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30Jun/09Off

Week 283: Kids say cute things edition

After hearing Sam proclaim that she saw a commercial for "a real life light saber" I decided to create a little guessing game for her called "Real or Make Believe." You can probably intuit the rules, and the first round went like this:

"Okay Sam," I said, "What about Jedi?"

"Jedi are not real. They're make believe."

"Right. Penguins?"

"Real. I saw some at the zoo."

"Right." I thought I'd throw her a curve. "What about dinosaurs?"

"Well, dinosaurs were real but now they're all dead. Or turned into birds and alligators and stuff."

"Nice. How about fairies?"

She paused. "Fairies are both real and not real."

Oops. I thought that was an easy one. "No, Sam, fairies are make believe."

"Not all of them!" she shot back. "Fairies like Tinkerbell are not real, but ferry boats those are real."

It took me a second to figure out what she was saying, but once I did I laughed, conceded the point, and considered myself schooled.

When we reversed the roles and I let Sam name something that I'd declare real or imaginary, her first entry was "God." I thought that was a little advanced.

Though not quite up to such theological conundrums, Mandy is also a little advanced in her own ways. Lately she's been asking about the meaning of words she doesn't know. We were reading the other day when one of the characters in the book was visited by a tax collector. "What's 'taxes' mean?" Mandy said, slapping her palm over my left cheek and eye in the universal sign for "Hold up a sec, I got a question."

"Well," I said, "taxes are money we give to the government so they can buy things that everyone needs." This seemed close enough for a two year old on whom the intricacies of pork barrel spending might be lost.

"Oh," she said. "Like CANDY."

"...Yes," I said. "Like candy. Delicious government candy. Also roads."

Filed under: Parenting 6 Comments
27Jun/09Off

Lost Planet

Lost Planet

Here is what I would like to know: What is Japan's problem? I mean besides the squid cookies. I'm specifically thinking here about Capcom, a Japanese video game developer who felt it necessary to screw up Lost Planet, which for me was shaping up to be a pretty good 3rd person shooter until said developer decided to throw in some goofy boss fight where you had to leap from side to side avoiding rockets and use the little Xbox 360 analog sticks to shoot at a moving target without the aid of any kind of real lock-on system. Or try to, when you're not busy dying all the time. And that was after barely scraping by the previous battle where another boss vomited rockets at you so fast that you couldn't get out of the stun animation. In France, they call that le stunlock bullsheet.

What makes it worse is that the parts of the game that weren't boss fights were kind of neat. Well, once you get past the facepalm worthy characters anyway. You play some generic hero on an ice planet who falls in with some rag-tag freedom fighters trying to stick it to the big corporation that runs this ball of permafrost. These friends of yours are pretty generic too, come to think of it, including the perky female character who inexplicably shows off twelve square feet of cleavage despite the fact that it's a hundred degrees below zero out there and everyone else wears their coats buttoned up to their eyeballs.

But anyway, the gameplay was promising, with a nice range of weapons that felt good, some neat but non-gratuitous climbing mechanics, and the option to customize giant hulking mechs with different kinds of weapons. Plus I really dug the game's "thermal energy bank" that treated health and fuel as one big pool of energy that constantly ticked down towards zero on account of the cold and had to be replenished by rolling in the orange goo that leaks out of slain enemies or finding caches of that same goo. That added a mild but ever present sense of urgency to the game that kept the pace up.

So I liked the parts of the game that I didnt' hate and it's too bad that they screwed it up with the annoying boss battles. Maybe I just suck (I know you're thinking that) but I rage quit after dying for the umpteenth time on the giant moth ...thing that I was supposed to take out in my dinky little mech. Way to poke me in the eye with a stick while I was having a good time, Capcom. Enjoy your squid cookie.

Official site for screenshots, videos, and stuff.

Filed under: Gaming No Comments
26Jun/09Off

Book Review: How to Measure Human Resources

Investing in People

One of my old psychology professors was fond of saying "If something exists, it exists in some amount and can thus be measured." It's not a bad axiom for a Human Resources professional to adopt, whether they have a background in psychology or not. This book by Jac Fitz-enz and Barbara Davidson takes the idea to heart that HR isn't just a function built around transaction and enforcing compliance. If the benefits of typical activities of HR can be measured --even roughly-- then the function can have an increasingly important role to play at the higher, strategic levels of business.

After some introductory material and naval gazing, the meat of the book is split into sections on the familiar facets of HR: staffing, compensation, training, and employee relations. Each section talks a bit about the function and why it's important, then stamps out a series of equations for measuring things related to that function. For example, here's the formula for "Sourcing Cost Per Hire:"

SCPH = Advertising + Agency Fees + Referral Bonuses + Free Hires / Total # of Hires

That's it. And that's one of the more complicated equations. See, the issue I have with this book is that it's extremely cursory and only gives things a surface treatment. The equations are given, sure, but there's little to no discussion about how to go about collecting and organizing the data. There's also not nearly enough about how to use the data to influence and steer strategy. It's all just very basic. And some of the stuff, like measuring quality of job performance, is embarrassingly superficial and wouldn't stand up to much scrutiny by anyone with a bias towards scientific vigor.

What the book does an okay job of doing, I suppose is giving you some starting points if you're trying to start a HR metrics program from scratch. That's a task that can be so huge so as to be paralyzing, but with this book in hand you can pretty easily flip to a chapter and say "Okay, I'm going to calculate our Time to Fill." Or the cost of benefits. Or the cost of training. Or whatever. You can worry about being more sophisticated and more encompassing later, because doing any of these simple things that will be a start that you can build on.

Still, for anyone with a background in research methods or just looking for something with more meat on it, I'd recommend Cascio and Boudreau's Investing in People way above this one.

Filed under: Books No Comments
25Jun/09Off

Movie Review: All About Eve (1950)

All About Eve

Note: This is #25 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

I think it's kind of telling that just a couple of weeks later I can barely remember a dang thing about Eve OR this movie that's all about her.

There's something about an aging stage actress who gets eclipsed and outmaneuvered by her outwardly fawning but secretly conniving assistant and inadvertent understudy. I guess what the movie did really well was set up a whole cast of characters and paint a web of relationships between them so that much of the movie's energy came from watching and keeping track of their relationships. As things develop, for example, there are coalitions and politics and loyalties that come into play, most of which are centered around Bette Davis's character of Margo Channing.

And that's fine, especially if you're into stuff like that --good writing, character development, and so on. The acting was also generally, good, though some of the performances --Davis's in particular-- do have a bit of that overdramatization flare from this period that I find so grating. You'd know what I mean if you saw it.

So, really can't bring myself to say much more about this one. I know it won a lot of awards and it's on this list of classics for various reasons, but it just didn't click with me.

Trailer below.

Also this week: Jeremy Paul Blart: Mall Cop.

Filed under: Movies 1 Comment
23Jun/09Off

Week 282: Father’s Day

Had a great Father's Day weekend. According to ancient tradition, Sam crafted me a hand made gift at her pre-kindergarten thing that she's been going to. The gift in question is a little photo frame with a picture of her in it, ringed by various sports paraphernalia that are taken to be the universal --if inaccurate in my particular case-- symbols for masculinity. Apparently she was given no options to replace the football helmets and baseball gloves with joysticks, books, and assorted polyhedrons. Still, I love it.

Mandy also did her part, feeding me a steady stream of cards and pictures that she prepared especially for me. This creative process mostly involved her sitting down for a minute to scribble (lovingly) on a piece of paper, then running over to me and screaming "DADDY SURPRISE!" before throwing it at me and going back to make another. I have a whole stack.

Ironically, my biggest gift of the weekend was Ger's taking the children over to her dad's on Saturday and leaving me with about 7 blissful hours to myself to play video games. I also ate half a bag of semi-sweet chocolate chips and enjoyed myself thoroughly.

Then on Sunday we all went to Ger's cousin's house for a pool party. Mandy apparently shares Sam's psychotic disregard for aquatic dangers, since she spent a good twenty minutes repeatedly hurling herself off the edge of the pool into her mother's arms, whether Ger was ready or not. Sam, equipped with infallible buoyancy in the form of two tiny pieces of inflatable plastic strapped above her elbows, wore herself completely out swimming and jumping off the diving board. Everyone was exhausted and highly chlorinated at the end, but secure in the knowledge that it just doesn't get much better than that.

Filed under: Parenting 2 Comments
20Jun/09Off

Indigo Prophecy (a.k.a., “Fahrenheit”)

Indigo Prophecy is perhaps the worst game I've ever played and I hate forever everyone who suggested that I should try it.

Eager as I am to expunge abomination of a game from my mind, I'm tempted to leave my review at that. But I'll press on. For you. Indigo Prophecy takes your basic 3D adventure game as a starting point, so you're interacting with items/people, navigating yourself through a story, and solving puzzles while playing three different characters.

Quantum Dream actually bolted on some interesting things onto this standard template, like a gauge of your mental health that's analogous to hit points --goof up a little in your objectives and it declines, possibly to the point where you commit suicide. But finding something your character likes can boost it. That's kind of cool, since it adds a bit of wiggle room to a genre that traditionally has a very binary right/wrong approach to progress. I also liked the occasional switch to split screen to show you other things in the area that you need to react to, like in the first scene of the game where a cop enjoying a cup of coffee at a diner gets up to head to the restroom where you've apparently just killed a guy and need to scramble to hide the body.

So those are a couple of neat things. But the rest of the game? It's awful. To start, the main characters are either bland or so cliche it makes my teeth hurt. Tyler Miles, for example, is such an embarrassing stereotype of a funky young Black mo-fo that I had to conclude that the game takes place in an alternate timeline where the 1970s actually happen a few decades into the future. I know that's absurd BUT IT'S THE ONLY POSSIBLE EXPLANATION, PEOPLE!

But that's typical bad adventure game writing. The first of two real critical flaws in this game is the camera. I've never in my life encountered video game camera behaved more like it was strapped to a hyperactive cockatoo. The main problem is that the makers are so intent on using camera angles in a cinematic way that they often make them completely aggravating for use in a video game. Specifically, the point of view would swing and fly around erratically, taking me to wide, dramatic shots or framing shots that threw me completely off my rhythm and disoriented me. CONSTANTLY. If I have to fight with your game to play it, you fail.

The biggest flaw in Indigo Prophecy that led me to set the controller down and say "Nope, that's it, DONE." about 25% in was the quick-time event approach to "action." Frequently as you play through you'd be warned by flashing text to "Get ready!" because a QTE sequence was about to jump in an punch your fun in the throat. In these you're supposed to play a lightning quick sequence of "Simon says" type repetitions where you watch a pattern of lights on the screen and try to recreate that pattern by pressing on the left and right analog control sticks. So you see flashing lights for left/left, up/right, right/right, up/left and you have to press simultaneously on the sticks so you go left/left, up/right --OH NO, YOU'RE TOO SLOW AND YOU GOT EATEN BY SOME KIND OF F'ING GIANT FLEA! Mostly because the designers decided to make the on-screen indicators semi-transparent against a busy background. Because, you know, making something critical like that harder simply to see is more fun. I guess.

And you know, I'm not even going to talk about the insipid mechanic where you have to slap the crap out of the left trigger and right trigger in succession for like 30 seconds at a time. Because if I do I'll have to go lie down for a while.

So, bottom line, Indigo Prophecy is TERRIBLE. The developers are currently hyping their next game, Heavy Rain, and a number of game critics are already gob slobbering about how OMG TOTALLY AWESOME it looks. You people. You're welcome to your "QTE, The Game" product. I'll be standing over here shaking my tiny fists and getting ready to laugh the first time someone compares it --unfavorably-- to Dragon's Lair.

Filed under: Gaming No Comments
19Jun/09Off

Book Review: James and the Giant Peach

James and the Giant Peach

My wife and I actually read this book by Roald Dahl to my daughter, but I thought I'd go ahead and comment on it. James and the Giant Peach follows the same winning "Cinderella" formula that a lot of other writers like J.K. Rowling have used, and which Dahl also modifies in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: a miserable orphan child is stuck living with wicked relatives but is rescued by some magical force that takes him away to adventure and happiness.

In this case, James's parents were killed by a rhinoceros and he's living with this nasty Aunt Spiker and nastier Aunt Sponge. One day James is given some magic ...things by a stranger and after spilling them at the base of a peach tree he awakes the next morning to find a gigantic peach growing in his back yard. So he hops inside, meets some talking bugs, and rolls away to America. Well, actually he flies through the kingdom of the cloud people, first.

So, yeah, it's fanciful and silly, but it's clearly a children's book. It's very much got the feel of something made up on the fly, and I could imagine Dahl narrating the story off the top of his head and then going back to jot it down. My 5-year old daughter Samantha loved it, though, and it marks the beginning of her transition from books whose pages are dominated by pictures to ones where pictures only appear every few pages. Sam was enamored by the bug friends James meets in the peach, and I have to admit that I liked them too, particularly the bickering duo of the Earthworm and the Centipede. The pacing was also really quick, with one thing happening after another without dwelling on descriptions or dialog too much. About the only thing I didn't care for were the poems/songs that cropped up occasionally, but I could skim those. So all in all it makes for a good book for kids around her age or for older kids learning to read to themselves. So does Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, also by Dahl.

Filed under: Books 5 Comments
17Jun/09Off

Movie Review: Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Sunset Boulevard

Note: This is #24 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

Oh, man. Talk about bringing the crazy. Sunset Boulevard really surprised me by being an absurdly black comedy with a performance by Gloria Swanson that by all rights should be so completely over the top that it circles back up behind you But it's fantastically bizare and crazy and cringe-inducing and awesome.

The movie follows Joe Gillis (played by William Holden), a struggling screenwriter looking for any straw to grasp at to keep from returning home in disgrace. While speeding down Sunset Boulevard and evading repo men intent on taking his car, Gillis happens upon the decrepid estate of faded silent film starlet Norma Desmond (Swanson) and her totally creepy butler. After spraying crazy all over the place and chewing up every bit of scenery in sight, Desmond decides that she likes this particular fly that has stumbled into her lair and conscripts him to rewrite a sprawling screenplay that she believes will be her vehicle for a Hollywood comeback. Gillis acquiesces, seeing this as the least of the bad options available to him at the moment, but before long he complicity settles into the role of Desmond's boy toy.

Gloria Swanson's portrayal of Norma Desmond absolutely dominates this movie, though. Desmond is intense, larger than life, and grandiose in her opinions of how great she was, is, and will be. This isn't just your garden variety celebrity's exaggerated opinion of self worth --Desmond is F'ING CRAZY, and Swanson plays this megalomania with a really strange, fantastical, incredibly florid style that gives the character a weird gravitational pull in every scene she's in. Your eyes just can't escape her. If nothing else, she's memorable in the role, and it's the kind of spectacle you probably won't regret seeing.

It's also notable that Sunset Strip is apparently one of the first movies to really take Hollywood to task over the injustices it can do stars who have outlived their usefulness. While Desmond is obviously the author of much of her own misfortune, he film isn't very kind to the Hollywood machine of the time, which one can only assume exists today, possibly in a more monstrous form. This is in fairly strong contrast to other movies about movies (not to mention public relations efforts coming out of Hollywood) that portray actors' lives as nothing but idyllic and glamorous.

At any rate, I really liked this movie. It's just so crazy and weird and darkly funny that it feels pretty far ahead of its time. Trailer below.

Memorable quotes:

Joe Gillis: You're Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.
Norma Desmond: I am big. It's the pictures that got small.

Norma Desmond: All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up.

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16Jun/09Off

Week 281: Daddy Daughter Weekend Edition

The big event this weekend was that Geralyn went on a little mini vacation with some of her family (a girls only kind of thing), and my initial suggestion that she take the kids with her was firmly rejected. So I took a half day on Friday and started waiting for Geralyn to get back late Sunday night. This wasn't the first time I had been left alone in charge of my offspring, but I think it was the longest. I made it until Sunday afternoon before putting in a DVD.

Actually, we had a pretty busy weekend. We went to swim lessons, visited Grandpa, went to the library, had a donut breakfast, went to the science museum, and had a picnic lunch. And here's a pro-tip for when mom is away: let the kids sit at the living room coffee table to eat meals and it's LIKE THE BEST THING EVER. Seriously, they went nuts for this, though they actually didn't eat much come to think of it. And despite all this, the highlight of their weekend was when a horse (with a cop on it) walked past our car at the park.

But at any rate, nobody died (including me) and nobody threw a fit demanding to have their mommy (including me), so I think it was a rounding success. Though they were glad to see Geralyn when she got back.

Filed under: Parenting 2 Comments
13Jun/09Off

Game Review: Bully Scholarship Edition

Jimmy and Cheerleader

Imagine one of the recent Grand Theft Auto games, only set in a hell hole of a private school and instead of playing a thuggish criminal trying to survive the streets you play a thuggish problem child trying to survive the hallways. There. That's pretty much Bully.

Like the GTA games, Bully is an open world or "sandbox" game where you guide little Jimmy Hopkins (the reluctant and foul tempered hero of this story) around doing the kinds of things high school kids do: attending classes, playing pranks, stealing kisses, and beating the ever living crap out of anyone who crosses you. Jimmy may have a heart of gold, but it won't stop him from pragmatically shooting you in the crotch with a potato launcher if you get in the way of his uniting all of the school's cliques and becoming their benevolent dictator. He's actually a good guy who has a thing against bullies, but his goodnesss is not, shall we say, evenly distributed.

Like with the GTA games, the gameplay in Bully is tightly compartamentalized. You've got your errand quests, your driving challenges, your combat sorties, your shooting galleries, and your fetch assignments. It's rarely mixed up, and once you've done one type of activity there's little that's novel about subsequent missions built from the same template. You'll be doing a lot of stuff over and over again.

But you know, that's okay. Because Bully's strength is its presentation and its charm as seen in the dialog, the character design, and the shenanigans it launches you into. The tone of the game is just close enough to serious but still staying on this side of satire and absurdity to be fun. It seems like Rockstar is having a blast filling in the same GTA outline but with a different set of colors that give the whole thing a more subversive and comical tone that stays pretty darn consistent. The one-liners, throwaway comments from other students, character design, quest objectives, and scripting are all fueled by the same sense of dark humor. It's a great world that I hope we see more of, with some new content and game play mechanics.

It's also worth mentioning that Rockstar needs to STAND BACK and TAKE NOTE that Bully is the perfect size for a game in this genre. The world was big enough to be interesting and diverse, but not so sprawling that getting around it was a pain. Also unlike any other GTA game I've played, the length of the game Bully felt just right to me, since I was just starting to get my fill of it when it wrapped itself up. Any more would have been overstaying its welcome, and any less would have been leaving some fun on the table.

Official Bully homepage for screenshots, movies, etc. And if you've played the game already, some of the RebelFM guys did a series of podcasts about it, starting here.

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12Jun/09Off

Book Review: Reaper Man

Reaper Man

Death (with a capital D, or even all small-caps if you're a particularly cheeky typographer) is the only character to appear in just about every one of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels. And better yet, he occasionally gets to star in one, like Reaper Man. The gist is that Death seems to be developing a bit of a personality and compassion for the souls he collects once their lifetimers have counted down, and that's a big no-no according to certain guardians of the Right Proper Order of Things. So Death gets fired and sent off to live as a mortal until he dies.

Crazy, right? Well, par for the course on the Discworld. The problem for the rest of the Disk’s humans is that their Death isn’t replaced in a timely fashion, so the souls of the newly departed either just sort of hang around or decide to stick to familiar ground and pop back in to their bodies. So you’ve got a plague of thoroughly confused and moderately annoyed zombies roaming around the place. Only they’re not the "Blearg, brains!" kind, but rather the "Hey, what did you guys do with all my stuff?" kind. There’s also some fairly incomprehensible stuff about killer shopping carts, snow globe eggs, and runaway shopping malls.

As a book, Reaper Man is two thirds good. I loved the parts with Death learning about life by living as a farmer named "Bill Door" and facing down death --irony! existentialism! Plus there was this great running gag with a dyslexic rooster who crowed things like "Dock-a-loodle-fod!" all the time. And the parts with the late Unseen University faculty member Windle Poons coming back as a zombie and taking up arms in the equal rights for the undead crusade was a great bit of social commentary. The only part I didn’t like (or even really comprehend) was the tie-in part where the wizards and undead team up to fight shopping carts and city destroying things posing as …shopping malls? I dunno. That was kind of weird.

On balance a great Discworld book, though. I love seeing Death fleshed out (so to speak) as a character, and he’s got some really nice moments here with some other characters.

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10Jun/09Off

Movie Review: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Note: This is #23 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

Well, here we have the first real western (or close enough to it) in this little experiment. Surprising, since that's the kind of genre (along with musicals) that comes to mind when I think about the word "bygone." And yet The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is really pretty good.

It tells the story of two down-and-out Americans in Mexico who make a last-ditch effort at striking it rich by teaming up with an old but experienced prospector. Full of gusto, the trio sets off into the Sierra Madre mountains to brave bandits and the harsh climate in hopes of finding gold. Then they find it. But that's when the real danger begins.

The biggest threat to their safety and newly found wealth, it turns out, is not from the bandits or the sun or collapsing mines, though those do all take a swing at them. In another example of the "hell is other people" philosophy, the real villains of the movie turn out to be its heroes, or at least one of them. Humphrey Bogart plays Fred Dobbs, who at the beginning of the movie seems destitute but honest and completely lacking in greed. Once he and his two new business partners find more gold than they ever dreamed of, though, Dobbs starts to turn nuttier than a squirrel fart and everyone involved has to start watching their backs. So the movie has a traditional western adventure plot (bandits! gunfights! grimacing!), but also a strong psychological component as the characters wrestle with their rapidly devolving relationships. And it all caps off with a tragic twist ending.

My only real complaint with the movie is that the acting covers a pretty wide range of quality. Bogart is good, even when he has to crank up the crazy, but the rest of the cast gives stilted and awkward readings of their lines more often than not. It sounds more like some actors trying to lean their lines rather than performances in front of a rolling camera. Still, overall a great movie and I finally got to learn where that "Badges? We don't need no stinking badges!" line comes from, even if it is misquoted.

Trailer below.

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8Jun/09Off

Week 280

Quick update this week. Here's some pictures from the botanical garden.

The only thing I have to note this week is that Sam called one of her stuffed animals an "infidel." I'm so confused.

Filed under: Parenting 1 Comment
6Jun/09Off

Game Review: Plants vs. Zombies

Flying Zombie

There's a lot of things that fight zombies: Soldiers. Nuns. Children. I have to admit, though, that I'd have never thought of pitting them against vegetable matter, which is probably one of the reasons I'm not working at Pop Cap Games making ridiculously addictive downloadable games.

Now, I know what you're thinking: "Ugh, I hate plant-based games. What with my allergies and all." And I get that. But PvZ is quite a bit different. The gist is that zombies are slowly marching across your lawn to get to your precious brains. To thwart them, you place various plants in the lawn. There's a wide variety of plants, ranging from Pea Shooters for ranged attacks to Wall Nuts for building barriers to explosive Chili Peppers for area of effect attacks to Sunflowers to produce the game's currency, sunlight.

Ironically, this bio diversity is represented on the zombie side as well, with enemies running (well, shambling) the gamut from basic grunts to armored tanks to foes that can bypass your defenses by jumping, digging, or floating past. Like most strategy games, PvZ relies on the "rock, paper scissor" paradigm where different zombie threats are countered by different kinds of plants. Cacti counter flying zombies, for example, while laying down prickly Spikeweed will pop the tires on zombie zambonies. The strategy comes from choosing which plants with which to stock your limited arsenal at the beginning of each level, and then how to best gather resources and build your defenses once things start.

And that's all just the main campaign mode. It's apparent that Pop Cap also really took their time creating stacks and stacks of minigames and puzzles to further the fun, culminating in a series of survival modes where you and your flora try to hang on as long as you can.

Plants vs Zombies screenshot

Now, this isn't a particularly deep game, and outside of survival mode and a few of the minigames it's not going to challenge a seasoned RTS gamer much. But PvZ is long on personality, with the character design and the various texts in the Zombie/Plant Almanac adding so much flavor to the experience that you'll forgive the difficulty curve for being such a gentle slope. In other words, the game is pretty fun, moderately funny, and extremely charming. I bought during a $10 sale on Steam, and it was a heck of a deal. Even at the normal price of $20 on the official site it's worth it.

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5Jun/09Off

Book Review: The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments

The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments

The hook in this history of science book by George Johnson is that the author wants to step back from modern megascience with all its massive teams, corporate backing, and global collaboration. Specifically, he wants to can look back and appreciate the simpler times when one man could take an amazing idea and cobble together some experimental apparatus to test it in a simple, elegant experiment. The book looks at ten such situations, ranging from Galileo's experiments on the movement of bodies to Galvani's manipulation of electricity to Pavlov's exploration of animal psychology.

You may think that's a pretty good hook (nerd!), and if you're in the book store or at your computer reading the dust jacket, you'd think that the reader is in for a broad tour of the highlights of science over the last few hundred years. I was particularly intrigued by the fact that if this wasn't a sampling from ALL of science, it was close --not just physics or chemistry or psychology, but a more encompassing approach.

And it does turn out to be mostly all that. My main problem is that Johnson's writing style makes the book read more like a text book than a popular science book, which is what I was hoping for (and, to be honest, sold by the dust jacket). It's a little too dry, a little too much to the point, and a little TOO focused on the experiments themselves. Johnson specifically addresses the latter in his introductory chapter, noting that he could have chosen to say more about the people doing the experiments or the politics and society surrounding them, he consciously decided to keep the experiments in the spotlight. I can see that point of view and that goal, but let's face the unfortunate truth: you can only read so much about an experimental procedure and laboratory aparatus before your eyes start to glaze over. The book just needed a little something more, be it some more context or maybe just a little more entertaining style.

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4Jun/09Off

Movie Review: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

The Best Years

Note: This is #22 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

Here's a question every generation has to answer, hopefully not too many times: What happens when veterans come home from a war? Released right around the time this was happening after World War II, The Best Years of Our Lives follows the interconnected lives of three veterans coming home to a small, midwestern town. One is a formerly successful banker with an apparently perfect family, one is a down-and-out but stand up guy whose wife turned floozy while he was gone, and the third is a young sailor who was maimed in an accident that took his hands and replaced them with hooks.

Compared to the concept of the world war, this is a trio of relatively small stories, but the story telling and film are very well done. You get a real sense of human drama as these people and their families try to cope with assimilation back into a post-war world. They not only struggle with drastic changes to their bodies (hello, hooks for hands!) but their families, marriages, workplaces, and societies in general. Yet it pulls up well short of melodrama and manages to always stay interesting to watch.

The ensemble cast of actors in this one also do a really good job, with just about everything coming off as natural and flowing. Of particular note is the guy who played the sailor with the lost hands, who even though he wasn't a professional actor was good enough at it to win an Academy Award. And you get a happy ending! What's not to like?

Trailer below. Oddly, the Homer character is hardly there to be seen at all.

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2Jun/09Off

Week 279: Rock Stars, Songs, and Carnivals

Every now and then, your kids do some really crazy stuff, and some of the time it's all right. The other day both Sam and Mandy got it securely in their head that they were going to be ROCK STARS --just like that, with all caps. They put on sun glasses, grabbed microphones (a toy mic for Sam and an empty toilet paper roll for Mandy) and proceeded to put on the most spastic show I've ever seen.

Mandy was perhaps the most impressive. Her on-stage theatrics involved enthusiastically flinging every one of her four (and at times I swear five) limbs in different directions, yet amazingly she seemed able to slingshot her center of gravity around so that she remained upright the whole time. Sam was, of course, the front man (er, front girl) for the band, and her shtick was repeatedly jumping up and doing scissor kicks and yelling the lyrics to their song, "We're Rock Stars, Yeah!" Here's a sample of the lyrics:


We're ROCK STARS, yeah!

We come from California

We practice really hard

We can do jumps

And the splits

Rock star, yeah!

Rock star, yeah!

Stop laughing daddy

It's not funny

Rock band I mean rock star, yeah!

Then Mandy would go into a frantic five minute drum solo, minus the drums.

Unfortunately I didn't have my camera or camcorder anywhere near me and I wasn't allowed to leave the show, but I hope to coax an encore out of them when I'm better prepared. I did, however get some pictures of them later in the weekend when we went to our annual parish carnival.

Sam was tall enough to ride almost all the rides this year and we splurged for the bracelet that gave her unlimited runs. She made the most of it and particularly enjoyed "The Avalanche" ride where she went way up high and then fell to her certain doom. I particularly like this picture, which is one of my few successful attempts at using the "panning" technique to grab a moving subject so that she's in focus while the background is motion blurred.

Mandy, after one tentative and ultimately terrifying trip on the teacups, cleaned up at the carnival games and earned herself all sorts of plush things that will soon clutter up my living room. I got a sunburn. So everyone got something!

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