Sunday, March 30, 2008
Saturday, March 29, 2008
My last weekend viewing was very non-taxing. The HD-DVD (R.I.P.) version of 300 graced my now obsolete HD-DVD player and what spectacular video, audio and cheesiness it was too. The story was pure Hollywood hokum, albeit with a small grounding in history, as it retells the story of the three hundred Spartans who held off thousands of Persians invading Greece at the Battle of Thermopylae. herodotus is pretty much the only source for this battle, but what a wonderful read his Histories truly is!
Holding off the real and imagined Persian army, this version of the 300 was originally told in Frank Miller's graphic novel. Taking the skeletal knowledge of this battle, Miller adds some fanciful elements to the already impressive story to craft a real masculine epic of a small group of heroic combatants holding off a sea of enemies.
The film does a great job of adapting Miller's look to the big screen and does an admirable job of getting the dialogue right too. Of course, they were required by dramatic law to add the line that must be in all movies that have a Spartan in it - "Come home with your shield ... or on it". All in all, though, the dialog managed to avoid sinking into unintentional satire. I liked a line towards the end of the film:
Stelios: It is an honor to die at your side.
King Leonidas: It is an honor to have lived at yours.
The 300's stand at Thermopylae stalled Xerxes and the Persian army long enough for the rest of Greece to get their act together and the movie ends as the narrator describes the great victory of Greece over Persia at the Battle of Plataea, which followed the big Greek naval victory at Salamis.
300 was good, goofy fun. I'd be half tempted to pick up a copy as a reference disc, as the sound and video was truly top notch. Somehow, like I said, it managed to avoid sinking into true silliness and maintained a certain level of seriousness. The HD-DVD had some real nice extras, like a director's commentary which was accompanied by a small video inset showing the picture as taken against the blue screen, showing you where the graphics were later added. I also enjoyed the 300: Fact or Fiction short, which featured the hot Bettany Hughes , famous Spartan lecturer.
One thing that all this great graphical treatment still shows though - Hollywood still can't do snow wortha damn, even with all the graphical processing power they can bring to bear on the problem.
Friday, March 28, 2008
Wednesday, March 26, 2008
Tuesday, March 25, 2008
Monday, March 24, 2008
The girls and I went skiing last Saturday. We had a blast. I have so much fun doing this with them. A was a little tentative at first. She had to hold my hand all the way down the first run, which was done at the Kissin' Cousins run. We took so long coming down the hill that R was getting pretty upset, as she had raced down in front of us and didn't know what had happened. Next time down, A just needed a little help around the corners, but after that, she did it all on her own.
We did a gondola for the first time. Loon is a very nice beginner's mountain, as it has green circle (the easiest) runs from top to bottom. Usually, at the top of the mountain you only have black diamonds (the hardest runs) and a couple of blue squares (intermediate ones). Only at one point down the full run did R turn back to me and say "You have to be kidding!" when she saw the slope. But they did just fine. Conditions were a little icy, but with a couple inches of loose snow, so not too bad.
The closest we got to disaster was on the East Basin double chair lift. The girls were going to get on themselves, and I would follow up behind them (which we did on the Kissin' Cousin double). But at the last minute, A decided to go on with me, which was a good thing, as this chair left doesn't slow down, so it came up to us pretty darned quickly and A began to slide off it. I grabbed onto her with both hands and just managed to pull her up as the lift operator stopped the lift. We were a good 6 feet or so off the ground, so it could have been a scary thing if she had slipped off. But it all ended well.
They really do well at skiing. R, at 8 years old, is pretty fearless, but not so much that I get scared. She was going down the little slope (Snubber - which isn't tiny by any means) by herself and lapped us by the end. A took a little bit to get going but we did the main slopes together and it was fine for all. R wanted to try some blues but I don't think she is quite ready.
The weather was gorgeous - a little breezy but our neck warmers kept us plenty warm. Blue skies predominated, but with plenty of clouds too. It was a little crowded, especially at the gondola but the slopes weren't bad and we didn't have any waits at the chairlifts. That's probably it for this season, but I'm thinking skis would make good birthday presents.
A while ago I wrote a long post collecting some of the best versions of Hallelujah I could find, after having been completely blown away by the greatness of John Cale's version of this Leonard Cohen classic. Recently, the Jeff Buckley version shot to the top of the iTunes most downloaded songs after an American Idol singer covered it, and the judges mentioned how great the Buckley version was. Turns out, the song in general, and Buckley's version in particular, has been used many times on American TV. At US$40,000 a pop, it isn't something used lightly. And this article in the Boston Globe pointed out a version by a favorite singer of mine, Imogen Heap (lately from Frou Frou), was used in a couple of network series. An extremely spare version, but still powerful. Funny, as I don't feel like a new generation...
Friday, March 21, 2008
This is such a riot! The producers of the IDiot movie Expelled, had an invite only pre-screening of the movie. PZ Myers and his family applied, got accepted and then, as a break from the American Atheist convention, swung by to catch the preview. He was singled out and kicked out of line! But the real howler is that, attending the screening with him and his family, was none other than Richard Dawkins! Who made it in just fine. Oh man, what a scream!
Thursday, March 20, 2008
Top 10 things likely to be overheard if you had a Klingon on your software development team:
- "This code is a piece of crap! You have no honor!"
- "A TRUE Klingon warrior does not comment his code!"
- "By filing this bug you have questioned my family honor. Prepare to die!"
- "You question the worthiness of my Code?! I should kill you where you stand!"
- "Our competitors are without honor!"
- "Specs are for the weak and timid!"
- "This machine is a piece of GAGH! I need dual Pentium processors if I am to do battle with this code!"
- "Perhaps it IS a good day to Die! I say we ship it!"
- "My program has just dumped Stova Core!"
- "Behold, the keyboard of Kalis! The greatest Klingon code warrior that ever lived!"
My lousy day:
- Schedule time to bring the minivan to the dealer. Engine, TCS, & Brakelight out lights all on; shimmying front end; front bumper pulled off after wife finds only snowmound left in the parking lot
- Get call just before I leave for the dealer - wife is going to be late, can I pick up the kids? I wasn't sure how to get back from the dealer so now it is almost certainly time for a rental
- Dealer says they won't be able to get to it until later that afternoon. They don't have rentals or loaners, but they will call Enterprise to come pick me up.
- Drive to Enterprise only to (re)discover that my driver's license is expired. I knew that too, after I tried to renew it online only to find out my picture was greater than nine(sic) years old, so I needed to go in.
- Quick discussion with wife leads me to believe that I can make it to the RMV (Registry of Motor Vehicles) to get my license renewed and back in time to pick up the kids.
- Enterprise brings me to the train station, where I take a quick two stop ride, get off and walk the 1/4 mile to the RMV.
- I go the the Courtesy Desk, fill out a form, go back to the Courtesy Desk and get a number. There are 28(!!) in front of me. There are dozens more milling about. Wait promises to be an hour and 15 minutes. Still time though.
- Announcement that a nearby Registry has a 9 minute wait. But, of course, I don't have a car. And it isn't that nearby. Sit tight.
- Only about an hour later, I finally get in, take an eye test, get a picture taken, cough up an extra US$15 for the Motorcycle license addition and back to the train station. Luckily, I had earlier gotten my parking tickets straightened out.
- Call the Enterprise guy to find out if my temporary paper license (with picture though) is good enough and he says yes. Call him one stop away and he'll come pick me up.
- I call him a few minutes later and he says okay, I'll meet you when you there.
- I get to the stop and wait 20 minutes - no sign of him. I call him again and he says, okay, I'll be right down. Grrrrr. When he picks me up, he plays dumb and says he came as soon as I called.
- Finally, I drive out of the car rental place with minutes to spare with my Chevy Trailblazer. I went slightly bigger than necessary, in case we go skiing tomorrow, as the three of us and my skis won't it in either my Mazda 3 or a rental compact car, in case we decide to go skiing tomorrow.
- I arrive at the elementary school with about five minutes to spare, having had nothing to eat all day, so not enough time to even stop to get a candy bar. Kids, however, are thrilled with the "new" car.
All told, I'm gone about five hours for a 30 minute trip. How fun.
Wednesday, March 19, 2008
Funny how now I think about my Things on Tuesday list all week, trying to remember the loathes and loves for the week! Anyway, here's my weekly entry, with my loathing reserved this week for drivers. Like the kids in Lake Wobegon, everyone thinks they are above average.
Things I Loathe, bad driver edition
* The driver in front of me who rides their brakes going up to a green light, then accelerates as it turns yellow, leaving me at the red light
* The driver who turns on their left turn signal entering the rotary for no known reason, yet doesn't turn it off until they exit the rotary, when a right turn signal might actually even help
* The driver who refuses to go around the car in front of her who is turning left, even if the left turning car is actually using their turn signal. Extra loathing for those who ease too far to the right for anyone else to get by.
* Drivers who merge onto a highway with 80mph cars while doing 30mph
* Going away on a business trip, even if only for a couple of days
* Backstopping my hockey team to the championship game, only to have to miss it due to the aforementioned business trip. And they lose in overtime, 8-7
Things I Love
* Getting a wildly enthusiastic welcome hug back from everyone after returning from the aforementioned business trip
* Waking up just before the alarm goes off, in time for spoons
* Having the whole mountain to ourselves, with freshly groomed trails, brilliant blue skies and a gentle breeze
* Seeing the girls in their new Easter dresses
* Reading a great book. Both War and Peace and Sword of Honour fill that love.
Friday, March 14, 2008
Thursday, March 13, 2008
Wednesday, March 12, 2008
From PZ Myers:
An atheist's creed
I believe in time,
matter, and energy,
which make up the whole of the world.
I believe in reason, evidence and the human mind,
the only tools we have;
they are the product of natural forces
in a majestic but impersonal universe,
grander and richer than we can imagine,
a source of endless opportunities for discovery.
I believe in the power of doubt;
I do not seek out reassurances,
but embrace the question,
and strive to challenge my own beliefs.
I accept human mortality.
We have but one life,
brief and full of struggle,
leavened with love and community,
learning and exploration,
beauty and the creation of
new life, new art, and new ideas.
I rejoice in this life that I have,
and in the grandeur of a world that preceded me,
and an earth that will abide without me.
Tuesday, March 11, 2008
My movie for the weekend was Good Night, and Good Luck, a very well received move from 2005 which told the story of Edward R. Murrow's battle to expose Joseph McCarthy's "Commie Witch hunt" as nothing but Constitutionally challenged paranoia. This black and white film was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor, although it did not win any.
David Strathairn as Edward R. Murrow and George Clooney as his producer Fred Friendly are excellent in showing their growing resolve to butt heads against the growing paranoia of Joe McCarthy (played quite ably by himself via newsclips). They get some flak from CBS President William Paley (Frank Langella) but are ultimately allowed to expose McCarthy's hypocrisy.
This very earnest movie tells a story well worth telling, especially in today's atmosphere of spineless "me-too" journalism, but it lacks drama. My father complained that Day of the Jackal lacked suspense, because everyone knew that DeGaulle wasn't going to be assassinated, and I felt the same way while watching Good Night. We all know that finally McCarthy will be knocked over. It does have some resonance today, because the spineless media coverage of current attacks on the US Constitution and habeas corpus have allowed too much to happen already.
But the movie itself, while well told and solidly acted, didn't really resonate. The sub-plot of the "hidden" romance between two CBS co-workers seemed to be merely filler. So I can't really recommend the movie, although the story is important.
My other visual media experience for the weekend was the MHD On Demand free showing of the Gorillaz concert at the Apollo Theater. A friend recently sent along a lyric he liked:
There's a monkey in the jungle,
Watchin' a vapour trail.
Caught up in the conflict
Between his Brain and his Tail.
- Gorillaz, "19-2000"
So as I was puttering about downstairs cleaning up, I noticed there was a Gorillazconcert available, so I put it on. I honestly knew nothing about Gorillaz, so unlike my friend, I didn't find it odd that this "virtual" band was shown in concert! But I really enjoyed the show. It was a multimedia extravaganza and so I was distracted more than I wanted while I was supposed to be cleaning up. But it was some great music, with some excellent guest spots by people like Neneh Cherry and a reading by Dennis Hopper. The show at the Apollo Theater is of the Demon Days album, so that goes to the top of my want list now. I really liked how the band was shown mostly in silhouette, against a changing background of solid colors, at least until frontman Damon Albarn came forward for the last song, Hong Kong, accompanied by a beautiful woman playing the Chinese zither. Great stuff! Here's Happy Mondays/Black Graper Shaun Ryder singing DARE along with Martina Topley-Bird (I think) in a highlight for me:
I think that Demon Days would make a great title for a post-apocalyptic computer RPG too. I'll have to think more about that...
Sunday, March 9, 2008
Saturday, March 8, 2008
Friday, March 7, 2008
It has been another busy week for video gaming, although I haven't played any of them that I reported on last week (typical of me). Some PS3 gaming, some computer gaming and a final stab at an Xbox game.
C and I began Chapter Two of Neverwinter Nights on Tuesday. It has been going along pretty well, although a bit of ennui has set in. It might have something to do with the fact that he had previously played the first couple of chapters of Neverwinter, so we haven't hit anything new for C. I just kind of follow along and kill things. We have a pretty long list of quests to do, but none of them are very tricky and we have had the way carefully pointed out to us in every case. Perhaps when we begin playing some parts he hasn't done already my interest will pick up.
C was pretty excited to hear I got a PS3. I think we may give Army of Two a try soon. So far I have been pretty happy with the PS3 as a game machine. It really has everything you could want in a modern console, all builtin. A hi-def DVD player, wireless (and wired!) network capability, wireless (up to 7 I think) controllers with USB cables for charging (although the one that comes with it is only good for charging, as it is only like four feet long), and HDMI. It's a little ridiculous that it only comes with a composite video cable, but the HDMI/USB cable pack wasn't too outrageously expensive.
I went out an bought an optical digital cable for the audio output, but was saddened to find I had already maxed out the optical digital in for my Marantz SR7001 (it has 3 optical and 3 coax inputs). I already have the Toshiba HD-DVD player, the Sony SACD player and the Xbox using the optical inputs. Of course, the Toshiba and the Xbox are obsolete, but I don't want to give up on them yet. The SACD player can use the 6 cable direct input, but it is not as flexible an input as the optical one, so I didn't want to give up on that either. Turns out, though, I didn't need to buy the optical cable, as the PS3 will do the audio directly from HDMI. It wasn't working originally on my setup, and I thought it had something to do with how the SR7001 doesn't support the latest and greatest HDMI version, but I must have had the setup wrong, as it works just fine. Sounds great too.
Oblivion looks great, too, even if it is "only" 720p. The most impressive graphic display comes when you walk backwards in shallow water. You see the wake from your legs and it fans out in an incredibly realistic fashion. I was showing it off to my co-op friend and then we saw a horse mounted guard ride by. But we uncovered a graphical glitch, as he seemed to get stuck on the side of the hill in mid-jump. It was very funny looking.
I've only played a bit more Oblivion, as I am trying to decide just how fine-tuned I want to make my character. It is an interesting skill system, where you improve in the skills you use, but you start out higher and improve faster in your 7 "major" skills. I'm not sure just how much tweaking I want to do with it.
M and I had our weekly co-op game on Wednesday and decided to give Brute Force one last try. We have been playing it for a couple of weeks now and found it uncompelling, graphically murky and basically repetitive. But this was the first week we had all four characters, so we hoped for better.
And it didn't deliver. The level design is uninspiring and confusing. Either you are completely funneled along or it is wide open and, even with the radar, you have no idea where to go next. The weapons are boring and there seems to be no strategy, while the story is either incomprehensible or non-existent. We don't look for the height of strategy or story, but let's at least hit the Halo level (which wasn't the pinnacle of game design many think it is). So we are giving up on it, which for my friend isn't something that happens lightly. Next week, I think we are going to try Splinter Cell Chaos Theory, which finally added a co-op mode to the Splinter Cell series.
I picked up Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare yesterday. I know I promised to not spend any more discretionary money, but I needed a 1080p game, just so I could say I had something 1080p. Played it a bit last night, and it is pretty sharp. But my Sony XBR TV said it was only in 720p, which had me confused. Using some Google-fu just now uncovered the fact that CoD4 defaults to 720p, even if 1080p (or 1080i) is available. So you have to turn off 720p in the PS3 settings before running it in order to get it to run at 1080p. I'll have to try that tonight.
That being said, the game looked great and was exciting to play. But I have to say that playing an FPS with the stock PS3 "SIXAXIS" controller is pretty bad. The Xbox controller has two triggers, but to fire a weapon using the PS3 controller, you have to press one of the shoulder buttons. It's just not as nice a feel as a trigger and I often find myself pressing the second shoulder button, which drops a grenade, much to the chagrin of my teammates.
Thursday, March 6, 2008
My puzzled looks must have reflected my confusion, as I opened up the small black box to reveal three tiny booklets. Just what kind of joke was this? I had coughed US$10 or so of my hard earned money to buy this sci-fi game, with the promise of far-flung adventure across the "Imperium" and all I got for my money were these three lousy little black books? What kind of game was this, anyway?
Turns out I picked up something called a "role-playing game", still in its infancy in 1977 when I bought the little black books of "Traveller" by Marc Miller. Thus began a long, winding, adventurous trail that I am still on today, mostly played on computers. With the news of the passing of Gary Gygax, co-author with Dave Arneson of the seminal RPG Dungeons & Dragons, I have been thinking of how much fun I have had playing RPGs.
After some initial confusion, a couple of friends and I jumped into the world of Traveller with the intensity only a group of high school geeks can generate. We had charts, worlds, characters, dice and, of course, adventures galore. I still have that little black box, to which I've added a couple expansion books and two of the "Best of" from the Traveller's Journal. I also have the hardcover version, which consolidated the three black books into one big hard cover.
I didn't start playing Dungeons & Dragons until I headed off to college. There I came across a group of freshmen and sophomores in another dorm and we played D&D constantly. My fighter was Brodin and we had many adventures, playing with the basic three tan books and maybe the Greyhawk addition. This friendship led to a very nice on-campus apartment we shared in my sophomore year.
Other favorite tabletop role-playing memories:
- Running my own D&D campaign with a friend, my girlfriend and my sisters. My girlfriend loved to paint the miniatures, which I still have. Some favorite personal touches were the sneaker clad random monster encounters, incorrect treasure maps and the way too tough room. If my players dilly dallied too much, I would only have to mention that they hear the sound of wet sneakers off in the distance and they knew they had to hurry it up. And they eventually figured out they couldn't always trust the treasure maps they found, as there might be a secret door marked on them that really wasn't there (which lead to many encounters with the squishy sneakers as they searched in vain for the missing door). And I liked to have an impossible room on a level, as they usually needed a dose of humility. You know, a gold dragon on the first level or something like that.
- Over Christmas break one year, I ran a short Chill campaign with my sisters. We would sequester ourselves in a back room with the lights out and play by candlelight. I sure got some good scares with the Village of Twilight adventure!
- Running a Swordbearer campaign with some friends. I still feel that, of all the fantasy RPGs out there, Swordbearer is the clearest and most rational.
During the tabletop RPG heyday during the 1980s, I collected many of them and, being the packrat I am, still have most. From well known ones like Runequest, Call of the Cthulu and GURPS, to obscure one shots like Jorune (perhaps the most original setting of any RPG ever), Star Rovers and Castle Perilous. One of my favorites was TORG, an RPG from West End Games that let the players define its history. It has a nice cinematic feel and the Drama Deck adds a nice touch. It has some real problems with outlying stats, as things don't tend to scale very well, but I have always wanted to run a TORG campaign.
Now that my girls are a little older, I think I would like to get them started on an RPG campaign. TOON might work well, although really, a good GM should be able to shield the playes from the complexity of any RPG, even Chivalry & Sorcery. Or maybe bring them back to Chill. I have the 2nd edition hardcover, although I think I would stick with the 1st edition.
Oh well, enough tabletop RPG reminiscing. Next time, I will enthrall you with my CRPG thoughts!
Wednesday, March 5, 2008
Can you tell which album downloads I got last week from Amazon? Huh, can you? Loquat is a group from the MP3s included on my recently purchased Sansa player, while the Air and the Jesse Sykes are from the Stereogum, where dozens probably showed up 2 times.
|1||The Clean|| |
|2||Johnny Horton|| |
|3||Hank Williams|| |
|4||Johnny Cash|| |
|5||The Go-Betweens|| |
|6||Yo La Tengo|| |
|1||7||Richard Thompson|| |
|7||Jesse Sykes & the Sweet Hereafter|| |
And you can never have enough Johnny Horton, I say. And I know at least one person who would agree...