September 30, 2007
The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords
I started playing The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords a long time ago, with Shannon. In fact, I pretty much bought it because it can be multi-player and I wanted to play it with Shannon and Yvonne. But we haven't seen much of each other in a while so I decided I might as well finish it up. While this Zelda is really good, it is just more fun to play with other people because that's how it was designed. Plus, you can only play the Tingle mini-games with more than one player.
This version of Zelda is much closer to the types you find on the Game Body platform, instead of the recent console platforms. Partially because it makes use of the Game Boy Advance screen to provide different views for each player. It's very similar in look and feel to The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past from the Super Nintendo, but with updated gameplay and nicer graphics technology. Being able to control four Links, either on your own or with other people, lends itself to new and interesting puzzles that require cooperation or can be done more quickly or easily with friends at hand.
Nintendo really did something cool, with GBA multiplayer games. It's an expensive hardware investment, but it does make for some really fun and engaging play with friends.
September 29, 2007
New Cichlids and Green Tiger Barbs
Today we picked up four new cichlids, one each of blue, yellow, orange, and white, as well as three green tiger barbs and a pink-flowered artificial plant for the aquarium. After trying a planted aquarium, the tank has been pretty bare of hiding spots and places for fish to feel safe or sleep, so I put all the artificial plants back in. I also wanted to stock it up with a few more fish so things would be more lively and interesting.
I've never seen a white African Cichlid before, so I'm curious to see how that one ends up when it's grown up. We bought all small fish, since they're cheaper that way and they're going to grow up fast enough anyway eating all of the crumbs from the turtles. So now we have six cichilds in there and seven tiger barbs. So far they're getting along very well, and the large blue cichlid is still the dominant one but there's a lot more stuff in there so things should be a little less stressful for everyone else.
Luna also wanted to get some ghost shrimp. Ghost shrimp are cool because they really look like ghosts, but are better for a less aggressive tank where they won't just become food for the fish or turtles, or end up getting plastered to the wall above the water line.
GameStop Ratings Advisories
Luna and I stopped in at GameStop today, and while we were browsing through the games I heard something interesting. There was a mother in, buying a game for her son who was not there with her, and as she was paying for the game, the GameStop employee was informing her of the ESRB rating and description. I suppose this is normal policy now, when selling games to parents or grandparents, because of all the public outcry, lawsuits, and legislation attempts over children ending up with violent or sexual games.
Of course, I'm in the camp that believes the responsibility for making sure your children play games that you think are suitable belongs entirely with the parents/purchaser. But since computer and video games are something the majority of that generation don't understand, they want a ratings board and laws to do that for them.
Phantom: The Animation
Luna put Phantom: The Animation onto her queue; I'd never heard about it. It's a three-episode OVA from a few years ago, that's very similar to the storyline of La Femme Nikita, only this time there are two of them. Ein is a young girl who has been brainwashed and now serves as an assassin for someone named Scythe. Zwei was given a choice to become train and become an assassin as well, after having his memories erased.
With nothing else in their lives, Ein and Zwei find meaning in their work and in each other. The chance for redemption and escape is always there, but it's one thing to do that, and another altogether to live a normal life when your talent and mental state is one of murder.
I liked how the emotional aspects of the characters were approached, although there were a few times things were a little too whiny or exaggerated. At least the writers did not make Ein and Zwei crazy-talented gunslingers; their methods of assassination and how they shoot are pretty close to reality, but the enemies are strangely slow to the trigger.
The artwork and CG of Phantom is very good. It's a perfect mixture of clean lines, bold colors, and moody atmosphere. The movements of people and the physics of the environment are excellent. The characters were designed by Koji Watanabe, and I really liked the character design in Phantom.
September 28, 2007
IBM Italian Union Labor Strike (in SL)
This hasn't been covered by the MSM as far as I can tell, but apparently IBM is reducing the pay for some of its employees in Italy as labor union negotiations have failed. Many of the affected IBMers held a protest in SL declaring a general strike.
The strike is interesting not only because it took place in SL, which has its own meaning in terms of publicity for the cause and the ability for participants to get together, but because IBM has a huge stake in SL as a corporation. IBM has tried to embrace SL, I think believing that it has an opportunity for first-mover advantages by investing time, money, and other resources in the development of that virtual world and its economy and technology. But the strike is a reminder of how the lines between RL and VR are disappearing.
Blade Runner: The Final Cut Coming Soon
Wired is running an interview with Ridley Scott about a new version of one of the most famous Science Fiction films of all time. Blade Runner: The Final Cut will be released in theaters this October, and on DVD this December (finally someone understands long windows before DVD suck, although I'm sure this time it's motivated by sales research). Scott answers some interesting questions that have been batted around by fans of the film for decades, and talks about why he's been working on The Final Cut.
Superficially it seems like something similar to George Lucas' desire to refresh the original Star Wars Episodes IV-VI, but it looks like Scott's motivation is just to clean it up, so we don't have to worry about stupid changes to the plot or scenes. Wired writes about Scott's efforts:
As the millennium turned, he continued polishing: erasing stray f/x wires, trimming shots originally extended to accommodate the voice-over, even rebuilding a scene in which the stunt double was obvious.
I'm definitely looking forward to this. Blade Runner is one of my favorite films of all time, and was very influential to me growing up. It really defined an entire genre of books, movies, and even video games. I just hope the DVD won't be particularly expensive, and perhaps I'll even be motivated to purchase it in a high-definition format, although that really depends on where things are in the marketplace and DRM as the new year comes around.
1869 MIT Entrance Exam
I came across something cool today, via Boing Boing => Pie & Hammer => MIT. It's a four-subject 1869 entrance examination. Apparently there was no real extrance examination to MIT before 1865, but the faculty started putting one together that year based on various subjects that not doubt were considered appropriate for an educated man of that time. Some of the questions are a little strange though, but I suppose interesting to know, such as the ones relating to geography.
I would have watched Misaki Chronicles earlier, having ordered it right after finishing Divergence Eve, but I don't like to watch more than one thing at a time. Misaki Chronicles continues the story of Divergence Eve where it left off, and the first few episodes slowly reveal exactly what is going on, and why. Once the mystery is understood by both the audience and the characters involved (Kiri, Lyar, and later Misaki) then the plot shifts towards trying to solve the mystery, and save themselves and the universe from annihilation.
A lot of Misaki Chronicles is spent revealing Misaki's past and her motivations for joining Watcher's Nest. The plot is really driven forward by Lyar though, which is a little unusual but very effective. You will see a little bit of her background as well, and get to know her character better as she goes on missions to defeat the Ghouls on Earth itself. Suzanna is also brought back into the show, after having become a supporting character in the first season. Some of the questions about Pris and LeBlanc are also answered.
I really liked how Misaki Chronicles took things to a conclusion. As a whole, the two series tell a very interesting story, with a nice mixture of character development and science fiction. Once you learn what's going on, you need to go back and re-examine exactly what you thought you'd seen and learned about Misaki's past and the pasts of the other characters. The end is satisfying, if a little sad, but also with just the right amount of hope. Hope for the future, and for the memory of Misaki too.
September 27, 2007
Portions of PATRIOT Act Unconstitutional
Two provisions of the PATRIOT Act have been declared unconstitutional by Federal district court judge Ann Aiken. 27b-6 has the details, but basically Aiken ruled that the secret spying court cannot issue orders for domestic wiretaps, as it would be a violation of the Fourth Amendment. Law enforcement must get a warrant, as has always been the case before. The secret spy court is used by the Executive Branch to get permission to acquire foreign intelligence. But the Bush administration has been using it to get permission to acquire domestic intelligence, under the excuse that they might acquire "foreign-ish" intelligence at the same time.
Pelosi Will Never Impeach
In an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi says she will not impeach Bush. She claims that she doesn't have the influence to bring about impeachment proceedings, but I would think the Speaker of the House better have that sort of influence as the party leader. She also claims that there are no grounds for impeachment, based on the current situation in Iraq. She also avoided the question as to whether or not holding the administration accountable actually involved any sort of real punishment.
But the point of impeachment, not just of Bush but also Chaney and other government officials that are involved, is to remove these officials from public office because they have committed criminal acts. Irrespective of impeachment, these same officials should be arrested as criminals, since they are civilians and are still bound by word of law, even if they are also high-ranking officials in the U.S. government. Why isn't the FBI showing up and taking them away? Even the right-leaning 24 did that.
Blackwater Questions ? Scandal
Blackwater USA is a private security contractor hired by the U.S. Dept. of State to provide police duties in Iraq. However a recent situation involving the shooting death of Iraq civilians in Baghdad Square has put their involvement and government relationship under the microscope. The Washington Post has some coverage about how Blackwater is straining Military and Diplomatic relations with Iraq and U.S. politicians.
There seem to be two open issues here. First, whether or not Blackwater is suitable for the work they have been contracted for. Their actions imply a certain corruption of power and their attitude one of disregard for the authority and trust placed in them. It seems like in this case, asking independent contractors to act as police or soldiers is like asking a four-year-old to direct traffic safely. Blackwater employees are supposed to be trained, and according to the article, many of them are former SEALs. But comments by military personnel don't place much faith in those employees.
Second, exactly how is it Blackwater received this contract and how can it be for such a large sum? FedSpending.org reports that Blackwater has received almost $900M for their contracts, while the Defense Department has only received $100M for their role in Iraq, since 2004. This smacks of corruption and kick-backs to me, but I don't have enough information to know if that's really the case.
September 26, 2007
Shadow of the Giant
Shadow of the Giant is the final installment of Bean's story, covering the final world unification by Peter Wiggin as Bean nears the end of his life. It reads as the direct continuation of the previous book, Shadow Puppets, and is a little more rewarding and easier to follow if you read the two together.
Although I really enjoyed the entire Shadow series, I didn't feel as excited or interested in this specific novel. There is a lot of stuff going on, with Bean and Petra searching for their babies and Peter attempting to unite the world against Hot Soup, Virlomi, and Alai's plans for world domination. But there isn't a lot of depth. Reading it, I felt like many things were glossed over a bit too much. I think there are whole portions of the plot that could have been a novel on their own, but instead the actions and results are treated like anecdotes. That's not exactly wrong, considering this is supposed to focus on Bean's life, but even then Bean's role isn't in the forefront.
Perhaps Card is trying a little too hard to avoid the emotional and intellectual meaning that he put into the sequels to Ender's Game. Those novels were very different in flavor, compared to Ender's Game, and aren't as popular as a result. However Shadow of the Giant lacks the special ingredient that is needed in a book that is supposed to be closer to hard science-fiction: a new idea. Shadow of the Giant seems more like a clean-up effort than something that is supposed to be a great work of fiction. It's unfortunate, because I did really enjoy the earlier Shadow books.
It's hard to find a good reference of the three-episode short story Luna and I watched tonight, Bake Neko (Japanese pronunciation). Which is unfortunate because this is an amazing grown up ghost story, done in a very unique and visually appealing manner. It's hard to envision it correctly, from the screen capture shown here, but the art style looks like pencil on paper, with the grain and flat coloring found in some types of older art. This shader caught my attention right away.
Bake Neko is the third story in a series of three, bundled together as a three-disc set titled Ayakashi Japanese Classic Horror. We only watched Bake Neko though; Luna did not put the other two on her queue because she said they're not as good. Bake Neko is about a demon cat (thus the name) who is killing the members of a family with questionable moral fortitude. A travelling medicine peddler happens to be there when the bake neko strikes, and takes on the task of defending the family against the bake neko, while forcing the explanation of why this spirit is holding a grudge.
I think this is a perfect ghost story tale, but not suitable for little children. The nature of the grudge and the events that led up to it, along with the visual depictions, are much closer to authentic Snow White than the Disney Snow White. But I think this is the sort of movie that you will want to share, and watch again with different people.
September 25, 2007
Making a Difficult Decision
I had to make a very difficult decision recently, between two different choices. I could keep things the same, or take a risk and make a change. I won't go into details, because the nature of this decision involves things that shouldn't be said in public, and people impacted on both sides of the decision may read this. But I do want to capture my thoughts on the matter.
I like very much the way things are. Things are wonderful, and if anyone asks I tell them I'm happy and wouldn't change a thing. But recently, I guess I've been having some doubts as to whether or not it really matters if I'm still doing this. I wouldn't have thought it before, but when the opportunity to try something new came up, those doubts in the back of my head seem to have come rushing to the forefront.
This new choice would have been great in its own way, and I'd know for sure that what I'd be doing would matter. There's some excitement in trying something new, and this opportunity carried a little more risk in hope of a little more reward. Reward that I do believe to be there. I'd missed out on similar rewards in the past, for different reasons, and thought maybe it was time to take a risk. (I don't regret the decisions that made me miss out before.) At the same time, I wasn't entirely sure it was something I wanted to do, because it would mean abandoning what I was currently doing in favor of something that might not be as good, long-term.
Trying to decide between these two choices has left me feeling very thin, over these past few days. People on both sides have been trying to convince me to go one way or the other, and in the end it came down to two things.
I said above I wasn't really sure if it mattered that I continue doing what I was doing. But when the people involved learned I might be making a change, they really showed me just how much it means to them that I stay the course. I have some loyalty to these people, and their actions and words made it clear to me that I am providing real value to them. It's important to me that I stick by the people who have chosen to stick by me.
That, coupled with my strong desire to keep doing what I am doing, to see it through, and challenge myself by doing it, far outweighed any possible reward from choosing the other direction or trying something new. Once I'd come to this decision, a huge weight was lifted from me and I feel a lot better about things and just how wonderful it is to keep doing what I'm doing.
September 24, 2007
Okage: Shadow King
I picked up Okage: Shadow King from the bargain bin for $5. It's a little old, and I vaguely remembered hearing about it, so for $5 it seemed like a good thing to take a chance on. As it turns out, the price I paid is pretty close to what it's worth, relative to the cost of other RPGs you could buy, either back then or today. The premise is strong, but the execution is weak.
In Okage, you play the role of a teenage boy named Ari who is possessed by an Evil Shadow King named Stan, and then rushed off by your parents to go questing to destroy other Evil Kings. Stan, as a Shadow King, is your shadow. He's tethered to you that way, and actually far from evil and quite powerless. Most of the fun in Okage comes from the amusing and cool dialogue and silliness of its plot.
The visuals are pretty nice, anime-styled, bright, and colorful. The music is okay, but not anything special, and suffers from having been written without knowing how it was going to be used. In other words, the music isn't appropriate to the mood or action that is taking place on the screen, in my opinion. But that's a nit compared to where the game really falls apart.
The biggest problem is with the mechanics of the game. Instead of walking up stairs, or through open doorways, you have to hit a button. And sometimes it seems like the animators took the easy way out and moved the camera to first-person-view instead of animating the action, like when you go up and down ladders. Load times are very slow, and until I got used to it moving between rooms or areas was always a test of my patience. Load times are also slow after combat, with no indication as to when it is okay to hit a button and continue your journey. Instead, I would just keep button mashing until the post-combat screen exited. Experience and level ups are handled in series, instead of in parallel, and when the level up music plays everything stops for the full music duration.
Another annoying aspect of the combat is the transition between menus. It's very hard to identify the currently selected menu choice, and when you select a menu item the next menu does not immediately appear but instead transitions in. This transition is slow enough that you cannot enter commands from memory without inserting conscious pauses, and the fact you cannot easily see the current menu choice means you need time to look, to avoid making mistakes.
The game also comes in a little short, and I finished it in about 25 hours. I think the majority of time was spent in combat, sometimes fighting enemies that I originally fought while at level 1, because the designers do not adjust the enemies in different areas based on your progress. Most combat was boring, until I realized you can fight more efficiently by executing combination attacks and there was a real-time aspect to the turn-based actions, similar to the first Final Fantasy where it might pay off to select different enemies from the start. Then it was no longer simple button mashing, but unless the enemies were difficult, it also meant battles were pretty much the same if you hit the same monster groups.
Overall, Okage is about what I'd expect from a group of developers and designers who had never put together an RPG before, possible one of their earlier video game works, and who aren't avid RPGers themselves.
September 23, 2007
Automated Targeting System is Big Brother
The Washington Post put up a very scary story yesterday. It turns out that the information collected by the DHS on travelers is much more extensive than previously expected. The first paragraph summarizes very well just how much traveling has become a threat to our expectations of civil liberties and to our rights as guaranteed under the Bill of Rights (depending upon interpretation):
The U.S. government is collecting electronic records on the travel habits of millions of Americans who fly, drive or take cruises abroad, retaining data on the persons with whom they travel or plan to stay, the personal items they carry during their journeys, and even the books that travelers have carried, according to documents obtained by a group of civil liberties advocates and statements by government officials.
The last time I took a flight, I carried almost nothing. I did, however, carry my iPod and a couple of books. I don't believe there was any time at which the contents of my iPod or the titles of those books would have been seen by an employee of the TSA but they would certainly have known where I was going, whom I was going to see, and my purpose for travel. The fact this is all recorded and will remain on record for at least fifteen years is very disconcerting to me.
I can understand the arguments for such high degrees of surveillance. I simply don't accept them. This is not the society I want to live in, and I do not trust human beings to be free of corruption or vice. The latter is probably the most important lesson to be drawn from the efforts and writings of this nation's founding fathers.
Greenspan on The Daily Show
The WSJ has an interesting post in their Economics Blog covering Alan Greenspan's recent visit to The Daily Show, including a video of the seven-minute discussion. What's great about being on The Daily Show, as opposed to many other publicity venues, is that John Stewart will ask real questions in a fair manner. (It certainly helps that his viewing audience tends to be more educated than other audiences. The attack vectors of Rush Limbaugh or Bill O'Reilly make it very hard to hold a reasoned discussion on their shows.)
In this case Stewart asks Greenspan to explain why the economy needs the Federal Reserve System at all (see Purposes and Functions). Greenspan explains it very well, in simpler terms than what you will find in an economics textbook, although also in very short terms. I really recommend people pick up a copy of The Age of Turbulence.
Madlax is a more recent anime done by Bee Train, the same people who did Noir. I guess as their sophomore work in this genre, Madlax certainly shows that they've matured. But I think there's still a long way for them to go.
Madlax suffers from some of the same problems that Noir did, such as close-quarters gunfights with unrealistic dramatic emphasis, and a soundtrack that is better but misused. This time the music was pleasing, but it repeated so often and was not used as character themes but instead mood music, that it became tiring. Although you'll probably walk away with it stuck in your head. There is extensive recycling of content again, including as the series comes to a conclusion, which is disappointing.
What Bee Train got right this time, though, is the character development and plot. Madlax is told in a manner similar to some excellent novels, where in the beginning you move back-and-forth between different players whose threads are then brought together as their relationships and roles in the plot are revealed. Sometimes I think this approach works very well, and other times I think it makes you get lost. In Madlax, I think they used the approach successfully. However, I also think they moved too slowly in the beginning. A viewer will need patience and the will to try and piece things together for the first several episodes, otherwise boredom is likely to set in.
I did feel that the ending was a little disappointing. The nature of the conclusion and the connection between Madlax, Margaret, and Laetitia were fulfilling and met my expectations and suspicions, based on things that had been hinted at or revealed before. But I felt the end result was a little bit too close to taking the easy way out, in terms of writing an ending. There was an opportunity to really expose Margaret's innermost desires, and the opportunity wasn't exercised to its fullest potential.
September 22, 2007
Wow. Pan's Labyrinth is not what I was expecting. I was thinking some magical fairy tale where a young boy or girl has to overcome personal adversity and go on a journey of self-exploration and wonder, with some nice ending when the quest is accomplished. But that's not what this is. There is magic and personal adversity and a journey of self-exploration and wonder, but it ends with a cruelty that surprised me. It may not surprise you if you come into this film with different expectations. It probably won't shock you, because there is a significant level of cruelty and disillusionment throughout the film.
That is actually part of why this film is a masterpiece. This fantastical tale is not for children. There are two plots running parallel, with the little girl Ofelia trapped between them. On one side, a cruel and vicious captain commands a military occupation while hunting rebels in the woods. This captain is the new step-father of Ofelia, but there is no love between them, and his presence is as a poison to Ofelia and her mother. On the other side is Ofelia's quest to reclaim her crown as princess of the underworld. She must acquire treasures at great personal risk and with great bravery, in order to do so and escape from her unfortunate circumstance. This dichotomy drives everything forward, and produces such a wonderful contrast between hope and despair, innocence and sin.
September 16, 2007
Greenspan Criticizes Bush Administration, Republicans
Alan Greenspan has a memior coming out tomorrow called "The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World". In it, Greenspan criticizes the fiscal policy of the Bush Administration, stating that the Republicans in both legislative and executive branches spent freely if they thought it might increase their political power. It's not too surprising then that so many industrial lobbyists were successful in dictating policy during this administration. Greenspan singles out both Dennis Hastert, who I didn't know until he started blogging after which I learned not to like his policies, and Tom DeLay as two people who encouraged this behavior. He also talks about Cheney's influence in making the phrase "deficits don't matter" a political motto.
What's interesting is that Greenspan paints former President Bill Clinton as an incredibly informed fiscal manager. Not only did Clinton take risks to ensure fiscal policy would have long-term positive results, but he did so by making sure he had all of the facts and information needed to make the correct decision. That approach is so opposite to the characteristics of Bush that it's no wonder things have become so bad for the American dollar and the majority of U.S. citizens.
If only Greenspan and his memoirs would be read by the majority of the public. It's unlikely for that to be the case though, when incendiary politics or scandal are the types of books that most people are interested in knowing about. I'm sure the book will sell well, but its audience is going to be the smaller minority of people who are educated enough to understand Greenspan's influence on history and the importance of his words.
Nine Person Game Night
We hosted a pretty big game night yesterday evening. It started out with plans for just Brian, Wendy, and Tintin in addition to Luna and me for a total of five people. But Thomas, Matt, Ling, and Quyen (somehow pronounced like Quinn) showed up as well. Matt and Ling brought four huge pizzas from Mr. Pizza Man because they had organized a tailgate type party up in San Francisco and there were leftovers. I'd never heard of Mr. Pizza Man before. The pizzas aren't great, but they were free and a lot. They only brought cheese and pepperoni, which I don't like so much anyway, so maybe the ones with lots of toppings taste better. The crust was pretty nice where it met the pizza.
Quyen brought a big tub of games to choose from, but with nine people it was pretty hard finding a game. We played something called Bohnanza. Basically, each turn you are forced to plant beans that you have in your ordered hand or that you received by trading, and the goal is to create large bean patches that you sell into the discard piile in exchange for gold. There is a different number of each type of bean, which is inversely proportional to their gold value. Selling beans removes some number of those beans from the game. The person with the most gold at the end wins. I thought it was okay, but not really my type of game. Luna, however, likes it because it's straight-forward and moves quickly.
Next we played a six-player game of Settlers of Catan with the Seafarers expansion. The doubled-up teams were Matt and Ling, Luna and me, and Wendy and Brian. Even on the same team, Wendy and Brian didn't always act in agreement, which shouldn't be a surprise. I think if this game had involved military pieces, they'd have somehow gotten themselves into a civil war. :p Despite that, they won very handily because they were the primary producers of wheat, with enough sheep and ore to puchase a huge number of development cards. They ended up winning with cities, victory points and largest army, and always had a huge stock of resources since seven didn't come up very much. Luna and I were in second place, and would have done better if I had listened to Luna and placed our second settlement at the corner of some resoures on the other side of the board, but instead I chose the wood port on a single brick hex.
Luna keeps making fun of me for losing whenever we play Settlers of Catan. I think it's been too long and I'm out of practice, since when we played in North Carolina, it was often me or Alan in first place.
September 13, 2007
Origin: Spirits of the Past
I think I got a promo seed packet for Origin: Spirits of the Past from this year's Fanime. I don't know where that seed packet went though. It's a little strange, because I guess Origin was published in the U.S. at the end of last year. But I suppose Fanime is exactly the right place to advertise for a movie like this.
Origin takes place in the future, after mutated plants in a lunar research lab erupted and attacked Earth. Most of the initial damage was due to large chunks of rock that flew off but then the forest began taking over. This isn't explained right at the beginning, but knowing this is not a spoiler. From there, it starts looking like one of the central themes will be man having to choose between cooperation or control over nature.
I really liked this film because it mixes some good, basic ideas, with a decent dose of action and science fiction. It reminded me in a lot of ways of some of the thematic and action films produced by Studio Ghibli, although Origin was produced by Gonzo and according to Luna a lot of the artists were outsourced to a Chinese firm. It doesn't have as many layers or subtleties as some, but it's got enough for the whole family to enjoy.
September 10, 2007
After watching Serenity, I thought I should give the Firefly TV series a second chance, as I liked Serenity but didn't have the full back story. When Firefly first started airing, I didn't get into it because I felt it lacked meaning. I don't think that's why it didn't do very well and ended up getting cancelled, but I've come to look for TV series that are leading somewhere and are designed to have a definite ending rather than an ongoing open plot. And while there is an overarcing plot to Firefly, about River and the men with blue hands, the individual episodes of Firefly are designed to stand alone. So plot-wise, it doesn't really matter if you had seen a previous episode, for the most part.
What Firefly is is an amazing character study. There is a depth to the characters which is very rare in most television shows, and significant character development both within an episode and across episodes. In a lot of ways, it is the kind of character exploration you find in those books that become best sellers or classics. A great deal of attention was given to ensuring the people and world of Firefly seem real and human. And I think they did an excellent job at it.
It also doesn't look like they skimped on any part of the show's production. The costumes and sets and outdoor scenes were completely filled out and felt whole. The feel of things, the dirtiness, and the consistency of environments all fit together perfectly. It's unfortunate the series did not pull in enough viewers and was cancelled prematurely. The unexpected cancellation also means the series did not really come to a conclusion, which Serenity tries to provide.
September 9, 2007
Uber Cool High Nerd
I was bored so I took the Nerd Test 2.0 and rated Uber Cool High Nerd.
Not Moving to the U.K.
If there's any other country that is possibly worse than the United States when it comes to Orwellian fear, it's the United Kingdom. The BBC is reporting that a four-year-old girl could not wear her hoodie at an amusement arcade. Because she might be a terrorist. The girl, Karen Lewis, was playing a game when one of the employees of the Les Harker's Amusements arcade said she could not wear her hoodie up, because it's against policy and they want everyone's faces to be on the CCTV cameras.
I'm okay with things like CCTV cameras in passive use, as long as there's nothing that says I can't do whatever I want to avoid being seen on them. I'm talking about public areas, of course. Private areas I think it's okay to have whatever policies that owner might want, so long as they don't infringe upon the rights of the individual.
Tintin & Bottle Rocket
Tintin came over yesterday evening to play a game of Settlers of Catan. We played the basic version, just Tintin, Luna, and me. Tintin didn't pick very good starting locations, which ended up making it very difficult for her to do well. Luna got really lucky with a bunch of rolled elevens and ended up winning by a pretty good margin.
As it happens, Tintin's movie also arrived yesterday and so we ended up watching it after the game. She got Bottle Rocket, a Wes Anderson film starring Owen and Luke Wilson as a couple of reckless friends who don't really know what to do with themselves and end up holding up a bookstore. This is followed by escaping to a motel where the maid becomes a love interest, and then returning to try and pull off one more heist that couldn't have gone more wrong.
If you're familiar with Wes Anderson's quirky sense of humor and movie style, and you like it, then you'll probably like Bottle Rocket. If his movies don't really appeal to you, then it's more of a 50/50 chance as to whether or not you'll think this movie is something special. This was his directorial debut, as well as the acting debut of the two Wilson brothers.
September 6, 2007
National Security Letters Ruled Unconstitutional
An AP article published today states that U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero has ruled the use of NSLs unconstitutional. This clause of the PATRIOT Act allowed federal investigators to access customer records without judicial review (i.e. a subpoena). This is great. Big kudos to Judge Victor Marrero.
Xenosaga: Episode III
It's been a long time since I finished a video game, and there were several points in time when I didn't play for a week or more, but the final chapter of the epic saga is done and I do believe Xenosaga: Episode III to be the best in the series. I'll go into technical details later, but the all of the open questions, character backgrounds, and plot twists are finally explained. But because the authors never shy away from taking as much time as necessary to tell the story, it doesn't at all feel rushed or artificial. This time, the lengthy cut scenes did not leave me feeling impatient to continue, because everything from the previous two episodes starts to make sense and held my interest. I think they also made a conscious decision to leave out cut scenes or portions of cut scenes that did not reveal any new information, or at least hint at something that you want to know.
I also found the ending very satisfactory. It'd say it ranks up there as one of the best endings of any role-playing game. No doubt it helps that there is so much depth to the story. The ending sequence is quite long and feels both sad and triumphant at the same time. It does not trivialize the long journey that you, the player, had to go through in order to reach it and bring things to a conclusion. Things will be different from now on, but finally things will also be all right. It really shows a remarkable attention to quality to see such a large storyline succeed over the length of three games.
Visually, Xenosaga: Episode III is a nice improvement over Episode II. The body movement of character is more natural during the pre-rendered scenes, and now have subtle facial expression changes that were not done before. I would say the visuals during gameplay are very similar though, and if there are any improvements they are minor enough that I could not notice them outright. The environments are much nicer, more detailed, and feel more open though. I think some effort must have been taken to try and make urban and natural environments that felt more realistic and interesting than they did before.
The music is well done again, and there are some really nice final battle music. Not as memorable or emotional as the most famous of them all (Kefka) but I noticed them and liked the mood created by the music during those battles.
Travel is still handled the same way as before, with larger world maps that have areas you can enter, and the majority of your travel occuring via the Elsa during which time you can work on side quests. Movement through combat areas is also pretty much the same, as is the feel of the puzzles you encounter. The puzzles are new, which is good, and some of them are forms of less common types of puzzles, which is also good.
One of the most important aspects of any RPG is the combat system, and I think Episode III finally got the character battles right. You have enough EP, or you can make it so you have enough, to utilize ether skills and tech skills liberally which is the primary strategic aspect of combat. The boost and special attacks are still there, and share the same gauge. It's possible to increase the maximum of that gauge as well, which can be extremely useful. Special attacks are used to maximize awarded points at the end of combat, so it's important to use them often, which means you won't use boost often. However it is nice to have it there because boosting can make a big difference when in a pinch. Overall, you have a lot more control over things and the different tech skills provide more variety during combat. You can also use the ether skills to good effect most of the time.
The E.S. combat is still not as fun though, even if it is less boring this time because of the inclusion of special combinations depending on the attacks you use and a much greater importance on using the right types of attacks and support items during boss battles. However, regular E.S. combat might as well be holding down the attack button. The boss battles are also only difficult in that they have to be extremely drawn out. Since there really aren't a whole lot of options during E.S. combat, the only way to make them hard is to make them long, with special high-damage attacks by the boss that you need to prepare against. I would have been perfectly happy with the E.S. battle system left out, even though it isn't as bad as before.
A new skill upgrade system is also introduced this time, although it is very similar to the one from Episode II. You still spend points to unlock skills along a few set paths, but there are only two primary paths this time and you can traverse them in parallel if desired. However, completing a primary path gives you a special master skill which can be very useful. At certain times during the story you can also find items that will unlock additional EX skills. These skills do not require you to follow a path to obtain them, and you can learn them at any time provided you have enough skill points. These skills let you give a character a useful auxiliary skill that doesn't have anything to do with their primary paths, or taken as a whole may let you adjust the combat or support options available to that character in a significant way. I found this skill system to be less annoying and confusing, and more flexible, than the previous ones.
September 5, 2007
Gary gave me a $5 coupon to Best Buy the other day, and I had a couple of $2 gift cards from when Luna and I went to one of their special events and filled out a survey. Most of the time, it doesn't make any sense to buy something from brick-and-mortar stores because it's cheaper to order them online, but with $9 in credit I decided it was worth stopping by to take a look at what they had. After talking to Tintin for a while on the phone, comparing prices in the store against prices online, I chose to get Divergence Eve. As it turns out, the price I paid after the coupon and gift cards is about the same as what I would have paid if I ordered online.
But I think it was a pretty decent choice. Superficially the series is about massive fan service, but to be honest I don't think it spends an abnormal amount of time on that. It's more like something that just is, rather than something the storyboarders went out of their way to focus on instead of other things. Of course many people are likely to disagree on that. What I liked about the series is how well thought out the overall plot is, as things are revealed with hints and little backstories, with the protagonist Misaki figuring out what's going on and her role in things. Plus, the series doesn't shy from consequences of the situation or the indifference of some of the players involved.
Misaki and three other cadets, Luxandra, Kiri, and Suzanna, arrive at a some sort of research facility named Watcher's Nest that has been set up around a strange orbital body. Faster-than-light travel is somehow connected with the phenomenon that is occuring at this location, and the four of them are joining the defense forces there to fight an "enemy", the nature of which is classified. Each of them has their own different reasons for leaving Earth behind and pursuing this career, but unfortunately it won't end happily for most of them.
There is extensive use of amateurish-CG for the 3D space craft and outer space visuals. It's amateurish because it has the budget look-and-feel of older 3D CG work, rather than more sophisticated work that is available. As a result, the space structures and ships look flat and fake, and plastic rather than organic and gritty. CG is also used for some of the 2D visuals, which work fine since those are mostly console interfaces or visual displays and not supposed to be physical objects. This sort of cheap mashup of CG and drawn or cel-shaded art always disappoints me. Over time I got used to it, but it's still a let down.
The biggest disappointment, however, was the ending. Throughout the first twelve episodes, things move at a fair pace, although not quickly. During this time, things are slowly revealed. The motivations and different loyalties, and the opening scenes showing backstory, give depth to the plot. Even though there isn't a whole lot of character development other than for Misaki; the time spent on other characters is too little, although not insignificant in their meaning. But in the last episode, everything is suddenly explained outright when it really could have used a few more episodes to try and actually illustrate the situation instead of dictating it, and the ending is conveniently short and without any exploration of the repurcussions.
The only thing I can think of is that Divergence Eve is not supposed to be considered complete. There is a second thirteen-episode series, Misaki Chronicles, which looks like it explores the consequences of Divergence Eve's ending. But in a fun and entertaining way.
Regardless, I enjoyed watching Divergence Eve and have ordered Misaki Chronicles because I want to see what happens next. The series kept me interested in the plot, and I found myself attached to Misaki and really trying to understand how she could get out of this okay, considering what has happened to everyone else. There's also a lot of deeper subtext going on throughout the series which isn't focused on and doesn't need to be picked up in order to understand or enjoy things, but its presence does provide a little more depth.
September 2, 2007
Paycheck is a full-length movie based off a Philip K. Dick short story by the same name. Philip K. Dick is one of my favorite authors, and many of his stories get turned into movies that I like. Paycheck isn't the greatest movie, but I still like the premise and the ideas involved, even if I think the writers failed to create a logically consistent plot. Philip K. Dick might have been a little crazy, but his stories always made sense. The reason the movie's plot doesn't work is because you are shown enough information to know how and why the protagonist, Michael Jennings, comes to his decisions, but that information is inconsistent with what he ends up doing. If you can get past that, then this is a decent action-thriller.
I don't want to give away any spoilers, but the Paycheck movie basically takes the simple and interesting science fiction premise of the short story and builds a longer plot around it. The premise is really something that can be presented in a much shorter time frame, which is why most of the movie is John Woo action. At least it wasn't crazy over-the-top action like some of the other movies he's directed, although there are a few times when things are just a little too convenient. And I won't say Ben Affleck's acting is very good, but I always like seeing Uma Thurman act.
We also discovered something interesting while watching this movie, though. Kiba seemed to really like it. He watched most of it, and the ending, and sat comfortably the whole time to do so. At the climax, when there were lots of explosions with loud noises and bright flashes on the screen, he even got down and went closer to the front, instead of running away like the other cats would do.
September 1, 2007
Rome: Season Two
Well, season two of Rome is finished. Luna actually watched the last disc without me while I was at work today, so she had to watch it again with me when I got home. There's not a whole lot more to say about this series that I didn't cover in my entry for Rome: Season One. The two series comprise a whole, and it is not as though things change much in the manner, style, or quality between the two. It's unfortunate that the series will not continue; I suppose there wasn't enough viewership of season two in the U.S. to cover the exorbitant costs of its production. Which is a shame since it is such a well done drama.
Season two is slightly shorter than season one at ten episodes instead of tweleve, and follows the rise of Octavian to "first citizen" and the fall of his political rival, Marc Antony. Lucius Vorenus remains cursed after the death of Niobe, but tries to find redemption by his children and meaning in his principles. Titus Pullo's life becomes a tragedy of love, betrayal, and bittersweet conclusion. All in all, and excellent ending to an outstanding series.
Installing Ruby with MySQL Support on Mac OS X
Karen came to me today asking how she could get Ruby to connect to MySQL, because she was having a lot of trouble following some instructions she had found online for compiling and installing the MySQL library herself, for her research work at Stanford. I thought it would be easier to help her install the Ruby MySQL library on her Mac instead, and then connect to the Stanford database remotely. She is not working on a web application, and does not want all of the additional stuff associated with Rails, so I needed something that would be very simple for her to install herself, with instructions from me over IM.
I found the easiest combination was the following:
- MySQL for Mac OS X (x86)
- Ruby One-Click Installer for Tiger
- RubyGems (installed as part of the One-Click Installer) for the MySQL library
First Karen installed the three items included in the MySQL Mac OS X package: the server, preference pane, and startup support. She doesn't need to run the server, but installing it creates the /usr/local/mysql directory with all of the client-side drivers. The preference pane and startup support are just there to make things easier for her to work with.
Next, she installed the One-Click Installer. Mac OS X comes with Ruby already, but only the base interpreter. I couldn't find gem anywhere, and the One-Click Installer includes a bunch of stuff including RubyGems. So now Karen has a more up-to-date version of Ruby installed in /usr/local.
At this point, Ruby 1.8.6 is installed with RubyGems 0.9.4. Typing which ruby in Terminal showed that the /usr/local/bin/ruby executable was already being picked up instead of the one that came with Mac OS X. Now we needed to install the MySQL libraries so she could write scripts to interact with her database. This is done using RubyGems at /usr/local/bin/gem.
karen$ sudo /usr/local/bin/gem install mysql -- --with-mysql-dir=/usr/local/mysql
The first time, this returned an error about not being able to find the mysql gem. However, running the same command a second time it worked just fine and asked which version of the mysql gem to install.
Select which gem to install for your platform 1. mysql 2.7.3 (mswin32) 2. mysql 2.7.1 (mswin32) 3. mysql 2.7 (ruby) 4. mysql 2.6 (ruby) 5. Skip this gem 6. Cancel installation
Karen picked #4, and after a short while it reported success. However, all is not well yet because there is a bug in the mysql.bundle file that was created by the installation. It references the MySQL dynamic library as /usr/local/mysql/lib/mysql/libmysqlclient.15.dylib when the correct path is /usr/local/mysql/lib/libmysqlclient.15.dylib. Note the extra mysql in the incorrect path.
To fix this, you need to run the install_name_tool which can be used to change the name of dynamic libraries in a Mach-O binary. As it turns out, there will actually be two mysql.bundle files created as a result of the gem installation. I believe /usr/local/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/mysql-2.7/mysql.bundle may be a temporary one, and /usr/local/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/mysql-2.7/lib/mysql.bundle (inside the lib directory) may be the one used during execution. However, just to be safe, since the current working directory appears to be used when Ruby is looking for libraries, I had Karen change the reference in both files.
sudo install_name_tool -change /usr/local/mysql/lib/mysql/libmysqlclient.15.dylib /usr/local/mysql/lib/libmysqlclient.15.dylib /usr/local/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/mysql-2.7/mysql.bundle sudo install_name_tool -change /usr/local/mysql/lib/mysql/libmysqlclient.15.dylib /usr/local/mysql/lib/libmysqlclient.15.dylib /usr/local/lib/ruby/gems/1.8/gems/mysql-2.7/lib/mysql.bundle
Now everything is done and you can use the mysql library from within your Ruby scripts. However, you need to require RubyGems first, otherwise it won't find the mysql.bundle file.
Unfortunately, after doing all of this, Karen was unable to connect to her database because it does not accept remote connections. :(