November 30, 2007
Luna and I have both wanted to watch Ratatouille since we first saw the trailer. This is Pixar's latest film, and was directed by Brad Bird. We watched it with my parents because they were here helping us fix up the backyard.
I really liked it. There was a lot of fun stuff in there, and of course it's a movie that can be enjoyed by the whole family. Although the main character of the story is a rat, the human characters also play a large role and look very similar to the style used in The Incredibles. I was sort of hoping the people would look more realistic, or have some more texture to them.
I always like to try and find the new technological advances that Pixar put into their films. Each film usually adds something new but subtle. I think there were two things they worked on specifically for Ratatouille: reflections and crowds. A lot of action takes place in the restaurant kitchen, and that means pots and pans and lots of shiny surfaces reflecting all over the place. It was not focused on, but I think a lot of attention went into making sure those reflections looked real and were accurate. And a lot of action involves lots and lots of rats. In previous films, the crowds were composed of individuals that pretty much did the same thing (e.g. A Bug's Life or Finding Nemo). In Ratatouille, each individual is doing something unique and independent. There was one scene that was particularly nice involving all of the rats in the kitchen.
November 28, 2007
Annals of the Heechee
Annals of the Heechee is the final book in the Heechee saga by Frederik Pohl. (The Boy Who Would Live Forever is the newest novel in the saga, but I don't think it was originally intended to be. I could be wrong though.) This time, the foe is finally revealed and their motivations are explained. The usual suspects are present, of course, although this time Robinette Broadhead is a machine-stored being, and a whole lot of the story and ideas revolve around the idea of living that way, while still being involved in the physical world.
I did sort of feel like some of the technological behaviors available to Robinette and the other machine-stored humans, Heechee, or AI programs were not grounded in science though. Pohl either didn't think it through, or chose to ignore those issues for the sake of the story. Although none of his books are really hard science anyway, at least the technology mentioned in the previous novels was of a type that did not require reconciliation with current science. The ideas behind machine-stored humans would have needed to match the science of 1987 though, and they don't.
One thing I felt brought some nice energy to the book were the characters of Oniko and Sneezy. They are children, one human the other Heechee, and their child-like innocence in serious situations and hoping to see how they would turn out in the end was exciting. Unfortunately, their story-arc takes a back seat to things once their purpose in the overall plot is done.
A Visit from Iris
Iris visited us this afternoon/evening because she was here for a couple days interviewing with Cisco. They had some sort of group interview program going on for something Iris called Choice, which lets you pick what you're going to work on after they hire you. They paid for her flight and hotel, but no car because she was just shuttled around.
So I picked her up this afternoon after her interviewing was done. We talked a little bit about her job hunt and interviews and the different companies she has been talking to. She had a lot of questions about how startups work and compensation in terms of stock options and going IPO or getting acquired. When we got back home, Luna spent a lot of time talking with her about random things.
For dinner we went to Sweet Tomatoes because Luna really likes the place now. The first time we went there she didn't like it at all and complained about eating raw vegetables. But now she likes the vegetables and soup and dessert. We did end up talking about family things a little bit over dinner, and Dennis because Iris needs to start working right away but Dennis doesn't yet. I don't think Iris likes Sweet Tomatoes that much though.
Afterwards, we took Iris to the airport. They've reworked some of the roads at the San Jose International Airport. It's a little easier to get out of the airport, but I'm not sure if it is possible to loop around anymore. You can't wait at the curb to pick up passengers, so you either have to keep looping around or park in the mobile phone lot or outside the airport for a while. If you can't loop around, though, then I think many people would leave and not be sure how to get back in.
November 27, 2007
Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem
Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem is an interesting mix of dark plot, adventure game, and action horror. But more than all that it is creepy. Really creepy. That's the part I liked most about the game, but also the part that sometimes made me say I need to stop because it's too dark right now and I'm sitting by myself.
The gameplay takes place over a period of a little over 2000 years, and begins with the corruption of a Roman centurion, Pious, by one of three gods. Each god commands one aspect of the world: physical, mental, or spiritual. The three aspects balance each other out and this cycle of strengths and weaknesses plays an important part in your ability to defeat this centurion turned Lich as you use magic and physical weapons to defeat the undead and overcome obstacles. At different points in time, a person comes into contact with Pious' plans for his god, and you play as that person to unravel a little bit more of the story and learn new magic spells to combat the darkness.
I did like how the story unfolded, and learning how the lives of all those people involved thread together to prevent the coming darkness from being successfully unleashed upon the world. It's not particularly complicated, but it is well written and kept me curious and trying to piece the parts together.
Unfortunately, I was not as pleased with the combat system. It's a bit awkward, because you cannot execute movements and attacks as fluidly and naturally as I would have liked. It doesn't have the capabilities or easy of control found in many action-RPGs or fighting games. There was also a bit of a learning curve, but once I figured out how things were supposed to behave and how to work with the movement and combat system, it wasn't too bad. But definitely not exciting.
As I mentioned above, what was really great was the creepiness. There were sounds that got to me, especially the first time I heard them and was expecting something to happen with those sounds. And there are lots of little visuals that are subconsciously disturbing as you pass by, and then even more disturbing if you try to pay closer attention. The designers put a lot of attention into all of this, and it pays off.
You can also play through multiple times, with slightly different enemies and corresponding strategies, based on whom you choose, acting as Pious, to be your god. I don't think that's worth too much though, since the story will remain the same.
November 25, 2007
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
High-energy excitement. That's how I would explain the contemporary film adaptation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Unlike the earlier BBC attempt, which may go down in history as one of the most disappointing adaptations of all time, this version comes with good actors, a good screenplay, and the budget and production quality this book deserves. Complete with rodent overlords.
The movie captures very well the characters created by Douglas Adams. I thought the actor choices were apt, especially for Marvin who truly comes across as a depressed robot. Alan Rickman is just the perfect voice for that role. The only thing I found a little disappointing was the way Zephod's twin heads was done. It's certainly a lot better than a fake rubber head perched on the actor's shoulder, but it didn't play that much of a role in the film; you could have simply ignored that aspect of his character for the most part.
I did feel a little weird that the story and plot elements of the film didn't match up with how I remembered the book, and Wikipedia points out that I wasn't just imagining things. I think the movie is very good, but I wonder if I would have liked it better if it held closer to the original story. It's hard to say, because on its own this version of the movie is very strong.
The visuals and costumes were very good. I particularly liked the construction of Earth. That visual sequence was vast and contained some of the best exhibitions of natural beauty found on Earth. And the way it was put together looked believable, even if at the time I was thinking to myself how it wouldn't hold up to scientific analysis. :p
THGttG is considered an excellent subwoofer test, and I have to agree. The sound production is great. Very immersive and unique with great sound effects that are fun but fit right in. And completely full spectrum without holding anything back. The grilles on the top of my subwoofers got pushed off by the driver excursion which tells me this is the first movie that has actually driving my subs close to their limit. I plan to address that problem soon.
I'm sure real fans of Douglas Adams works are going to find a number of nits to pick about the movie, but I really enjoyed it and would watch it again.
Herman USA is a quaint film inspired by the true story of a sort of dating-event that was organized by the town of Herman, Minnesota. I haven't looked into the actual events, but in the film Herman is dying out because women are leaving and the men that stay behind are getting older and more desperate for love. One of the town leaders has the idea of hosting a festival with the specific intent of attracting women looking for love. The media attention predictably launches the event to unexpected heights and thousands of women descend upon Herman.
From there, the movie becomes a story about finding real love during and after a crazy weekend and a showcase of the human side of things. These are believable characters, in a situation that will easily resonate with many people. However, it's not a movie that's going to leave you feeling like you've just finished watching a work or art or like you are witness to an amazing event. It is in the end a simple story with a simple but heart-felt meaning to it, and will be an enjoyable experience for people who like that kind of movie.
November 23, 2007
Howl's Moving Castle
Howl's Moving Castle is Studio Ghibli's latest production directed by Hayao Miyazaki, although based off the novel of the same name by Diana Wynne Jones. It's a great movie, and Miyazaki's movies generally are, but I didn't think it was as good as some of his previous works.
From a visual and aural perspective, Howl's is very well done. It's detailed and lush and there are really great themes running throughout the film. But it is not the visual feast of Spirited Away, or the aural feast of Princess Mononoke. And the story is a little simpler than either of those. It focuses upon Sophie, a young girl who doesn't really know what why she is there or what she means to herself, and her relationship with Howl, a wizard who reputedly eats young girls' hearts as he travels around in his giant steampunk walking castle. Over time, Sophie finds purpose and love in herself and her relationship with Howl.
I guess Howl is a little more of a pure children's story than the Miyazaki other movies I mentioned above. Perhaps that is why I don't like it as much, even though it is a great film. It lacks the layers and emotional intensity I really love.
November 22, 2007
Macross, or The Super Dimension Fortress Macross, is one of the most famous anime series of all time. There are several television seasons and movies produced in this universe, and it is the inspiration for Robotech. It is one of the first examples of anime mecha shows, and a fan favorite for many reasons.
I'd never watched it before, but as one of the anime classics I thought I should. After watching the series, I can see why it resonated so strongly with children and fans of anime at the time, but in truth I found it to be disappointing in more than a few ways. Macross certainly has a very interesting story revolving around war and love, in a very complicated and all too human manner. That part I think was very well written. Unfortunately a combination of insufficient funding, poorly done or rushed animation, and dated character designs marred the production. There were two whole episodes that consisted of flashback material, which is usually an indication of funding or time problems, and certainly unwelcome distractions when watching the series. A number of times the animation was actually quite bad, with unnatural character movement or inconsistent drawing. And it's quite clear exactly what time period the characters come from, despite the science-fiction setting, because of their clothing and hair styles. This was also reflected in the opening theme song.
A lot of people do like the art style of Macross, which you can find in many other animes. I've never been a particular fan of this style myself, but at least usually it doesn't come across as a negative. This time it did though, because of all the problems with how it was drawn and how I kept thinking the people look like they're from the 70's or early 80's.
The idea of the Zentradi and how the human must combat this threat is quite interesting. The contrast between these two races provided a lot of fertile ground for the plot and philosophical ideas about men and women, social mores, and attitudes about war and the enemy. This story arc, and that of the love interests during the course of the series, are easily the most enjoyable aspects of the series.
Overall, I found some parts of the series enjoyable but at times the poor quality made me feel pretty disappointed in it. So there was sort of a roller coaster ride between disappointment and enjoyment throughout. In the end, I'm not particularly wanting to watch more in the series, although I sort of wonder exactly what will happen to the characters.
The Front Fell Off
I'm not sure if this is real, or fake, or even where it's coming from, but it's funny.
(Edit: It is a joke. Now linking to the more complete video off YouTube.)
November 19, 2007
Transformers is excellent, even if it was directed by Michael Bay. Possibly because he poked some fun at himself and displayed some restraint for sappy clichés and relationship scenes. Instead, we've got awesome Transformer-esque lines like "there's more than meets the eye to you" and Bumblebee playing back songs that are really amusing for what he's trying to convey. I guess if you've got all of that material to work with and can leave out the relationship scenes that take over the screen, you've got gold. "This is easily a hundred times cooler than Armageddon... I swear to god!"
There are really only two human characters that have large roles: Sam Witwickey played by Shia LaBeouf and Mikaela Banes played by Megan Fox. They both give excellent performances, but it's also very important that they're the only human characters that matter, because you can follow them very closely throughout the story and they're of an age group that just about everyone can identify with. Old enough for young kids to look forward to those days, and young enough for everyone else to remember and appreciate who they are.
The rest of the human characters are really supporting cast for Sam, Mikaela, the Autobots and Decepticons. And of course it's really the Transformers that steal the show. They've got the four that really matter: Optimus Prime, Bumblebee, Megatron, and Starscream. I can't remember the others, so they're not important. :p Truthfully, though, most of the Transformers don't have significant roles. The only exception is Bumblebee, and he can't actually talk until much later in the movie so his role is primarily used to facilitate the plot. What the Transformers are great at is being giant robots and are just super cool to watch.
The amount of detail and special effects that went into the Transformers is excellent. They've preserved the original transformation sound of the cartoon, and made the actual transformation process really amazing, with lots of detail and exposed lines and components. Technically, while there appears to be a lot of movement to their transformations, I think that's more an artifact of the complexity of the models, rather than the complexity of the transformation animations. But sometimes those animations are given extra attention when they're going to be the focus on screen. If you're going to do giant transforming robots that fight, you can't do much better than this.
With excellent visuals you need excellent aural support. And Transformers doesn't disappoint there either. There are full-range sound effects that are excellent with a really well done score and songs that keep your blood pumping and the pace quick and engaging. This isn't a movie where watching it a second time you might be tempted to skip over some parts, hoping to get to the next cool scene. (Well, there might be a few, but even then there's enough going on to keep your eyes happy that you won't want to.) Of course the audio track includes massive bass lines, for all those ground-smashing action sequences, but it also includes amazing use of the upper octaves to create a really full sound.
If there is one complaint I have about the film, it's the editing. There were a few cuts where it didn't really look like the different takes were meant to sit next to each other. Either that there was something in-between missing, or the two sides of the scene or conversation took place at different times, or with different people, and were then slapped together. Still, that's a small complaint and not one that detracts a whole lot from the movie.
Spider-Man 3 is just as good as the other Spidey movies, in my opinion. I know some people were disappointed with it, and with Venom, but I really liked it. I don't really remember what role Venom played in the comics; it was a long time ago when I read the ones with Venom. But from what I can remember it is relatively faithful to the original characteristics, although of course the plot is changed for the purpose of the movie.
Tobey Maguire portrayed his descent into hedonism very well, although I am not really sure how that all worked out in the end without him going into real details on the situation with Mary Jane. That part was conveniently left out of the movie. I do think some of the criticism over the shallowness of Sandman's story is valid though. His character is given a backstory and personal motivations which are never brought to conclusion. But Topher Grace as Eddie Brock, Peter Parker's rival at the Daily Bugle, was an inspired choice. Not only does he bear a disconcerting physical resemblance to Tobey Maguire, but he carries the same sort of personality as well. I thought this really helped place him opposite Peter Parker.
The cool things about Spider-Man 3 are the action sequences and special effects, and I was not disappointed in either of those areas. There are some really cool aerial fight sequences, and the special effects for Venom and the Sandman are spectacular. Another aspect that might be easily overlooked is the makeup for Peter Parker. As he falls farther and farther from grace, the ugliness of his inner self begins to reflect itself upon his outer self. It's subtle, but very effective and well done.
Goodwill Silicon Valley's E-Waste Ignorance
You'd expect the people supporting California's E-Waste initiative would make it as easy as possible to get rid of your old, broken electronics so they don't go into landfills and pollute our environment or make people sick. But I had quite a hard time trying to get rid of some broken cameras, an old vacuum, electric phone, etc. Goodwill, and in particular my local branch, Goodwill of Silicon Valley participate in the program. However, it doesn't seem like anyone at the store is aware of this, even though the donation receipts you get mention E-Waste right on them.
I couldn't get any of the employees to accept my broken electronics. I had to call the number on the back of the receipt, and get the person there (thankfully someone is there to answer calls on the weekend) to call the store manager, who then had to call the store and tell the employees to take my broken electronics. Quite a hassle, and I had to stand there for a while waiting for everyone to get their ducks in a row. But at least I was finally able to unload all those broken electronics safely and properly.
November 18, 2007
Heechee Rendezvous is the third book in Frederik Pohl's Heechee saga. As the name implies, this is the novel in which humans and Heechees finally meet face-to-face. In addition to revealing what the Heechee look like, and providing answers to some of the questions that the human archeologists were constantly asking themselves about the Heechee, the story also reveals exactly why the Heechee did what they did, and why. A lot of answers are given in this book, along with really interesting ideas about the universe and why some things are the way they are.
There are some new characters introduced in Heechee Rendezvous, not the least of which are the Heechee. But a man named Audee and his wife cross paths with Wan, the boy from the second book who was raised on the Heechee food factory. Wan's character is uniquely defined, and an illustrative exposition of nurture over nature.
I just came across a Wired article about 23andMe, who will decode your genetic sequence for a mere $1000. After submitting a sample of your saliva, your genotype data will be available for you to view on their web site. This isn't exactly the same as the early scene in Gattaca where upon being born, Jerome is given specific probabilities for certain diseases and health problems, but it's close. Based on the latest research into genetic influence on physical, mental, and health characteristics, you can see if there is some likelihood you might want to pay attention to certain things. You can also see how genetically similar you might be to other people in general.
deCODEme is another service that does the same thing, for about the same price. I'm not particularly sure if there is any difference in these services. Technically, they should be able to deduce and tell you the same thing, at which point it just comes down to price, but more than that privacy and the user experience. Privacy is going to be the most important, because as seen in Gattaca, it will all be about the protections in place and attitudes we adopt that determine what happens with this new capability.
November 12, 2007
Apocalypto is Mel Gibson's latest film, about a tribe that finds themselves hunted by Mayans. Many are killed. The women are raped. The children are left to die. And the rest are tied up and led to a fate unknown at forced march. The movie then follows the efforts of Jaguar Paw, one of the villagers who was captured, as he witnesses the cruelty and viciousness of his captors on their journey, and then his escape and revenge.
A lot of the movie is cliché or at least predictable: the repetition of a "wise" saying, the replay of some activity or behavior that was seen earlier, or the fulfillment of prophecy told by one who is afflicted. I found myself being disappointed whenever these simple-minded behaviors or plot devices were used because they distracted from the beautiful setting of the film.
The film was shot in lush forests full of life and amazing sounds and sights. The actors were chosen to closely resemble what people of that ethnicity and time probably looked like. And all dialogue is in the native language, which adds to its authenticity and really helps convey the time, the culture, and the people. I think that's probably what I really liked most about the film; it transported me to a place in history.
However, I found the violence in Apocalypto a little harder to stomach. It wasn't that things were particularly cruel, like what I've seen in some other films. It's mostly that instead of people being wounded or dying by a sword through the gut, or an arrow in the back, people died by having parts of their skull scraped off, or being bludgeoned to death, or arrows through the back of their head. There was a lot of it, and it was graphic and blasé at the same time.
It's a little hard to watch a movie like this and forget that it was made by Mel Gibson. Recent events have made it clear what his personal feelings are about certain things, and one can't help but wonder if there are ulterior or subconscious motives at work in the portrayal of the Mayans. Still, this is an exciting action movie, as long as you're not looking for a deep plot.
November 11, 2007
Settlers of Catan and The Crazy Stone
Tonight was originally a movie night, but Mitch and Tintin had to cancel which prompted Wendy to ask if we could have a game night instead; she said she was movied-out. So it ended up Wendy, Brian, Matt, Ling, and Thomas showed up, but I was a little annoyed because everything came together so haphazardly. For starters, Brian asked if we had any coupons to get food after I IM'ed him that morning, and I thought we had confirmed going to King Buffet at 7pm; that Matt and Ling would be carpooling with Wendy and Brian; and that Thomas was not coming because he never replied to the mailing list and Brian said not to count him in. Brian did say he would call back if that changed, but I missed his calls and didn't see any of Wendy's IMs (which ended up on my work computer).
With me, things aren't going to go very well with last minute changes or decisions because I am not easy to reach when I am home. I also rarely like to do things on short notice. Anyway, what happened is Luna and I drove to King Buffet and it was only after we were there for a while that I discovered Wendy's voice mail. We ended up ordering from Golden House Chinese and picked up on the way home to meet Wendy and Brian to eat. Matt and Ling would show up later, because they already ate, and I didn't even know Thomas was coming until later.
Regardless, we played a Seafarers scenario of Settlers of Catan. Wendy and Brian played as a team. I ended up getting trapped into a corner very early in the game because I took a risk on more resources rather than ensuring I could not get trapped. So it became a very tough game for me to enjoy. Luna had a lot of fun though, because she kept exploring. The rest of the players thought she was far ahead because she explored so far, but she wasn't building anything which would hurt her later. Wendy and Brian ended up having enough room to build a little on the mainland while maintaining the resources needed to explore out and establish themselves on another island. That, with their development card victory points, won them the game.
Afterwards, we watched Crazy Stone because Luna really wanted to watch it and kept talking about it all night. Wendy and Brian ended up staying, I think, just because Luna was so enthusiastic about it. They were really tired though, and left before it finished because Wendy was falling asleep. I thought it was okay; I don't like that kind of humor so much and found the way it was cut a little disorienting. Matt thought it was very funny though.
November 9, 2007
Beyond The Blue Event Horizon
For some stupid reason, a bunch of the books in the Heechee saga by Frederik Pohl are out of print. And the ones that appear to be in print are expensive paperbacks. This is exactly the reason things like the Project Gutenberg and Google Books are so important, although in this case the books aren't that old and Pohl is still alive. Still, it should not be so difficult for someone to find copies of a book they want to read. Eventually, I was able to find them from various small bookstores across the country using AbeBooks.
Anyway, the second in the series is Beyond the Blue Event Horizon. Despite the title, this book is more about Robinette Broadhead's hope of crossing the Schwarzschild Radius that has tormented him. In fact, the majority of the book focuses instead on a family that has been sent out to a Heechee food factory, in hopes of ending the food shortages on Earth. What they find, in addition to the food factory, surpasses their wildest dreams.
This chapter of the Heechee Saga is a little different than Gateway. Whereas the first novel was heavily focused upon the mental state of Robin, Beyond the Blue Event Horizon is more about exploring the Heechee's technology and providing some background on their motivations. A lot of new ideas are put forward as the foundation for the novels that will come afterwards. I found myself really looking forward to finding out what would happen next, and trying to put together the puzzle pieces, but I was a little disappointed with the ending. The last chapter wraps everything up very quickly, and lays things out instead of letting things unfold over time. I felt like it was doing some clean up in preparation for the next novel.
November 5, 2007
A Turtle Nest
A while back, Ellie had to be removed from the aquarium because the back of her neck was cut open. It took a really long time to heal, but eventually I decided to put her back into the tank. Unfortunately, she started swimming around really quickly again and Shelly would still try to bite her neck. I'm not entirely convinced that Shelly is the reason for the wound though, because it's clear her shell is rubbing against that part of her neck when she swims around.
I did a little poking around recently, and learned something I didn't know about female red-eared sliders. Apparently, even if not fertilized, they need to lay their eggs by digging into the ground. If they can't find a suitable place, they will try to hold the eggs in, which can lead to health problems. This is a regular process, so they need a place where they can go and lay their eggs. So I needed to find some way to create a nesting area in the aquarium, and it needs to be deep enough for Ellie to feel comfortable digging. A 50/50 mixture of mulch and sand was what I found suggested.
The hard part was finding a way to stick this into the aquarium such that it wouldn't just turn into mud. I ended up buying a small 10 gallon aquarium and filling that mostly up with the mulch/sand mixture. By itself, this was way too light and floated to the top of the primary aquarium. So I had to stick four bricks into the bottom. I cut a small piece of acrylic to act as a ramp out. With the right amount of mulch and sand, I was able to get it to float at a level where the turtle dock would allow Ellie to climb in.
I haven't seen Ellie take any interest in the nest yet. Masako, my neighbor down the street who also does our landscaping and maintenance, told me that Ellie is actually too small still to be laying eggs anyway.