August 31, 2005

Maria Full of Grace

Maria Full of Grace is an outstanding dramatic film. One that almost feels like a documentary for its unflinching and unapologetic attitude towards one woman's passage through an unbelievable situation that is unfortunately a reality. The film tells the fictional story of a woman who, unhappy with her current life, makes a set of choices that set her along a path that will either lead to utter demolition or the opportunity of a lifetime. Capturing that opportunity, however, requires her to make the active decision to discard all that she has. It is only her strength, and some luck, that allows her to survive.

I've wanted to watch this film for a while, and I'm glad I finally picked it up. I was expecting it to be an enjoyable film, but in fact I think it is one of the best I've ever seen. The situation is captivating. The plot feels as realistic as things can get. The characters are honest and full of depth. Catalina Sandino Moreno gives an excellent performance, and I would say the best I've ever seen for a debut.

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August 29, 2005


I watched Primer today. It is amazingly complex, full of depth and character, and captivating. While I think it is an excellent movie, it is so complex that I didn't really understand it watching the first time, and I'm still not sure I do even though I watched it right again a second time with the Director's Commentary turned on. You have to pay extremely close attention to who is involved, what is happening, little details, and also try to keep the timeline in your head.

Keeping the timeline in your head is the difficult part. Some might compare the theory to Memento, but while Memento was a sequential backwards unraveling, and the plot driven by the murder mystery, Primer does not move sequentially. Instead, it loops back and forth several times, with differing time lengths for the loops. And the plot is driven instead by how this affects the two best friends who are the central characters of the story.

I was impressed by the amount detail that went into the film, and the research into the technical background that was discussed. There are no loose ends, and I'm sure the creator had been obsessing over getting things perfect for a long time before shooting even began. Since this seems to have been his first film. In fact, a whole lot of the film was driven on sheer vision and passion.

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August 28, 2005

100% Secular Humanist

I took this test a while ago, but decided I might as well post it now. On the Religion Selector, I scored as 100% secular humanist.

According to the Belief System Selector, my #1 belief match is Secular Humanism.
What do you believe?


Read on for a description.

Secular Humanism

  • Belief in Deity: Not considered important. Most Humanists are atheists or agnostics.
  • Incarnations: Same as above.
  • Origins of universe/life: The scientific method is most respected as the means for revealing the mysteries of the origins of the universe and life.
  • After death: An afterlife or spiritual existence after death is not recognized.
  • Why evil? No concept of “evil.” Reasons for wrongdoing are explored through scientific methods, e.g. through study of sociology, psychology, criminology, etc.
  • Salvation: No concept of afterlife or spiritual liberation or salvation. Realizing ones personal potential and working for the betterment of humanity through ethical consciousness and social works are considered paramount, but from a naturalistic rather than supernatural standpoint.
  • Undeserved suffering: No spiritual reasons, but rather a matter of human vulnerability to misfortune, illness, and victimization.
  • Contemporary Issues: The American Humanist Association endorses elective abortion. Other contemporary views include working for equality for homosexuals, gender equality, a secular approach to divorce and remarriage, working to end poverty, promoting peace and non-violence, and environmental protection.

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August 27, 2005

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex

I just completed the missions of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex on the hard difficulty setting. Unfortunately, this game just isn't that great. Production I.G put a lot into the voices, dialogue, story, music, and graphics but very little into the gameplay. I suppose that's to be somewhat expected, as they are primarily an animation studio. Unfortunately, everything is great except the gameplay.

There is a very good stand-alone story going on in this game. However, it can be hard to follow it closely as there are large portions of actual gaming taking place between cut-scenes. Plus, it can be difficult to pay attention to the dialogue when you are trying to stay alive and take out some bad guys. But if you can keep up, there is a good story unfolding before you.

The graphics are not excellent, but about what you would expect. This game is almost a complete take-off of Oni, only not as fun and exciting to play. You cannot execute combat moves yourself. Instead, you will find yourself tapping a single button and having the game choose which moves to execute. Plus, unlike in Oni, it is basically impossible to take on multiple baddies in melee combat, as you cannot control who you are attacking and how. The artificial intelligence of the enemies is primitive. Shoot one of them, and the rest don't care. They have no strategic patterns or cooperation. They're all deaf and blind.

There are two particular mission segments which I think are simply horrible. The first is having to wall-jump several times up the side of a building to access a console. This is annoying. The second is even more annoying which is to outrun a pack of snipers. One-shot one-kill. I had to continue this segment more times than I can count, because it becomes trial and error as you figure out the right thing to do. A wrong move and you're shot and have to start over.

There are some redeeming qualities to the gameplay however. You can unlock additional features by completing the game on higher difficulties and by finding additional object interactions. The controls very quickly become second-nature, despite appearing at first to be cumbersome. Figuring out the correct course of action can be entertaining, as you are not always pushed one direction and one direction only. There are a fair number of weapons to choose from, although the use of those weapons is somewhat stilted; there is no agility possible, and you cannot perform actions when crouched or jumping. Adding the hacking feature was a nice touch since that is often used by Section 9. There is also support for multiplayer.

And I am still impressed by how well the non-gameplay aspects were executed. It really does play back as one of the television episodes. I'm not sure yet whether or not I will attempt to unlock more features. But I may do so, as some of the feature seem to be interesting in themselves. However, if you are looking for this type of game, I would recommend Oni over Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex.

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August 24, 2005

Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes

I finished Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes last night. Total gameplay time was about 12 hours, and I had only started it on Sunday. So didn't take me very long to complete it. It was lots of fun though, just not particularly long. I originally thought it was a combination of Metal Gear Solid and Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, but turns out it is simply an improved remake of Metal Gear Solid with some of the gameplay and graphics features from Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty.

Twin Snakes is an excellent sneaking game, with a very good storyline. There is also the option to play it again on harder difficulty levels, and to try and collect as many dog tags as possible. But I think I would end up just getting frustrated, at having to ensure you are not seen by the enemy for the entire game.

One of the great things about this game is the very strong anti-nuclear-weapon, anti-war theme. This is especially powerful because of the real-life footage used during cutscenes, and the strong background in nuclear warfare of the Japanese people. This is supplemented by a theme that portrays the idea of genetic fate as something which should not be viewed as a constraint, which is similar to the view expressed in Gattaca. And there is also a very strong thread of self-discovery within the protagonist, Solid Snake, about figuring out what life is worth fighting for. This part is similar to Battle Royale.

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August 21, 2005

Final Fantasy X-2

I've finally completed Final Fantasy X-2. This is a very interesting and new type of Final Fantasy. The majority of this game is free-form and composed of small quests and mini-games. Completing the story does not require you to explore most of what is available. Because of this, I only completed the game with 78% of the quests, and there is a new option New Game Plus that allows you to play through a second time with the items and completion percentage you finished the game with. So as to allow you to aim for 100%.

Unfortunately, because of the side quest and mini-game nature, the central story line can sometimes feel disconnected. That's not to say that is a bad thing, but it does mean you may often put the central story line on hold for several hours as you are exploring. People who complain about Final Fantasy games being too linear may welcome this change. I found it a nice approach, but one which I would not want most Final Fantasy games to use.

The combat system is also new. The technology has improved so that action is even more real-time, with multiple players executing their turns simultaneously. The character switching from Final Fantasy X has a slightly different twist now, with Yuna, Rikku, or Paine being able to change their job during combat in the style of magical-girl anime. I found this pretty interesting, and wouldn't be unhappy to see it carried into future Final Fantasy games. Although I doubt that will be the case, as Square Enix will continue to try and improve on the combat system.

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August 20, 2005

IBM Farewell Movie Night

I had a farewell movie night yesterday, in recognition of me leaving IBM to join Netflix. Quite a few people showed up, including Jean, who hasn't shown up for anything in a very long time. It was the first time that Cindy, Chris, Stef, and Jeannie had been to my place too. Most of the time was spent making fun of people.

The movie we watched was the 1967 Wait Until Dark, starring Audrey Hepburn. Alan Arkin played the bad guy, and although the voice is the same, he looked very different back then. I thought it was a pretty good movie, although some of the "younger" crowd thought it was really corny at times. Mostly because of the gender-specific roles that were portrayed, consistent with a 1967 movie. There was one point where a bunch of people screamed because of a scary shock.

There was also a ton of food. People brought too much food. Or not enough people ate enough food. I've got a lot of leftovers, but at least some people took food home. I have enough food to last me a while.

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August 19, 2005

Going to Netflix

It's official. I have accepted a software development position at Netflix, working on the "digital distribution" agreement announced late last year with TiVo. In other words, downloading movies instead of receiving them in your mailbox. This will be really cool and fun stuff to work on, especially since my research background in school was in multimedia networking. Plus, a lot of the things I don't like about working at IBM shouldn't be an issue at Netflix. My first day will be August 29.

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Santa Cruz Bonfire

Last Saturday, the New Hire Network at IBM organized another Santa Cruz bonfire this year, and I went down with Yuliya. It was a good time, although it was kind of chilly because the sky was completely cloudy. We ate at the Crow's Nest, and as it happened, someone I knew from Berkeley showed up. Lexan (I think that's how you spell his name) is attending RIT now, and worked for IBM over the summer as an intern.

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Sin City

I just watched the movie adaptation of Frank Miller's Sin City. It was quite impressive and an amazing technical achievement in how well it achieved the original look of the graphic novels. Not only is the film noir look taken to a new level, but the plot is both excellent (from the stories) and the execution so closely follows Frank Miller's vision. The detailed and stylistic world of the graphic novels is rendered beautifully. This is a film worth watching more than once.

I was surprised, after watching the film, to recall critics claiming the film is derogatory towards women. Unlike many older film noir productions, women are not portrayed as weak. There is still the classic scenario of the man saving the woman, but in Sin City, women are incredibly strong characters. In fact, I would argue that in Sin City, the clear approach is for both men and women to have embraced and strengthened those aspects that differentiate between the sexes.

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August 11, 2005

ATB - Dedicated

ATB's album, Dedicated is a pretty good effort. In some ways it is another issue of Movin' Melodies, but there is new material on there that makes it worth a look. I don't think it is as inspirational as his two disc album, Two Worlds, which has some amazing tracks on it. I do probably need to take another listen to this album when I can take more time to appreciate it. Regardless, ATB is still one of the best trance artists you'll find.

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August 8, 2005

Mark Farina - Air Farina

Mark Farina's AirFarina is his debut solo album. There is an underlying premise of an international flight, with tracks representing destinations, layovers, and other flight-related concepts and events. It's a pretty unique album. There are some flight-crew samples, and the tracks titled layover do feel like intermissions. I found listening to the album enjoyable, in part due to its eclectic sound. But it is not so strange as to require an acquired taste. I do think to appreciate it you need a full-range setup; my initial impressions on my computer speakers were not very good.

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Cats & Dogs

A got a free full-screen copy of Cats and Dogs about a week ago. Watched it yesterday. It was an okay movie. Not particularly funny but a little entertaining. I'm sure younger audiences would like it a lot more.

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Santa Cruz Trip

On Saturday, Karen and I met up for lunch. In the afternoon, we drove down to Santa Cruz to meet up with Jeni, Andrea, Ryan, and Eric. Jeni and Andrea wanted to get there early to walk around and go shopping. That was kind of boring for me. Turns out it was Ryan's birthday weekend. For dinner we ate at a place called Costa Brava. It was fancy and expensive, but apparently peanuts to Eric because he works in Hollywood and paid for all of us. Afterwards, we went back to Ryan's place for a little bit before heading home.

There was a shop called Eco Goods down there. They sell organic clothing and stuff like that. It is pretty expensive stuff. Some woman who seemed to have stopped in for the very first time spent $170 on like four items. And they looked like small items: hat, T-shirt, etc.

There was also a store that was almost entirely shoes, next to a store that was entirely hats. Karen, Andrea, and Jeni spent a long time in there.

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August 6, 2005

4 Strings - Turn It Around

The new 4 Strings album, Turn It Around is a great followup to their debut album, Believe. The majority of the album is more experimental, but the music and lyrics show growth. Near the end, a track called Back to Basics announces a switch in the musical approach, and this is obvious as the last few tracks are a return to the traditional approach of building a track by gradually layering sequences. Quite enjoyable and a great sophomore album for 4 Strings.

Interestingly, visiting the 4 Strings web site, a large number of comments have been left indicating that their iconic representative and singer, Vanessa van Hemert, will no longer be teaming up 4 Strings. That's a bit of a disappointment, as her voice is one of the defining factors in the 4 Strings sound. While I don't doubt Jan de Vos and Carlo Resoort can succeed without her supporting vocals, I do think their music will be changing a great deal as a result.

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Das Boot

I watched the superbit version of Das Boot: The Director's Cut. I am not surprised, after watching it, that this movie is regarded so highly. The intense visceral drama and action is very raw and striking in the lack of apparent liberties taken by the director Wolfgang Peterson. In many ways it seems like a documentary, rather than an action or drama film. A very good film, although I think it would be hard to watch the 3.5 hour movie multiple times.

I believe that superbit actually improved the dynamic range of the audio by an order of magnitude, although I would have to have viewed the non-superbit version to say for sure. I do know that the dynamic range seemed much greater in this film than any other I have ever watched. Quiet whispers can switch very quickly to the roar of the ocean or depth-charge explosions. I have a feeling that this film would push any home theater system to its limits in terms of audio. I think this disc would be a good choice for discerning improvements in better speakers or equipment.

The picture was also excellent, for a film being pulled onto DVD from a film over twenty years old. The film grain was very visible, but the typical encoding artifacts were not. If anything, what was apparent was the less-than-perfect capabilities of film. I wish I had better contrast and black level, but you can't do much about that without spending much more on a projector.

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August 4, 2005

Online Prices == GOOD

I just got back from Fry's where I picked up two DVDs, four CDs, and one DVD video. Total price at Fry's came out to about $100. Adding 30 miles of driving, at 40.5¢ (as of today's date), and the same items purchased from Overstock would have saved me ~$26.46. So, was there any advantage to visiting Fry's? It gave me something to do and I wouldn't have picked up Mark Farina's Air Farina album otherwise.

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August 2, 2005

Equal Rights for Gay Marriages

The California Supreme Court has ruled that privileges granted to traditional marriages must be extended to same-sex relationships that have been registered with the state. This is an important ruling because it sets a precedent on how Californian businesses must treat domestic partners. Aonther good example of why I picked California as where I want to live.

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August 1, 2005

A Series of Unfortunate Events

I watched Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events yesterday with Szu-Huey. I had wanted to see it for a while, and was planning to buy it too, but after watching it I'm not so sure I want to buy it as much.

It's a fanciful story, but very formulaic. That's fine for younger audiences, but somewhat annoying to me. The costumes, sound, special effects, and characters were all great. No expense was spared there. It's just that the plot wasn't executed all that well, in my opinion.

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