Archive for October, 2008

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October 31, 2008 - 9:03 pm Comments Off

If your computer freezes, not even the inadvertent blood sacrifice offered when you shove your thumb into the fan while aiming for the reset button will persuade it to unfreeze.

Technology sucks that way.

My Ten Favorite Horror Movies

October 31, 2008 - 8:41 pm Comments Off

It’s Halloween eve and once again our place is deserted. Guess we’ll have to keep all those king-size packs of Reese’s cups to ourselves, sob. The combination of the poor lighting on the street and the fact that many of the driveways nearly qualify as a vigorous nature hike in and of themselves means that our abode is usually avoided except by all but the most intrepid teenage sugar fiends.

In any case, I’m stuck for material yet again and may as well do something thematic, so let’s talk scary movies. Horror is probably my favorite genre; some women like to watch movies about close-knit groups of women friends as they live, love, and inevitably one of them dies in great but photogenic suffering. I’m not big on those. I like movies about groups of friends as they live, love have hot sex, and are mostly killed off one at a time in photogenically grisly ways, according to just how annoying each one of them is and how much sex they’ve had. While slasher movies are great for nights of beer and candy such as… uh… Halloween, my favorites, the ones I can watch over and over again, tend to be much more in the line of psychological thrillers than splatterpunk. There’s still a bit of splatter, though.. wouldn’t be a horror flick without it.

Oh, and before we get to the listing? Heresies first, before you ask me why they’re not on the list. (Also, there are spoilers in this part, though there won’t be in the list. But given that every movie I talk about is over twenty years old and a giant of the genre, I don’t think I’m being too evil here.) I think The Exorcist is mind-numbingly boring after the first watch. I mean Christ, what was that, forty-five minutes of that one guy looking really stressed out in Iraq? And I’m sorry, but Linda Blair was pretty good, but not that great- Jennifer Carpenter’s turn in The Exorcism of Emily Rose made her look as though she could reasonably have been replaced with a Tickle Me Elmo doll.

I’m also mostly bored by Jaws, although it’s one of Stingray’s favorites, and while I’m sure he’ll kill me in my sleep once he reads this for saying so, no matter how awesome the effects were at the time, I can’t watch it now without feeling like I’m being menaced by the giant rubber shark I used to have for a tub toy. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of the performances were awesome, but the only moment I find truly creepy is the one in the very beginning of the movie, where you can’t see the shark- because the damn thing shatters my suspense of disbelief each time.

What else? Alien isn’t on here. It’s pretty good, and before you leap out of your chairs to tell me so, I’m aware that it looks cliched now because it was the the one to CREATE all the cliches in the first place and was wildly original at the time. My problem isn’t so much that as it is by the fact that most of the irritating crewmembers didn’t die fast enough for my satisfaction, and the series in general was rather tainted for me by the way it went out of its way to make sure everyone you DON’T want dead in the first fifteen minutes eventually dies in the most horrible and pointless way the writers can possibly come up with. The first movie’s fine, though. They let the cat live. I’m pretty sure he was the only sympathetic character in four movies that did, except for the part where he might have died of old age before Ripley was rescued. So scratch that.

So, in no particular order because figuring out the order would actually take more effort than writing the entire rest of the post, my favorite horror movies.

1. Event Horizon. So far as I’m concerned, this one’s a lot better than Alien. They get the “welcome to outer space, you’re on your fucking own, buddy” vibe down pat, they did a very good job of sketching out the characters in just the amount of detail they needed to be flawed but likeable without wasting a lot of time that could be spent terrorizing the audience on tedious backstory, and it’s scary, which is the important part. With Alien, the whole conundrum for the crew is that there’s a giant acid-spitting flesh-eating monster roaming about the ship turning people into kibble, which I grant you is a not-insignificant problem, but the only thing there is to wonder about is whether or not it’s behind you or in that duct or whatever. Event Horizon gives you some mystery- about the ship, about the crew, about who’s going to survive, about whether or not you can watch the airlock scene without crawling into the sofa cushions.

2. Wicker Man. To the guy still mad about Jaws who’s going to accuse me of not liking a horror movie unless it’s got slick special effects- and I can practically see you, dude- here’s my riposte. And no, I am not talking about whatever abortion Nicholas Cage perpetrated on this horror great, which I have not seen and will never see unless I wake up in a trap contrived by the guy from Saw where my only choices are watching the remake or eating my own eyeballs or something. (I hated Saw, too.) This movie is a masterpiece example of what can be done with a shoestring budget, a decent unknown actor, a nice setting, and some freaking imagination. Watch the director’s cut/extended version- the new scenes look rather horribly fuzzy, but you won’t care, because a lot of them are really cool. (And there are naked people!) I also nominate this movie for managing to achieve a mind-bending mixture of horribly creepy, sexy, and inexplicably wholesome in one particular scene that will never, ever be topped. Especially not by anything Nicholas Cage does EVER.

3. Session 9. Most of the time when your audience gets to the end of the movie and thinks “Okay, what the FUCK just happened there?”, that’s a bad sign. Not so much with this movie, because if you’ve been paying a decent amount of attention- and not just sitting lazily back expecting to watch a nice straightforward monster or ghostie eating the cast- you can piece it back together. And then, lucky you, you can watch the movie again knowing what IS going on and it will be three times as creepy. The star of the movie is the setting, an abandoned insane asylum played by an actual honest-to-goodness abandoned insane asylum, which is every bit as creepy as such things really should be but usually aren’t. THIS is how you do atmospheric psychological thrillers, folks.

4. Haunted. I’m pretty sure there’s more than movie titled this, so I’ll clarify that it’s the pretty period piece with Aidan Quinn and Kate Beckinsale and based on a James Herbert novel. If you like ghost stories, folks, this one’s for you- and if you’re fans of a good mindscrew of a story, this also fits the bill. (Dear M. Night Shayalaman: this is how you do a twist properly, without making your viewers want to throw things at you.) Did I mention it’s also very, very pretty? The camera is quite in love with the English countryside on display here, not just with the actors. Like Session 9, this one is also much creepier when you watch it with the full understanding of what’s going on.

5. The Orphanage, or El Orfanato in the Spanish you should watch it in. (I hope subtitles don’t bother you. They don’t bother me.) I hear they’re making an American remake. If I believed in Hell, I’d believe in a special pit of it reserved specifically for directors that take a gorgeous, lovingly done and excellent foreign film and decide that what it really needs is to be more American and much, much worse. The excellent Guillermo del Toro, of Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy fame, produced this one, and his fingerprints are all over it- and yes, it is visually STUNNING. Also very, very creepy at points, and this is coming from someone who has seen so much of this stuff that it’s now very difficult to actually scare me as opposed to getting golf applause and a “Oooh, nice decapitation.” I won’t ruin the ending for you… or, well, most of the story, which is genuinely mysterious and interesting. And creepy. That damn kid with the sack on his head… brrr.

6. The Fog. Yes, I know there was technically a remake, but there is really only one The Fog, and that was the one made by John Carpenter in 1980 with Adrienne Barbeau and Jamie Lee Curtis and some dude that Jamie Lee bangs in the movie. I’m sure he’s some important actor in his own right, but he’s not the most interesting character in the movie- which are Adrienne, Jamie Lee, the fog, and that preacher guy, in that order- so I haven’t bothered to remember his name. John Carpenter deserves the title of horror master a lot more than some (I am looking at you, Wes Craven and Clive Barker), and this movie shows why- if it’s 1980 and your budget isn’t big and your premise is a little cheesy, make the star the atmosphere rather than the monster(s). There’s some sort of zombies or ghosts or something and they’re pissed off, but the source of the tension is the thick blanket of fog, Adrienne Barbeau’s voice, and some nice acting.

7. Army of Darkness. It’s not really scary, but it’s most definitely a creature of the genre, and god damn is it fun to watch. Bruce Campbell makes it (and makes you wonder why Sam Raimi ever went on to do some stupid emo spider crap with Tobey Maguire instead of making things starring Bruce Campbell for the rest of his career), and the zombies and other monsters are his medium of art. There’s a chainsaw hand. And a shotgun. And implausibilities abounding that you instantly forgive because you’re having so much fun. And it’s so quotable I’ll pull a first for anybody ever mentioning this movie and not quote any of them- if you’re not one of the zombie horde that can already pull five out of your head on a moment’s notice, then go watch it and join the horde.

8. Exorcist III. Yes, I’m only meh on the original, while this one rates inclusion in my top ten. That’s because this one’s better than the original, and it was seen by about six people including me- better writing, better acting, and it’s probably because William Peter Blatty, the novelist who wrote Exorcist (yes, it was a book first) was heavily involved in writing the movie. It has George C. Scott in one of his later roles being awesome, and Brad Dourif also being awesome, and if you’ve seen Brad Dourif in anything remotely horror, you know he’s a card-carrying member of the Creepy Motherfucker guild. Great psychological horror with some fantastic individual scare moments, even if the ending was a little weak.

9. In the Mouth of Madness, another John Carpenter movie. This is definitely a “your mileage may vary” movie, mostly because it feels like a love letter from Carpenter to horror fans. References and thematic riffs abound, and it’s got Sam Neill in it, which you know is your horror recipe for quality. Stephen King fans and H.P. Lovecraft fans will be especially pleased. It also has Charlton Heston being Charlton Heston, America’s creepiest little old lady, and a general prettiness combined with wrongness that makes for Horror Fun.

10. Dead Alive. Or Braindead, depending on where you live. Speaking of “what a great writer and director can do with not much money”, this is an early effort of Peter Jackson, who was clearly having obscene amounts of fun. It’s quite a sweet love story set in New Zealand (with Jackson’s characteristic loving touch with the landscape), about a boy, a girl, the boy’s mother, and their zombie-related difficulties. It has a kung-fu priest. It has zombie sex. It has a Giant Rat of Sumatra (sort of). It has the most traumatic afternoon out with the baby in the stroller ever. If you’re a fan of zombie movies, you have to see it just to see the part with the lawnmower.

T'hee!

October 30, 2008 - 7:31 pm Comments Off

I seem to have blown a fuse somewhere in my brain. So, have the latest thing to make me laugh: a spoof video based on the idea of certain distinctive directors doing McCain attack ads. It’s a tossup as to whether David Lynch’s or M. Night Shyalaman’s are better.

More on dogs and self

October 29, 2008 - 7:49 pm Comments Off

This is slightly reworked and crossposted material from a discussion elsewhere, because I wound up spending my evening on that instead of spending it on a long post about sexual strategies, mate selection, and human gender politics as I’d intended. So you get this instead.

One of the problems with judging if another animal has something like “a sense of self” is that their minds are highly likely to be RADICALLY different from ours, to the point where they may not even really be comprehensible to us, as our minds are heavily rooted in our own perceptions, instincts, and frames of references. Our intelligences have as much to do with being hominids, with all the special circumstances and influences that go along with that, as they do with being intelligent.

However, we can infer basic things about the minds of other creatures from the kinds of behaviors they’re capable of, what we know about their senses and therefore perceptions, and what we know about how minds in general work. For example, since abstract reasoning is the last ability to appear in the development of a human mind and for developmentally impaired individuals it may never appear at all, we can probably assume that abstraction is a uniquely human innovation. Since all animals need to be able to find necessary resources and avoid dangers, we can assume that even a pre-mind in a creature without a proper brain is capable of setting up some neurological rules that make certain kinds of tasks much simpler. It’s the areas in between that have the question marks on them, especially with respect to animals that are quite complex but not human.

What we really don’t know- and we try to infer when we do behavioral and psychological research- is which things are human innovations that go along with great intelligence, and which things are actually necessary tools for any animal that behaves in a complex fashion in a given context. If you’re going to swim efficiently, you need to have fins, and it doesn’t matter that much except to the details of what you’re doing whether you have a bony fish’s spined fin, a shark’s smooth one, a whale’s tail and flippers, a seal’s modified paw-flippers, or a human’s rubber fins; it’s just a tool that makes swimming much easier and you won’t be half as good at it without, which is why no animal that spends a lot of time free-swimming doesn’t have a structure like this. To borrow terminology from one of my favorite science writers, the exact kind of fin or flipper the animal has- the specific parts on a fish, shark, whale, seal, or human with special tools- are parochial features, unique to that species or general family of animals, but the existence of flippers themselves- a broad, flat surface attached to a limb and used to make moving in water more efficient- are universals, a ubiquitous or nearly-so solution to the same problem, innovated many times over. Lungs and gills are parochials; blood-rich areas of tissue with maximized surface area used for gas exchange from air or water to blood are universals. Chemotaxis, hunting, gathering, and filter-feeding are parochials; foraging is a universal.

My question is: what mental tools are similarly necessary to be a complex social animal? I think self- not our convoluted inner worlds that humans experience that let us do things like plot revenge or write poetry about how fall makes us feel, that’s a parochial, but a very basic sense of “I”- may well be a universal. “I” doesn’t need to be profoundly complicated just because human selves are; if that kind of logic held, then sharks would be unable to swim between continents because they haven’t got submarines. “I” need only function so far and be exactly as complex as the animal requires- and the very presence of abstraction in human thought, and its deep attachment to how we think about ourselves, makes even thinking about the prospect difficult for us. In order to start wrapping your head around the most simple I, strike up a conversation with your nearest available three-year-old. For now, back to dogs.

In training, we know that relationship matters- whether or not the dog trusts you to know what you mean and be consistent, whether the dog trusts you to protect him (and thus does not feel that he has to deal with a “threat”, like an approaching tall man with a weird umbrella, himself), whether or not the dog respects your ability to lead and to enforce your leadership. Those factors- the way the dog tracks your individual behavior and the way you behave in relation to him- influence how fast or well the dog will learn, as well as whether or not the dog will even bother to try.

In a broader context, sociobiologists are seeing in more and more and more and more varied different sorts of social animals (other than insects) that a hugely important factor, maybe THE important factor, to animals that can have complex socal groups is their ability to remember cheater/cooperator distinctions with individual members of their group. This is the most basic form of relationship- and also happens to require a certain advanced ability to distinguish individuals, remember them individually, and remember how they behaved toward you specifically… and if we’re going to get into this level of complexity of distinguishing individuals and keeping track of their behavior, a basic sense of self- if only to have an internal point of reference, the central individual self, to relate all those external individuals to- is a simple solution to an otherwise complex problem. In other words, likely to be a universal among diverse groups of animals facing the same fundamental problem.

Speaking of complex problems, we also have learning to rapidly cope with chaotic and novel situations, and planning- both of which dogs can do, as any shepherd knows. Human trainers use stepwise small learning events to create complex behaviors by chaining them together until the dog grasps the entire sequence as a whole, but wild animals don’t work like that. A wild dog learning to hunt simply cannot rely on learning to capture prey by small, digestible, simple sequences that then eventually link up into a complete behavior; the way a prey animal behaves is FAR too chaotic and unpredictable to rely on that kind of learning, because the sequence would never be repeated in the same way, would rarely even be begun in the same way. Thus, the animal must make simple plans based on the rapidly changing circumstances, and be able to think in a flexible enough way to try to solve problems as they arise rather than repeating stereotyped sequences of behavior and varying them slightly.

In order to plan, you have to briefly project yourself and the other object into the future- only a few seconds or minutes at a time, but even so- it seems to me that this relies on HAVING a sense of yourself as an individual whose actions are under your control, rather than having a series of instinctual or rote responses for every possibility, which would actually be a vastly more complicated and inefficient system. So now we have self as an elegant solution to TWO problems (or three, when you add trying different ways of solving novel problems in novel situations, without necessarily having to develop a plan), which makes it even more likely to be a universal. Human trainers have to use the much more simple and stepped approach to teaching because, unlike a group of dogs on a hunt, they share no common language or frame of reference with the creature they’re trying to teach- thus, reversion to the simplest and most common shared vertebrate mechanisms of learning is the best approach.

We used to assume no animal but humans had a sense of humor, until we thought to thoroughly test that assumption, and we found otherwise. We used to think no other animal used tools, until we looked and found multiple examples. We used to think no other animals had culture, until we looked and found multiple examples across many intelligent and social, but otherwise unrelated species. (Obviously not culture as in Shinto and opera, but behaviors, innovations, and mannerisms that varied with local groups.) If the argument I’ve made suggests that other animals than dogs, perhaps some that are actually less intelligent, have a sense of self… well, I’m really not all that convinced we’ve looked all that well.

Field Guide To Modern Conservatives

October 28, 2008 - 11:11 am Comments Off

I’ve been quite thoroughly burnt out on politics as late. I still take my morning dose of poison, for much the same reason as a heavy smoker cures his morning attempt to expel his own lungs with a cigarette, but I’ve mostly lost the desire to talk about it.

I also have what appears to be one of my larger bio-stuff posts in mental draft form, but it still needs poking and punching to see which bits actually belong in there and which ones represent a several-hundred-word tangent, and of course there’s always the terrifying possibility that the whole thing will collapse like a distressed souffle, which happens from time to time.

Fortunately, a friend of mine found a bit of fluff of mine from many years back and before I started formally blogging, which I had completely forgotten ever having written. After looking it over again, I decided it’s pretty good for something that old, and also that I miss having enough of a sense of humor about politics to have written it in the first place.

So, without further ado, the field guide. It is very silly and meant to be taken as such, and was written when my very small audience was mainly to the left or REALLY to the left of me- I had gotten more than a little tired of seeing people talk as though conservatism was a blob of uniform thought that could be entirely represented by Dick Cheney and James Dobson.

The Paleocon
Distinguishing features: The Paleocon believes in small government, traditional values, low taxes, and minimal interference in foreign affairs. In general, he believes that America started to go downhill somewhere around Woodrow Wilson, and all things being equal would prefer to repeal the twentieth century in general. He’s still absolutely outraged about progressive taxation, and especially the New Deal. He feels the Republican party abandoned conservatism somewhere around Nixon.

Where found: Generally, with a cigarette and a martini somewhere in upstate New Hampshire.

Call: “The government should deliver the mail and declare war. We just have to get them to stop doing EVERYTHING ELSE. Dammit.”

The Very Moral Minority
Distinguishing features: This fellow believes that faith in God and the Bible automatically translates to good government. God = good, so how could government guided by God be anything else? American society will turn right back into the garden of Eden it was in the fifties if we just get God back into every single aspect of public life. Always shocked when it turns out most other Christians don’t agree, and keep quoting something annoying about that which is Caesar’s. Oh well, he’s still right.

Where found: With very bad hair and an equally bad suit, and not infrequently, a radio station.

Call: “The Communists were atheists, and they killed a hundred million people!”

The Crunchy Con (Hat tip for term to National Review)
Distinguishing Features: Highly literate, usually religious (though not always Christian), and deeply rooted in small-town traditional values. Disdains pop culture, big business, big government, and big anything, including big religion. Usually does not own a TV. May or may not own a radio. Shops in Wild Oats/Trader Joe’s/Whole Foods, but entertains private fantasies of shouting “I VOTED FOR BUSH!” to see if it really would start a riot.

Where found: In organic co-ops, small churches, and small towns. Distinguishable by simultaneous presence of Birkenstocks and lack of bumper stickers.

Call: “Feed your family good food for their bodies, minds, and spirits.”

The Neocon

Distinguishing Features: Did you ever wonder what happened to the liberal Democrats from the Kennedy era who believed in civil rights, women’s rights, and opposing totalitarianism by force and spreading democracy the same way? Now they’re neocons. Prone to pointing out that Japan was a backwards country mired in feudalism and civil war until Admiral Perry pointed several naval cannons at them. Admit that, okay, that whole East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere episode was a setback, but then we occupied them for a couple of decades and look at them now.

Where found: At antiwar protests jeering the protestors. Fleeing from said furious protestors.

Call: “Freedom and democracy for all.”

The Libbertaryan
Distinguishing features: First cousin to the Paleocon with less “traditional” values. Don’t believe the government has the right to interfere with them in ANY way except to enforce contracts and have a military. They are not totally sure about the military.

Where found: In Montana or Wyoming with their family, dogs, and a sign reading “Tresspassers will be shot. Survivors will be shot again.”

Call: “Gimme my guns, drugs, and whores, and GET OFF MY PROPERTY.”

The Clone Army Con
Distinguishing features: Changes depending on the decade, but roiling disdain for “liberals” is constant.

Where found: Anywhere.

Call: “(Whatever Rush Limbaugh or Michael Savage is saying this week)”

The South Park Conservative
Distinguishing features: Smirk. Either consciously hip or consciously unhip clothing. Tendency to burst out laughing at seemingly inappropriate moments. Joy in making people angry, especially liberals, but other conservatives will do if there aren’t any liberals in range or they just feel like a change of pace.

Where found: Nearly anywhere, but take particular delight in being conservatives in traditionally liberal outposts.

Call: *singing* “America, FUCK YEAH!”

The Moderate Conservative

Distinguishing feature: Frequently indistinguishable from Moderate Liberals.

Where found: Ubiquitous.

Call: “I have to go to work in the morning.”

Scribbler Awards

October 27, 2008 - 6:14 pm Comments Off

So, before we dashed off to spend the weekend hauling, sawing, pitchforking, splitting, stacking, and other such productive things, the ever-lovely Breda deemed us worthy of something called a Superior Scribbler Award.

Our reactions went with lightning-quick speed first to immense flattery- Breda knows a damn lot of good blogwriters- to “Oh freakinhell who do we give this to?”. Part of the rules, you see, involve handing it around to five other folks you also think deserve one.

The fact that since we began dithering several other bloggers we admire have already gotten one has not made this any easier, especially since our major criteria is writers that are both very good and, in our opinion, also very underappreciated. So before my excuse for delay winds down to nothing, here we go:

1. The writing team over at Querencia. A fascinating variety of experience, and if they have a common thread it’s rampant individualism and a curiosity in and respect for nature and those who live with it, as opposed to those who mostly experience it through the Discovery Channel. We’ve so far only had the pleasure of meeting Steve Bodio and his wife, sterling individuals, though with luck we’ll meet more of the contributors soon. I’ve found more worlds whose existence I had never suspected through here than any other blog.

2. Steve Browne, of Rants and Raves. A well-traveled individual who’s been in many places, free and unfree, his perspective is sharp and so is his writing- he has a gift all too rare among the journalistically-inclined, which is saying something important in a few words so that they are easily digested and not diluted by sheer bulk.

3. I’ve linked Doqz before, because he’s.. an underappreciated blogger who, in my opinion, does not get enough traffic. His major focus is political writing, but between the fact that he’s a history type that tends to have a broad familiarity with the past consequences of policy and philosophy and the fact that his readerbase somehow leans liberal, he’s of a higher grade than most- the libs keep him honest, and his wit can veer to the zany but tends to be sharp as a knife.

4. Smartdogs. I linked her just the other week, didn’t I? I did. She still fits my criteria well- very good writer who seems to get very little traffic relative to talent- so here you go again. For me, her site is that rarest of rare things- something written by someone who shares my interests, but seems to read an entirely different set of books and news feeds than me, so that I learn something new or gain something else to think about with nearly every post.

5. Matt G, of Better and Better. His pal Lawdog has already been noticed by the award, but not Matt, and I think he deserves it, too. When he has the time to write, his slices of small-town and family life, look into the world of a peace officer, and general philosophizing keep him on my daily-check list whether the posts have been daily or not.

Remember the rules, fellows and girls- if you accept the award, the rules are to link to five others of the deserving, and to refer back to the originator’s post and list yourself. It seems to be the project of a high school student to both study the behavior of this kind of meme and collect a lot of interesting reading, so help out.

Hrm.

October 27, 2008 - 5:10 pm Comments Off

podgorny

We're Still Boring. Film at 11.

October 26, 2008 - 4:52 pm Comments Off

Oh no! Still no content!

We’ve been spending the weekend catching up on Shit We Seriously Gotta Do, now that the prospect of the near-annual Halloween first snowstorm of the year has concentrated our attention on the winterizing chores that seemed so readily put-offable for the past… oh, several months. Hey, at least we DID finish the woodshed in a more or less timely manner… it’s just the filling of it that got neglected. And the rain gutters. And various vehicle maintenance. …Yeah.

If it’s the weekend or just about to be the weekend, we won’t be around much for a bit…

Overdue

October 25, 2008 - 4:06 pm Comments Off

We blog more-or-less anonymously- it’s not that difficult to figure out who we are, but we’re not looking for total anonymity so much as we’re looking to avoid one specific person- so since our e-mail addresses are simply our names, we don’t post them on the site.

Well, now we have a contact e-mail: if you simply must get in touch with us and not in the comments, ping nerdsatomic -at- gmail.com. Yes, atomicnerds was taken for some reason…

Game Called On Account Of Pain

October 24, 2008 - 6:54 pm Comments Off

Another tattoo session today, and as usual I am wiped. We’ll figure out awards of merit tomorrow.

In the meantime, Kang expresses my feelings:

Crash.