March 2008 Archives
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.
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...
I don't have an image, because for some reason I didn't grab this from Ms. Anderson's Strange Angels, but rather from the Newbury Comics Collection. Odd, I'd say. But she's a Goddess...
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!
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!"
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.
Cool commercial (yes, Virginia, that doesn't have to be an oxymoron!)
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.
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...
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.
I'm not really a "cat person", but I have had them around enough to find this pretty darned funny:
(Found via Whatever)
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.
- The Fantasy Trip programmed adventures with a friend. We went to great lengths to try and find The Treasure of the Silver Dragon, to no avail, although I think we got close.
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!
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.
|6||Yo La Tengo|
|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...
My first purchase driven by the free downloads from Stereogum happened yesterday. In general, I have been pretty pleased with the songs. I am only about half way through the February collection and have found the selection and diversity of the sounds to be solid and very listenable.
But yesterday the first song that made me stop what I was doing and find out what just played came on. It was called "To The Country" by Laura Veirs. Using the "Artist" tab of Amarok, I read a bit about her (she's worked with The Decemberists in the past) and off to her My Space page to listen to a couple more songs from her latest effort, Saltbreakers. I like them well enough, but "To The Country" was special. It sounds just so cool, especially when the bass line kicks in.
So off to Amazon MP3 and bang, US$0.99 later I had an official copy, complete withe cover image. Vox uploading just doesn't like anything to do with my Linux box. I can't upload and I can't even insert the image while on Linux. I have to switch to my Windows box to get it to work, which annoys me to no end. Anyway, have a listen and see if you don't agree with me:
And now, for my first "Things on Tuesday" list, where I list some things I loathe and some things I love. As the group page says, lets start with the loathing:
Things I loathe
- My girls being sick. It was a long February for it and it has continued into March. Not only do they not feel good, but it sure throws a wrench into the routine.
- Spending money on stuff I don't need. Happens too often and I need to reign in the spending.
- Making coasters. Trying to burn a CD that just doesn't want to play on other players.
- Losing focus. So many things compete for my attention and I need to do a better job at doing the things that are important and stop getting distracted
Things I love
- Making my wife happy by surprising her with a new Crowded House CD (once I stopped making coasters, that is...). She's such a CH fan girl...
- Free MP3 downloads. Thanks again go to W♥M, as they pointed out The Charlatans new CD free for the download. Good stuff.
- More free MP3 downloads. Thanks to Ross (in his last weeks' ToT post), via DaveT, for pointing out the 3.2gigs of free downloads from Stereogum.
- My girls getting passionate about stuff. Whether it is Pokemon, basketball, or whatever, I love to see them fired up about something. Their enthusiasm is infectious.
- My dog resting his head on my legs when we wake up in the morning. There is something so peaceful about sliding my leg near him on the bed and having him put his head down on it and heaving a big ol' comfortable sigh.
Busy and expensive weekend for me. After having a couple of martinis on the back deck with my wife (hey, it was way up into the 30s!), I went in and watched The Assassination of Richard Nixon, found on the Free Movies section of Comcast HD on Demand. Starring Sean Penn as the loser Samuel Bicke (actually Byck), is is based on the real story of Byck's planned assassination of Richard Nixon. A movie of unrelenting pessimism and gloom, Sean Penn's portrayal of the crazed Bicke was simply remarkably, and really, I think, the only reason to watch the movie. Truly a depressing yet fascinating movie, in the old "watching a car crash" fashion.
Then my wife and I watched Knocked Up on HD and, frankly, I don't see what the fuss was all about. Nor did my wife, who had an even harder time understanding Alison's motivations at getting involved with this loser and then keeping him around. Knocked Up reminded me of director Judd Apatow's earlier film, The 40 Year Old Virgin in its uneveness. I found some spots to be hilarious but the movie seemed to drag and at nearly 2 1/4 hours, was about 30 minutes too long.
But Katherine Heigl is truly a stunning beauty, which made her connection with Seth Rogan's Ben Stone even harder to understand. I think my favorite character was Kristen Wiig's TV exec Jill. Her reactions, both to Alison's first promotion and then to her newly discovered pregnancy, were classic.
But Sunday I spent way too much money on a Playstation 3 and various accessories. It is, however, a very slick looking console, if a little big. And I was surprised to see that it plays Playstation one games (the new 40gb machine purposefully does not play PS2 games). even if they do look ugly. It doesn't come with an HDMI cable, so I had to buy one of those. And I forgot to buy an optical audio cable, so I need to get another one, although I borrowed the one from my Xbox for now. I also bought another controller, the DVD controller, a game (Oblivion because it was cheap), and a movie (Life Of Brian).
The game looks spectacular, even if it is "only" 720p. Life of Brian, while still uproariously funny, doesn't look quite as nice. I demand solid colors from my hi-def DVDs, and this had a little too much speckling. I supposed I shouldn't be surprised at that, give its age (nearly 30 years ago it was filmed!). I will enable BluRay on my Netflix account and will try some newer movies. I tried to get some James Bond movies, which I thought were all out on BluRay, but I guess only the latest one, Casino Royale is available.
But I probably shouldn't have indulged, even if I did get a windfall from the selling of a boardgame. The game catalog is sadly lacking. At the Best Buy where I picked it up, maybe a third of a row had PS3 games, while the other 2/3 was PS2 games. The XBox 360 had 1.5 rows. But there are a couple of co-op games available I might try, like Resistance: Fall of Man or the upcoming Army of Two.
Just over the email transom, a little political humor for your Sunday:
A little boy goes to his dad and asks, "What is Politics?" Dad says, "Well son, let me try to explain it this way: I am the head of the family, so call me The President. Your mother is the administrator of the money, so we call her the Government. We are here to take care of your needs, so we will call you the People. The nanny, we will consider her the Working Class. And your baby brother, we will call him the Future. Now think about that and see if it makes sense.." So the little boy goes off to bed thinking about what Dad has said.
Later that night, he hears his baby brother crying, so he gets up to check on him . He finds that the baby has severely soiled his diaper. So the little boy goes to his parent's room and finds his mother asleep. Not wanting to wake her, he goes to the nanny's room. Finding the door locked, he peeks in the keyhole and sees his father in bed with the nanny. He gives up and goes back to bed .
The next morning, the little boy says to his father, "Dad, I think I understand the concept of politics now. " The father says, "Good, son, tell me in your own words what you think politics is all about." The little boy replies, "The President is screwing the Working Class while the Government is sound asleep. The People are being ignored and the Future is in deep shit."