May 29, 2007

Final Yamato

I've been a fan of Leiji Matsumoto's drawing style for his heroines, even though I've never really watched any of his work. The one exception being his work on Interstella 5555, because I picked that up a while ago. I just watched Final Yamato (spoilers), and while I did really like how Yuki was drawn, I don't think the movie was that great. Maybe having watched the last chapter first was the wrong way to approach things, but I think Final Yamato is designed to stand alone while carrying more value for people who have seen the earlier episodes.

Some people really love the Yamato franchise. And it is certainly a grand and epic space opera, from one perspective. But I felt the movie lacked any real purpose. There's a basic plot and the characters feel like fully developed people, although I think there is not a whole lot of actual character development in the film. But it's kind of simple. There are bad guys and the good guys have to stop them from destroying the Earth.

Perhaps for someone who was really into the entire Yamato series, this movie would be a satisfying and proper conclusion. But I couldn't feel anything special about the characters or the final mission of Yamato.

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Napoleon Dynamite

So I've finally gotten around to watching the cult comedy, Napoleon Dynamite. The opening sequence where Napoleon has a little fun with He-Man on the school bus really sets the overall tone of the movie. It's inane yet somehow strangely rewarding. Despite Napoleon's grand loser status, everything works out just fine the way he is. And I think it's great how never once during the movie does Napoleon try to be someone he isn't.

Luna really liked watching Napoleon Dynamite because it's just so silly and full of stupidness. She really likes those kinds of comedies and laughed a lot during the entire movie. Something as simple as getting hit in the face with a piece of steak can have a lot of comedic value, and the actors in this movie can really pull that sort of stuff off. I think primarily because they can play the part of loser so well.

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Zeiram 2

I just watched Zeiramu 2, which I ended up deciding to watch after seeing Iria: Zeiram the Animation. For some reason though, I failed to put the first Zeiramu movie on my queue first. I have to say the live action movies are similar to the animation in almost every way. Meaning it's fine on action but has absolutely no real plot.

In this movie, Iria needs to retrieve some sort of teleporter energy source, and is partnered up with a robot to do so. Although the partnering only lasts for a few minutes and was sort of without Iria's approval. However, the robot goes crazy and ends up targeting Iria and her friends for destruction. The rest of the movie involves fighting off the robot and trying to retrieve the teleporter energy source so they can escape.

Nothing really special about the movie, but some mind find it enjoyable as a dumb, but sort of fun, action movie featuring intergalactic bounty hunter, Iria.

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May 27, 2007

FanimeCon 2007

Luna and I got back from FanimeCon 2007 at around 7pm. We got on the light rail this morning around 10am, and got to the convention center around 10:45am. Unfortunately, that was too late. This was the first time I'd gone so late, and it also seems like anime's increasing popularity is being represented at the cons (there are more cons this year as well). We ended up having to stand in line for at least 2.5 hours! The longest I've ever had to stand in line in previous years was about 15 minutes, although I'd never gotten there so late before. There were a lot more staff members this year as well, and I think they expanded into more rooms.

Anyway, we spent the vast majority of our time in the dealer's room, since both of us just really care about picking up some hard-to-find collectibles. At first, Luna got really sidetracked by seeing some of the dolls, because she saw some people selling clothing and accessories for them in the artists' room. And so we ended up not going through systematically and sort of running around to look for the doll seller. They're too expensive though, so she won't buy one until later.

Luna also ended up not always knowing what she wanted until after we had left a store, so in a couple of cases we actually ended up coming back to the same store to buy things a second time. Which is bad because you can usually get a little discount by buying more things all at once. So we probably could have saved a little more money if she would have known what she wanted at the beginning instead of only deciding later.

Yvonne had told me she wanted something from Paranoia Agent or Romeo x Juliet, but I couldn't find anything about those two shows. We ran into Sonia later on, and I asked her what Yvonne might like instead, but she couldn't think of anything except Romeo x Juliet. So we ended up getting Yvonne and Shannon one plushie each. Although now I'm not sure if Yvonne already has the plushie I ended up picking for her. Luna also picked up a Gackt single to send back to her cousin in Shanghai.

Anyway, I purchased a Gunslinger Girl wall scroll, while Luna got one of Kyo Kara Maoh!. I got a Tachikoma 1/24 scale model, although not at the greatest price, and the four figure Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children figure collection. Luna got a five-piece One Piece figure collection, but they didn't make a figure of Sanji who is Luna's favorite character. She decided not to get the special versions of Nami or Usopp. I got one doll of Lain in her bear pajamas, and also a doll of Kasukabe Saki in her President cosplay outfit, from Genshiken. I want to get the Ohno cosplay dolls as well, to go with Saki. I didn't see any of Ohno at the convention. Luna got the first eight volumes of xxxHolic and a Mokona doll that wiggles when you pull a string.

We walked a lot today, and carried back a lot of stuff. Both of our feet hurt now, but I think we found a lot of pretty good stuff that we wouldn't have found elsewhere. The One Piece collection is actually from a Japanese store that has two branches: one in Japan and the other in Los Angeles. The sellers were actually Japanese, and one of them didn't know very much English. So Luna talked to her in Japanese asking about the collection. They were also selling a Keroro collection but for the size of the pieces, neither of us thought it was a good price.

Sora in the WindowMononoke-HimeI did think it was interesting that this year's most popular characters were from Kingdom Hearts 2, by far. Organization XIII and Sora were popular cosplay costumes, and so many of the doujin artists featured Kingdom Hearts 2 characters. Final Fantasy and Naruto were not as popular anymore. There were a few people dressed as Princess Mononoke, more than I expected. The girl in front of us in line actually had a very good costume. There was also a bunch of Mario Bros. characters, and one group of girls came together as Princess Peach, Daisy, and Toadstool. A Shy Guy and Mario found them and they made a good group picture.

Luna with Keroro and TamamaWes and The EmpireHere is a photo of Luna with Keroro and Tamama, and one of me with a couple of Empire employees.

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May 24, 2007

This Ugly Yet Beautiful World

I just finished watching This Ugly Yet Beautiful World, and ended up liking it more than I thought I would as the series originally progressed. Things start out a little like you might expect of a relationship anime set during high school, and about half way through I sort of decided it was a standard relationship series with a stupid monster attack gimmick. But once things were explained, things got a lot more interesting.

This anime is really about finding something for yourself, but then having to deal with the loss of something precious. Takeru begins the story as an apathetic teenage boy, who has ended up the way he is due to abandonment issues as a young child. He and his friend end up meeting Hikari (and later Akari) and suddenly things are different. Takeru starts growing up and coming out of his shell, because Hikari needs him and he has found something he needs just as much.

Unfortunately, things are not going to end up as everyone would wish they could. Ultimately, different people have to make different choices. And making one choice means giving up something else. This is not one of those stories where a boy is surrounded by many girls and he has to pick one (or be friends with them all, at least). This are a little less perfect in This Ugly Yet Beautiful World. But Takeru is going to learn to deal with it.

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Shadow Hearts: From the New World

So I ended up not playing Shadow Hearts: From the New World because Luna played through the entire thing. Which isn't too bad, since it turns out to be a lot like the previous Shadow Hearts: Covenant. It's basically the same engine and in a lot of ways the same characters too, with a sort of simliar storyline. I think the fact all the characters are the same is a real turn off, although I really did like the new world look set in the Americas. She wanted to do everything and get all the items, including get both endings, which meant a final playing time of over 90 hours.

The reason I say all the characters are the same is because the skill sets and even some of the combat mechanisms and special abilities are the exact same. The initial protagonist, Johnny, carries a camera just like Anastasia. Although Johnny isn't all the strong at magic or fighting, so he actually isn't a great character to use for most of the game, but you have to keep him in the party to use the camera. Shania is this chapter's Yuri. Frank is Joachim (even down to the silliness and weird way of walking). Hilda is also like Joachim because she transforms into different attack modes depending on use. Ricardo is Lucia, except with a stupid guitar-weapon. Natan is like Karin, but not as interesting or important. And instead of a wolf (Blanca) now we have Mao (a giant talking cat) that doesn't have wolf bouts but instead tries to make a movie by fighting other giant talking cats.

Graphically, things are basically the same since it's the same engine, but with some minor improvements. Bodies and faces are smoother, with better polygon integration. Especially during movement. You won't see clipping or tearing. Motion capture also seems more natural. I really liked the initial look of the backgrounds because they're much more colorful and natural looking than the dark look of the previous games. So much so that I didn't feel the gothic vibe at first, and in fact I don't think this game has as strong a gothic vibe.

The combat system is a little improved as well. Combination attacks are a little more interesting because you can't just perform combos all the time. You have to increase your stock gauge by attacking and being attacked, and then use up a stock unit to combination attack. Performing combo magic requires you to consume two stock units. So first you have to beat on the enemy a little and then attempt combo magic. This usually means only being able to execute combo magic once per boss fight. Also, if there is a combo break, you don't lose the character's turn. The addition of stock is sort of in trade for SP to execute combos.

I didn't like the new Stellar and Stellar Chart magic system though. It made it very hard to assign magic to characters, since you first assign magic into groups (the chart), which has some limitations unless you spend money to improve the chart's flexibility, and then you have to assign the charts to the characters. Since you can't really tell what magic is already on a chart without moving the cursor onto each individual one, it becomes a somewhat labor intensive process. And it's not at all clear if doubling up stellars results in lower cost magic, which was one of the best ways to make magic affordable in Covenant.

Luna liked the game, but thinks it was a little short. It was only one disc, but I don't think it is that short. Luna probably could have finished it faster if she didn't try to find every last item. If you can read Chinese then you can read her entry about it.

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Our I-485 Interview

Luna and I had our Adjustment of Status (I-485) interview today at the Department of Homeland Security office in San Jose. The waiting room was very barren, and when we first walked in I didn't even know if we were in the right place. There were no government officials or clerks or employees anywhere, and I just had to look around and find the little drop box sticking out of the metal-shuttered window where we put our appointment letter. Anyway, after waiting for a while, we were called in by one of the processing employees.

As far as I can tell, things went okay. But we were told by the person interviewing us that he needs to get the documents Luna handed over to the U.S. embassy in Guangzhou sent to him, so all of our documentation is in one big file. The first thing he had us do was swear in to tell the truth, while raising our right hand and standing up. Then we showed him our passports, my driver's license, and the pictures we have. We also gave him printouts of Luna listed on my insurance and our joint bank account. Later on, I asked if there was anything else that might help, and so he photocopied our joint credit cards, Costco membership cards, and insurance cards.

He said once he receives the documents from Guangzhou, then he can make the final decision and we should get a letter in the mail about a week after he gets the documents. So total time until we get the letter should be about two weeks. Two weeks after we get the letter, we should get Luna's residency card. But once we get the letter it would be possible for us to go into the office and get her passport stamped showing residency approval. At which point she can apply for work and a driver's license.

It turns out we could have applied for the work authorization at the same time as applying for the adjustment of status. But doesn't matter now since it's already so far along the process. Luna also did not need to get the full medical examination done again, even though we were told earlier that we needed to when we first visited the office and spoke to one of the clerks. We only needed a registered civil surgeon to sign off on Luna's vaccinations, and get those vaccinations if she didn't already have them.

We got back Luna's original birth certificate as well, and exchanged it with him for a photocopy. That's good since now we have the original and can hold onto it. Hopefully everything will go through just fine and in about a month Luna will be all set to get a driver's license and look for a job.

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May 20, 2007

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

Luna and I just watched the second movie in the trilogy, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. While there's a good amount of action and the running gags involving Captain Jack Sparrow can be very funny, the overall movie was lacking a really good plot. There are some basic motivations, without much exploration into the characters owning those motivations, to aquire a certain artifact. And then random action and hilarity ensues. So while this is a pretty fun movie to watch, I don't think it is as good as the first one.

There are a couple of subtle jokes, playing off the Pirates of the Caribbean Disney theme park attraction and the first movie, which I thought were nice to have included. But a couple of times I felt a lot more like it was the theme park attraction as a set, instead of a realistic environment. Not because of how things looked, but because of little behaviors that aren't really how people would act. I found that a little distracting.

I also didn't particularly like the way the crew of The Flying Dutchman was put together. I guess they wanted to do something different than just skeletons from the first movie, but I found the costume design to be a little far-fetched. If the crew is supposed to be composed of sailors, they should at least look like sailors in some fashion.

Despite that, the audio and video quality was very good. I really did feel immersed in the movie while watching, and that things looked very real. Including the special effects which can sometimes look too fake in some movies. Here, it was done very well and seamlessly integrated into film.

I am interested in watching the final installment, which will be coming out this year. Dead Man's Chest ends without a real conclusion, and I hope things get wrapped up in the third movie. In that way, I may decide the two movies should actually be together as one, and taken as a whole be a much better movie.

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Flourite Red Substrate

I spent most of yesterday replacing the previous freshwater aquarium setup gravel with Seachem Flourite Red substrate. This gravel is red clay, and has a mineral composition suited for freshwater planted aquariums. The reason I switched from regular stones to this clay is to start keeping live plants with the turtles and fish. The plants should help clean the water as well as provide a nicer living environment both cosmetically and functionally. Plus, it should provide a more comfortable habitat with more hiding places for the fish and turtles.

It was a very arduous process, removing the existing gravel and water. First I had to take out all of the various driftwood and plastic decoration, then put the fish into a bucket that had some of the aquarium water in it. The reason for this is because cleaning out the gravel would release a lot of organic waste which would get the fish sick. Plus, since I was using an undergravel filter there was over a year of organic waste trapped beneath the filter, and I needed to remove the filter. Catching the fish took a while, and I wasn't able to get all of them while the tank was full. So I drained most of the water leaving only a little water left, to catch the last few.

Since there was so much waste in the tank, I actually had to refill and then drain again. Without the undergravel filter, waste remains suspended in the water and flows freely while the water circulates through the canister filter. An undergravel filter can make things look cleaner, since everything gets pulled down to the bottom where you can't see it, but it's actually just making things really dirty in once place. But they make sense in some cases, where you might change the water very often and do not want to deal with an external filter. But I should have paid attention to the online discussions explaining how an undergravel filter really isn't worth it for any serious aquarium.

Once all the existing gravel was pulled out, after the second full water replacement, I wiped up the little remaining dirt and gravel and turned on the heater. I keep my tank at 78°F, which is an ideal temperature for both the turtles and the fish. Since I filled the water using a hose, it was all really cold water. I then poured the Flourite Red into the tank, which created huge clouds of red clay dust. I left things this way for a while, because the water was not fully heated yet, and then eventually put the fish back into the tank, along with some plastic plants and driftwood to provide them with hiding places. Unfortunately, I had to do this before the tank was fully heated up, but it was not too bad and the fish managed fine.

I also learned a lesson about incandescent light bulbs the hard way. I've purchased a new lighting fixture to provide more light and heat to the tank and turtles. The light will be more important for the plants, and the heat will help keep the turtles healthy. Unfortunately, I didn't know that water on a hot incandescent bulb will cause it to crack, shatter, or even explode (like a halogen bulb). I wasted three bulbs this way and thought it was a malfunctioning fixture until I searched online and found out you really can't use incandescent bulbs with an aquarium. They're fine for dry or relatively dry environments, but my tank is very humid. I've ordered some compact fluorescent UV bulbs instead, to increase the lighting.

I'll update again soon, once the new lights and plants I ordered arrive. I ordered a bunch of plants, focusing on what I read saying java ferns and cryptocorne plants are hardy enough for turtles and require relatively low lighting and no CO2 injection. There are some other plants as well in the package I ordered though. Anubias plants are also supposed to be a good choice. I'll attach the plants to the driftwood, some lava rock, and to the clay substrate as well. Once they take root, it should look really nice.

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May 18, 2007

Can't Get Driver's License

Luna went to take the driver's license written test today, so she could get her learner's permit. But as it turns out, she can't take the test and get the permit because she doesn't have her green card yet. Which makes sense, since in a lot of ways a driver's license represents the fact you live in the U.S. with legal status. But this whole process is very annoying because it's so slow and Luna can't do so many things until the process is finished.

There's also that new proposal for legalization of illegal immigrants. But as I read it, applicants would get a new Z visa under the plan that would require them to leave the country for at least eight years, and as much as thirteen. I suspect even if this passes, there is absolutely no incentive for illegal immigrants to apply. The primary reason many such people left their native country (at great financial hardship, endangering their health, and risking incarceration) was to get away from horrible conditions. Like no education, lack of health care, physical danger, etc. Having to go back for eight years, essentially starting over in their native country, and then coming back to the U.S. again, to start over a third time, seems like exactly what someone will not want to do. Especially if children are involved.

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May 16, 2007

Ellie's Hurt

Yesterday I saw that Ellie had a cut on the back of her neck. It looks like a peeled blister, with the skin hanging off in a flap. The flesh underneath was a raw-looking red color. I'm not sure if what the real cause is, but I've noticed that part of her neck rubbing against the edge of her shell, and Shelly also tries to bite her around that area. So I took Ellie out of the tank and put her into the plastic terrarium, and took her to see the vet at VCA Orchard Plaza Animal Hospital this morning.

The vet said it looks okay, and that as long as Ellie has time to heal things should be fine. It will take about three weeks to heal, and she needs to be exposed to enough UV and sunlight and kept warm to help increase her metabolism and rate of healing. She gave me some Betadine (povidone-iodine solution) to apply with a q-tip to the exposed flesh, three times a day, after diluting one drop per mL of water. The medication is there to make sure any bacterial or fungal infection would be killed off.

I have to bring her back to the vet in three weeks for a follow-up appointment.

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May 15, 2007

Pochi-Chan's deviantART

Pochi-chan (a.k.a. Sonia) is a really good artist who still has a little bit of trouble believing in herself. So I figured I'd plug her Pochi-chan deviantART page. Her style is very unique, in my opinion, and also very good. She's been spending a lot of time working on her style and technique, and has gotten a lot better. Some of her stuff looks amazing. Sonia thinks she needs her imagery to look sharper, with stronger distinct lines. But I think part of what's great is her softer approach to things. A more blending of colors and imagery.

Here's a link direct to her gallery. Some of the pieces I like are Time Mailman, 2007 Yay (more nostalgic than anything), Reincarnation, Eternally Hopeless Situation, Amelie, Mother's Day, and Fairy Tale In The Heavens.

Anyway, check it out. She's really into talking to people about art and technique so if you like something leave a comment on for her. Her dream is to do this professionally, and I think she has the talent and determination to make it. She just needs a little more confidence.

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May 14, 2007

Calvin's Birthday

Luna and I celebrated Calvin's birthday today. We went over to his place in the afternoon to watch Children of Men with some of his friends, and then went to have dinner at A&J Restaurant in Cupertino Village. The food was good, although Luna thinks it was just okay since it wasn't really anything special. There were about eight of us total at dinner. I think most of them are friends Calvin met through work.

Children of Men is a movie that I had heard a little about and was slightly interested in seeing, but not really wanting to see it a lot. I feel a little funny about Clive Owen as an actor. He's good, but for some reason I don't really like his personality or something as an actor.

Anyway, the movie is about a police-state near-future variation of Britain where crackdowns on terrorism and illegal immigration have become both everyday background noise and also the political movement. The rest of the world has fallen into chaos, supposedly, with refugees trying to get into mainstream British society to live a better life. Of course, there is a political movement against these draconian policies. But the core of the plot is that humans are no longer able to conceive. The opening sequence is about the murder of an 18-year-old who is a celebrity only because he is the youngest person in the world.

Supposedly the movie is changed from the book in many ways to make it a political and social criticism of the current state of affairs. And I actually found that part of the film to be the most interesting. There isn't a lot of focus on the science, or reasons, or social changes that would result from a world without children. Although there is brief attention given to the violence that would arise from an entire species without hope of the future.

Unfortunately, I don't think there was anything that revolutionary or really special about how the film went about it. It kind of feels like the world situations and ideas are put together in a collage, but without any real thought about what that means. As someone that already knows about what goes on in the world, I don't feel like I got a whole lot out of it. And if someone doesn't know what's going on in the world, there's nothing in this film that would help them make the connection.

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May 13, 2007

An Inconvenient Truth

I finally got around to watching An Inconvenient Truth, a documentary about global warming focusing on the personal crusade of former Vice-President Al Gore to educate people about this "climate crisis". A real quick presentation about the issue was given at the 2006 TED conference, which you might want to check out. I greatly respect Gore as one of the very few really educated and contemporarily-savvy politicians of our time. And the global warming problem is one that I have believed in for a long time now.

I think one of the primary reasons I really liked this documentary is because it feels less like an opinionated exposé or personal agenda and much more like the sort of presentation or lecture you might find in academia. Of course, due to the nature of the presentation, the actual research and science involved is glossed over, but it's important to note that the scientific results and their projected impact on our world are presented. Which is where things change from opinion and subjective points of view or conjecture into real scientific data, interpreted in a scientific manner, and presented for public consumption.

One thing of note about the DVD is there's a 30 minute extension in the extras that half rehashes the existing talking points of the presentation in the documentary, and half brings in new information about the topic that is related to those talking points that have come out of research since the movie was produced. It's probably of interest to some people, but if you've already accepted the situation then it's probably not worth the time. Might be better to find newer information on the web.

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Gunbuster, or Aim for the Top!, is a facinating anime from 1988 that, for lack of a better description, contains a whole lot of heart. I approached this series thinking it was a simple "spacegirls in mecha" anime, but in fact I believe this is one of the best science fiction stories you could find. There is a little bit too much 80's flavor in the beginning and for the commercial intermission, but otherwise it's almost perfect. It seems like it could have been perfect if budgeted for a longer run (perhaps originally four episodes then extended to six).

Gunbuster follows a young girl who becomes one of the elite pilots of giant mecha to defend Earth against invasion by some sort of space monsters. In the beginning, it almost feels like an adaptation of Rocky with its focus on working out and training to make it into the space corps. Thankfully that soon ends, although the phrase "hard work and guts" continues to pop-up in the post-show science explanations.

But hard science is used for the physics of space travel (with some theoretical liberties, of course), and so suddenly the film starts taking on aspects of one of my favorite novels, The Forever War. It's a concept that was also very nicely explored in Voices of a Distant Star. The character and world situations are also very similar to those from Ender's Game. Irrespective of my comparisons, Gunbuster is a sum greater than its parts and an outstanding science fiction drama.

The thing that really makes this series shine is the character development and the viewer's personal involvement with those characters. The protagonist, Noriko, goes through real growth and transformation that is necessary, difficult, and also tragic. This series doesn't pull any punches. The situation and plot may be overwhelming for some, despite this series being approachable by both children and adults. In fact, I think this is one of those stories that can really be appreciated as a child, yet have even greater worth when you come back to it as an adult.

I also think that the seiyuu for Noriko, Noriko Hidaka (they share the same given name), did an outstanding job. I really felt like her character came across in a lot of ways through the voice work. Amano and Jung also have great voice actors behind them, although it was really Noriko that stood out to me. I didn't much like how Coach, voiced by Norio Wakamoto, sounded though.

One interesting thing of note is that each DVD has a short sequence available in 5.1 audio in the extras section. The sequence actually belongs in the plot of one of the episodes on the DVD, but is not part of the actual episode. So it's a little strange, watching something that provides a little more meat to the series but only after you've already gotten past that part of the story.

Apparently Gunbuster 2 will be coming soon, and I'm looking forward to it. It's been licensed by Bandai Visual.

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May 11, 2007

Nightmares & Fairy Tales: 1140 Rue Royale

Serena Valentino's final chapter in the Nightmares & Fairy Tales comic series, and a significant departure from the earlier issues as well. The previous chapters focused on sort of gothic adaptations of fairy tales and similar types of stories. The thread tying those stories together was the doll Annabelle, who is alive. 1140 Rue Royale is not that though, and instead loosely affiliated to the previous stories but primarily a single, focused drama providing revenge to the slaves of the real 1140 Rue Royale house in New Orleans.

While I found the previous chapters of Nightmares & Fairy Tales to be nice diversions and something like short bedtime reading, 1140 Rue Royale is more like a regular short story that can really pull you in. If you are unfamiliar with the real life events and stories about 1140 Rue Royale in real life, as I was, then the book's discovery process and mystery surrounding the house will be even more engrossing for you. If you're already familiar with the story, then this book provides a nice alternate ending to the legend, which you can add to your mental collection.

One thing I noticed right away upon opening this issue of Nightmares & Fairy Tales was the artwork. A new artist was signed on for this volume, and I like the style. It's not too detailed, but it's detailed enough to make it feel pregnant with mood. There is a great deal of line work involved to texture the people and places and give them that dark, gothic feeling. But it's not so overwhelming as to distract from the core focus of each panel. I did have some problems with the panel arrangement in the first few pages, because they did not clearly identify the visual flow. So I sort of guessed as to the correct chronological ordering.

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May 10, 2007

My Beautiful Girl Mari

Mari Iyagi is a Korean film about a young boy who is going through a period of time where people are coming and going outside of his control. He finds a "sheep-girl" that becomes an alternate reality for him, allowing him to escape to a simple and beautiful world. While there is a lot to be said about the depth and emotional meaning carried by this anime's story, what I really enjoyed about it is its artisitic quality. To me, that was its most valuable aspect.

The film has a very interesting and unique artistic style to it. The environments are incredibly detailed, although not in terms of realism but rather in terms of existence. That's not exactly clear, but what I mean is so much effort was put into building out the landscapes and buildings and trees and grass, on a grand scale. As the characters move around, they are going into new places and each place has individual blades of grass and pieces of this or that all over the place. Things are not glossed over by painting large swathes of a single color.

Plus, it seems like everything was done in CG with a cel shader that I've not seen used anywhere else. Surfaces are actually flat, like you might see in a two-dimensional rendering done in a vector drawing program. (There's a subtle plug for Adobe in the opening sequence.) I really liked the look, and found it very pleasing to watch.

The art by itself is complimented by an exceptional score and foley work. You will want better quality audio gear to appreciate it, and surround sound. I could easily see people picking up soundtracks of this film because the individual tracks are excellent. I do think, though, that to fully appreciate the music you either need to be remembering the scenes associated with the music or watching the animation sequences while you listen.

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May 7, 2007

Little Miss Sunshine

I watched Little Miss Sunshine because it was one of the most popular Sundance Film Festival choices last year. Both Dantam and Samir liked it a lot. In fact Dantam loves the characters and the story and the jokes and just about everything. But I wasn't that entertained by it. The acting and everything is top notch, and it's probably one of the best dark comedies every made, but that's just not my preference. I need a movie like this to be more amusing throughout the duration, which it wasn't. Amusement started to kick in when grandpa died, and then I laughed out loud during the beauty pageant ending. But otherwise I was just watching a dysfunctional family on a road trip.

If I were to give points, Little Miss Sunshine would win a lot for the acting. Everyone does a really great job. Olive, played by Abigail Breslin, feels like such a natural and real little girl, and not at all like a character or an actor. There are some really excellent scenes where you can see the body language coming across as if unconscious behavior. But the caliber of acting really carries over into all of the characters. The father and mother are played by Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette who are not moviestar characters but stressed-out and honest people. Alan Arkin plays an over-the-top grandpa who only has sex on the mind and speaks his mind quite loudly, which is a somewhat unrealistic character premise but one that really works and fits in with the family. Paul Dano plays the rebellious, gangly, sloppy, overall discontent teenager who feels stuck with his dysfunctional family. And he plays the part perfectly. Steve Carroll as the uncle kind of fits into the same odd place as the grandpa because of his mannerisms and personality, but in a strange yet insightful way it works out considering he tried to commit suicide at the beginning of the film.

It's possible I would have enjoyed the movie more if I could have watched it straight through without interruption. But Luna kept interrupting me to do things or ask me things or something. The upstairs computer crashed because she turned off the air conditioner even though I intentionally left it on, and she kept bugging me until I restarted it. At one point she even unplugged the projector which initiated a ground loop hum and instantly cut out the fan and bulb, possibly shortening the bulb life because it would have overheated a little at that point.

Posted by josuah at 7:00 AM UTC+00:00 | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Magic: The Gathering Draft Tournament

I drove up to Stanford myself today to participate in a Magic: The Gathering draft tournament. Luna doesn't have any interest in playing, so I went by myself to an event organized by Karen's boyfriend, Sebastian. It was the first time I'd participated in a draft tournament, so I didn't really know what to do. Plus, the expansions we were drafting from were ones I was totally unfamiliar with. I ended up building a blue and white sliver deck which didn't do all that well. I won two out of six games, resulting in 2nd-to-last place.

Basically, in a draft tournament each participant opens a booster pack and selects a card before passing the remaining cards around the table. You then pick a card from the bunch you just received from your neighbor. And you continue this way until you've picked cards from the pack. You repeat this with two more booster packs, resulting in a total of 45 cards in your hand.

I was kind of operating under the assumption that I would need a fair amount of the picked cards to build my deck, so I ended up picking only blue and white, and only cards I felt would be compatible with each other the entire time. But in reality you should end up using only about 25 of your picked cards to build a 40-card deck. After I lost the first round (partially due to mana problems), Sebastian advised me to build a 40-card deck that included 17 lands. I did a little better once I did this.

I should have been more flexible in my drafting and picked cards from many different colors, independently of what I originally started drafting. Because I would have a decent chance of selecting 23 cards from a pair of colors that would be compatible with each other, and would have ended up with stronger cards. Instead, I didn't even incorporate any rares into my deck, and only had one viable strategy at the end. If I had not limited myself to blue and white as cards were passed around, I could have done better.

Plus, the new expansions are more complicated than the old cards. There are things like double-strike, and flanking, and other strange things like cards that can be used as either one or another card. The Time Spiral series also includes things like vanishing and suspend, or other time-based effects that result in cards appearing and disappearing from gameplay over time.

Anyway, there were eleven of us total, and the tournament took about five hours to complete, once you included organization overhead and then the final rare redrafting process at the end. This redrafing is done to prevent people from just taking rares during the draft process so they can keep them, regardless of whether or not they build a good deck.

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May 6, 2007

NewAir AC-12000E Portable Air Conditioner

We won't be able to afford installation of a new more efficient central heater and air conditioning system this year, and with summer coming up the second cooling upgrade is a NewAir AC-12000E portable air conditioner (ordered from the link provided). The specifications on this unit are extremely good, under the assumption they are accurate since I could not find the manufacturer's web site. EER is 14.46 with 12,000 BTUs for 830W/7.9A. We are going to keep this in the computer room, since that's the hottest room in the house and also the one where overheating will cause material damage.

NewAir AC-12000ESince the unit does draw 8A, and the computers already draw close to 15A on their circuit, it's sharing a circuit with the other bedroom outlets where the upstairs A/V equipment is plugged in. We will have to swap in and out with the upstairs microwave, since the microwave uses 10A.

The plastic window bar is a little strange. I'm not entirely sure I've installed it correctly, but the instructions aren't completely clear on how it is supposed to be used, with respect to the inner-sliding plastic. There is some foam provided to try and keep the window seal intact, but I couldn't get it to be 100% tight vertically, and the inner-sliding plastic is slightly narrower than the outer-sliding piece, so the seal is not air-tight. It should be good enough though.

I did read some people talk about having to insulate the exhaust hose on different brand and model portable air conditioners. I'm not going to bother doing that unless we have to. So we'll try it without insulation for now, and see how hot it gets. The hose is only about five or six feet long though, which means you do need to be able to place the unit very close to the window. As you can see in the picture, we did have to remove one of the computer monitors to make room for the exhaust hose, but we don't use that monitor much anyway.

For the price, this unit is probably the best value I've been able to find, looking at various others online. We're only going to use it on hot days to keep the computer room temperature at around 77°C-80°C, when the outside temperature is warmer than that. So it shouldn't be in use a whole lot. It can only be used for the one room though, since it doesn't have enough BTUs to cool the entire house. And certainly cannot be used in the downstairs theater since that's open and cannot be closed off. So there may still be days we cannot operate the theater due to excessive heat. But at least we won't suffer any computer equipment damage due to overheating this summer.

Posted by josuah at 8:47 PM UTC+00:00 | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Dual! Parallel Trouble Adventure

I found Dual! Parallel Trouble Adventure to be a sometimes entertaining 13-episode anime series (the 14th episode is sort of an extra) which seems to be a play on Evangelion, but done in a fun way. The character parallels are obvious, as is the connection between their endings. Anyway, I liked the first half of the series better than the second, because most of the funny stuff happens in the beginning. Things become more plot-oriented after that. From a technical standpoint, I don't think there's much to remark upon. It's sort of your average fare all around. I wasn't particularly impressed by anything, but there's nothing lacking either.

The basic plot is that due to a choice made in the past, two possible universes branched out. In one, things are pretty ordinary by realistic standards. In the other, alien technology has allowed for the creation of massive mecha. Two factions, led by researchers who used to work together, have control of this technology. One is attempting to take over the world while the other is trying to defend against global conquest. But this war is approached a little differently than you'd expect. I won't reveal that difference here, since it actually plays well to discover it while watching.

This is also one of those anime series where a bunch of girls end up all liking the same boy, who isn't doing anything to try and make them like him, and doesn't really know how to handle all the attention. In fact, because there are two parallel universes, it turns out the same girl likes him twice (counterparts from each universe). Conveniently there isn't a counterpart for himself, as then there would be two boys involved in the storyline which wouldn't work right.

Despite that angle, you won't find a lot of fan service in this series. It has more of a good-natured feeling to it. Unfortunately, the series is not particularly deep or revealing because of its mood. This might be perfect for some people, but I do like there to be a little more to things. Some things just aren't really answered fully, and the characters are pretty basic in their attitudes and actions. With the expected changes taking place at the expected times.

Posted by josuah at 1:06 AM UTC+00:00 | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 3, 2007

Raidmax X-1 ATX Mid-Tower Case

side windowThe summer is back and the days are getting hotter. This past weekend the outside temperature hit 29°C. Which translates into really hot in the computer room. The PowerMac G5 started locking up again, due to heat, and eventually something went wrong with the hard disk. I tried erasing it but afterwards the controller would just lock up while trying to communicate. Happened when I switched the disk over to my Linux box as well. So we're going through some cooling upgrades. The first is a Raidmax X-1 case.

I ended up picking this case after reading about it in an AnandTech comparison. It wasn't the coolest of the bunch, temperature-wise, but it won me over with some of the features and the acceptable price point. I am not interested in a nicer looking case that costs another $50. I just need it to do its job from a technical perspective.

temperature read-outI think my blog would be more interesting with more pictures, so I'm including some pictures off the Raidmax product page of the features that I really like. The first is a front panel temperature read-out, attached to an internal thermometer. This will give me a real easy indication of how things are inside, and if things are too hot. The front panel also has nice animations for fan and hard disk activity. But I believe the fan image only keeps track of whatever one fan you choose to attach to its lead, which means you might not notice if one of the many fans you've got inside has crapped out.

screwless locksAnother great feature is screwless locks for the drive bays and card slots. It's about time I picked up a case with this sort of feature. Unfortunately, the screwless capabilities do not extend to the actual enclosure. You still need to use screws to keep the case shut and attach things like the power supply. Screws should just go away completely. Thumbscrews would have been an easy addition for the top and side panels, but Raidmax decided not to go that way.

It turns out that Luna's always wanted a computer case like this one, which is fancier than older models (although more commonplace today) and includes a window on the side. But her mom never let her get one before because she was afraid the side window being made of plastic would break too easily. So far, the fans are keeping the case fairly cool and the spacing and arrangement of the hard disks allows for good air flow over them. I do need to order another 120mm fan for the front panel right before the hard disks though, as the case does not come with one.

Posted by josuah at 8:40 AM UTC+00:00 | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 2, 2007

Shadow Hearts: Covenant

I just finished playing Shadow Hearts: Covenant, after about sixty hours of gameplay which is a little bit longer than I was expecting. But I ended up trying to find all of the best items and completing all of the sidequests, so the total time actually isn't that surprising. Covenant continues the story of Shadow Hearts, with Yuri continuing his role as protagonist. In fact, the storyline is very much a continuation, with characters and motivations from the first game carrying over into the second.

Overall, this sequel is an improvement in all aspects over the first game. Both technically and in terms of the story and gameplay. I'll start with the combat system, since that's probably where most of the time is spent. The introduction of combination chain attacks, different elemental physical and magical attack types, and useful auxiliary spells makes combat fun and strategically interesting. This is a much needed improvement over the combat system of the first game, where it was almost mechanical.

The judgement ring serves the same combat purpose in Covenant, but there are some customizations available depending on how you like to play. I preferred the "technical" setting, which makes hitting the correct areas a little harder and the punishment for missing a little more severe, but also allows for very nice combination attacks if you get good at it.

The graphics are also much improved. Character polygon counts are much higher and rendered and FMV scenes allow you to get right up to the characters and environments without things looking blocky. Motion capture, or careful animation work, is applied to all characters and monsters so that different movements are possible. This makes things look much better during predefined animation sequences, and also during combat since the different types of attacks can result in different enemy and character motions.

Another great thing about the graphics this time is that enemies don't always turn into crazy monsters or ghosts. Fighting a human actually involves fighting a human. Many monsters look more realistically physical, rather than spiritual manifestations, like snails or giant insects. Of course, demon possession and other magical or spiritual transformation still takes place, but in a much more accepting manner.

The music is also better overall, although I still found the music too repetitive in many cases. Especially for combat. I would have liked more variety in music as I travelled between different places and entered combat in different places. But the music seems to be limited by disc. So the music you encounter changes once you get to disc two, but then you're still restricted to the portion of the disc which was alloted for music.

A lot of the problems I mentioned in my earlier post for Shadow Hearts are resolved in Covenant. I didn't have to deal with not enough of a particular accessory, forcing me to keep swapping out accessories between characters. And the only time you ran into enemies that you really couldn't defeat without knowing ahead of time their special attacks or weaknesses was in special battles, where generally a loss would be okay and you could try again.

I did really like how the plot continues from the first game, and also continues the trend of not really having evil antagonists (for the most part) but instead simply people with different viewpoints about how they want to change the world. Although there are a few times when insanity or just plain evil surface, due to humans losing control or great tragedy befalling them, for the most part. Regardless, if you liked Shadow Hearts, you'll like Covenant a lot more.

I'm looking forward to the next one, Shadow Hearts: From the New World, but Luna says she wants to play that one. So I'll probably end up watching most of the time, so I don't miss out on the story. But because of how Covenant ended, it looks like FtNW won't have any direct connection.

Posted by josuah at 4:58 AM UTC+00:00 | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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