Sunday, May 31, 2009

I Cried During the Opening, And So Did You

So, if you're at all interested in Pixar's latest, Up, then you've no doubt heard the overwhelmingly positive reception: it's funny, it looks great, the characters have immense emotional depth and the movie is brimming-over with heart. So, I'll talk about other stuff.

More than anything else, I found the movie to be incredibly surreal. Years after Monty Python's Flying Circus, the kids who grew up watching their shenanigans no TV (sorry, "telly") are now all grown up and making bizarre movies of their own. I can't help but think that this is a major influence on the Pixar cadre because their movies--Up in particular--share some of those same absurdist sensibilities, albeit those sensibilities are a bit more grounded.

For example, we've all seen the talking dog, but this turns out to be dozens of talking dogs. Some of them have funny voices. Some of them fly planes. At least one of them cooks. Then there's the, ahem, sword fight that takes place towards the end. It's bizarre, but it's just rooted enough in the world of the movie that it works. Furthermore, I think you almost have to take things a little bit in that direction. I mean, it's about a guy who flies his house to South America--if the audience is going to buy into that, you might as well give them some weird treats along the way.

Maybe I'm reading too much into this but I don't think so, because there are several nods throughout the film--notably the Wilderness Explorer badges that show up during the credits. There are some strange things you can get a merit badge for, it seems (that may or may not include--SPOILER WARNING--detonating an atomic bomb--END SPOILER WARNING). But my favorite nod to surrealism is in the form of an Easter egg that takes place before the house even leaves the ground. While Carl flips through the channels in his living room, he lingers on a shopping network and we hear an ad for a camera. The audio comes directly from this scene, which is arguably one of the most surreal naturally-occuring moments ever captured on videotape.

I will say something about the 3-D, right quick. I liked it, but I don't think it ultimately changed my opinion of the film. It was used very subtly throughout: usually giving depth to vistas or bringing you into an intimate conversation. There was exactly one instance of the-thing-on-screen-hits-you-in-the-face (conversely, the 3-D trailer for Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs has at least three hit-you-in-the-face moments in the trailer alone!!!!).

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Saturday, May 30, 2009

Letter From Senator McCaskill

Wow, looks like she actually read my e-mail.  I wrote Senator McCaskill (along with Senator Bond and Congressman Lacy--who sent me a form letter) about the lack of constitutionality in HR888, which seeks to establish the first week of May as American Religious History Week.  Her response is reproduced below.

Dear Mr. Pankau:

Thank you for contacting me regarding religious freedom in the United States of America. I appreciate hearing from you, and I welcome the chance to respond.

Our nation’s founding fathers had the remarkable sensibility and foresight to protect religious freedom for all Americans. The opening words of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution declare that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Thomas Jefferson maintained that this clause would ensure religious liberty by establishing a “wall of separation between church and state.” As your Senator and a Christian, I will remain committed to upholding every American’s right to freely practice and express their faith as they so choose.

Again, thank you for taking the time to share your concerns with me. Please do not hesitate to contact me in the future regarding other matters of interest or concern to you.

All best,
Senator Claire McCaskill


Well, it's not what I expected.  I like that someone whose religious views are diametrically opposed to mine can arrive at the same conclusion for roughly the same reasons, and while this does feel a bit form-letterish (and yes, I'm familiar with Jefforson's wall-of-separation--that's why I wrote you in the first place), she's no doubt a busy lady.  And "committed to upholding every American's right" etc etc etc is much more comforting than "committed to upholding the tradition" etc etc etc would be.

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Thursday, May 28, 2009

I, Too, Remember When I Lost My Mind

I know I just said that I was going to be posting regularly, but a situation has come up at work that will keep me rather busy for the next month or so. Oh well. Torches were made to be passed, promises were made to be broken.

Anywho, I've hit the Crazy's. First, four songs called Crazy, by Aerosmith, Gnarls Barkley, Jem, and Seal (two of which I love, two I find rather "meh"). Then we get Toad the Wet Sprocket's Crazy Life, Queen's Crazy Little Thing Called Love, Van Morrison's Crazy Love, Heart's Crazy on You, and finish it up with Jars of Clay and Crazy Times.

Not a bad set.

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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Ain't That a Kick in the Side

So over the weekend I ordered a Smartphone--a refurb'd Sidekick II that cost me just over $100 (with shipping). When it arrives, I'll toss my SIM card into it and see what it can do.

I see this as a nice baby step into the realm of phones-that-do-more-than-make-calls.  For starters, my Samsung Stripe is on its last legs now, so I'd have to replace it with something, and my contract isn't up until next March, so I can't invoke the myriad deals on cheap phones through my provider (this is the one thing keeping me from going ahead with the G1--I'd love to try it, but I wouldn't love to try it for $350).

This way I've got something with a Qwerty keyboard and web access--something I can sync my Twitter account to and check e-mail and bank statements from.  Then, after a year, I can upgrade again on the cheap with contract extension (or just bite the bullet and buy a damned iPhone).

Be.  All.  That.  As.  It.  May.

This means changing phone plans, which is thankfully pretty easy to do through T-Mobile's not-incredibly-annoying website.  It actually will only cost me about $5 a month from what I'm paying now because I'm downgrading my voice plan at the same time.  Right now I have 1500 anytime minutes that I only get about a fourth of the way through in a given month (that's including nights and weekends, by the way).  I saved myself a whopping ten bucks a month by switching to a basic plan that only offers 300 anytime minutes but has free nights and weekends.  Every other downgrade I could take was at the same price point as the plan I was already using.  Of course, it would have only cost me an additional $10 a month to get unlimited talk.  So, we've got a pretty narrow price range, here.

As for data charges, I went from $5 a month for 400 texts to $20 for unlimited texts and 100MB data transfer per month, which was the max available.  Think that'll do me?  Think I can downgrade to 50MB a month without hitting charges?

Smartphone users, let me know!!

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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

More Multiplexing

So I had a particularly less-than-stellar experience at the cineplex over the weekend. My parents, my sister and her husband, and Abby went to see Star Trek, a movie I've gushed over enough.

This was at the movie-theater-by-the-huge-mall (you know the one) in Nashville. Tickets were $10 a pop, which is expensive but not unheard of for a weekend showing of a first-run movie in a big city with stadium seating and all that jazz. So we get to the box office, and the first thing they do is try to change our mind.

We were uncharacteristically early, purchasing tickets at 7:15 for a 7:55 screening. The gal offered to get us into the 7:00 screening, which we politely declined. The sign said it was sold out, anyway. She objected again, on the grounds that the 7:55 showing would be in a smaller auditorium and we might not be able to get six tickets near each other--never mind that the showing was still forty minutes off.

So we finally all arrived and got seated in the tiny theater (less than ten rows, probably twelve seats across). Then came the previews.

Thirty minutes of previews.

I tend to think any amount more than five is excessive. Three is preferable. None... actually none is kind of unsettling in a theater. And the choice of previews befuddles me. Star Trek is popcorn fare, slightly geeky, yes, but with a hefty dollop of action and significant tinge of nostalgia. So, the obvious choices to market in front of it: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (yes), G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (no), Terminator Salvation (also no), maybe even, it's a stretch, Up (yes).

We also got trailers for Tennessee, which is a horrible-looking indie drama with Mariah Carey. And then My Sister's Keeper, which looks genuinely horrifying, starring the gal from Little Miss Sunshine as a genetically-engineered organ donor for her cancer-dying sister who sues her parents for the rights to her own body. Lots of people cry, Cameron Diaz shaves her head, etc etc etc.

So, what this tells me is that they had no idea what to market with Star Trek, so they just threw a bunch of shit on the screens.

What else? The popcorn was pretty pitiful. The seats were uncomfortable. The sound was too low. I could go on.

The real issue here is that the movie theater business is suffering at the hands of DVD's. Well, suffering is the wrong word. Studios are better off in the long run, but they're cannibalizing some potential seats-in-cinema-chairs profits for it. Which is fine. But the theater experience is an experience, and you have to actually sell people on it. There are film buffs like myself who will see something in the theater because they want to see it and believe the theater experience is worth the extra cost (especially when the AMC does $5 weekend matinees). Then there are the casual movie-goers who have lives and jobs and kids and just want to take in a film and eat some popcorn once in a while. They aren't going to research what movies are the best reviewed and a bad film experience is just going to turn them off to future ventures.

A movie theater has no control over the quality of movie they show, but if they want to make more money in the long run, they need to be taking care of those variables that they do control. Make sure the picture quality and sound are up to spec. Don't try to squeeze every penny from the customer by making him/her(/me) sit through ten or twelve previews and gouging at the concessions stand.

'Tain't rocket surgery, people.

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Monday, May 25, 2009

Star Trekking Across the Multiplex

I have now seen Star Trek three times. Yeah. Not because I'm much of a Trek-geek, mind you, it's that this is a genuinely well-made movie and I've enjoyed watching it. And it holds up, although three is plenty for me; I think I'll be able to hold out until DVD now. I think.

MILD SPOILERS AHEAD

It's got the usual pluses: well-directed action, great character moments, excellent pacing, etc, but what really sells it for me is the fact that the movie is over-written. Not that it's overly wordy or that it the script went through seventeen hands, but that there was more written into the story and the world that it inhabits than showed up on screen.

For example, the Iowa in the film is peppered with odd pairs of buildings in the background, but we never learn what they are. Kirk's bike has wheels that are not physically attached, but no explanation for how they work is given, nor is any attention drawn to them. At then end, when Kirk stuns a Romulan so Spock can mind-meld with him, Kirk does something with his phaser that changes the color of the business end from red to blue and then he changes it back (presumably changing the setting from "kill" to "stun"). But their actions aren't telegraphed or explained. Abrams simply had characters behave in a way that made sense and followed (excuse the phrase) logically, and trusted the audience to sort it all out in the end.

In short, things happen for a reason. Maybe it's not an obvious or explicitly stated reason, but it's a reason. It reminds me of one of my favorite bits from the audio commentary on the original X-Men movie (yes, I have favorite bits from audio commentaries, geekhood established, let's move on). Bryan Singer was explaining why--unlike the comic character--Wolverine didn't wear a mask in the film. His answer: he couldn't contrive a reason for him to wear one. It seemed out of character.

Digression.

There were a few instances in Trek where events seemed to happen at the convenience of the plot, notably the large red monster killing another monster and then ignoring its kill to chase Kirk (which has now been pointed out to me by two different people, including Abby). But most of these were made into gags. My favorite is when Kirk and Spock beam onto the Romulan ship guns-blazing. It's the action-movie thing to do, but it's not at all sensible, so before they go, Scotty says that if the ship is built in any sensible way, he should be beaming them into the middle of a cargo hold. The guns-blazing entrance was, therefore, a joke. A pretty good one, too.

That's right, audiences will forgive plot devices as long as they're funny.

And one has to admire Abrams' respect for Star Trek canon (especially considering it's a canon that pitted Kirk against green women and space hippies). The film is brimming over with homages--here's my running tally:
  • Kirk seduces a green woman.
  • Scotty: "I'm givin' her all she's got, Captain"
  • Bones: "Dammit, man, I'm a doctor, not a physicist."
  • Bones: "Are you out of your Vulcan mind?"
  • Bones: "Green-blooded, hobgoblin"
  • Scotty had a pet tribble on his desk
  • Romulus being split in half is a major plot point, and I believe it's something that had happened in the past during Next Generation films.
  • Scotty mentions Admiral Archer's prize Beagle (reference to the Enterprise series).
  • Uhura orders a Slush-o at the bar in Iowa (this is an Abrams'-verse gag, not a Trek reference--Slush-o was all over the viral marketing for Cloverfield).
I'm sure I'm missing a few.

My only complaint about the film--and it's a minor one--is that Abrams' search for the emotional center of the story delves a little too far into cheese territory at times. Trek never gets as hokey as the wedding scene from Mission: Impossible III, but some of the Spock-Sarek conversations teeter on that line, as does the Spock-Spock converstaion about the power of friendship.

So, is there a sequel in the works? Not that I've heard, but I doubt it (although, bear in mind, I suck at making predictions). First of all, what would you call it? Star Trek II? Star Trek XII? Second, does Abrams even make sequels? Last, what story do you tell? A friend of mine suggested that a movie version of the episode with Kahn might be interesting (the episode that served as pre-story for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn). But would the stakes be high enough to justify telling that story? I get the impression, especially with all the above-mentioned homages, that Abrams' made his reboot and is done with it, but, as in all things, time will tell.

I imagine one of two things will happen: the studio will hire someone incompetent to make another movie and this will continue until they become so bad that people quit watching them. Option two: the Pixar approach. You can make a sequel, but only when there's a good enough story to tell.

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Saturday, May 23, 2009

Happy Weekend!!

Out of town until Tuesday. If you don't hear from me until then, have a great holiday weekend.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

No Salvation for This Terminator, I Fear (not a review)

Well the early word is out on Terminator: Salvation, and that word is not good.  Right now it's sitting not-so-pretty at 20% on Rotten Tomatoes.  Come on, Hollywood.  If you're going to make big, expensive movies, can't you at least bother to make them good?

As much as I want to see this, I really want to stop rewarding studios for churning out crap.  Wolverine was pretty lame (and better-reviewed, I might add), but we saw it anyway, and we've done nothing but gripe about it.  So, what will the TS verdict be?

Hard to say.  Conflicted.

Why oh why must franchise films be handed off to hack directors?  Rather than pay the extra money to get a good director to helm it, you hire someone whose film experience consists of two Charlie's Angels movies and a poorly-received high school football drama.  Did we think McG was going to just pull a winner out of his ass for this one?  No, this one will do really well this weekend and then drop off precipitously and that will be the last we hear from the Terminators for a while.

Unless this turns around, but I don't see how it could get much higher than 35% or 40% with a start that's this pathetic.  'Tis irksome, because I want this movie to be good.

Oh well.

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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Wolfram Alpha (Still in Beta?)

Wolfram Alpha is the latest in a long-line of would-be "Google-killers".  Please take a moment to note that Google is still very much alive.

WA is not a search engine, per se; rather, it returns answers to structured data queries.  It gives you some sample searches on the front page.  Try one: "7/8".  Google will immediately tell you that 7/8 is equal to .0875.  WA will take about two seconds and will provide prime factorization, Egyption fraction expansion, and a few other metrics.  And this is the crux of the problem with WA: it takes too long to give you information you don't need.  Try another: they suggest you search for "population France/Germany", which will give you the ratio of the two populations.  Google can't do that.  But, Google can give me the population of either, and it's not like it's information that I would ever, you know, need.

So, WA appears to be geared towards people looking for very specialized information, and it retrieves that information in a way that is more or less ok.  It doesn't seem to understand pop culture references, so that sort of rules out your everyday user.  But that's fine, there's nothing wrong with making a niche product.  But if you're going to make a niche product, don't tout it as the next Google-killer.  It won't work.  Why not?

First, you can't bill your product as being nothing more than an alternative to what's already out there.  It needs to be able to stand on its own merits.  Just ask John Kerry.  Google didn't enter the market because it was going to be a Yahoo!-killer, it was created by a few smart people who had an interesting idea about how to generate search results.  They killed Yahoo! because they were better than Yahoo!, not because they were trying to kill anything.

Second, why exactly are we trying to kill Google?  When did this become an admirable goal?  I recently read an article from PC Authority in which one of the authors was descirbing how they were anxious for some competition to come in and force Google to step up their game.  Seriously, what internet have they been surfing?  Google is constantly refining its algorithm and constantly coming up with new features and products that it often-as-not gives away to users.  Also, their products work extremely well.

And, hold the phone, here's another thing: there is competition!!!  Yahoo! has been around longer--just because they're losing doesn't mean that they aren't competing.  Plenty of people use it--hell, my parents have Yahoo! e-mail addresses.  Maybe it's Yahoo! that needs to step up its game, ya?

Not to be a Google fanboy (which, admittedly, I am), but there are plenty of huge corporations out there making crap software that could use to be killed.  I'm looking at you, Microsoft, with your hardware-eating OS's.  Why are we focusing on obliterating a search engine that works really freaking well?

As for Wolfram Alpha, it needs a better name, but I think it could be intersting.  It could provide an alternative to Google for people looking for specific types of information.  It could broaden the market and wind up being a major player in the world of IT.  It could.

But it won't.

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Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Reader (Not to Be Confused with the Writer and Arithmeticker)

Watching The Reader. Meh.

Maybe it's just me, but I find it difficult to empathize with the emotional turmoils of a fifteen year old kid sneaking around to hide is torrid love affair with a woman twice his age. Because at 33 minutes in, that's what this movie is about. Right now we're discovering that this woman is illiterate, and soon we'll discover that she's a Nazi, but that's all afterthought. That's the Oscar fodder. For now, it's weird May-to-December romance.

At 45 minutes in, I've figured out that this is going to turn out to be one of those films that's good, but that's not very enjoyable.

Some observations:

Nothing makes breasts look quite so unflattering as a wet, semi-transparent brassier.

They keep cutting to Ralph Fiennes looking confused. If the flashback nature of this movie hadn't been set up properly, or if someone had strolled into the theater a few minutes late, it be extremely disorienting. Like watching a David Lynch film.

The phrase "All photographers are now asked to leave" being barked in a German accent is, perhaps, the quintessence of passive-aggressiveness.

The vast majority of the emotional content of this film seems to be people looking distraught.

At an hour and 12 minutes, Michael finds out that Hanna can't read, something we've known for almost an hour (if we hadn't inferred it already from the title). She admits to murdering 300 people to hide this fact. Buh... Theme of the film: genocide is bad, but illiteracy is worse, it seems.

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Saturday, May 16, 2009

Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

You may have noticed some slight changes here--I'm subtly revamping the ol' blog. Kurtharsis is now ad-free and subject to--gasp--regularly scheduled updates.

Content will remain vapid and soulless. As ever.

I may tweak some of the aesthetics, but overall it was just time for some housecleaning, not the least of which was the removal of Google Adsense. Which is not to say that I didn't enjoy the $5 and change that I've earned over the last year and a half, it's just that it looks better without it. Anywho, I'm still tweaking when I get bored, so expect more changes. Especially while I'm at work.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Up, Up, and a Monster

I love Pixar's films. I love that John Lasseter's film-making philosophy is "Quality is a great business plan". So, I'm understandably excited about the forthcoming Up, a movie for which I can devise no abbreviation (with the possible exception of U). I do have this one misgiving however, I'm not thrilled with director Peter Docter, so in preparation, I decided to re-watch his other contribution to the Pixar catalog, Monsters, Inc. (hey, finally a title I can't abbreviate, MI couldn't possible stand for anything else... could it?). (note: the punctuation is a little confusing here, but the comma and period in MI are, in fact, part of the title) A little background is, perhaps, in order.

M,I. and TS (that's Toy Story for those of you playing at home, and my god, have I gotten onto a bizarre digression) are my long-standing least favorite Pixar movies. This is still true, and I've made no secret about my general dislike for these two films. I saw them when they came out (when I was in college) and I didn't think they were bad, just boring. They lacked the charm of some of their predecessors. Recently I re-watched TS just on the grounds that everyone but me seems to like it and I couldn't really remember what I didn't like about it, and--lo and behold--I enjoyed it immensely. Who knew?

So what about Monsters, Inc.? Would it pass muster? Would it even pass a grammar checker?

Yes and no. Yes, it was better than I remembered. There were plenty of laughs and the characters are endearing and the whole thing generates some genuine emotion. But the film is not without its flaws. For starters, the story only mostly works. Some of the character actions seem motivated more by plot convenience than by actual character, and the deus ex machina ending is a little, well, deus ex machina. Mike's reappearance back in the monster world is left completely unexplained (it works as a joke, but they had just made a big deal about how there was no going back).

And there are some weird time issues that don't survive scrutiny. During the climax it's nighttime in Nepal, early morning wherever Boo's from (she speaks a little English, to the extent that she speaks non-gibberish), daytime in Paris and some island that looks like Hawaii (but isn't identified), and nighttime in the American South (likely the Southeast, since they routinely have "gators"). Also, Boo is gone for the better part of a day; did anybody in her world miss her? Okay, I'm overanalyzing the plot in the movie about monsters transporting themselves to kid's closets. Let's hear the legitimate complaints!

Fair enough. There's some glancing-but-not-unforgiveable scatalogical humor. Some of the background characters are annoyingly cartoony--specifically the fanboys that stop Mike and Sully on their way to the office. And the humans looked terrible in an uncanny-valley kind of way. Boo is moderately creepy. Moderately.

But, not unenjoyable. Not at all, even if it still is my least favorite.

Quick digression, the menus are non-navigable. Abby wanted to show me a specific feature and had to literally examine a flowchart in order to find it. Apparently all Disney DVD's are like this. I can't help thinking that Monsters, Inc. is a little worse than most in that the very first thing that loads when you pop in the Bonus Materials disc is a tutorial on how to navigate the disc. Thankfully, Pixar has gotten away from that, one of many Disney-tradition-departures.

Other mold-breakers include making consistently good movies (did you SEE Meet the Robinsons?), releasing them during the summer when they'll make money, and only making sequels when the story matches or bests the quality of the original. How is Disney still in business? Do they do anything well apart from lobbying for copyright laws that keep Mickey Mouse out of the public domain and removing dead bodies from their theme parks (this is true, by the way--anyone who dies inside a park is taken outside before being declared dead, that way they can say "nobody dies at Disneyland" with a straight face)?

Mother of tangents. I seem to have gone off-topic and ended up in Pittsburg. Where was I?

So, to conclude, I'm feeling better about Peter Docter and U. That's Up. See? The abbreviation doesn't work. Incidentally, Up just premiered at Cannes and has already garnered 12 positive reviews (out of 12 total reviews) on Rotton Tomatoes, with more than one critic calling it the best film of 2009 (so far).

So, that'll be something fun to watch at the end of the month.

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Thursday, May 14, 2009

You'd Think There'd Be More Innuendo In This Set

I've been listening to more music later, so I've already made it to the "Come" section. But not without first listening to three consecutive renditions of Ben Folds' Cologne (which is probably my least favorite song of his). So, what have we got?

Start things off with album and acoustic versions of Nirvana's Come As You Are, then Norah Jones' Come Away With Me and Come Down from Toad the Wet Sprocket. Brief let down with Moby's I'm-trying-to-be-a-punk-rocker ditty Come On Baby and Jem's (the English electronic artist, not the 80's cartoon character) Come On Closer. But Smash Mouth brings it back with Come On Come On.

Now some iconic tunes: Dexy's Midnight Runners' Come On Eileen (I don't have the Save Ferris cover, but I will), The Offspring's Come Out and Play, and Eric Cartman singing Come Sail Away. Finally, we get three versions of Come Together (an Aerosmith cover, The Beatles' original from Abbey Road, and the remix from Love that blends into a medly with Dear Prudence and Cry Baby Cry).

Finish it all off with 90's staple Comedown from Bush, a song that would have appeared earlier, had anyone informed the band that those were, in fact, two seperate words.

See you in the Crazy's,

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Working MetaMetaphors

It's a post that's about a metaphor, so it's a meta... you know, the title... moving on.

Here's what I've realized about team programming: it's sort of like having three people collaborate on a novel written in a language that none of them speak natively. I'm just going to go with that metaphor when explaining what I do for a living to, well, to anyone who isn't a Java developer. It's also a nice layer of obfuscation, which is a good thing since I probably shouldn't be describing the under-the-hood mechanics of our product to friends and family. You know. Security and all that. You never know, my wife might sell our trade secrets to Microsoft, or something.

Just for a quick example, let's look at what I did today. Today, I made some headway on a complex action bit of the story, only to discover that the bridge this whole scene takes place on didn't look right or make a great deal of structural sense, so I've been trying to figure out the vocabulary so I can describe the bridge better.

See? Wasn't that much easier to grasp than me droning on about plugging parent categories and observables into a JFace Tree Viewer.

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Wolverine Vs. Star Trek (Trek Wins)

Within a week of each other, two major film franchises have released origin stories. These would be, of course, J.J. Abrams take on Star Trek and the latest Marvel project: X-Men Origins: Wolverine. ST has earned near-universal (pun intended acclaim) for its fun, energetic take on what was a tired franchise. XO:W did just the opposite, taking an exciting, energetic franchise and making it a tiresome disappointment. It has been more or less panned, labeled "not-unwatchable", but certainly not worth paying full price to see. One of them got so many things right, and the other got so many things wrong. What can we learn from this?

Hire the right director. Gavin Hood has not proven himself in the action-movie sphere. The closest thing he's made to an action film is Rendition, a drama that wasn't particularly well-received. No wonder, then, that parts of XO:W were sloppy and incomprehensible. J.J. Abrams is an action guy--he did Mission: Impossible III as well as the whole Alias. He's also known in the Sci-Fi world for his work on Lost and Fringe and the wildly popular and ambitious Cloverfield. ST, then, turned out to be fun, actiony, and watchable. Huh.

There's a tendency with these franchises to hire unproven directors because people are going to see the movie anyway. Sometimes that works out, as with X-Men. Sometimes all you do is tarnish the brand, as with DareDevil. There's a reason that X-Men spawned three more films, and DareDevil did not.

If you don't pick a title, your audience will. The title of X-Men Origins: Wolverine screams "designated by committee," at least to me. Why did it need to be anything more than Wolverine? That's what everyone is going to call it anyway. There are no other movies by that title. Someone representing the money wanted to make sure that the audience knew this was tied in to the X-Men franchise by putting that word in the title. Someone decided that they could do a whole sub-franchise of origins movies, so it became a title and then a colon and then more title, like this is a chapter in a book or something.

By contrast, there are ten other films with the words Star Trek in their titles. None of them, interestingly enough, were actually called Star Trek (the first one was called Star Trek: The Motion Picture). They could just as easily have gone with Star Trek Origins: When Kirk Met Spock. But instead they picked something clean, concise, and definitive. Someone kindly pass this on to the people behind Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles.

Don't insult your audience's intelligence.  Stryker is bad, we don't know why, but he is.  (SPOILERS) He kills his superiors without (much) reason.  We know better than to believe that.  He predicts that adamantium bullets to Wolverine's skull will give him amnesia.  We could have figured that one out, thanks.  This also goes for glaring continuity issues, like

Respect the canon. You don't have to adhere, but if you're going to break, break for good reasons.  ST established it's place in the canon fairly cleverly.  XO:W threw caution to the wind and just did whatever it wanted.  Hence, there are tremendous inconsistencies, not just with the existing comic literature (what they did to Deadpool is nigh upon inexcusable), but with the existing film canon as well.

Caveat to that: Do a little goddam research.  Cyclops optic blasts are concussive, not heat-based.  Nobody dressed like that in 1979.  Canada wasn't called Canada in 1845.  And it sure looks like Wolverine was fighting in the American Revolutionary War, which would have happened 70 years earlier, and also not in Canada.

Don't overcomplicate things if you don't need to.  ST's plot was hugely complex, but it always came down to good guys versus bad guys.  You didn't have people randomly switching sides throughout.  But XO:W made things just stupid, for no good reason.  (SPOILERS) One major plot point was Silverfox's death, which was faked after her lengthy staged romance with Logan in order to free her kidnapped sister.  Her death was to motivate Logan to find Sabertooth.  Why not just kidnap Silverfox and keep that tension alive throughout the film?  Why do Deadpools blades come out of his arms, making them less wieldable and keeping him from bending his elbows?  Why not sheeth them like he did before?  It's easier.  It makes more sense.

No one actually likes stoicism.  In ST, Kirk and Spock are funny.  They break rules and make mistakes; they are fundamnetally flawed.  Their success is a triumph of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.  Wolverine, by contrast, is an extraordinary person.  Part of his story is that he tries so hard to balance what he is against his desire to live a normal life.  But on film, all of that was stripped away, as Logan was made to conform the usual rules of cinema--characters must be perfect and blameless and only kill in self-defense and must never, ever smile.  Incidentally, Deadpool's brief appearance was one of the best character moments in all of XO:W, because he cracked jokes.  He was, dare I say it, likeable.

Hire the right actors.  I love Liev Schrieber, but he was not Sabertooth.  Dom Monaghan was an underwhelming Bolt and Will.i.am was a cringe-worthy Wraith.  Everyone on ST was well-cast.  Some were brilliantly cast (e.g., Simon Pegg as Scotty), but none of them were poorly cast (the least-awesome was John Cho as Sulu--and he did a fine job, he just wasn't very Sulu).

No CGI is better than crappy CGI.  'Nuff said.

Find the emotional center.  I was getting choked up during ST's opening sequence; I found myself laughing and celebrating with characters.  Abrams drew real drama and joy from what was going on in the action.  Hood tended to try and manufacture emotion.  (SPOILERS) He killed off the love interest not once, but twice.  At one point, Wolverine flatlines.  Seriously.  It's a goddamn prequel, we know he's going to live!!!!!

I could go on, but I'll stop here.  In short, see Star Trek, but give X-Men Origins: Wolverine a miss.

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Sunday, May 10, 2009

Talk to Your Children About Proper Sentence Construction

... or someone else will.

Eliza Dushku is on Twitter. I'm a fan of her work and I am led to believe that she's very nice (Abby met her and talked to her for twenty minutes about three years ago). But god help her, her English is so damned poor. Peruse for yourself, but here are some of my favorite gems:

  • WoW- THANK YOU guys..ALL of you for the D.house love! We were very proud of TimDawg/Omega ep. I feel you, so touched, all the way over here- god bless ;* xx
  • Ah, the breeze from the Nile, almost @Lake Victoria where she (da river) begins... the big mouth.. like me!
  • Absolutely SMASHED a pretty fancy burger w/ my girlfriend Cal.. Rue 157. Good lord
  • Aw~ stepdad Jim just E'd my USA Today Momma's Day piece, check it out 2 c what she's gettin Sunday..! ;)
Now, she is new to Twitter, so it's possible that she doesn't fully comprehend you know... what words mean. Either way, it's a valuable lesson. Please, please don't let this happen to you.

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Saturday, May 9, 2009

Zombie, I Barely Know Her... Wait, Wrong Joke

So, yesterday I talked about the disappointment of Stalin vs. Martians.  Today, I turn my attention to a different absurd RTS distributed by Steam. This one was Plants vs. Zombies, which doesn't have the same kind of sex appeal, but it does have a playable demo (and a 91/100 on MetaCritic, and $10 price tag). So I played the demo, which gives you an hour of play time, and after an hour, I decided that it was totally worth $10 to keep playing.

PvZ is made by PopCap, the reigning kings of casual gaming--the group behind Peggle and Bejeweled--and this is simply the latest batch of crack (I'm not kidding--if you've ever spent five minutes playing Chuzzle, then you've spent at least three hours playing Chuzzle), conveniently digitized and distributed at $10 a download. So it should not come as a surprise that Plants vs. Zombies is easy-to-learn, addictive, charming, and well-presented. It's also chock-full of mini-games and side-bits, but the main game is an ever-evolving tower defense game (arguably the definitive Tower Defense Game is Bloons Tower Defense III, which is free, although you suffer some pop-ups and annoying ads).

The undead are attacking your house. As they traverse the yard, you stop them with any number of defensive plants. Some shoot things. Some just get in the way. Some devour. If a zombie gets close enough to a plant, it will eat it, and if one gets all the way to your house, it eats your brains and you lose.

Simple enough.

All told there are 48 types of plants you can use for defense.  You start with a single offensive plant and gain a new one at the completion of each level (with a few exceptions), of which there appear to be fifty-odd.  You have a limit to the number of plant types you can have through a level, although you get to see whom you will be fighting before you make that distinction, so you can tailor your tools for the onslaught.  Part of the challenge is finding the combinations of support and attack plants that are the most effective against your enemies or the individual plants that are not particularly useful by themselves but that give you an advantage against a specific type of zombie.

For example, football player zombies are extremely tough and fast and they will chew through your defenses pretty quickly.  You encounter them shortly after you obtain the hypno-shroom, which, when eaten, will send bad guys back the way they came, attacking all the way.  They're not too useful against the normal horde, but plant one in the path of an oncoming football player, and you can turn a serious threat into a healthy advantage.  There are 26 different types of zombie, and several mandate specific types of defense, which take up precious slots in your inventory, adding new challenges and spice to what is normally a very routine genre of game.  Unlike most Tower Defense games, in which your defenses aggregate as your enemies grow more and more numerous, PvZ makes you reset your playing field every round, but that means that you are always free to use the entire playing field.  Similarly, your enemies don't increase in number so much as they increase in strengths and peculiarity.

Variety, indeed, is probably the game's key strength.  Just when you're getting the hang of things, gameplay shifts.  After 8 levels, you start playing at night, giving you access to mushrooms, which are cheaper and more powerful than plants that operate during both day and night.  Resource management becomes more of a factor, however, because this game only has one resource to manage: sunlight (I admire this choice, especially for a casual game--RTS fans will tell you that half the battle is infrastructure, and it's not always a very fun battle).  During the day, sunlight falls from the sky, but you can collect more by planting sunflowers (get it?) or other light-producing units.

Charming.  Well-executed.  Well animated.  Good music.  Easy to learn, easy to understand, uniform presentation.  If you've got $10 to spare, look into Plants vs. Zombies.  You'll definitely get $10 worth of enjoyment out of it.

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Friday, May 8, 2009

And Don't Even Get Me Started on Wolverine

So I was really excited when I heard about this game called Stalin vs. Martians, an absurdist real-time strategy game set during World War II.  It was only $15 on Steam--I almost picked it up on the grounds that I love RTS's and I love absurdism and I love when games cost less than $20.  But there was no playable demo and great concept does not translate into great game, so I held off to see what reviews came down the pipe.  After a week, a couple reviews made their way to MetaCritic, not enough to generate a score, mind you, but enough to tell me what I needed to know.

Game reviews are tough--regular periodicals don't really review video games, so most of the time you get reviews off websites, which are completely funded by ad revenues for the very games they have to review.  Since there are lots and lots and lot (and lots) of willing reviewers hungry for ad revs, you could say that reviews occasionally incented to skew upwards.  But you find a couple sites you trust and use them (as well as MetaCritic) to synthesize an impression.

Or rent.  Or demo.

Anyway, IGN and Gamespot had reviewed it and given it a 2 and a 1.5 respectively.  That's not stars, mind you, that's out of 10.  Glad I resisted my impulses.  Both of their blurbs started with the words "Do not".  It seems a great (or at least interesting) concept has been turned into a game that is not fun, controls that don't work, and jokes that aren't funny.

How does this sort of thing happen?  How do you spend years and year working on something, realizing that it's utter crap (the dev's must have known, or at least suspected), and then release it anyway?  Yeah, it's sunk cost if you just scrap it, but if your company's first release is abysmal, that's it; you'll never sell anything again.  The handful of people that purchased this will make it their life's ambition to ensure that no one ever gives you a chance.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: the money you don't take is an investment in your own character.

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Saturday, May 2, 2009

Can't Get Enough of the Alphabetical Music

Just got out of X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

Meeeeeeehhhhhhh.

It wasn't bad, it was just stupid. Watch as I, Wolverine, eat a metal fire escape with my bare hands! Oh well.

We're coming up on the "Can't" section of iTunes, and it's pretty hefty, even the "Can't Get" subset is sizable. The lineup:

  • The Beatles - Can't Buy Me Love
  • Chris Cornell - Can't Change Me
  • Bad Company - Can't Get Enough
  • Smash Mouth - Can't Get Enough of You Baby
  • Barry White - Can't Get Enough of Your Love, Babe
  • R.E.M. - Can't Get There From Here
  • Lenny Kravitz - Can't Get You Off My Mind
  • The Police - Can't Stand Losing You
  • Red Hot Chili Peppers - Can't Stop
  • Van Halen - Can't Stop Lovin' You
  • Lauryn Hill - Can't Take My Eyes Off of You
Good times. Next big section: "Come".

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Sympathetic vs Force of Nature

This weekend we get X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a tasty treat for fans of the X-saga (after the let-down that was film 3) that exploits Marvel's most enduring character. We love Wolverine. He's a badass. With claws.

What better way, then, to declaw him than with an origin story? Yay!

Most major characters can be divided into two groups: sympathetic characters and forces of nature. Origin stories work well for sympathetic characters--they endear the character to us by providing insight into their motivations. These are the people we root for. We wish we were in their shoes, making their choices.

Forces of nature are characters that we are intended to react to, not relate to. They are shocking, extreme characters whose motivations (and by extension their limits) are unclear to us. These characters work best when their past is hinted at but is largely shrouded in mystery. The audience imagines the horrible things that must have happened to create this person. We want to know, and for that reason, we must never know. An origin story for such a character is an attempt to deliver on an impossible promise.

Look at The Dark Knight. Batman is sympathetic, so we know all about his origins and his motives. The Joker is a force of nature. He acts without reason or limitation. His actions are shocking because they exist without any context. Giving him an origin story would only provide that context, and then his actions would no longer thrill us. The mystery would be gone, the explanation would almost surely disappoint.

Don't believe me? Look at Silence of the Lambs. Hannibal Lecter is the quintessential force of nature. Clarice Starling's past was explained through dialog and the occasional flashback because that helped us relate. But Lecter was a frightening enigma. When his turn came in Hannibal Rising, when the monster was revealed to be... some rich kid... who was tortured by... Nazis... it was almost laughable.

But nobody took it quite so hard as Vader. Remember when Darth Vader was cool? Before he became a whiny little brat trapped inside a robotic candy shell? Not one but three movies deconstructed and ultimately castrated him.

I digress.

The original X-Men film opened with Magneto enduring the Holocaust. That worked, because Magneto--though a villain--was a sympathetic villain, and that sympathy is what allows him to shock us. His aims are lofty, but they're almost justifiable, until we see just to what lengths he is willing to go. Wolverine, on the other hand, is a heroic force of nature. The mystery about him is what lets us believe that he can do whatever it is that needs to be done. He's heroic because he does what we can't do, what we would not be willing to do. Wolverine's origins have been explained over and over in the comics, but there are so many to choose from that with the films it was almost like a return to mystery--a clean slate. Time to dirty it up again and hope it's not too disappointing.

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Friday, May 1, 2009

Dead (Gay) Horses, Part II

Amy responded to my most recent gay-marriage rant, and, well, I'd be lying if I said I didn't provoke her from time to time. I enjoy our spats, because they're fervent, if good natured, and rooted in fundamental disagreements about the way the world works, not childish bickering and one-up-manship. She's intelligent, mature, and she almost never sees eye-to-eye with me on moral issues and is therefore occasionally moved to action by my opinions. Here is her response in full, my retort is below.

(Note: Amy posted this in the comments section, so she intended it to be publicly available and I don't feel like I'm breaching any trust by moving it to the main blog thread; indeed, my response was going to be in the comments section as well, but it has grown to regular post-length, so it is now a post--my X-Men misgivings will have to wait until the weekend. Also, the link to her blog was readily available from the comments thread, and I linked from here as a courtesy to my detractors, not as an invitation to hers. She's a friend, and if I find out about anyone flaming her, I'll hire someone to kill you to death!!!)

From Amy:

The opposition to gay marriage is only "easy to debunk" if you're sharing your ideas with people who are as entrenched in postmodern American Unitarian culture as you are... in which case debunking is superfluous because you're preaching to the choir.
Arguments like, "why should I be beholden to your god" are ineffective because they are based on a premise that doesn't exist to a true believer: the possibility that there is such thing as "YOUR god" instead of THE GOD.

See the difference there? If I truly believe the statues of the Christian or Muslim or Jewish faith, then "my" God is THE Ultimate, All Powerful Creator and whether or not YOU believe that doesn't affect its truth. So while you have been granted the freedom to choose your beliefs, shamelessly ignoring God's laws on the basis of disbelief is inexcusable because he's the ultimate authority.

Make sense?

Also, the slippery slope argument kinda falls flat when you consider how many court cases come down to citing "if...then" precedents. Certain sects of Mormons are already using gay marriage to push for polygamy: "If little Sarah can have two mommies, then why can't she have two mommies AND a daddy?" Sounds reasonable, doesn't it? What exactly are you basing your assurance on that inter-species or adult-child marriages are not at issue?

The "50% of marriages end in divorce" thing...I've used that argument myself, but when it comes down to it, it's really just throwing the baby out with the bath water.

I think my comment has now exceeded the length of your post, but in closing, I'll say that I don't get the whole "civil union" thing either. It's either marriage or it isn't, and I don't get how you can support a civil union with marriage rights and not support calling it marriage. Baffles me.

The end.
Response:

You argument makes sense, but it doesn't pass its own litmus test: it is based on a premise that doesn't exist to a true nonbeliever. Your belief in the scriptures doesn't make them true any more than my disbelief makes them false. And how gracious of you to grant me the freedom to choose my beliefs, even while you would strip me of the freedom to choose my actions. God has granted me that authority: it's call free will. Likewise, your authority stops at your own life and the lives of your dependents. Disbelief in god is every reason to shamelessly ignore god's laws, and because I have free will, ultimate authority within my own life is mine.

Or, my wife's actually. But only because I do acknowledge her authority. Joking aside, look at it from my perspective: religion, to this day, is used to sanction murder, theft, disregard for the environment, etc. I believe that it promotes ignorance, fosters weakness and that its very existence makes my life more perilous and more difficult. But you will never, NEVER, hear me tell you or anyone else that a person shouldn't be allowed to worship freely, because my authority stops at my own body.

Furthermore, just because something is wrong doesn't mean it should be illegal. Prohibition of alcohol led to widespread organized crime. People who wanted to drink, they drank. And the quality of life in America steeply worsened. The rightness or wrongness of alcohol doesn't even enter into the equation. But, just for the sake of argument, let's assume that you're right, that homosexuality is against god's law and that this matters. The ongoing Christian crusade against homosexuals (which goes far beyond marriage) has resulted in a climate in which gays think of the church as the enemy, as a force of oppression. How, exactly, does that spread the teachings of Jesus? How, exactly, does that lead sinners to Christ? This is the cart-before-horse-mentality that is the fundamental flaw at the heart of any attempt to legislate morality, even with the best of intentions. Keeping sinners from sinning doesn't actually make them any less sinful, it only makes them resentful. Let's be clear. Outlawing same-sex marriage doesn't in any way keep homosexuals from having sex. Not in any way. All it does is drive them away from you, your church, and your god.

For that matter, is same-sex marriage even against god's law? Here's an extreme example: a man named Salim is visiting from Iran on a student visa which is about to expire. He publicly converts to Christianity, which offends his family who place a fatwa on him. If he returns to Iran, he will be killed. The state department doesn't believe him, so they won't grant him asylum, so the only way he can stay in the country is to marry. He's almost out of time and can't find (or afford) an impromptu wife. So a man in the church offers to marry Salim, even though both are straight and they have no intention of ever having sex with each other. You may have noticed that I've switched terminology from "gay marriage" to "same-sex marriage". The reason is that gays are currently allowed to marry, they're just not allowed to marry someone of the same gender. Many, many gay men and women marry and essentially fake a heterosexual marriage because they feel pressured to do so by society. Is it that much of a stretch to think that heterosexuals might, out of necessity, fake a homosexual relationship? If they don't engage in intercourse, have they broken god's law?

Of course that doesn't matter because we disregard god's law all the time. We wear clothing made of more than one fiber, we eat pork (well, I don't, but I'm told people do), we work on the Sundays (punishable by death according to Leviticus). And for an ultimate authority, god sure is wrong an awful lot. The bible condones slavery, which we have outlawed. Jesus condoned self-mutilation as an alternative to sin, which we rightfully frown upon. King David, a man after god's own heart, was a polygamist, having in the neighborhood of 700 wives.

And speaking of... saying that gay marriage leads to polygamy is convenient for the Mormons, but that doesn't make it true. Slippery-slope arguments are equivocations, false choices, straw-man fallacies (the most famous in recent history being the iconic "you're either with us or you're with the terrorists").

As a logical construct it works like this: We assume that if a is true, then b must also be true. Then we assume that b is true--what does that tell us about a? Well, it might be true, or it might not. If b were false, we would know that a was also false, but b being true tells us nothing. Again, look at it from the other side. You couldn't outlaw birth control without also outlawing abortion (a implies b). So let's say you want to outlaw abortion, but someone responds saying that if you outlaw abortion, then that will surely lead to outlawing birth control (b implies a). It's an easy argument to make, but it isn't true.

The truth, as evidenced in so many "if...then" court cases, is that sometimes b leads to a and sometimes it doesn't. And that's really the point; controversial issues are controversial because there is no established, clearly delineated social boundary between what is acceptable and what isn't. The law exists to establish those boundaries, and if the issue is controversial, then you can be certain that the boundary is going to shift. But moving it two feet to the left is not the same thing as moving it eight feet to the left.

In other words, no, I don't believe adult-child marriage or inter-species marriage is at issue, because no one has actually brought them up. When someone attempts to legalize them, then they'll be at issue. Until then, they aren't. And when someone does, I will oppose that as fervently as I support gay marriage, because a child or animal cannot give informed sexual consent, therefore sexual contact within such a marriage would, by definition, constitute rape. That's where I draw the line: marriage implies sex and sex is appropriate if and only if it exists between parties who are capable of informed consent. Gay sex is largely consensual. So I'm told.

Prison movies notwithstanding.

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