or a lot of the discomforts of being a wage-slave. She's sure she'll find a better deal eventually.

Anyway, I wonder how they even came up with this figure, given that writers are not paid by the hour and never have to give any information about how long it takes them to write their articles. Well, I guess it's never really hard to come up with a figure when all you have to do is pull one out of your ass that sounds good.

I said last time I'd give some tips on how to scam Demand Studios back. There comin'. Next time. I'm not done with these content aggregators yet - there are still plenty more to rag on.

For now, Cockadoodle.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Content Aggregator: A Writer's Sweatshop

Hubpages, Life123, Helium, Demand Studios, Examiner.com, Associated Content. What do these names have in common? Answer: They're all online content aggregators. They make big bucks off the advertising that clutter their pages, but pay pennies, if anything, to the writers who provide them with those very pages. And all the while, they pretend to be doing writers a favor, marketing themselves as creating a "community" and a "publishing platform" for writers.

At Demand Studios, where Cockatoo is having a stint even though she realizes what a scam it is, as a writer you have it comparably good. Here you get paid a flat rate per article, as long as it's an article corresponding to one of their pre-approved titles and it sticks close to their strict formatting. (The format varies depending on the type of article required for a particular title.) The pay-rate, given the required word-count, seems decent at first. Then after a couple of articles you start to get a sense of it: the catch.

Or two. No, maybe more like five. Well, maybe 2 with 3 sub-catches.

Catch 1. Unless you're a car mechanic or in the construction trade, chances are you're gonna know zip about the topics of the available titles. Demand Studios markets itself to writers as a place where the writer will be able to write about "their passions." Yeah, except about 60% of the articles available for writing are about cars or auto repair. Of the 30 results on the first page of the travel section, about 25 of the titles were actually about cars and had absolutely nothing to do with travel. Evidently, Demand Studios lets a computer algorithm rather than a human being categorize its titles because it seems every available title related to the Dodge Caravan was put under the travel section.

And just a note: this kind of mis-categorization of titles, including those not auto-related, could be found in all categories. Found under "Fashion": How to get a used-car wholesaler's license in Texas. Under "History": Flank pain and ovarian cysts. Under "Mental Health": Information on Federal Stimulus Checks. Under "Animals": Why does unwanted music play on my computer? This rampant mis-categorization means a lot of the writer's time is wasted combing through irrelevant titles while searching for writable articles - sub-catch #1.

Another maybe 20% of the available articles have to do with building construction and home improvement. The next 10% include titles for articles that, theoretically, could be written about health, business, law, and electronics, maybe a couple of other subjects. The thing is, these, along with the building construction and home improvement articles, would require the expertise of someone who would probably have much better things to do than to write for demand studios. That, or the expertise of someone who doesn't mind doing time-consuming research that cuts their hourly pay rate close to nil - sub-catch #2.

The remaining 10%? Well, Cockatoo would say 5% are questions (each title/topic is given in the form of a question) that are incompatible to their format and, consequently, impossible to write an article for. Example: Under "Careers and Job Advancement": When do I use resistors? This article was supposed to be written in the "Decision" format, meaning it should be 150-200 words, and have an "On the one hand..." section, an "On the other hand section..." and then, finally, a "Bottom-line" section. Um, a resistor is an electronic component that resists the flow of electricity (thanks, Wikipedia). So it seems the only accurate way to answer the question is to say, "Uh, when you need them?" which doesn't exactly fit the format. Or fulfill the word requirement.

And finally the last 5%: the questions that are simply too stupid to answer. Here's a partial list. Keep in mind they're all supposed to be answered in 200 words or less:

"How to get a concealable camera on a Mobster" - under "Criminal Law"

"What car do women like men driving?" - "Personal Fitness"

"Large Head Size and Seizures" - "Fashion"

"Why is the dog walking in circles after a head trauma?" - "Dogs"

"What do you use your Conair bathtub bubbler for?" - "Literature"

"How does David Copperfield perform his illusions?" - "Dogs"

"Why do I smell gas fumes coming from my car?" - "Dogs"

"Which is better: Sauna or Steam?" - "Literature"

"Ear Creases and Heart Disease" - "Fashion"

"Does Jorge Cruise work?" - "Dieting and Nutrition"

"Collective Depression" - "Antiques and Collectibles"

Unanswerable questions and too-stupid topics = more (unpaid) time wasted combing through useless titles = sub-catch #3.

Ok, "to be continued" - Cockatoo's pooped.

Tune in next time for Catch #2, a tip on how to scam Demand Studios back, and more on how content aggregators suck the blood of writers.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Medieval Combat and the Delight It Inspires: An Analysis and Conclusions

(If you haven't already, you should read the previous post. Otherwise, this one will only make 67.2% sense. Also, the previous one is much funnier and will put you in a better mood to tolerate the slightly boring nature of this one. However, if the previous post doesn't sufficiently immunize you against the tedium of the following analysis, and as you're reading you start to feel like a blood vessel in your brain is about to pop, skip to the Conclusion section. )


To start, some preliminary things can be said of medieval combat as encountered by Cockatoo last week in the park:

Most obviously,

1. It involved a great deal of human-on-human physical attacking. (Cockatoo hesitates to use the word "violence" since it usually implies malicious intent, which didn't seem to be present in any serious way.)
2. It was a game of some kind.
3. It was happening in real-time in an open, public space.

The fact that it looked like a lot of people attacking each other, something Cockatoo and probably most people normally see only in the media (TV, internet, cinema, theater), made her think of the fake violence one normally sees in the media.

The fact that it was a game - or rather a "sports game," since, according to the Belegarth Medieval Combat Society, it is a sport - involving people attacking each other, brought to mind a lot of contemporary sports games for Cockatoo: American football, Australian football, rugby, boxing, martial arts, wrestling, fencing, paintball, laser tag, etc.

The fact that it was people attacking each other in real time in an open, public space reminded Cockatoo of that time she saw her father chasing a tenant down the street with a machete (non-foam). In other words, it reminded Cockatoo of the fact that plenty of people are witness to real violence in everyday, real life.

Now, generally, sports games share certain characteristics:
* participants must follow strict rules or be disqualified
* the activity takes place under the supervision of some authority (referee)
* the game is exclusive, meaning spectators cannot freely join in the game
* the game is physically contained - as in physically isolated from spectators (usually by a fence, platform, or ring, or by specially designating the activity-space as off-limits to non-participants)
* participants have developed special skills in order to compete effectively in the game
* participants wear uniforms that diminish uniqueness of appearance (among participants)
* the goal of each participant is only to win, not to kill, either in pretense or reality
* pretense or fantasy are not officially recognized aspects of the game

Most scenes of violence depicted in the media (violence in movies and on TV, not on the news) also (generally) share certain characteristics:
* like sports games, they are also exclusive, since spectators cannot join in
* also like sports games, they are contained, or isolated in space (and usually time as well), from the spectator, since the scenes are "mediated" by the media
* the goal of the participants in the violence is to kill the other participants
* the violence does not look natural, like something one might encounter in everyday life, but like something extensively staged, choreographed, and rehearsed (okay, excepting Saving Private Ryan)
* the violence is known by the spectator to be all pretense

And scenes of real, everyday violence tend to have certain things in common, too:
* they are non-exclusive - you can join in if you want to, though Cockatoo recommends that you don't
* they are un-contained - you can move freely in and out of the space in which it is taking place
* the goal of the participants may or may not be to kill the other participant(s)
* the violence looks natural i.e. not highly skilled, staged, choreographed, or rehearsed
* the scenes are real, not pretend, but the reasons the participants have for engaging in the violence may be imaginary

Now, going back to thinking about medieval combat, we can look for what characteristics it shares with these different types of human-on-human attacking.

Like a typical sports-game,
* participants must follow strict rules or be disqualified
* the activity takes place under the supervision of some authority (referee)

Like violence in the media,
* the goal of the participants is to kill the other participants (though only in pretense)
* the violence does not look natural, like something one might encounter in everyday life (because people don't normally use foam weapons to attack each other in real life)
* the scenes are all pretense (in the sense that the participants don't really want to hurt each other)

And like real-life violence,
* the game is non-exclusive - you can join in if you want to
* it is un-contained - you can move freely in and out of the space in which it is taking place
* the violence does looks natural (in so far as no one seemed to be very skilled or practiced at what they were doing)
* the scenes are all real (in the sense that people really are wacking each other, not just pretending to)


Now Cockatoo sees what was so delightful about what was happening in the park that day: Medieval combat is a game full of contradictions. It's controlled, since there are rules and a referee, and at the same time, it's uncontrolled, since people can move in and out of the game and its space at will. Participants are supposed to pretend to kill each other, while in actuality being careful not to injure anyone. The attacks are fanciful - based on the use of obsolete, foam weapons and the traditions of a past era. But the perpetrators of these attacks are ordinary human beings, adults no less - who trip over themselves and widely miss their targets. And the whole thing is a fantasy, yet really happening right there in front of you, even beckoning you to join in.

Therein lies the delightful incongruity, Cockatoo thinks. Not in the individual contradictions, but just in the fact that it is full of contradictions ... and yet it is a game for adults, to be played in public (occasionally with foam rocks). That is not the typical nature of adult games.

Let's think of some games adults play: there's board games, sex games, sports-games, video games, drinking games, mind games, card games, gambling games, dominoes, other games based on peculiar 3D objects, word games, number games, etc. etc. etc.

These games are supposed to be fun, yes, but just as importantly, they're supposed to be controlled, predictable, and based in reality - and consistently so (see footnote). Mind games are the only exception; in Cockatoo's experience, mind games do not have to be based in reality, and in fact, are more fun when they're not. It may seem like sex games and gambling games should also be exceptions, since they involve a little more risk and fantasy. However, when you really think about it, the outcomes of these games are also pretty predictable - less money in your pocket, and fewer sexual fantasies to pass the time with. (Fantasies lose their allure once they're realized, sometimes while they're still in the process of being realized. Just a warning.) Moreover, when an adult game is fantasy-based like many sex games are (Cockatoo is assuming; she doesn't have much experience with the matter), the game takes place under even more strictly predictable and controlled conditions, one of the conditions usually being that it must be played far from the public eye.

So Medieval Combat isn't your typical adult game, and it's definitely not something Cockatoo expected to see a bunch of people engaging in while walking in the park that day. Not only does its essential inconsistency cause a sort of screeching-to-a-stop reaction when you see it (FUN!), the fact that it kind of resembles your everyday bar-room brawl creates that precarious excitement you feel when you're standing really close to someone who's in the process of getting their head bashed in. (SUPER-FUN!!!)

Cockatoo believes that as soon as people get over their dislike of wearing bad costumes in public and showing off their lack of eye-hand coordination, Medieval Combat will become the next big thing.

Cockatoo is presently polishing her foam shield. She will be ready.

Footnote: True, Cockatoo has not performed a detailed analysis of these different types of adult games, so she can't really prove that this what adult games are actually like. Such an analysis would require about 8 more tedious, list-filled posts. Not fun. And if her analysis only proved her to be wrong - an undeniable possibility - it would mean having to throw out her entire theory as to why medieval combat is so much fun to watch, as well as rewriting this entire blog post. Not to mention having to come up with a different theory (because this is a question that must, and will, be answered). And that would require a complete reorientation of her general world-view. Cockatoo isn't up for that today, so she's just going to assume that her claim about adult games, as well as her theory about the delightfulness of medieval combat, is true.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

On Smacking a Total Stranger With a Foam Sword

Cockatoo was walking through Balboa Park the other day - the green heart of downtown San Diego - enjoying the cool air, the warm sunlight, the carefree people, and all those other things Cockatoos enjoy during walks in the park, when off in the distance what did she see? A group of young adults, about 20 of them, holding odd-shaped swords and shields, pairing off, and attacking each other.

Cockatoo immediately started laughing, a sort of confused, nervous, super-excited, giddy laugh as she skipped her way a little closer to the action, totally delighted, though not quite sure why.

Was there something inherently funny and exciting about adult role playing games, which is what seemed to be going on? Not really. That sort of thing usually seemed either sleazy or boring. Was it the funny costumes? Eh, mostly the costumes just looked shoddy. Was it the clumsiness with which the clunky swords and shields (one guy even had a foam ax) were wielded? Not really. Cockatoo knows she couldn't do much better.

After a bit of introspection, Cockatoo began to think the nervous laughter arose because of the incongruousness and subtle precariousness of the situation (a precariousness that was illusory, she later learned). On a beautiful San Diego day, in the middle of a beautiful, peaceful park, while people in less peaceful parts of the world (Yemen, perhaps?) were actually dying - painful, bloody, needless deaths - here, in the meanwhile, were people pretending to kill each other. For the fun of it. With foam swords.

Not for the sport, the exercise, the challenge, the sense of getting in touch with a part of history. Sure, these might have been secondary reasons, but what was the primary reason? What would have been the first thing out of any of the participant's mouths if they'd been asked "Why are you doing this?" Answer: "Because it's fun!" And it really did look like a lot of fun. So much so that Cockatoo almost joined in after a friendly knight ran over, explained the game, and invited Cockatoo to play, but Cockatoo remembered the blog she had to write and, sadly, declined.

The game seemed perfectly natural, healthy even - a way for people to air those aggressive impulses we all occasionally get in a safe, harmless way. But still, it was pretty disturbing (admittedly, in a delicious, titillating way) given the role that violence plays in our world today. After all, we have protesters being beaten by riot cops, civilians being blown up by terrorists, "terrorists" being bombed by governments. Women and minorities and the poor being psychologically, socially, politically, and economically beaten by the racism, sexism, and ...

Ok, let's not start ranting, Cockatoo. You promised you wouldn't rant...

So, yes, that's what made the spectacle of medieval play-fighting a little disturbing. But what explains Cockatoo's delight, a delight she seemed to share with at least a few other people who also stood by and watched the game?

Cockatoo often experiences this sort of emotional difficulty - of having an emotional reaction for which she cannot provide an explanation. Cockatoo was not dropped on her head at birth, but she did fall down a long flight of stairs while sitting in a walker around age three. Strangely, the only injury she was left with was a black eye ... or so it seemed. Maybe she just suffered a bit of neglect during those important formative years, resulting in a kind of emotion-processing impairment. Very common, you know... Whatever the reason, when this sort of situation arises, Cockatoo likes to employ a little rational analysis to try to figure out what's going on inside her head.

Tune in next Wednesday for ...

Medieval Combat and the Delight It Inspires: An Analysis and Conclusions