October 31, 2007
An earthquake just shook our house, making it rock back and forth with loud audible groaning. At first I thought Luna was playing something in the theater really loud, because our subwoofers are technically capable of doing that, but it was too loud and lasted too long and I realized it was an earthquake. For a brief moment I thought something weird had happened just to our house, like something outside had damaged it, because I've never been in as strong an earthquake before. This is only the second one I've felt, and the first was much more mild. But there's no way an external force could have made the house move that way, unless it was trying to rock it back and forth.
The cats got a little freaked out, although afterwards Kiba was still calmly sitting downstairs. He's really the bravest of them all. Luna was very scared for a short time though. She was shaking on the floor and wanted to get out of the house until I calmed her down and she could look out the window and see everything was okay and nothing was damaged. There was a lot of rocking, but only a few of the models in the display cabinet fell over near the end and they were mostly the ones that aren't very stable anyway. Nothing else fell or got dislocated, including the speakers which are wall mounted and on stands.
I immediately went to the United States Geological Survey Earthquake web site and entered in my experience of the quake on their Did You Feel It? survey. This lets them gather information about who felt what when an earthquake happens, and also tells you a rough estimate of what the magnitude was. When we first went to the site, the magnitude of the quake had not yet been determined, but by the time I finished the survey (along with about 350 other people) the magnitude was recorded as 5.6. The quake was asigned ID NC40204628.
Tintin lives closer to the epicenter, and she IMed me because her phone wasn't working anymore. She got pretty scared and hid under the table, and then tried calling her landlady and parents to let them know what happened but couldn't get outgoing calls to work. She said a few things got knocked over and maybe damaged, where she's staying. My phone worked fine though, and I could call her so incoming calls were no problem for her.
October 30, 2007
I don't really recall what prompted me to put The Warrior onto my queue, but it does star Ziyi Zhang which is a good sign. Unfortunately, I found the movie to be a bit boring. It tells the tale of a group of Korean soldiers who are trying to find their way back home from China through the desert, during a time when the Mongols in the North are fighting the Emperor of China (I think). Ziyi Zhang plays a princess who the Mongols have captured, and the Korean soldiers take it upon themselves to try and rescue her. What follows is a bloody battle where hundreds of soldiers on both sides die for the sake of the princess, who is understandably upset about this fact. "The Warrior" is one of the Korean soldiers who she finds herself attracted to, because of his skill and strength of character.
You can tell a lot of money was spent creating this film, with sets in the desert and other remote locations, costumes, the somewhat large-scale battles, and all of the sets. There are decent characters among the Korean soldiers, but Ziyi's character is probably the most interesting of them all because she changes over time, and plays such an active and important role in what happens and the actions of the soldiers that have rescued her.
Despite all that, I don't feel like I really got anything out of the movie, and the ending leaves a lot to be desired. It almost feels like a lost cause, where despite everything that has been done, the losses greatly outweigh the gains.
October 29, 2007
Java Server Faces are Weak
I'm very familiar with Struts and I like it a lot as a MVC framework for developing web applications. However, it's a little heavyweight, because it supports a lot and makes it possible to do many different things. Perhaps it would be easier to use something lighter for smaller web applications, like JSF in conjunction with the JSTL. As it turns out, JSF is pretty weak and doesn't even work with JSTL because there is no way for the tags to reference the information owned by the other.
JSF can be used to build HTML forms that are backed by beans. So you can use tags to create a form that will populate a bean, and likewise use a bean to populate a form. Beans can also be used to display data on the page, in general. You define the beans and their default values in a single configuration file that shared by all your pages. The navigational path between pages is also defined in a single configuration file, allowing for branching and looped paths. You can propagate beans between pages to carry information forward, and by putting logic into a bean's getters, some pure Java code as well. There is also support for some basic validators as well as custom validators, and display of errors that fail validation. Proponents of JSF argue its strengths as a MVC framework (see JSF for Nonbelievers).
However, there are some problems with JSF that I simply could not overcome. Perhaps the biggest of which is the inability to mix JSF tags with JSTL tags. JSF has a limited set of tags, not all of which provide the functionality I desire for more complex HTML generation. JSTL adds some of the tags I want (although it is not as full featured as the ones provided by Struts) but there was no way for me to reference the JSF beans directly from JSTL, to perform manipulations and iterate over values. I can shove JSF values into JSTL tag attributes, but I could not actually get a handle to the real bean object itself.
Also, if you look at how the JSF MVC architecture is described by Richard Hightower, you'll notice there is not actually a clear separation between the model and controller. If there was, you would not need to reference the controller or its business logic from the model. Some might argue that's not so different from a controller that is referencing the model and its data, but the JSF approach is backwards because it prevents code reuse. In other MVC approaches, I can use the same model in many different controllers, where the data is the same but the business logic is different. In the same way I can use the same model in many different views, to change how I want to present the information.
All of the problems I've described do not exist in Struts. I am not familiar with the Spring Framework though, which is supposed to be a very good alternative to Struts. The documentation on Spring that I have looked at seemed to require thinking about things from a different perspective, but if you do so then you have a very powerful tool. There's also Stripes, which I have only taken a very brief look at. From the Quick Start Guide, it seems like Stripes specifically merges the model and controller into one class on purpose, to make things easier on the developer. But that creates the same reuse problem I described above with JSF.
October 28, 2007
Nurse Betty isn't the kind of movie I'd pay to see in a theater (not that I'd really pay to see things in the theater) or spend money on in general, but another Hollywood Video was closing and it was only $2.50. I knew enough about the movie to think it would be funny, especially since Renée Zellweger is such a good actress. And I figured it would be the type of movie Luna would like, because it would be a little whimsical sort of dark comedy.
Well, Renée Zellweger did a great job acting in this film. She came across as a totally believable and clueless woman in search of her true (imaginary) love. It really helps to approach this film without knowing anything about the story or what to expect, because it takes interesting little turns liberally sprinkled with doses of comedic gold. Luna and I both laughed out loud many times during the movie.
I could see myself watching this movie again, next time I want to see something funny or someone asks to watch something funny. We don't have many comedies on our shelf, and this is one of the better ones you could choose to have in your collection.
I really like The Craft. I've seen it before, and the image of Fairuza Balk's character has always been with me since then. She's so purely goth. The other characters don't really interest me as much, although it's Sarah, played by Rachel True, who is the main character and good witch in the film. The basic story shows the four girls, outcasts at school, forming a coven and invoking the spirit but then abusing the power. Sarah must do something to escape the wrath of her cohorts when she tries to leave the coven.
It's really the characters that I like best about this film. They're dark, sexy, and fiercely independent. They're the outcasts, who don't let the world get to them and find companionship and support in each other to overcome the things that oppose them. Unfortunately, Nancy (Fairuza Balk's character) has lived with pain in her heart for so long that the pain consumes her, and she lashes out. But that's why she's so interesting, and alluring. Rachel is very plain, and simple in comparison.
Overall it's a fairly straight-forward and formulaic in some sense, but I still find it entertaining to watch and a slightly thrilling ride.
October 27, 2007
24kW of Power
Finally. After getting this whole process started back in February of this year, Pacific Gas & Electric has run a new cable to the side of our house, capable of feeding a new 200A panel which is more than enough power to run everything at the same time.
It's been a frustrating process. Not because of the people of PG&E, but because of the process. For the most part, the people I had to talk with were very helpful and friendly. They often did everything they could to help me out. In particular, when a crew didn't show up to disconnect the power on Thursday morning, John Herbner at our local service center did went out of his way to make sure we could get the work done and power back before the weekend. And Diane S. at the San Jose service center helped me out earlier on as well. However, both of them are managers and it was upon me to get ahold of them to move things forward. I suspect things would have been fine even if I didn't talk to them, but it would have taken longer and there would have been additional delays. The crew that came out were always friendly and helpful as well.
But it always just took a long time for things to move from one step to the next. Typical time between stages of the process were on the order of weeks, rather than days. I had to constantly call and leave messages, and then try to find other people to leave messages with, in order to get information about what I needed to do and move things forward. In fact, on that Thursday when I got ahold of John, it was only because I tracked down the physical address of the local service center and then ambushed an employee entering the building that I could tell someone that no one had come to disconnect the power. No one at the San Jose service center which I was previously communicating with could help me.
Anyway, I'm glad it's over with, and hopefully someday solar cells and electronics will be efficient enough so we can all live directly off the sun.
October 22, 2007
1408: Theatrical Version
1408 is the film adaptation of a Stephen King story about a ghost debunker who finally meets his match when he stays one night in room 1408 of the Dolphin hotel in New York City. Played by John Cusack, the main character Mike Enslin gets trapped in this room, where paranormal activity starts torturing him. The room is clearly out to drive him crazy or to suicide, and there's a one hour countdown to it. The movie follows Cusack's attempts to escape and survive, physically as well as mentally, the impossible things that the room throws at him.
And I think that's actually where I was left behind. I'm not so interested in seeing how the character deals with situations that are obviously not real. You might say he's in a parallel universe, or what happens in that room doesn't extend beyond the walls, or Enslin is just going crazy. But it's just one thing after another shown to the audience in a discomforting and disconcerting way. I think Cusack did a great job acting, but in this movie I didn't really care about that, although it was necessary otherwise the events would not be as believable. He is basically the only actor in the film, as the majority of time is spent inside the room.
The Devil's Backbone
The Devil's Backbone is a ghost story by the same director as Pan's Labyrinth. Set some time during the Spanish Civil War (Guillermo del Toro must like that time period), it tells the story of a ghost that is haunting a boy's orphanage far from the nearest town. The opening scene shows that a boy somehow died a violent death, and now his ghost appears to want something from the other boys at the orphanage. The adult characters are in slightly dysfunctional relationships, and strange things begin to unfold as one of them makes a play for money.
The beginning of the movie was a little creepy, because there were a number of times when the ghost appeared to be hunting the other boys. However, later one it's not as creepy as the main focus shifts onto the actions of the living, and the ghost starts playing a minor role. I found myself interested in seeing what would happen next, but not by much.
Tomb Raider: Legend
Tomb Raider: Legend is the first Tomb Raider game I've actually purchased and played all the way through. I picked it up because it received critical reviews as a platformer that took Lara back to her original roots in great ways. And I have to say I was very pleased with the game, and went through it quickly and thoroughly in only a few days. (I did look at spoilers to find some of the harder trophies, but otherwise went through the puzzles and time trials on my own wits and skill. It might have been easier for me to find the trophies without cheating if the contrast on the TV was better.)
The graphics are great. Nothing awe inspiring, but there are rich environments in many different locations around the globe, as Lara tries to uncover the truth behind her mother's disappearance and unlock the legend of a sword and seemingly ubiquitous stones. It was enjoyable to move between these different places, seeing different things, and navigating the different puzzles with the platform variations in each location. There are a large number of cut scenes, rendered in the game engine, with wonderful voice overs by voice actors who did a fabulous job.
I think the music is better than the graphics, and that's saying something. The soundtrack was exciting, engaging, fit the mood and storyline wonderfully, and well done. I actually am a little disappointed that the subwoofer and speakers I have for our video game set up aren't that good. I think I would have enjoyed the music even more if they were.
I should mention that the hard difficulty setting isn't actually that hard. I played through everything on hard the first time through, and never really died as a result of combat. Mistakes yes, but not from bad guys hitting me with bullets. This game is not a fighting game. It's in there, as a nice change of pace from the platforming elements, as well as an opportunity to do some minorly cool things, but it won't win any awards or present a real challenge. There are also a few vehicle sequences thrown in for good measure.
What this game is really good at is presenting a platforming challenge with good puzzles that require you to think on your toes and interact with the environment to move forward. If you're into that sort of thing, you should definitely give this game a go.
October 20, 2007
Night Watch and Vampire Effect (The Twins Effect)
We hosted a pretty big movie night tonight, and as it turned out it was sort of good that Wendy and Brian had to cancel at the last minute because we used up all the seats as is. Matt and Ling showed up a little late, and Mitch and his wife showed up for the first time. Tintin, Thomas, and Greg filled the rest of it out. We had two XL pizzas from Round Table because I had some coupons from the raffle I entered for Anthony's son's school Halloween party.
The first movie we watched was picked in a sort of democratic fashion. Even though it was supposed to be a scary movie night, a lot of people didn't really want to watch something that scary. So our first movie was Night Watch, a Russian film about good vampires versus evil vampires. It's a strange film, because the world of these vampires is a little kooky, rather than dramatic and beautiful. Their cars have jet engines on them and the bad guy boss plays video games while directing his minions. It looked a little low budget as well, and the storyline wasn't all that deep. Tintin liked it, but I thought it was just okay.
Greg, and Mitch and his wife left at that point, because they all had things to do the next morning. But the rest of us watched a second movie, Chin Gei Bin, which is primarily sold as starring the pop duo of Charlene Choi and Gillian Chung, with a cameo of Jackie Chan. Jackie Chan actually shows up for more than a cameo, and Karen Mok also makes an appearance which was pretty cool. I liked this film because it didn't take itself too seriously and was just a lot of fun. The action scenes are over the top but cool and exciting. The jokes flow freely and they aren't afraid to poke fun at themselves. And there's a odd-couple love story that makes things interesting. Ling told us afterwards that all of the subtitles were completely made up though. I've put the sequel, The Twins Effect 2, onto my queue. :)
October 19, 2007
Interlude is an amazing science fiction three-episode OVA about a high school boy who finds himself falling into a parallel world involving shadow creatures and where the people he knows don't seem to exist. A mysterious girl appears to him in this parallel world, and seeing her is the catalyst that causes him to question his sanity and his existence. He is tormented by dreams and visions of tragedy, where his oldest and best friend, Tama, lies dying in his arms.
The three episodes break the story down into three parts. I don't want to go into detail, because that would ruin the mental exploration that you are forced to go through as the story unfolds and things are revealed, but I found the journey and its conclusion to be immensely satisfying. It's a story about oneself and the obligations, guilt, and love that we all internally demand of ourselves. In the end, it's up to each person to find his or her own peace and the ability to move forward with hope despite the overwhelming despair that we perceive around us.
October 18, 2007
The Dark Crystal
Samir's mentioned The Dark Crystal several times as a great fantasy adventure movie. It was released in 1982 and created by Jim Henson and Frank Oz, perhaps the most famous of all puppeteers, as an unprecedented collaborative work. It tells the story about the crystal, which cracked 1000 years ago, plunging the land into chaos. The Gelfling Jen must go on a journey to return the shard to the crystal before the three suns are in convergence, or the land will forever remain in darkness.
The thing that struck me right away is the way the puppets do not move like puppets, much, and the shots (some of which involve blue-screening) do not hide parts of the puppets. Normally the bottom half of the puppets are hidden if they are being manipulated by stiff wires from below, or there are strings from above that make them move in a floppy manner. Even the facial movements seem to be like that of claymation, although not as expressive as it would have been if that was true.
The Dark Crystal is a great fantasy tale, but it's very simple as well. The simplicity and lack of real story development is what disappointed me. This would be a great film for children under the age of ten, but if you're looking for a fantasy story that is really engaging and challenges the mental processes of the protagonist and the viewer, you might want to look elsewhere.
October 16, 2007
I got tickets to a pre-release screening of Rendition from Samit who couldn't make it. Rendition releases nationwide this Friday, and is a movie about the U.S. practice of extraordinary rendition with an all-star cast. Unfortunately, although I think the story is there, it doesn't have enough time to really explore the subject and its political agenda is blatantly clear, rather than one that forms in the mind of the viewer through the story and characters. I think it could have done more justice to the topic if the movie was an hour longer, and if the director had not chosen to create a "smart" ending that pushes aside the real point of the film and also happens to make the plot nonsensical.
The negative consequences of the practice of rendition are only exposed through the actions of Khalid El-Emin and Fatima Fawal but the movie depicts the horrors of rendition through the character of Anwar El-Ibrahimi. This presents a real disconnect, because Anwar is the one who the audience identifies with as the innocent and tortured, and as an American. Khalid is a foreigner who displays anger at the world he is living in. The consequences and long-term impact upon Anwar, his family, and the people involved in his detention, are not explored. Yet those are some of the most important political and moral problems associated with this practice.
I also don't think this movie is going to be able to change anyone's existing opinions on the practice of extraordinary rendition. It was fairly clear that the audience majority at the theater was against the practice. Despite this, I felt it was not always an emotional opposition, but for some only an objective opposition; the movie includes some attempts at lightening the mood (which I think is a mistake) and the laughter is something I could not participate in. Luna did not particularly like the movie because it is just a reminder to her of the bad things that are going on, which she doesn't want to see.
Anyone that agrees with the argument of necessity will attack the movie for having such a clear agenda and declare the film a fictional story that is not representative of the truth. And even if they can get past there, the movie does not require such a person to reach an internal conflict in their thought processes to force them to question their own beliefs. That's an extremely hard thing to do, and you can't do it with rhetoric as the movie attempts to do.
Lastly, I was disappointed with the ending. You go through the film being constantly subjected to the dilemmas of extraordinary rendition, and then the ending suddenly requires you to shift gears and try and figure out exactly what happened. And in doing so, you are forced to leave the theater thinking about that, instead of thinking about the real subject matter. Plus, if you actually think it through, the plot as presented is not congruent with the ending, and to some degree it would appear the consequences no longer torment those involved.
October 15, 2007
Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones
Ubisoft has created a masterpiece with its trilogy of Prince of Persia games. The third and final installment in this epic story is Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones. In the first chapter, things are set up. The Prince's foolish pride and noble birthright open him to temptations that result in a catastrophe. In Warrior Within, the consequences of that catastrophe have tormented the Prince, twisting his soul. The Two Thrones offers the Prince a path out of the darkness, and a chance for redemption. The character development of the Prince and his interactions with Farah and Kaileena are wonderful to follow.
The mood, environment, and music of this chapter of the story reflects the Prince's opportunity for redemption. It is no longer dark and twisted, although at times the Prince's dark nature is reflected both in his physical appearance and in his location. But as he falls between the dungeons of the castle and climbs back up to fight the Vizier, the Prince begins to find his compassion and humanity again through the efforts of Farah. Unfortunately Farah serves only as a puzzle point and a focus of the Prince's thoughts, and not as a companion in combat like in the first chapter.
In terms of platforming, a few new elements have been added that keep the third game from being solely an extension of the first game. These new elements make it possible for the designers to create new platforming puzzles that are unfamiliar to the player. But the biggest change is the addition of quick kills to the combat system. If you are able to sneak up on an enemy, or multiple enemies, you can issue a series of timed reactions to quickly dispatch them without them having a chance to fight back or alert others to your presence. The hard difficulty changes in this respect, because quick kills become a necessary expedient, especially during combat where backup can be called upon. Quick kills are also integrated into the boss fights, so defeating bosses becomes a combination of strategy and timing, instead of pattern-based combo attacks.
As you can probably tell from the timestamp, I only spent a few days playing The Two Thrones. This is partially because it was so much fun, but also because it's a lot more straight-forward than the second game and quick kills are easier and faster for moving forward than trying to take care of a bunch of enemies without dying on the hard difficulty setting.
October 14, 2007
Game Night at Karen's
Luna and I just came back from having a game night (afternoon) at Karen's place. Ilya and his wife Katya also came; the last time I saw them was at Jamie and Keelan's wedding in Philadelphia. We played a game of Settlers of Catan, without any expansions. It was a close match, but in the end Katya had more resources and managed to pull ahead because I lost longest road to Karen. With longest road, I only needed one more victory point but Katya managed to pull that one off with a development card. Luna even tried to help me win, but she only traded me enough to upgrade to a city and get one point. Ilya suffers from the same sickness as Sebastian, and was constantly peeking at Katya's cards.
Ilya and Katya had to leave because they had other dinner plans, but the rest of us went to dinner at a fancy Indian restaurant. Good food, but not a whole lot of it for the price. I guess some of it was too spicy for Luna, because even though we ordered non-spicy dishes she said they were all too spicy for her liking.
Sebastian will be leaving for Switzerland at the beginning of next year, and Karen will be going after she graduates. So I'm not sure if we'll meet up with Sebastian again before he leaves. He's going to be doing post-doctoral work at a university there, and Karen plans to get a job in industry.
After dinner, we played a couple games of Apples to Apples. It's a party game where you try and pick a card from your hand that best matches the idea for that round. For example, the idea might be arrogance and you might have a card that is for an actor you think is arrogant. Or you might have nothing similar, in which case you'd play something completely unrelated. Each round, there is a judge who picks the card they like best, and whoever played that card wins a point. Conceptually it sounds like it might be amusing to play, but in reality it wasn't that much fun. Perhaps with more players, or judges who picked by some more ridiculous criteria, it would be.
October 13, 2007
Battle Royale II
I wasn't planning to watch it, because I'd heard it wasn't much of a movie, but Luna rented Battle Royale II because she wanted to watch it. I thought the first movie was brilliant. Unfortunately, the sequel really doesn't make any sense and has no purpose to it. It's just a violent mash-up of teens with guns and insane adults with guns, justified by superficial motivations and excuses. There's a lame attempt at a political message, but it's completely an afterthought that doesn't actually have much influence on the plot.
In Battle Royale II, Shuya Nanahara leads a terrorist organization called The Wild Seven from an island off the coast of Japan (which for some reason the Japanese government does not want to simply bomb to oblivion). This time the students are kidnapped for a new Battle Royale where the purpose is to storm the island and kill Nanahara. Their landing looks like a small reenactment of World War II. About a third of the students die before you even recognize their faces. The Wild Seven claims to be fighting all adults, for having created a world where children cannot live in happiness and specifically Japanese children. Apparently blowing up downtown Tokyo is the method by which this will be accomplished, despite there being lots of Japanese children in Tokyo.
The Battle Royale II Wikipedia entry has a little bit of analysis of the political message that is supposed to be conveyed by the film. But the contrived plot (Nanahara has heavy artillery, why didn't he shoot down the helicopter instead of trying to swat flies on the beach?) and lack of character development makes it pointless. And in the end, nothing was accomplished other than a lot of people died for no good reason. Only this time, it was because of Shuya they died. The corrupt government and adults of the world are certainly doing bad things but Shuya hasn't done anything better.
October 12, 2007
Prince of Persia: Warrior Within
Prince of Persia: Warrior Within is the immediate sequel to Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. It picks up where the first game left off, with the Prince travelling to an remote island in an attempt to stop the Empress of Time from ever creating the sands of time, because having changed the past there is a creature hunting the Prince to remove him from timeline. This creature, the Dahaka, torments the Prince and thus the Prince himself has become a tormented soul. Everything about Warrior Within reflects that darkness with a Prince that has lost all compassion and acts out of desperation, and combat that is vicious and violent.
That's the first thing that will hit you when to start playing Warrior Within. The prequel was bright, morally simple, and contained a fair share of playful banter between the Prince and his partner Farah. That has completely changed here as the environments are dark and monochromatic with enemies and creatures obscenely disfigured and hellish in their appearance. The soundtrack is loud, harsh, and violent during combat but can be quite nice and ambient otherwise. (Think Quake and Trent Reznor.) The combat is extremely violent now, with finishing moves like decapitation or full body-length splices. Instead of disappearing into sand, the enemies now exhibit blood and gore before turning to dust.
Whether or not you feel this change is for the better or worse, the gameplay itself is a significant improvement, taking something great and making it excellent. The platforming is not as simple, although the basic elements are the same. Hand holds and ledges are integrated into the environment and structures. There are new elements that you must use to move forward and new traps as well.
The new combat system is a lot more fun. It's more intense and you can do so many more things than before. In much the same way as Oni, you can grapple with, throw, and manipulate your enemy directly during combat. Unlike Oni, though, you can use all of your moves from the beginning, instead of having to learn them over time. But you can also make use of the walls and poles around you, allow for leaping, spinning, and other acrobatic attacks and escapes. There are a bunch of combinations you can execute, and then chaining combinations together makes for exciting and challenging battles. If you choose the hard difficulty, using your environment wisely and identifying the most effective strategies for each enemy becomes very important. It also makes combat very hard overall.
The plot and motivations of the Prince and the other primary characters is very different this time around. Instead of trying to save others, the Prince is motivated by a selfish desire to save his own life, selfish in that he does not care who else has to die in order for him to accomplish this. There is no doubt or conflict involved in his decisions to murder those that would oppose or obstruct his goal, regardless of their motivations.
Overall an excellent game. I ended up playing it a second time through, right away, to get the better ending, and when doing so it was just as enjoyable as the first time through.
The Pursuit of Happyness
I remember seeing a trailer for The Pursuit of Happyness a while back, and thinking it must be an excellent film. Will Smith is an amazing actor who happens to be a real person and who has the ability to portray a real person, unlike many other actors. The story sounded inspirational, and very well done. That turned out to be true, and I really liked this movie.
Although not entirely accurate, the film is extremely close to the real life story of Christopher Gardner, who transformed his life from that of a homeless single father to that of financial security and independence, by pursuing his dream while never giving up on his son. Twenty years later, the real Chris Gardner is an extremely successful man, who pursued and obtained happiness, and is enjoying life.
The two main characters of the film are Chris Gardner and his son, Christopher, played by Will Smith and his son Jaden Smith respectively. Both of them give outstanding performances, although Jaden probably didn't have to act as anything other than himself for most scenes. I thought it was an amazing display of ability how Will Smith portrays such a devoted and caring father who sometimes loses it when he's faced with the loss of his son, or the inability to care for his family, and the stress and uncertainty of it all gets to him. When frantic, he can't help but lash out at those around him, even at his son. Jaden has a few great acting scenes at those times, which I'm sure must have been very strange to him since I'm sure his father doesn't act that way in real life.
October 11, 2007
SqurirelMail versus IMP
I've been using IMP, part of the Horde Project, for a long time now as my primary webmail interface. I recently upgraded my server to the latest version release, and in doing so decided to go off RPMs for my webmail, instead of manual install as I had been doing before. But I noticed SquirrelMail in the list and recalled that SquirrelMail is the webmail system that ships with Mac OS X Server so maybe it's worth giving it a try, even though the screen shots didn't look all that appealing.
I gave it a try, but in the end I've decided to stick with IMP. SquirrelMail is functional, but it does not have all the interface conveniences that I've gotten used to using IMP. It's core install is very bare-bones, and additional features and interface customization must be done through plug-ins. There are a lot of plug-ins and it's an open architecture, so SquirrelMail is much more customizable than IMP, especially if you want to do something particular. But I don't have interest in doing that when all I want is a webmail system that is efficient to use and makes it easy to visually identify things and navigate my mail.
A few examples of shortcomings in SquirrelMail, with the plug-in set I found: the inability to mark messages as unread from the message viewing page itself; failure to identify the Cyrus mailbox hierarchy; and not being able to choose to go back to the message list window instead of the next message when finished viewing a message. I also found the built-in CSS themes lacking the contrast that makes IMP and Horde easy to read out of the box.
October 9, 2007
Vandread is a two season anime series (the second season is called The Second Stage) of 13 episodes each. Despite being two seasons, the plot takes places across the two evenly, so it's really like one season of 26 episodes. The initial premise is very amusing: a world of men at war with a world of women. Each side has no realistic concept of the other sex, and reproduces artificially. In fact, men are indoctrinated to see women as barbaric ugly monsters that will eat their insides, and women to see men as disgusting egotistical creatures. When they are forced to meet, because some female pirates captured a male battleship, they don't even want to touch each other.
That initial conflict begins a very interesting and fun tale of gender exploration and adventure, with a healthy dose of symbolism. Over time, the three male characters and several primary female characters learn to live together, understand each other on an individual level (losing stereotypes and conquering their conditioned fear), and also to complement each other. The symbolism exposes itself through the ways by which the cast finds their lives better and their abilities strengthened when the men and women come together to overcome their problems.
Some of the best parts of the series are the space battles. This is exciting and fast-paced space combat with hundreds of ships on the screen at the time. They really went all out to make it look great both visually and mechanically. I was very glad to see the CG work here does not look sterile; the cel shading is well done. Each battle introduces new twists and challenges, as their enemy adopts new attack vectors. The final battle is immense and really brings things to a climax. I also liked the a number of the regularly repeated melodies. They fit well and helped form the mood and emotions of the scenes.
The only thing I didn't like so much was the regular monologuing of Hibiki, the main male character, about proving his existence. It's a nice idea and one that is central to the thought processes of this series, but I'd rather not get hit over the head with it. Especially since it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to be wasting time over that when looking down the barrel of a laser.
October 7, 2007
The Torture Memo
The New York Times has an excellent timeline of secret U.S. government approval of torture by interrogators justified by the so-called war on terror and based on the current administration's dismissal of law and human rights. It seems that against growing public and legal opposition towards the abusive treatment of suspects and prisoners, the Justice Department continued to issue classified statements approving the use of such treatment.
The classified opinions, never previously disclosed, are a hidden legacy of President Bush’s second term and Mr. Gonzales’s tenure at the Justice Department...the 2005 Justice Department opinions remain in effect, and their legal conclusions have been confirmed by several more recent memorandums, officials said. They show how the White House has succeeded in preserving the broadest possible legal latitude for harsh tactics.
Perhaps the most disappointing truth is that instead of trying to do the right thing, the humane thing, and the legal thing from the beginning, this administration's attitude towards the issue has been to do whatever they can get away with. If someone finds out about something specific, then adamantly declare that it's legal, necessary, and provide other excuses. Stop it if things really come down to that, but keep doing everything else until those actions end up in the right place.
Game Night at Matt & Ling's
Luna and I just got back from a game night at Matt and Ling's place, up in Fremont. They live very close to Shannon and Yvonne, actually. Wendy, Brian, and Quyen were there and Thomas showed up later at 8pm. We ate some random stuff for a while before starting the games. Luna wanted to play Bohnanza again so we played that first. Wendy won that with 13 points; I had 12 and Luna had 9. By that time Thomas had arrived so we needed to figure out how to get eight people into a game. We ended up splitting into two groups. Luna played Settlers of Catan with Wendy, Ling, and Brian. And I played a game called Nexus Ops with Quyen, Thomas, and Matt.
Nexus Ops is a little remiscent in the look of its units to Starcraft. The basic idea is to acquire victory points by completing missions and winning battles against the other players. There are six types of units, with the cheaper ones being very weak and the more expensive ones very powerful. The mid-level units have certain abilities that make them more useful in some situations than in others. You're also limited in the number of a type of unit you can purchase, and the combat system makes it benficial to have a good mix of unit types.
The main mistake I think many of us made was to consider this a territory game. That's how the board looks, and also how many similar games are designed. But Nexus Ops is a capture game, which means there is no reason to try and take and hold territories unless there is some immediate benefit. Losing a territory makes sense if that lets you win a battle somewhere else. It's a pretty fun game, but tense because just about everything you might do is likely to leave you open to a successful counter-attack. It becomes important to figure out the trade-offs. I ended up coming in second place, with 11 points; Quyen was the first to 12. I think if I'd been more aggresive I could have won, because I would only need to win one more battle to reach 12 points before Quyen.
October 5, 2007
Integrating Delicious Library
Ars has a preview of Delicious Library 2, which includes an HTML export feature that looks really good. (Except for squashing all images to squares.) Their screen shots show stuff that looks a lot better than what I've currently got for my music library. Of course, I'd want to integrate the look and feel into my web site anyway, but I'm sure there'll be enough to work with however this feature generates the HTML.
But what got me thinking is the star ratings. You can rate any item in your library, which is good and cool. But the contents of your library are likely to be duplicated elsewhere, as far as ratings are concerned. Three quick and easy examples I can think of are for music, movies, and anything you've rated on Amazon.com, where Delicious Library pulls some of its data from. I wouldn't want to rate my movies on both Netflix and in Delicious Library. Or music in both iTunes and Delicious Library. Or on both Amazon and Delicious Library. Instead, it'd be super cool if Delicious Library could pull my ratings for items I've put into my collection from these different places. And cache them locally, of course, because it would really suck for those ratings to go away if I wasn't able to pull them anymore at a later time.
RIAA Wins First Jury Trial
Capitol Records v. Jammie Thomas is the first lawsuit by the RIAA against an individual file sharer that has gone to a jury trial. While some of the comments made by the plaintiff's witnesses are questionable irrespective of the trial itself, in the end Jammie Thomas' defense was pretty weak because of what she said on the stand, and so I'm not at all surprised that the jury found her guilty on all 24 counts of infringement, for a total of $220,000 in damages.
Still, this is a landmark case for the RIAA, because a jury trial becomes very public. And I'm sure that's why the RIAA decided that they would be willing to go to trial this time. They knew the circumstantial evidence was very compelling and the defendant would not be able to convince many people, even if the jury acquitted, that she was not guilty. Previous cases where the evidence is not at all strong will result in the RIAA refusing to let it get to a jury trial.
October 4, 2007
Thai Chili Terrorists
In another case of (arguably) overreaction to terrorism fears, the Thai Cottage restaurant in Soho, UK was raided for burning chili peppers. Nam Prik Pao is a super-spicy chili dip that is made by burning the peppers, which created a strange smell. Some concerned citizens phoned it in, prompting the police to close off the street and search for the source of the smell. It must be a pretty strong smell, as one bystander reported coughing as a result, but I also suspect the restaurant would be making this dip on a regular basis.
The BBC article conveniently provides the recipe so you too can be raided by your local counter-terrorist team under suspicion of being a chili pepper terrorist.
October 3, 2007
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
Ubisoft really captured the essence of the original Prince of Persia with their updated version, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. The original platforming gameplay has been redone in 3D but with the same essential ease and simplicity of the original by keeping the direction of movement in the six primary directions, by maintaining discrete movement units, and by including many of the same elements. Combat is also very similar to the original, although with updated moves and new acrobatic techniques. Each enemy tends to have a specific set of attack and defense vectors, requiring you to identify and then use their weakness against them. The difficulties in combat arise from having to combat many enemies at once and keeping everything straight during the fast-paced action. It's also important to continually avoid entering a bad combat situation.
The difficulty of combat and the platform puzzles increases over the course of the game at a very nice pace. I found myself with sweaty hands on many occassions when trying to jump from place to place and figure out the right way to proceed, especially nearer the end when a wrong move spells certain death. Combat becomes fierce enough to give your hands and wrists a good workout. Many of the puzzles are similar in their elements but put together present new challenges and will require you to think things through. Thankfully there tends to only be one path by which you can proceed through an area, so you don't have to worry about putting yourself into a dead end.
I also liked the introduction of the Prince's partner, Farah. In a vein similar to Ico, Farah must be kept safe from enemies (although she usually is, being able to move and think on her own and attack from a distance with her bow) but she is also able to help solve puzzles because she is thinner than the Prince and can fit through cracks. She also moves the plot forward because she knows what needs to be done to undo the sands of time and is someone the Prince can have a conversation with.