Virtual Warfare in New York’s Flatiron District

Last week, while out with my fiancée, I randomly stumbled across an exhibition of a military training simulator in a gallery space in Flatiron district. There was a man in full combat gear, head-mounted goggles, and an extremely real-looking gun playing a 3D video game by moving around and squeezing the trigger. He was in a square area, with sensors mounted on tall corner poles, each strung together by a thick black wire at the top. A large flat-screen showed his viewpoint in the game as he controlled his computer likeness using his movements and gun controls. It all looked very cool, in an Osama bin Laden raid kind of way.

The next day, I went back for a personal demonstration session. The product is called TrainAsYouFight by atlantic cyberspace, inc, and it uses real military training equipment.

The body armor plates and gloves are actually motion-capture sensors that function with the sensor poles, the way that similar motion-capture systems work for movies and video games. The helmets contain stereo headphones, and the goggles contain HD displays (true 3D capability coming soon). The gun is an actual M4 retrofitted with an air pressure system to simulate recoil during firing; the trigger fires the gun in-game, while buttons on the grips and sensors on the skin activate reloads, autofire/manual/safety modes, and recalibrations.

I suited up and entered the training environment (based on the Unreal Engine 3 by Epic Games). I was able to turn 360 degrees and turn my head sideways, unlike in most First Person Shooters. I controlled my direction with my body, but a touchpad on the gun magazine controlled my ground movements. I could point my assault rifle in almost any direction, and the game responded accurately. I could also move my arms and legs freely in the game and deliver hand signals to allies or opponents. Shooting and reloading were easy, but aiming was fairly tough. The gun was heavy and tired my arms quickly if I ran around the map while aiming straight ahead, but it was a relief to my arms if I held it sideways while on the run. Playing against the demonstration crew (who took on the role of “terrorists” via standard Xbox control pads), we traded a few kills and had some fun.

I also played as a “terrorist” on the controller pad while one of the demonstrators used the full equipment setup. Though these guys have plenty of experience using the simulator, this wasn’t a fair fight at all. I used to be a competitive FPS player, and I quickly mopped the floor with my opponent. But they soon got their revenge when they had me try out the “negative reinforcement device”. It’s a taser belt that you wear around your upper waist. In the training simulator, it delivers a high-voltage shock to your lower back when you are hit by virtual bullets. It makes the simulator have real pain consequences, as I found out when they tested it on me.

For now, this is just high-tech military gear, but atlantis cyberspace is looking to move this into the world of gamers. They’re raising capital to deliver the TrainAsYouFight technology to the high-end consumer gaming market. Soon enough, you might be able to obtain a home simulator with room-mounted sensors, VR helmets, replica assault rifle controllers, motion capture body gear, and powerful online networked gaming systems. Electric shock belt probably not included.

SXSWi Finale: Lifting Up, Beating Down

When I conceived of this series of articles about SXSW Interactive, I figured I’d start by talking about the obvious philosophical inconsistencies in the entire production, then I’d make a spectacle of the conspicuous consumption that goes on in Austin during the festival (not all of it directly related to the festival, but it can’t be escaped one way or another), and finally I’d wrap up with an article talking about all the good things I thought were worth remembering. It turns out the most memorable thing that happened to me in Austin was how I was assaulted and ended up in jail.

And so my SXSW coverage became a thing on the Internet, a thing that likely gathered more attention from influential tech experts and bloggers than some of the keynote talks. I somehow turned it into even more of a shitshow than it already was. More on that later.

While I was in jail, I had a lot of time to think about Internet Explorer 9, which was officially released by Microsoft on Monday. Long derided as an inferior browser, IE9 offers vastly improved performance over its predecessors and its competition. Upgrading to IE9 is a great way to speed up your grandmother’s computer. Your best bet, despite Microsoft’s best rebuilding efforts, still seems to be one of the other browsers. But if it’s indeed faster than the other market browsers on PCs (it’s worth a try) while remaining stable, expect it to gain popularity soon.

Foursquare also upgraded just before the start of the festival. Version 3.0 offers additional features like Explore, additional types of check-in special offers, and a totally revamped point reward system. It’s more engaging and useful. It really helped with navigating the sprawling SXSW social agenda.

The big consumer device release at SXSWi was the iPad 2, from Apple. There was even a pop-up Apple Store in downtown Austin to serve the hordes of enthusiastic gadget freaks who wanted to have one immediately (the lines were blocks long). It’s a truly remarkable device, with significant improvements over its first-generation predecessor.

I had a chance to see the iPad 2 in action courtesy of SPiN PLAY, a new application from the publishers of SPiN. SPiN PLAY combines written articles from the magazine and website into specially-formatted articles for application subscribers ($7.99 annually) that are paired with relevant digital tracks and videos created specifically for the SPiN PLAY platform. It’s far slicker and usable than anything ever attempted on the web in this field. But that’s not all … the application also has a mode for playing the digital tracks as standalone playlists, so that you can use the iPad platform as your own personal, portable playback device to listen to all of the latest music covered by SPiN. This is a huge advancement in music editorial coverage, finally shattering the wall between music literature and the music itself.

The most exciting new mobile app that I had a chance to experience at SXSWi is not brand-new, but it’s gaining momentum quickly. RedLaser was first released last February as a barcode and QR code scanning application, and has since been acquired by eBay and expanded their tracked data to 90% of coded consumer products. Use the camera on your mobile device (iPhone or Android) to capture printed codes on real-life items, and the RedLaser app immediately retrieves any relevant information that can be scraped off the internet … for food products, it retrieves calorie/nutritional info, lists of allergenic ingredients, and price comparisons for ordering from different retailers. Scan a book and it’ll tell you the nearest library in which it’s available. Scan a consumer electronics product and it’ll give you customer reviews from around the Internet in addition to competitive prices. It’s free, and it’s a must-have mobile app.

The truly big thing at SXSWi this year was the movement of humanitarian causes. The earthquake and tsunami in Japan struck just as people were arriving to the festival, and an immediate effort was started to organize relief and support for its victims. SxSWCares was launched on the first day of the conference and has raised nearly $80,000 in a week from participants of all three SXSW festivals; fundraising efforts are still in-progress at the Music and Film festivals. These sort of commendable efforts are not just evidence that great things can happen from the interactive media community, but also that SXSW means more than a bunch of random drunk douchebags milling around consuming food, liquor and swag.

Speaking of such things, let’s talk about my arrest.

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I was at the very last event of the Interactive festival … the official closing party with a free concert from the Foo Fighters. After the show had ended, I was sending an email to my tech bosses at BlackBook using my phone. At some point, an event staffer walked up to me and accused me of being drunk. Having felt totally lucid and steady, I calmly argued the case for my sobriety and tried to reason with him, but he threatened me and walked away. I went back to typing my email … within a minute, I was jumped from behind by several men, dragged out of the venue, had my belongings ripped off of me, and had my head slammed into the ground and cuffs shackled on my wrists. I was defenseless the entire time and suffered a head injury in the incident. A police officer walked me over to a car that took me to Travis County Jail, and I spent the night in lockup on charges of public intoxication and resisting arrest. The latter is a serious matter; if convicted, I face up to a year in prison and a $4,000 fine. At no point was I given a sobriety test.

Upon my arrival at central booking, I was worried I was going to miss my 1pm flight the next day and that I was essentially trapped in custody in a faraway city with no local family or close friends to assist me. But I knew that if I could get the word out, I could get the attention of whoever hadn’t left Austin yet to help secure my release. I could afford bail, but I needed someone to post it. Then, as I retrieved important family phone numbers off of my mobile phone (which they confiscated afterward), I noticed my roommate and his girlfriend in New York had been trying to contact me since my arrest; he was robbed earlier in the evening and had lost his keys, so he had no way to get into our rental house. I tried calling my fiancée in New York and my parents in Florida, but was initially unsuccessful. So then, in desperation for help for all of us, I got on the phone with my roommate’s girlfriend, a long-time friend of mine, and I gave her my Twitter password.

She used my Twitter account to spread the word quickly. The news went viral. Many people contacted us to offer assistance. Others were deeply concerned. Some people used the opportunity to state how much of a buffoon I looked like for being picked up for drunkenness (since my inmate status report from the Travis County website was now being passed around social networks). But thanks to our efforts, my roommate found a person to take him in for the night; we reached our rental house manager who helped my roommate re-enter the house in the morning; we reached my fiancée and she rebooked my outbound flight. Along the way, someone I’ve never met (but who follows my blog) wrote in to offer the help of her boyfriend’s buddy from University of Texas who knew a competent criminal lawyer in Austin; thanks to the help of Peek & Toland, I was released on personal bond as soon as possible and made it back to New York that evening. I’ve hired them as my attorneys to deal with the outstanding criminal charges against me.

Without Twitter, few of these things would have come together as quickly as they did, and I might still be trapped in a cell in Austin with untreated head injuries. Fittingly, Twitter first became massively popular in 2007 at SXSW Interactive.

The Most Decadent Giveaways at SXSWi

It’s an understatement to say that SXSW Interactive has become “commercial” — it makes Nickleback look indie (that band will probably give a keynote about social media next year). SXSW can be an extremely effective branding opportunity for businesses of all types. Thus there are many complimentary services and goods available throughout the festival. Some of them are weak (another heavy cotton t-shirt with your whiz-bang logo on it? Really?), some of them are helpful (my fiancee will be pleased with all of the canvas totes), and some are downright outrageous. I’ve cataloged them in this list, where I’ll rank them for you on the Star Jones Scale of Shameless Giftmongering (1 is relatively shame-free, while 10 is for the type of giveaway that obliterates any last trace of your conscience).

Free breakfast tacos – To be honest, most of these were very sad and unappetizing. The only shame is in actually eating one once it’s been handed to you. Star Jones Scale: 1

Free beer in the Blogger’s Lounge – Free alcohol is nothing special; there’s a whole cottage industry in interactive media geared toward finding open bars anywhere in the world. This one was a little more decadent because it was at the convention center in room reserved for bloggers (which, really, was anyone who asked) and it meant you could get drunk for free as early as 3pm while still attending panels. The blogger’s lounge was actually nicer than the press lounge. Star Jones Scale: 3

Free chair massages in the Press Lounge – The one advantage the Press Lounge had over the Blogger’s Lounge. Star Jones Scale: 4

Free sneakers – Nick McGlynn of RandomNightOut.com received a complimentary pair of new kicks courtesy of Klout. They were not shoddy looking. When you think about how much one pair must cost, and how they had to bring a variety of sizes … Star Jones Scale: 8

Free water – There were water coolers for bottle refills in various places in the conference venues. Doesn’t sound decadent unless you consider that bottled water was on sale for $3.50 per 16oz bottle otherwise. Star Jones Scale: 2

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Free top-shelf open bar with glowing LED ice cubes in the drinks – Courtesy of Gizmodo. I took home a few cubes. They’ll make fun cat toys. Star Jones Scale: 4

Free keychains for “Age of Booty” – Found at SXSW Screenburn. Ostensibly for a pirate-based game, but unintentionally amusing to me. I had a buddy in college who’s nickname was “Jay Booty,” and it was not because he kept a pile of gold doubloons. Star Jones Scale: 1

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Free Cab Service courtesy of Chevy Cruze – Because when doesn’t a car company send a fleet of vehicles for free public use to a trade show? By the way, the wait for regular “for-profit” cab service is often over an hour. Star Jones Scale: 7

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Free boxing match between Costume Mike Tyson and Midget Mike Tyson – The real Mike Tyson stopped by over the weekend, but I vastly prefer midget boxing. Star Jones Scale: 6

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Free Diplo concert in the Seaholm Power House produced by Vimeo and Nikon, with free beer and mixed drinks – Best Interactive festival party by a long mile. I would have flown here just for that. Star Jones Scale: 8

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Free coffee from Microsoft Internet Explorer 9 served from a backpack jet dispenser in cups that could be used as tickets for the Internet Explorer party – Review all those details once again. Then consider that no one except your grandmother still uses Internet Explorer. If you actually went as far as to drink the coffee AND attend the party … Star Jones Scale: 10

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Free unlimited time with a giant pile of Legos – It’s not like Legos are rare items, but file under “Things you’d never buy yourself.” Star Jones Scale: 4

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Free night’s stay at the Driskill Hotel Caveat: your bed is on the lobby floor, among hundreds of revelers. Star Jones Scale: 3

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Free Boss Hogg donut from Gourdough’s courtesy of Squarespace It’s a very large donut topped with pulled pork and potato salad. Even if you were to pay full retail price for one of these, it’s absolutely the most gluttonous thing you can consume. If it were to include bacon somehow, it would shatter all giftmongering records. Star Jones Scale: 10

SXSW: Free Tacos of the Apocalypse

I am a metaphor for SXSW Interactive. I’m sitting in one of the first presentations of the festival, a session that aims to show how programming code can be expressed like classical music. While I’m listening, I’m writing this article on a mobile device. And I’m digesting a hurriedly eaten lunch. SXSWi, similarly, tries to advance complicated creative pursuits while serving a massive horde of commercial interests. And, like me, it is filled with free food and beer.

SXSWi is relevant for two reasons. One, it’s now a travel destination — a yearly indulgence of epic consumption that could be enjoyed by even the most computer illiterate fun-seeker who has $600 to $1,250 (the cost of single and platinum badges if ordered late). Second, tens of thousands of interactive media builders and leaders, when they are not boozing it up, are spending every moment redefining how our species communicates on every level of digital interaction. (Twitter was launched here four years ago; Foursquare followed two years after that). It’s the biggest event of its kind, now even dwarfing the venerable SXSW Music festival. Everything that we do that depends on electronic communications is being ripped apart and re-engineered by this industry, to the extent that it will make your entire daily routine seem quaint in the near future. Ignore what happens here at your peril.

SXSWi is already notorious for all kinds of ridiculous promotions and amenities. It’s like a giant spa with wifi. At the start of the festival, my mental workspace is buried under a massive pile of email invites for entertainment and hospitality events. These events are completely superfluous to the creative mission of the festival; it’s all marketing- and publicity-driven, mostly by cash-rich startups and massive corporations. Yet these sponsored events are a critical source of revenue for the festival. These companies are also picking up most of the attendees’ meal and drink costs for the week, too, as completely obvious quid pro quo attempts to have us embrace their brands.

Sponsors also provide access to high-demand entertainment opportunities. Here’s an excellent example of an extreme “white people problem” I have coming up on Monday night: I have to choose between TV on the Radio hosted by Zynga, or Big Boi and Pepsi MAX. Attendance is free for both. No feverish 10am Ticketmaster website clicking or costly ticket prices required. (Does anyone have an interesting cash offer for the concert I’m NOT going to? Scalping is not beneath me.)

But wait, there’s more! At the convention hall, you can have a personal phone recharging locker! Enjoy separate press AND blogger lounges with free food, free beer, and free massages! Eat free tacos courtesy of Lipton Brisk Iced Tea … or at any bar hosting a promotional event … or at the offices of various startup companies in the area who are hosting catered parties. Take a free ride in a Chevy to wherever you want in Austin! Enter contests to win free trips, free cars, free computers, free iPads, etc. AOL is giving away headphones I’d normally spend $10 to buy. I took two!

I could accept as many of these consumption opportunities as physical time and space allows, and not spend a second doing anything involving interactive media products. All of the sponsors would LOVE that. One needs epic levels of restraint to proceed through basic priorities here.

The troubling question is, at what point does the promotion and showcasing of irrelevant products become the basic priority of the presenters and organizers? Have we passed that point already? Is everyone here full of shit? Is this all proof of the biggest technology investment bubble yet? Does this mean our entire society has lost restraint and is headed for brand-infatuated doom?

Maybe there is hope for us yet. While I wrap up at the session that I’m attending — which is very much on-point about management and organization — there is simultaneously a session titled, “How Not to Be a Douchebag at SXSW”. By my tally, that’s 2 points for creative minds, 0 for douchebags. I aim to have my time here spent trying to increase that lead. With the help of some free beer, of course.

A Non-Viewer’s Guide to ‘Lost’

I’m really excited for the upcoming season of Lost, premiering February 2 on ABC! I’ve got Lost fever. The only cure is more Lost. I am tingling with anticipation! It’s been too many months since we last left off on the story of the survivors of Flight … uh … Spoiler alert: I have never seen Lost. I have never tried to watch it, I don’t know what’s really going on with it, and I don’t get why so many of you are nuts about it. I was almost positive it would get canceled before the story finished because the networks do crap like that and I’ve been burned too many times. Now my girlfriend is going to make me watch Lost this season, and I have to get into it or else I’ll be sleeping on the fire escape. So here, I’ll do my best to recollect anything I’ve picked up about the show by way of not actually watching it. Rather, this is what I’ve overheard at cocktail parties, gleaned from blogs and celebrity magazines, and what I’ve seen on Wikipedia. Gaps will be filled in by my imagination.

(‘DiggThis’)Let’s recap: Flight whatever-it-was crashed on an island, and the survivors of the crash became separated so that they’d keep running into new survivors all the time. The guy from Party of Five is the leader of the main group of survivors. This is because he is very good-looking. His main sidekick is a girl who appeared on the cover of Maxim, as that’s the only other place I’ve ever seen her.

They run around the island all the time and get into dramatic situations with the other survivors fighting some super-secret company that has a website where people can spend hours trying to figure out secrets about the show (that will be all explained in due time anyway). The island is supposed to be deserted but there are all these hidden places on it, where there is much danger. People apparently die all the time. Some of them get shot, by a gun that was (improbably) left on a deserted island or carried on a commercial jet flight. A lot of these people are related somehow, in ways that they don’t know.

One of the survivors is this crazy guy Locke, who does mysterious things, appears in commercials for the show with crazy eyes, and is very dangerous to be around, just like Russell from Survivor: Samoa. Locke dies, but, as in the case of (real-life crazy) Michelle Rodriguez, no one ever really fully dies on this show. Locke was killed by Ben, who leads a group of strange people who are already living on the deserted island along with the mysterious corporation with the website. Ben is also responsible for sending Harold Perrineau to die on a boat. That was a bad move, because Harold Perrineau is cool. Also, somehow Michelle Rodriguez got a DUI on the island.

There are a lot of other good-looking survivors on the island. It is the best-looking set of plane passengers I’ve ever witnessed. When they’re not killing each other, they’re either having sex or dying while trying to escape. This goes on for years until suddenly the writers have everyone back living in America. While they’re in America, there’s a scene where one of the survivors, this humongous fat guy, drives a van. (This is all I saw of the show last season.) He is really a big big guy. I had a heart attack just looking at him. I wonder where he got all that food on the deserted island to stay fat like that.

Apparently, when you survive a plane crash, you can never stop revisiting it with your fellow survivors, so they all group back together to go back to the island to have a big Last Supper-style dinner. I wouldn’t ever go back to a creepy island like that, but it means that we will get to learn more about the corporation with the website. At the end of this (final) season, I’m pretty sure the guy from Party of Five is going to win at Tribal Council. Or it’ll be the girl who was on the cover of Maxim.

Maybe at the end, they will tie everything up for us, though I would bet that it will be left open-ended so that there can be a movie. I would go see that movie in a second, especially if they called it Locke: Crazy Eyes.

Lower East Side Reborn (as a Fat Baby)

At the beginning of the aughts, scenesters were already chattering that the Lower East Side was dead. After decades of hosting immigrant cultures and earning a reputation as the neighborhood most likely to relieve you of your wallet, Max Fish be damned, its moment as an urban frontier for artists and cool kids, off the radar of tourists and the tragically unhip, ended quickly. It rapidly swarmed with high-end boutiques and expensive lounges and out of town guests directed there by a knowing concierge, while staples like Luna Lounge, Tonic and Collective Unconscious were forced out of the ‘hood they helped create.

Because the new offerings were targeted to a bland, wealthy audience dependent on the ‘00s boom economy, and unlikely to move into apartments the size of tenements, whatever the counter-tops were made of, it was predicted that customer traffic would eventually trickle down and high-rents would topple the new neighborhood order. Blogs like Eater pulled no punches when reporting on venues like The Blue Seats, whose initial customer “deal” was to offer NFL game-day seat reservations for $50 a piece – excluding the cost of drinks. (Despite being “Deathwatched,” Blue Seats is still open for business.) Back in 2006, I had an assignment to write a piece about the rumored closing of Ludlow Street’s split-level club Libation and what that meant for the neighborhood. It, too, is still open.

In fact, despite the financial and real estate markets having soured, business is still booming on the LES. Clothing boutiques abound in even greater numbers than they did five years ago. The pricey and unremarkable restaurant at the Hotel On Rivington, now called Levant East, seems to be humming along after several misfires. The weekend lines outside the overpriced, widely-reviled, tightly-packed rock club Fat Baby are long, and brimming with a bridge and tunnel crowd. There’s no shortage of acclaimed restaurants or $6 draft beers within arm’s reach of the intersection of Ludlow and Rivington. It’s hard to get weekend seating at beer havens Spitzer’s Corner or the Marshall Stack and just about impossible to spend less than $20 on two beers and an appetizer in either venue.

And, there’s so much more to come. At least two dozen nightlife venues have opened, or are about to open, in the hood this year, despite the recession. Apparently, flavorless gentrification can go on and on and on, a lesson we should have learned from the Meat Packing District.

The LES’s new hangouts include, The Doghouse, a cavernous dive bar that serves free hot dogs; Meatball Shop, self-explanatory; T-Poutine, dishing up the newly trendy Canadian confection involving fries, gravy and cheesecurds; Los Feliz, a three-story upscale taco and tequila bar; Thompson LES, a trendy hotel with a poolside lounge and a zero-star restaurant (hello, alumni sorority mixer!); Bia Garden, a mostly-hidden Vietnamese beer garden; an upcoming piano bar AND an upcoming karaoke lounge; and yet another unnamed, unlisted speakeasy far from the subway. I don’t intend to label any of these concepts as dreadful (Los Feliz and Bia Lounge seem to be well-regarded), but none of them seem particularly inventive, with their well-studied, one concept hook. Would you brag about any of those things to your out-of-town friends to justify your four-figure rent?

Of course, if you’re forced to hang on the LES, which inevitably, you will be, many of the spots that opened in the aughts, and especially the later aughts, aren’t so bad. If you can’t beat ‘em, you might as well enjoy a Banh Mi and a good cocktail. So if you do find yourself wandering south of Houston, east of Bowery, here’s a game plan that works. The LES is dead, long live the LES.

Eat lunch at An Choi. The entire menu is superb, and it’s a particularly suitable place to grab a lunchtime banh mi and beer — and if daytime drinking is not your thing, the Roasting Plant serves exceptional coffee mere steps away. Grab first date drinks at Allen & Delancey, which still runs an impressive bar even if the kitchen is infamously volatile. Get your snack fix at Mikey’s Burger, imminently opening in the old Rush Hour space, where Michael Huynh promises to offer clever Asian spinoffs of the American classic. Browse leather jackets at Orchard Street on Sundays, when pedestrians reclaim the street from vehicles and the storefront’s move their racks to road’s center. Drink one of the last cheap PBRs around at Welcome To The Johnsons, which hasn’t changed since you were last there in 2004. Find one of the first respectable LES sushi restaurants at Uo (mostly unmarked, above longtime resident 151 Bar). Eat fresh liquid-nitrogen-made ice cream — indeed, they make it right in front of you with KitchenAid Artisan mixers — at Lulu And Mooky’s. Get your dance party fix at 200 Orchard, once the hottest new neighborhood nightclub in 2007, for just over a month until it had licensing issues — it recently reopened, finally. You know exactly what you’re getting at Stuffed Artisan Cannolis (as a self-respecting Italian I can tell you that the regular cannolis are good, but the cannolis with unusual fillings, PB&J, pumpkin spice, are better). Finally, if you are nightlife royalty and you must do one thing that is late-night, exclusive, luxurious and satisfying, stop at The Eldridge. You will find a buzzworthy hotspot that delivers the goods — if you can get past the doorman

Curb Your Enthusiasm for Anything Else: Larry David’s Best Show on TV

Larry David opens a gift. It’s a GPS unit in one of those fused-shut plastic clamshell cases. He tries opening the package, but finds it difficult to get into. Within the next 30 seconds, there is stabbing and screaming; sparks fly as knife metal is stabbed into a stone countertop. Blood is drawn, the gift is destroyed, and the scene has devolved into violence and agony of a magnitude that you can’t find on whatever pretentious scripted dramas with which you’re currently obsessed. It’s just another joke about plastic clamshell packaging, but Larry David made a genius comedic moment out of it.

Curb Your Enthusiasm is the best show on television that you’re not talking about. Halfway through its landmark seventh season, the show’s dark humor is reaching surprising heights, even though we should expect exactly that from Mr. David. The storied co-creator of Seinfeld has already received praise for what many have summarized as “the HBO version of Seinfeld” — used as both praise and as a dismissive remark of both shows and their brand of comedy.

Given that it airs on the network famous for its anything-goes original programming, it’s no surprise that the show is innovative and sharp. But the show doesn’t earn nearly as much lip service among critics and fans as it’s predecessor, or contemporary trendy shows like 30 Rock or The Office. It has earned only one Emmy out of twenty-eight nominations. Some of those losses are against the likes of 30 Rock … but others were against Friends and Everybody Loves Raymond. The success of those shows can be boiled down to the fact that they try to make you laugh and feel good; this is a show that tries to make you laugh and feel terrible. How can you cite gag quotes from an endless stretch of cranky arguments? Most well-crafted comedies make citation an easy task for chatty upbeat office-cooler lingerers.

But that’s what’s genius about Curb — it’s not easy comedy. It’s the uneasiness that makes us laugh, and Larry David certainly has a knack for making us feel uneasy. It’s never been a comedy for everyone, and this season it definitely still isn’t. The main joke of the first episode: cancer. The main joke of the second episode: road head. (Is that not dark humor? Well, it is when Susie Essman is giving it.) The signature joke of the third episode: After having a disappointing encounter with a network executive, Larry fantasizes standing over the executive’s casket, and then makes a coin-flip decision over whether or not to inform him of a potentially fatal health condition. The following three episodes feature Larry getting beaten up, in once case graphically. In the seventh episode, Larry murders both a fellow golfer and a black swan; he spends more time worrying about the swan.

These gags may not easily provide casual conversation to the uninitiated or squeamish, but for pure comedy’s sake, nothing else currently on TV can compete. If you’ve seen 30 Rock lately, you’ll find it’s extremely clever yet irritatingly formulaic.

Step 1: Liz Lemon is stymied by a bunch of conniving idiots again! Step 2: Repeat. Many of the other revered comedies of this decade, like The Office (the workplace is full of conniving idiots, except Jim and Pam) and Arrested Development (the family is full of conniving idiots), also fail to deviate from this basic structural TV formula. These shows have little fresh to offer, even if the writing is sharp; it’s all about the almighty punchline.

Curb isn’t afraid to use buffoonery as a gag, but also isn’t afraid to poke fun at Larry, and all of us, for having darker urges and emotions. In exploring that territory, it pitches the sharpest and filthiest comedy fastballs you can find on TV this decade. Curb Your Enthusiasm is no longer easily dismissed as a sequel-like continuation of the Seinfeld psyche, an imitator that points out all the flaws in the original; it is a comedy powerhouse in its own right. Even with all its much-hyped network comedy competition, it stands alone as real must-see TV.