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30Dec/09Off

Movie Review: MASH

MASH

Note: This is #51 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

I was kind of familiar with the television series of the same name that spun off from this movie, so MASH wasn't completely new ground. Like the TV show, the movie features an ensemble cast, but the main players are three Army doctors pressed into service as field surgeons during the Korean War: Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland), Duke Forrest (Tom Skerritt), and "Trapper" John McIntyre (Elliot Gould).

Oddly, the movie is episodic, featuring a series of interconnected stories that last 15 to 20 minutes each. The common theme that runs through all of them is the three doctors (and to a lesser extent their comrades) trying to retain their mental balance in the face of the wartime horrors that keep coming to them on stretchers and operating tables. Mostly this is done by desparately scrabbling for humor wherever it can be found, from sneaking a microphone into a tent so that two people's lovemaking is broadcast over the loud speakers to fooling a the camp's meloncholy dentist into thinking that he has committed suicide only to give him a new lease on life when he wakes up. There's a strong streak of anti-establishment rebellion running through almost everyone in the camp, but especially the three doctors. Those few, like Nurse "Hot Lips" Houlihan, who do not embrace absurdity and black humor of their situation are targeted for humiliation and ridicule until they finally break down and either get with the program or get carried away in a straight jacket. If National Lampoon covered the Vietnam War (or the Korean war, for that matter) the results would be pretty similar to MASH.

MASH is billed largely as a dark comedy, and I get that to some extent. Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould in particular have a great, understated comedic tilt to their performances, and they're fun to watch and listen to. And I get the vibe about how the only way they can endure their situation is to laugh in its face while they're elbow deep in the gore of the war's victims. But by and large I just didn't find MASH that funny. Dark, yes. Often absurd, yes. But not really funny. Still, dark and absurd aren't that bad, especially when you've got some great performances. Plus I also liked the style that director Robert Altman brought to the filming, with long shots, extreme zooms, and overlapping conversations. I hadn't seen anything much like that in my movie list for this experiment, but I can see how it affected subsequent films.

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29Dec/09Off

Week 309: Merry Christmas

We had a great Christmas again this year with my sister and mom in town to help celebrate and tame the girls. Photo dump!

See you next year.

Filed under: Parenting 2 Comments
27Dec/09Off

My New Blog: The Psychology of Video Games

Over the last couple of weeks I've been working on a new blogging project for 2010. I thought that instead of doing more weekly reviews on books or movies, I'd tackle something bigger and honestly more interesting. Well interesting to me; not sure about you yet. I figure, I like psychology. And I like video games. Why not write about the psychology of video games?

So, perform clicking motions at this time to visit The Psychology of Video Games.

As I say on the "About" page, the articles on the site will use what I know of puny human psychology to answer three types of questions:

  1. Why do gamers do what they do?
  2. Why do those designing games do what they do?
  3. Why do those marketing and selling games do what they do?

I've already stocked the shelves with seven stories dealing with specific questions like:

So, please go check it out. If you find it remotely interesting, please consider subscribing to the RSS feed, leaving a comment, or sharing it on your favorite social media site like Twitter, Facebook, Digg, etc. And click on a few of the Google Adsense ads while you're at it. I need to renew my Xbox Live Gold membership soon.

25Dec/09Off

Book Review: Lords and Ladies

Lords and Ladies is the 14th Discworld book by Terry Prattchett, which is a feat in and of itself, and it's the 4th book to focus on the Lancre coven of witches. I had initially disliked Granny Weatherwax in her first couple of books, but along with her ever present friend Nanny Ogg she has become one of my favorite inhabitants of the Disc. Lords and Ladies deals with the pending marriage of Magrat Garlick, the third member of the coven, to the king of Lancre and a simultaneous outbreak of elves. Only Prattchett's elves aren't of the "Fa la la la" or toy-making kind. They're more the "take over the world and torture people to death" kind.

What's interesting about Lords and Ladies is that it shows how Prattchett has grown at this point into being able to tell a pretty good adventure story with genuine character arcs (or in Granny Weatherwax's case, revealing what's already there, since she's too stubborn to change) and at the same time being really funny. And of course the author's signature social satire is in palce, with his taking pot shots at everything from Shakesphere's Midsummer Night's Dream to the feudal system to psychology to superstitions about crop circles to the whole goth culture. It's dizzying sometimes, but often very funny. Plus it features Cassanunda, world's second greatest dwarf lover and repairer of step ladders. Some of my favorite quotes:

"Mustrum Ridcully did a lot for rare species. For one thing, he kept them rare."

"Nanny Ogg looked under her bed in case there was a man there. Well, you never knew your luck."

"The shortest unit of time in the multiverse is the New York Second, defined as the period of time between the traffic lights turning green and the cab behind you honking."

"In the Beginning there was nothing, which exploded."

"And the child had a permanently runny nose and ought to be provided with a handkerchief or, failing that, a cork.

But Magrat, like this, frightened him more than the elves. It was like being charged by a sheep.

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24Dec/09Off

Movie Review: Easy Rider (1969)

Easy Rider

Note: This is #50 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

Easy Rider stars Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper as Wyatt and Bill, who while flush with cash from a drug deal strike out for New Orleans in search of freedom on the open road. Along the way they smoke a lot of pot, meet a groovy hitchhiker who takes them to an experimental hippy commune, and pick up a drunkard of a ACLU lawyer played by Jack Nicholson. Wyatt and Bill are pretty rough around the edges, and this provokes the deadly ire of the rednecks they encounter on their way to Louisiana and eventually Florida. In the end, we're expected to believe that the duo failed in their search for freedom in America, and anyone who dares to embrace the counter culture is doomed to disaster and harsh vibes, man. And by "harsh vibes" I mean a hillbilly with a shotgun.

I suspect that Easy Rider is one of those films whose real significance eludes me mostly because I didn't live through its debut and didn't experience the new but irrefutable ideas that it embodied. Marijuana and cocaine, while absent from my own personal life, seem ordinary staples of the television and film I see. Hippy communes seem quaint, and two dudes riding motorcycles across the country hardly strikes me as "WOW!" material. And the finale where Wyatt and Billy drop acid with a couple of prostitutes in a graveyard just left me cold and annoyed. So mostly at the end of this movie I was left with a "What the hell?" kind of feeling and not all that impressed. I can see how it could be seen as a landmark in film making and a cultural touchstone, but alas I still didn't enjoy it.

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22Dec/09Off

Week 308: Birthday, Santa’s Helper, and Pics

Man, Mandy is three. Three! That's hard to get my head around, but I'm told these things happen. She's certainly been looking forward to her birthday party, even if it was low key and we just had Grandpa and Geralyn's godmother over for dinner --chicken nuggets and mac and cheese per immutable tradition. Still, there were presents, which Samantha did her best to immediately co-op, as sharing is a concept apparently best pro-actively enforced.

Sam continues to practice her spelling and reading almost obsessively, to the point where she's spelling new words out to herself and getting better at writing things. She was thrilled recently to get a letter from Santa congratulating her on this, proclaiming that if you in fact read between the lines this put her at the TOP of the "Nice" list. She's generally rolling with the whole Santa thing, with one exception. Geralyn took the kids to an event where they met Santa, and also in attendance was an "elf." I put that in quotes because it was obviously someone's grandpa that had been crammed into an elf suit --all six wrinkly feet of him. Sam kept giving this fellow dubious glances, and on the way home she commented that she didn't think that was a REAL elf, because REAL elves are small. And didn't just sit there staring into space. Perceptive girl.

I'd like to close by pointing out that this week has two of my new favorite pictures of Mandy. I somehow managed to get great lighting on this shot of Mandy with her birthday cake. And then there's this pic of her taking a time out the next day.

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18Dec/09Off

In Which I Quickly Review a Bunch of Games

I had good intentions. I was going to start blogging up reviews of all the video games I played and posting them here for you all to ignore. I even did a few, which the laws of probability say you can eventually find by performing random clicking motions on the site. Turns out that I really didn't have it in me, though, and I kept letting things slide in favor of the parenting updates, the book reveiws, and the 52-Movies-In-52-Weeks thingie.

So I decided to just get all caught up by doing some rapid-fire, one paragraph reviews. Here we go!

Psychonauts (Xbox)

Here we have veteran game designer and funny guy Tim Schafer's and his development house Double Fine creating a summer camp/school for young psychic warriors, to which plucky hero Raz inserts himself. It's a platformer with a VERY weird art style and really funny writing. I hate platformers, though, and Psychonauts reminds of why as frequently grew frustrated trying to simply move through the hub world. On the other hand, the writing and the level design are really funny. The "Milkman" level where you infiltrate some kind of weird suburbia fever dream is one of the best game levels I've ever encountered, and the level that parodies Godzilla movies inside the mind of a giant fish isn't far behind.

Civilization Revolution (iPod Touch)

It's the Civilization turn-based strategy series totally rebuilt to work on consoles, then ported to the iPhone minus multiplayer. You control one of several civilizations and try to be the best in the world through military, diplomatic, cultural, economic, or technological avenues. It's simpler than hard core Civ games, but it's still pretty good and it's amazing that you can play a game like this on a freaking iPod. It strikes me as the kind of thing that you would want to take with you if you could time travel back to the 90s and wanted to utterly blow some people's minds.

Halo 3 ODST (X360)

Yep, it's Halo 3, minus Master Chief and plus a half-assed version of the Gears of War Horde mode. Given that, it's still pretty good, and it's got the best Halo single player campaign yet on account of how the designers pared down all the fat and left just set piece after set piece without long corridors to pad things out. I also loved how it handles the collectibles angle by having you seek out and find a series of audio recordings that tell a B story that's frankly more interesting than the game's main plotline. The game also comes with a second DVD containing the entire Halo 3 multiplayer experience, which is nice if you're like me and don't have that already. It's just forehead smakingly infuriating that they didn't include ANY matchmaking with the new Firefight multiplayer mode so that you can only play with people on your friend's list.

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed (X360)

The nerdigalian was pretty down on this game, and I'm not quite sure why. It's a third person action game where you get to play Darth Vader's seeekrit apprentice, Starkiller. This is a name that sounds absurd until you remember that this is a world where people are named "Skywalker," "Han Solo," and "Darth Sidious," at which point it still sounds absurd, but at least it's not weird. There were major targeting and control issues, but I loved how you could just use grossly overpowered Force abilities to slap your opponents around and tear stuff up on an epic scale. The storyline and cut scenes are also pretty good.

Batman: Arkham Asylum (X360)

I'm just going to go ahead and say that this is the best game I played all year. The setup is that you're Batman ("I'm Batman!") at the end of a long night of apprehending the Joker and locking him up in the infamous Arkham Aslum/Prison. Only Joker takes th joint over and you end up beating the ever living daylights out of a long succession of villains and nameless thugs. But what's really great about this game is the presentation and the Metroid-style gameplay where you gradually acquire gadgets that grant you access to different areas and secrets. Oh, and the combat is awesome. So is how the collectables are handled. And the sound. You know, just about everything about this game is awesome.

Brutal Legend (X360)

Tim Schaefer and Double Fine make another entry in this list, and this time the game is a LOT better. Imagine a world inspired by heavy metal album artwork from the 1980s and you've pretty much got Brutal Legend's setting, only more rocking. The game kind of suffers from being a mish-mash of real-time strategy (on a console, yuck), open world adventure, driving, and God of War style action game, but in the end it somehow comes together because of how original and fresh everything is and how good the script is. It was just really fun despite its flaws, like how your avatar is constantly stymied by three in lips of dirt in what's supposed to be an open world game. And whoever was in charge of the animation and "acting" on the computer generated characters in this game deserves some kind of award, because they knocked it out of the park.

Torchlight (PC)

This game is more like Diablo 2 than Diablo 2 could ever hope to be. It's all there --the clicking, the looting, the character classes, the skill trees, the named mobs, the loot collection, the running back to town to sell the loot, the going back for more loot, even the soundtrack. Torchlight does add its own polish and improvements (your pack mule of a dog or cat for one, and a quest system that rips off that other Blizzard game for another), but it has the good graces not to even pretend to hide the fact that it's a Diablo 2 clone with a splash of World of Warcraft. And like Diablo 2, it gets pretty repetitive pretty fast, so much so that I'm not sure I'm going to finish it. But at the budget price of $15 to $20, I certainly got my money's worth out of it.

Whew. All caught up.

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17Dec/09Off

Book Review: The Elfish Gene

NOTE: The author of this book posted a comment here that provides some interesting context to my review and some counterpoints. It's definitely worth noting, so click on the "comments" link below.

In The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons and Growing Up Strange, author Mark Barrowcliffe presents his memoir of what it was like to grow up during the 70s in Coventry, England and being utterly obsessed with the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons. As someone who was himself once obsessed with D&D to the point of being able to recite entire blocks of text from the Monster Manual or tell you how many level 3 spells an 8th level Magic-User could cast, this was a good enough hook for me. I'd been there, albeit about a decade later and on the other side of the Atlantic, and I wanted to compare notes.

The problem is that I'm not sure who the audience for The Elfish Gene is supposed to be. Barrowfliffe certainly details his obsession with the game, and I think that any past or current D&D player would be hard pressed NOT to identify with something from the book. Maybe it would be the way the author would show up at schoolmates' houses awkwardly hoping for a game, or maybe how he delighted in his discovery of the area where D&D and heavy metal overlapped in a Venn diagram. Or maybe how his parents would --as only a loving if confused parent can-- feign interest in his nattering about hit dice, kobolds, and +5 vorpal swords.

Likewise, Barrofcliffe does have some genuine insights about how kids see social class, what drives teenage boys to be sardonic bastards, the nature of counter-cultures, hero worship among the self-loathing, and like. It's all very introspective and again it's interesting to compare experiences from my own adolescence.

There are also a few really funny bits to the book, as Barrowcliffe is not without the ability to occasionally turn an amusing phrase or describe a situation so absurd that it can only be a true tale born of childhood logic. There is, for example, the time he plans to ignite a balloon full of lighter fluid in order to recreate a fireball spell, but sets his friend's bathroom on ablaze during a test run. Or the time that he decides to evaluate his ninja abilities by jumping, practically naked, from his bed into his dirty clothes hamper, only to miscalculate things and end up knocking himself out and leaving his befuddled parents to conclude that it must have been some bizarre masturbation ritual. Because, frankly, that's more believable than the ninja thing.

On the other hand, Barrowcliffe isn't describing all this in the context of nostalgia. Not even the wry, "can you believe what we used to think was cool" brand of nostalgia. From the opening pages, it's clear that he thinks that getting into D&D was a huge mistake and that if he had only chosen a different path --one populated by girls and carburetors and maybe cricket-- he'd have actually been happy, well adjusted, and better off in life. In fact, he's downright disdainful of the game and those who play it, right up to the epilogue where he makes a half-hearted attempt to join a modern day game and ends up deriding the players and literally running away from them.

According to Barrowcliffe, everyone who plays role-playing games does so because he's a socially inept, hopelessly nerdy git. This is mostly because Barrowcliffe is (well, was) himself a socially inept, hopelessly nerdy git and he doesn't bother to see past his own experiences. While D&D certainly attracts its share of nerds, there are many positive things the author could have said about D&D if you weren't so bent on blaming it for his own shortcomings. It encourages reading, it develops logical reasoning, it fires the imagination, and it's an inherently social game, just to name a few.

But there's none of that; the treatment of the game is entirely lopsided. A more complete book would have delved more into the history of the game and how it and the author evolved over time. There would have also been more examination of the gaming subculture on a wider scale, as well as its many offshoots into other forms of entertainment. Of course, you can say that this is a memoir, and since Barrofcliffe gave up D&D for life and developed other interests, he can't very well talk about all that, can he? And that's fair enough. But it remains that Barrowfcliffe doesn't understand about role-playing games or the attendant culture. He understands about being a socially retarded teenager seeking escape from life. And yes, there's a difference.

Filed under: Books 4 Comments
16Dec/09Off

Movie Review: The Wild Bunch (1969)

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Note: This is #49 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

The Wild Bunch is interesting because we essentially follow a group of villains with one hero (or, arguably, just another kind of villain) just hanging around on the periphery. The bunch in question is a group of old school, wild West outlaws who have made a long career out of robbing stage coaches, banks, and railroads. But in the year 1913, they're starting to get long in the tooth and looking for either a life beyond their guns or one big score to set them up for retirement. The group is led by Pike Bishop (William Holden) and his old friend Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine, who has the coolest name EVER). After botching one robbery and shooting up half a town's worth of innocent bystanders, they flee south and get tangled up in the Mexican Revolution. Dogging them is Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), who is a former member of the bunch himself and out of prison on the condition that he recapture Pike and his gang.

The movie is very much about a group of aging men staring at the upcoming end of an era that they themselves defined. There's lots of marveling at newly minted automobiles and machine guns, children being dangerous, and the entire concept of revolution plays not only a concrete but symbolic role in the film. There's some great character development going on, particularly with Pike and Deke where we get to see why they are who they are and how much despair their current situation causes them. Also, there are a lot of gunfights. Very violent ones, in fact, and capped off by a spectacular shootout in a Mexican military camp that calls back a powerful image that ran through the opening credits: a group of children forcing a small group of scorpions to fight a swarming mass of fire ants until they are eventually worn down and torn apart.

So I liked this one. It's violent and unpleasant, unlike a lot of other more pulp-minded westerns from this project so far, but it strikes me as a very good piece of film making and story telling in general.

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15Dec/09Off

Week 307: Stains and Sweat

Short update this week, but I'm sure I'll have lots to talk about in the following weeks. Here's a couple of pictures to keep the 307+ point combo going:

If the children look more ...stained than usual, it's because I took these at the end of the day. All bets are really off after dinner (really, during dinner), since we figure everything is soon going into its/her respective washes anyway.

I did have an amusing conversation wtih Sam the other day, though. I had come home from the gym and was still a bit sweaty. She looked at me and said, "Daddy, why is your hair all wet?"

"It's sweat. From exercising."

"What's sweat?"

"Well, when your body gets hot your skin produces a liquid called sweat so that you can cool off. Actually, I think it's when the sweat evaporates that the cooling happens."

"Oh." She thought a moment."And if you get thirsty you can drink the sweat!"

"Eaugh. No, you wouldn't want to do that. I think sweat is closer to pee than water."

"...WHAT?"

"Well, I mean, it's not really clean."

"Daddy?"

"Yes, Sam?"

"I'm NEVER going to exercise."

"Fantastic."

So there you have it. Thanks a lot, sweat.

Filed under: Parenting 1 Comment
14Dec/09Off

Review: In the President’s Secret Service

The humongous, full title of this book by Ronald Kessler is In the President's Secret Service: Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect. And as the title suggests, it aims to tell the secret story of the equally secret service, gleaned by meticulous research, high quality reporting, cross-referencing each story with multiple sources, and maintaining a tone of level headed objectivity without taking sides.

Ha ha, no. Seriously. No. While it's true that Kessler does aim to tell exciting and interesting stories about the Secret Service based on his extensive interviews with current and former Agents, what we end up with here doesn't bear much resemblance to anything derived from sound journalism or rigorous research. Instead, the author seems most interested in taking quotes (often anonymous) from Agents (often disgruntled) that are assumed to be true without any kind of verification and usually without any kind of qualification. Think "tabloid."

That's bad enough but Kessler seems to be intent on wringing every bit of sensationalism he can out of the book, usually in the form of painting extreme pictures of the Presidents and other people protected by the Secret Service. So you get stories about how Jimmy Carter was aloof with the staff and disingenuous with the public, or how the Bushes sent the Agents steaks every year, and how Al Gore couldn't stop eating cookies. Or how the appropriately named President Johnson would walk around the White House with his, um, namesake hanging out. Some of these are entertaining, but are tainted by their apocryphal nature, and Kessler's judgmental tone.

Kessler also makes the frankly absurd mistake of thinking that I'm more interested in employee relations problems within the Secret Service than I am hearing about how they foiled assassination attempts or organize security measures. I sympathize, for example, that Agents have a hard time getting vacation time off or transfers or that their bosses are unsympathetic about all the overtime they're working. But I really don't want to read a whole book about it and I really don't want you to try to convince me of how terrible this all is. The author goes to great lengths to rail against the Secret Service management about all this and more, and frankly it's just not interesting and the bombastic tone of it all is pretty off putting.

The book does have some interesting bits, like an overview of the methods the Agents use to profile threats, the crazy hardware powering the Presidential motorcade, and a few good stories about catching would-be assassins. But those are buried under tedious discussions of stuff I don't care about and an annoying, judgmental tone that relies on thin evidence and hearsay.

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9Dec/09Off

Review: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Note: This is #48 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is kind of weird, as if it can't figure out what kind of movie it wants to be. Cassidy (Paul Newman) and Kid (Robert Redford) are the leaders of The Hole in the Wall Gang, which is your typical wild west kind of affair. They spend their time in brothels, saloons, and the scenes of crimes like train robberies. When they hit a train one too many times, though, the railroad owner hires a group of super lawmen who are like a gang of Terminators on horseback in that they don't ever stop coming after the duo and they unerringly follow their trail. So Cassidy and Kid flee to Bolivia with a romantic interest Etta Place (Katherine Ross) where they experiment with both crime and walking the straight and narrow path.

What's weird about this film is that it almost seems like the script and direction were determined by committee. There are scenes that could be out of any Western movie, then you get this weird non-sequiter with Cassidy in a bowler hat tooling around on a bicycle with his girlfriend while someone croons "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" in the background. Then you'll get Cassidy and Kid fleeing across the landscape from the Terminator Posse followed by a sepia toned photo montage showing their fancy pants lark in Cony Island. The tone of the movie also slingshots around, a bit, with the rakish and wise-cracking duo making all kinds of jokes or humorously fumbling over their impromptu Spanish during a Bolivian bank robbery just before a scene with murder and violent gunplay. And then there's the ending, which is bleak and violent beyond anything else in the movie. Things just seems all over the place, and while that could be interesting in a genre bending or deconstruction kind of way (are we at post modern film making already?) the whole experience just didn't seem to gel to me.

The film is probably worth watching for the performances of Newman and Redford alone, and there are a few really great scenes --I'm thinking in particular of the one where Cassidy bests a rival gang leader and the one where they exchange words with an amusingly loyal accountant guarding the booty from a train robbery. So it's not bad, but it just doesn't strike me as a masterpiece the way some other movies on my list have.

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8Dec/09Off

Week 306: Coping, Books, and Chocolate

I mentioned last week that I had elected to let Sam start watching the Star Wars movies, starting with Episode I. We finished watching this first movie the other day, and Sam made it through just fine until the end when Qui Gon Jin was killed (OMG SPOILER!) and she cried like a little girl. Interestingly, right after the movie ended she ran to get her Star Wars figures (one of which was actually Qui Gon) and started acting out the climactic scene. Eventually she started altering it to reside more in her comfort zone and Darth Maul was eventually trounced horribly before the murder could take place. So, psychological coping trumps movie continuity again. Much like how I've always fantasized that Jar Jar Binks was horribly murdered three seconds after his introduction.

In addition to recreating scenes from movies, Sam has taken an interest in authoring books using her burgeoning mastery over letters and, occasionally, punctuation. Each morning she'll sit down at her work table, pound out her harrowing tales, and staple them together into book form. I halfway expect to come down one morning and find her head buried in a pile of dirty coffee mugs and cigarette butts.

I have one of her books here entitled "My Day as a Flower", which I will transcribe, along with approximate translations in brackets:

Cover: "As pratforyw" [???]

Page 1: "frst da asa sed." [First day as a seed.]

Page 2: "frst da awef a stem" [First day with a stem.]

Page 3: "frst da wef a flowr" [First day with a flower.]

It makes a bit more sense with the accompanying illustrations. She has also produced others in this series, including "My day as a pumpkin" and "My day as a tree." And actually, I'm surprised and pleased at how quickly she's improving even in the course of a week. Her sophomore effort, "My day as a tree" clearly displays greater command of spelling, putting spaces between words, and use of the unreliable narrator technique.

Mandy seems to be mellowing a bit, but still engages in her own signature brand of mischief. The other day Geralyn e-mailed me this photo. That is, as you may know, a "chocolate per day" Advent calendar that has been strip mined of all its delicious ore. This would have been no big deal had it in fact been Christmas day, but even the most cursory examination of a regular calendar showed that it was merely December 3rd.

After berating Mandy for eating 23 pieces of chocolate in one go, Geralyn asked how this act of confectionary larceny made her feel. One must suspect that Mandy's reply of "Not good" referred in equal degrees to both her conscience and her tummy.

On a cuter note, Mandy seems to have developed an odd but amusing habit whenever she goes for a ride in the car. Up until a week or two ago, she would randomly pipe up with the somber assertion that "You shouldn't step on power lines." She would dispense this sensible advice this with all the air and gravity the subject deserved, and would repeat it ten to twenty times per car trip. Recently, she has updated her observation to "Some animals run away," which she now reminds you of every few minutes. For no discernable reason. One wonders what her next proclamation will be. Personally, I can't wait.

Filed under: Parenting 4 Comments
7Dec/09Off

Book Review: Neverwhere

I picked up this "urban fantasy" novel by Neil Gaiman based on the fact that I had enjoyed the author's The Graveyard Book earlier this year, as well as some of his other stuff. Turns out it's the novelization of a BBC TV miniseries from the 1990s, which is kind of odd. Both the show and the book tell the story of Richard Mayhew, your typical sad sack archetype that is put upon by his hag of a fiance and run down by his demanding yet unfulfilling job. In a substantially darker inversion of the classic Cinderella story, Richard is yanked from that life when he stops to help a young girl and is taken away to "London Below," a magical, shadowy world that exists in just the place its name suggests it would. Aside from Gaiman's doing his thing with crazy world building and parading a mess of (supposedly) colorful characters across the pages, the rest of the book involves Richard's growing a backbone and emerging from his ordeals as a much stronger and wiser version of the dope we met in the opening pages.

While I like the idea of urban fantasy that doesn't center on vampires and I appreciate Gaiman's substantial imagination, I was mostly "meh" throughout Neverwhere. I think the main problem is that the world of London Below lacks any kind of internal consistency that usually makes fantasy world building so interesting. Stuff just happens transparently because Gaiman needs it to happen to advance the plot, regardless of whether it makes sense. A prime example is the "Markets" which are migrating nightly bazaars at which our heroes can acquire various macuffins and plot devices. The Markets are in a different place each night and apparently require a dangerous trip to reach, yet the logistics of everyone's knowing where the Markets are and how so many people brave and survive the trip is explicitly handwaived away by the characters. It all feels a bit lazy and obviously contrived, which pulls the reader out of the world. London Below just isn't believable, even in the extremely generous context of a fantasy world.

Other than that, the book isn't badly written for a piece of light fantasy that mostly eschews the typical tropes and cliches. And I enjoyed how Gaiman got playful with his language once in a while, as in describing how one character chose for his home the top of a tower that he found unbearably ugly, simply for the fact that at the top of the tower was the only place in London that you couldn't see much of the tower itself. So it's easy and occasionally fun reading, though I think Gaiman has definitely done better.

Filed under: Books 2 Comments
4Dec/09Off

Game Review: Guitar Hero 5

When GameFly sent me Guitar Hero 5 instead of all the other more exciting games ahead of it in my queue, I grimaced. Badly. Activision has been busily bloating the market with an exasperating number of entries in the fake plastic rock genre lately, what with Guitar Hero 5, Guitar Hero Metallica, Guitar Hero Van Halen, Band Hero, DJ Hero, and probably some others I've blocked out. And Harmonix hasn't helped with Rock Band: The Beatles and Lego Rock Band.

But then it occurred to me that I hadn't played any new fake plastic rock games since Rock Band 2, and I wanted to see some of the enhancements to the game that Activision's otherwise "punch the consumer in the throat" model has afforded them. I was actually really impressed by the enhancements, and I think it's safe to say that track list aside this is the best music game I've ever played. Developers Neversoft have cleaned up the interface vastly, and gone is the awful, deformed art style that I hated so much in Guitar Hero 3. The game looks great, with more realistic yet visually interesting character models and the ability to create your own band members. The fist thing I did was recreate my band "Pavlov's Cat," and start plugging away at the set list.

The other really big thing that I like about Guitar Hero 5 is that they added a variety of song-specific challenges to the career mode. One song, for example, might challenge you to hit a certain number of hammer on/pull offs on guitar, while another song might ask you to only strum upwards on bass while a third song asks you to nail a certain number of phrases on vocals. There are three levels to these challenges --gold, platinum, and diamond-- and beating them unlocks stuff. This adds a lot of incentive to go back and play around with the songs, especially since some of them require playing on higher difficulty levels or to play with other band members.

There are also a lot of other small changes that make total sense and that reveal a "let's make everything as convenient as possible to the player" design philosophy. You can easily switch between guitar and bass, for example, and you can change the difficulty level of a song without backing all the way out to the song select screen. Other players can drop right in and out of songs, too, and the navigation is generally really easy.

Unfortunately the only thing I really didn't like about Guitar Hero 5 is the set list, which coincidentally is by FAR the most important thing about a music game. Even though Neversoft made the "Thank GOD!" move of having no songs unlocked in Quickplay mode, there were maybe two or three songs in there that I actually really liked. This is where Rock Band's focus on DLC ultimately proves to be much more consumer friendly even if they don't put out as many new iterations of the game engine. I have hundreds of songs in my Rock Band DLC catalog, and hundreds more that I could go buy for $2 a pop if I want them. And by offering a huge catalog with weekly releases I can make sure that the vast majority of the music I have to play is stuff that I really like.

So Guitar Hero 5 is a better game mechanically, but the business model Activision and Neversoft have pursued here still makes it second fiddle. I sent it back to GameFly without buying it or any DLC songs for it.

Filed under: Gaming No Comments
3Dec/09Off

Book Review: Superfreakonomics

I enjoyed Levitt and Dubner's 2005 book Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything quite a bit, so I was excited to hear that the duo had collaborated on this sequel. You can draw a fairly straight line from economics to the field of behavioral economics, and from there it's just a quick jaunt over to psychology in general, so what I like most about the books are that they use model building and data analysis techniques to answer questions that are at least put in different contexts and at most completely off the wall. Either way, it's interesting.

Questions addressed in Superfreakonomics include why terrorists should buy life insurance (answer: it helps them circumvent computer software used in profiling), how hookers are like department store Santas (answer: both work more hours during holidays), what killed so many babies and mothers in Victorian hospitals (answer: doctors who didn't wash up after going elbow deep in cadavers), whether it's safer to drive drunk or walk drunk (answer: drive drunk), whether pimps or realtors are more valuable to their constituents (answer: pimps), how much car seats improve child passenger safety over regular seatbelts (answer: not much at all), and a lot more. There's also some dubious stuff on global warming that's been discussed elsewhere, as well as a hilarious anecdote about the invention of monkey prostitution.

Of course, it's not just the answers that are interesting, but the process that the authors walk you through to get to them from their initial conjecture. The book is entertaining and well written, with a tone that does that magical trick of straddling the line between being informal and scientific. Levitt and Dubner use the tools of science in general and economics in specific to tackle these unconventional topics, and I enjoyed watching them go at it and do their best to surprise me with what they found. Occasionally they get a little too bombastic (comparing Al Gore to the high priest of a church full of climate change zealots comes to mind) but in general it's really fun and it gives you no end of little factoids to throw out at your next cocktail party.

Filed under: Books 2 Comments
2Dec/09Off

Movie Review: Midnight Cowboy (1969)

Midnight Cowboy

Note: This is #47 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

Good God, that was depressing. More so because for some reason I had gotten this movie mixed up in my head with Rhinestone Cowboy, a 1984 movie starring Sylvester Stallone and Dolly Parton. They are VERY different.

To whit, Midnight Cowboy follows Joe Buck (Jon Voight), a young man from Texas who packs his bags and heads to New York City during the 1960s. Buck, who has been told he's good at sex, aims to become a gigolo for wealthy New York women but is met with limited success. Which is to say no success. It's just plain painful to see this naieve young man dress up as a cowboy and try to hit up older New York women for paid sex. This quickly results in Buck being destitute and utterly alienated from a city full of millions of people. Enter Enrico "Ratso" Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), a small-time thief with a bad attitude and a worse chest cold. Ratso initially conns Buck out of $20, but eventually the two form a bond born out of mutual alienation and dispair over their predicament in life. The remainder of the movie explores this relationship and peels back revelations about Buck's and Ratso's past lives. It ain't pretty.

I suppose that Midnight Cowboy marks the beginning of the gritty, dark, and depressing period of films during the 1970s --the kind of stuff that explores urban decay, estrangement, and despair. It's certainly got all those traits in spades, along with a tragic ending, though there's no denying that the story of Buck and Ratso is powerful and bittersweet. These guys are ugly and sad, but they ARE human and the observant viewer will almost certainly find something to empathize or identify with. Just don't watch this one when you're bummed out to start with.

Filed under: Movies 1 Comment
1Dec/09Off

Week 305: Thanksgiving, Arch, and Episode I

We had a great week last week since my sister and mother came in to visit for Thanksgiving. The girls love seeing their aunt and Nana, and we love looking up to realize that someone else is going to give them a bath or read to them. (Also, seeing my sister and mom is great.) Finally, there was a ton of food and over the weekend we threw Christmas decorations against just about every household surface to which they'd stick, including the children.

You may also notice from the pictures that we made a family outing to the world famous St. Louis Arch and went all the way up to the tippy top. Geralyn, having worked there as a tour guide during high school, was able to regale us with various facts about the height of the arch, the number of steps, and various datelines related to its construction. The kids didn't like the waiting in long lines parts, but they did love the observation area at the top where we could marvel at the skyscrapers and parks of downtown St. Louis, Missouri on the west side and the casinos and strip clubs of Sauget, Illinois on the east side. Truly we got the entire spectrum of delights.

In other news, I recently decided to further Sam's geekification by exposing her to the Star Wars movies. I figure she's ready. What I hadn't realized, though, was that there is considerable debate among the nerdigalian about the proper order in which to view even the movies --never mind the animated Clone Wars movie, the TV shows, or the Ewoks Christmas Special. Some people seem to recommend a Roman numeral soup of viewing sequences, like "IV, I, V, II, III, VI." What? To me, these are the insane ravings, burbling from the mouths of some asthmatic, lunatic zealots and based on logic so byzantine that it defies my simple mind. So chronological order it is. Sam enjoyed the first hour and a half of The Phantom Menace that we watched last night, and even though the notorious pod racing sequence was her favorite, she tells me that Jar Jar Binks is "an idiot" and that she hates him. So there's hope.

Filed under: Parenting 2 Comments