Sunday, August 31, 2008

Treadmill Desk, Day 10

170 minutes today.

Whaddayawant. Day off. Everything's getting smoother. Not much to report.

This is the ultimate goal, of course: The treadmill-desk should be, essentially, transparent.

Movie Post Mortem: Evan Almighty

I avoided Evan Almighty when it was in the theaters because it had less than stellar reviews and a bad IMDB rating. Too much about it should've sent it off the charts: It reunited director Tom Shadyac with screenwriter Steve Oedekirk, with a way more appealing leading man in Steven Carrel. (Jim Carrey was good in the original but Carrel actually steals the movie in the scenes he's in.)

Now that it's rolled around to On Demand, we've watched it. Actually, The Flower really likes it, so we've watched it more than once. We all agree that it doesn't really work (except for The Flower, obviously).

In the original, you may recall, Jim Carrey was a self-absorbed jerk who caught a few bad breaks and took it out on God (Morgan Freeman, who predicted he would be cast as God after being cast as President in Deep Impact). God responds by giving him unlimited power, thereby giving Bruce enough rope to hang himself. There're a lot of sight gags and slapstick, and a litle bit of power fantasy, all of which conspire to make a fun watch.

Evan boldly follows up by abandoning the premise and most of the major setups of the original: There's no extended "you're not really God" slapstick (some, but nothing like Bruce); Bruce was self-absorbed but Evan, in this movie, has clearly changed to be a caring person with good ideals, though still very flawed; Evan doesn't get God's powers and so we don't get the sight gags associated with the abuse of those powers; Evan's tasked with building an ark, so we get building and animal gags; Bruce's lesson of humility has more to do with not being self-absorbed while Evan is more of a Job figure--his lessons are more about listening to God and having an appreciation for small acts of kindness rather than large scale efforts.

This should've been a great, great movie, just looking at it on paper. Better than the original, potentially. So why isn't it?

First, and foremost, there aren't enough gags, and a great many of the gags are tired. For example, the always enjoyable Wanda Sykes seems to have fallen into a number of roles lately that are less humor and more sassy stereotype, this being a prime example. The animals tend to lend more "cute" than actual "funny". Jonah Hill (he of many Apatow films like Knocked Up and Superbad) adds a mildly weird edge that provides for a little offbeat humor.

But a great deal of the jokes that are presented are very standard. And there just aren't enough.

The Boy feels it doesn't work because Evan is a clearly decent human and God is just messing with him. Bruce needed a lesson in humility because he was completely self-absorbed. Evan is only quirkily self-obsessed with grooming and cleanliness. God totally messes up his life with facial hair and ancient clothing where Bruce only reaps what he himself has sown.

There's a lesson about faith here, as well, in God and in each other, which is quite nice. But, for example, Evan's relationship with his wife (Lauren Graham, who's as cute as can be) is not so well illustrated that her loss of faith in Evan doesn't seem hard enough. Compare with Jennifer Anniston in the original: Bruce had to pile on insensitivity after insensitivy after self-absorption after complete unawareness of what she wanted.

So that tension is missing the front end.

There's some attempt to create tension with the kids which is somewhat more successful.

This is not to say there aren't some good moments in this movie. As much as I hate to lay blame anywhere, I'm inclined to lay it at the feet of Steve Oedekirk.

I love Steve-O. Kung Pow: Enter The Fist is one of the greatest, original comedy ideas in years. I'm seriously hoping he has a chance to make the sequel. But this movie fails in much the same way his Barnyard kid's movie fails. Which is to say, benignly but under a paucity of jokes and with Wanda Sykes doing sassy. Also, it's sort of fascinating to look at why it doesn't work. (In Barnyard's case, for example, consider the concept of male cows.)

Of course, dying is easy: Comedy is hard, and nobody hits it out of the park every time. With luck Steve-O is back on the ball and turning out some new classics.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Treadmill Desk, Day 9

240 minutes today. Not bad for a Saturday.

The key thing is that it was actually pretty easy to do. I did most (220m) of it in one stretch while answering e-mail and browsing blogs, not really even noticing.

When you power on the Sole, it briefly shows a lifetime hours/miles count. I sort of figured that's what it was but never bothered to really look at it. I think the former owner put 15 hours or so on it, at about the same pace I'm doing.

Sole needs to watch out for that. Some people'd be pissed to spend $1600 on a machine that one could describe as "used".

Worst Movie Ever?

This is an interesting post over at "videogum"; a snarkfest about the quest to find the worst movie ever.

That particular link is to Crash.

I liked Crash, though I felt it was over-rated. It was highly watchable. Also, as I live in Los Angeles, and it made L.A. seem very, very small, I considered it more a surreal fantasy than anything. Not hugely meaningful, just a fast-paced set of vignettes centered on racism. (I plain loved Magnolia, which struck me as almost a kind of film-pointillism, and which commenters also trash.)

I can totally see how thinking Crash was supposed to be meaningful in some deep way would piss you off. But note, also, that the viewer's attack is made partly based on who made it. They tie Paul Haggis (disparagingly) to thirtysomething (which I also liked, as an anthropological curiosity: "Why are these old people always whining?") when he's most responsible for the relatively harmless Due South and also credited with writing Million Dollar Baby, as well as Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima for Eastwood.

Maybe that's indicative of something. A lot of people saw political messages in there where I saw individual stories it would be foolish to extrapolate from, and which would give contradictory messages if you did extrapolate from them.

But then, also note, the quest started upon seeing Death Sentence, James Wan's gritty revenge flick. I'm not sure what someone expects upon seeing a movie called Death Sentence. I mean, I'd think one would expect violence and action, which this movie delivered in a stylish way.

What the two movies (Crash and Death Sentence) have in common is that they're surreal. Take them as absolutely literal, and, yeah, they don't make much sense. But you can apply that, more or less, to any narrative. By definition, narratives do not hew to reality because reality is boring. Editing, plot conveniences, bizarre coincidences are all things that drive fiction.

Now, you might say, "But, Blake! What about all that stuff about post-apocalyptic movies you rant on about. Aren't you demanding realism from a narrative there?"

My response is simple and two-fold.

  1. Shut up.
  2. I love post-apocalyptic films, even the bad ones. Children of Men is not the worst movie ever, not by a longshot. It's terribly poorly thought out, but the premise is good enough to power enough dramatic tension to keep the film moving.
Meanwhile, nobody mentions any of my "worst movies".

Here's a truism:

Good is subjective. Bad is highly subjective.

My criteria for worst movie, as noted in the link above, is when you have all the money and talent in the world and you blow it trying to shoehorn a message.

But, wait, couldn't that describe Crash? It surely could. Like Paul Haggis, I'll leave you to figure out the moral of this story.

Treadmill Desk, Day 8

Over 260 minutes today, which is okay--not bad given the movie break--but I did them all at once. No breaks. So the feet are getting better.

I had a wacky idea that if it got too easy--big talk from a guy who can't do eight hour straight--I could do it on an incline, rather than at faster speeds. I think that'd be more productive than trying to boost the speed.

Friday, August 29, 2008

"I wanted a mission. And for my sins, they gave me one."

Apocalypse Now is on TCM. It's so fitting to watch this after Tropic Thunder, which parodied it mercilessly.

I still love Apocalypse Now--I know some people think of it as a bloated college project film, but I think it's one of the greatest movies ever made.

I've knew a vet who thought Apocalypse Now nailed the experience, and a Gulf War vet who said it capture the surreal feel of battle in general.

Update: Still love it. Great cinematography, great acting, great editing, great sound, great music--Coppola managed to make scenes out of the hash Brando was serving--just a great film. That said, I can't imagine watching another 45 minutes in the "Redux" version.

Loudon Wainwright: Career Moves

This is probably not a huge interest to the pointy-breast-seekers, but I'm going to post it here, because the mailing list cut it off after the first line.

I'm a Loudon Wainwright III fan. No, there's nothing you can do for me. No pills or shock treatment will work. I came to know the ol' Loudo--as millions of other Americans did--from "M*A*S*H", where he played Captain Spaulding, the Singing Surgeon.

His big hit was "Dead Skunk", though I was more partial to "Unrequited to the Nth Degree":

Oh, when I die
And it won't be long
Hey you're gonna be sorry
That you treated me wrong
Yeah, you're gonna be sorry
That you treated me bad
And if there's an afterlife
I'll gloat and I'll be glad

Most of his oeuvre, while irreverent is not as jokey as this, mind you. He's quite the master of mixing serious and comedy (absurd, satirical, smartass--a pretty broad range) in the same song.

Anyway, about ten years ago, I joined an Internet mailing list devoted to him. It was quite novel at the time and I was pleased to find others who enjoyed the ol' Loudo's music.

LW3 is prolific. From 1997 (when I joined the list) till now, he's released, I dunno, over a half dozen albums. And except for the live albums, every release has been met with bitching from the list about the production.

You see, Loudon's first two albums were just him and guitar. And some people think that's all he should ever be and do . There are other sorts of bitching that list-members endure, as well, such as bitching about "Social Studies", which was an album of topical songs mostly written for NPR. (Loudon's other albums tend to be intensely personal by contrast.) And now we get new bitching because he's teamed up with Judd Apatow written music for the movie Knocked Up, as well as (gasp) doing a lot of performing others' music. He's not always performing alone anymore and he's not always doing exclusively his own music. (Neither of these things are new, but he's branching out to a new degree.)

Any other fan base would probably be ecstatic that their man--who turns 62 on Tuesday and does dozens and dozens of shows all around the world every year--is so prolific, and has a chance at some mainstream popularity. But Loudon fans are different. Loudon's even written about it:

Some fans harass and stalk the big guy likes to talk
he knows every song what’s been good and gone wrong
he knows the story of my whole cheesy life
the name of each kid ex-girlfriend and wife
every label that I’ve every been on
yes he’s obsessed but he doesn’t fawn
though he understands cause he’s my biggest fan
. . .
But the biggest surprise asides his size
is just how hip he is when it comes to show biz
there’s a (triumberate) kind of top three
yeah there’s Bob then there’s Neil then there’s me
naturally Bobs number one and the runner up that’s Mr Young
I’m number three in command but he’s still my biggest fan
yeah hey I’m his third man but he’s still my biggest fan

Now that I've put in all this foundational material, I'm not really interested in reprinting what I put on the mailing list. (Yes, this is all new material, and I wrote a lot more in response to someone misguided rant. But now I'm bored with the my own rant. Heh.)

Short story: People who get together to talk about something--fan groups--tend to be insular and short-sighted. They tend to think they're the whole world when they're really a tiny piece of it. They're particularly bad at making judgements vis a vis what will be successful in the real wide-world.

Also, as I've said over and over again, it would be death to any artist to read their own fan-group list. I can't imagine anything more introverting and doubt-creating than listening to people like, well, like Loudon's "biggest fan", above.

Tropic Thunder: Tenacious Iron Zoolander!

Comedians are often the hardest working guys in show business.

You may not like Jim Carrey, Will Ferrell, Owen Wilson, Jack Black or Ben Stiller, but you know what? These guys never phone it in.

They've all been in bad movies, but the movies were never bad because the actors weren't trying. (I remember Groucho Marx commenting with disdain on a critic's observation that a mere comedian was capable of dramatic acting, with Marx's rebuttal pointing out that comedians are required to do all the acting dramatic guys do all the time and often compressed within a few seconds.)

This is a rather odd way to start talking about a movie which, in essence, makes fun of actors. Brutal mockery. And has both Matthew McConaughey and Tom Cruise in my favorite role of his since Rain Man.

Hollywood satires are often dry (Altman's The Player), ridiculously broad (Edward's S.O.B.) or ultimately succumbing to what they are lampooning (McTiernan's The Last Action Hero). This, by the way, would make a great weekend trilogy. Or, they're just plain stupid, like the recent rash of [blank] Movie ridicule/Airplane!-style fiascos that, for example, make fun of comedies that are way funnier than the objects of their ridicule.

Seriously, this is a good rule: If you're going to lampoon somebody, you'd better be better at what they're doing than they are.

I remember a first-gen SNL where Larraine Newman parodies Barbara Streisand by singing a medley of her hits with altered words. Problem is, even if you hate Streisand, you have to concede the quality of her singing and the most prevalent thing I remember about the song (the lyrics of which attacked, perfectly legitimately, her acting and her apparent self-centeredness), is that Newman cannot hold a candle to Streisand in the singing department. (South Parkwas more successful decades later by just painting her as a crazed megalomaniac and not going anywhere near her singing ability.)

But really, movies like The Comebacks(which parodies the far superior Dodgeball--actually, in The Comebacks' case, it's clearly a rip-off, not a parody--and Disaster Movie (which parodies the far superior Juno) don't do themselves any favor by drawing comparisons to other, better comedies.

Note that the original, classic Airplane!primarily parodied the melodrama Zero Hour! which nobody on Earth had seen, and a bunch of classic movies, along with referencing the plethora of airplane-based disaster movies, which had been given a decade--that's a decade without DVDs and Internet--to season. I'm pretty sure that matters, even if I'm not sure how. (I know that when I saw it, despite having seen most of the Airportmovies, I really didn't think "Hey, that's from Airport '74!" or anything.)

Anyway.

Tropic Thunder parodies Hollywood and actors, and Vietnam war movies--though, again, primarily as they reflect on actors' desire for legitimacy.

Stiller plays an action hero--fairly believably, for someone who's played Mr. Furious--searching for credibility by moving out of the straight-action genre and playing a retard, and then doing a "serious" war movie.

Another digression here: It's appallingly true that the Academy is an absolute sucker for "retard" roles. As Downey's character points out, though, you can't be a "full retard", like Sean Penn in I am Sam, it has to be a half/not-really retard like Hoffman in Rain Man or Hanks in Gump.

For people who know, live with, and love brain-injured people, this fantasy view of the handicapped is appalling, on the level of The Magic Negro. It reduces these people to their injuries plus some bullshit enchantment.

A lot of brain-injured people are savants, mind you. Way more than anyone understands. But this doesn't change the fact that, this savant-ness doesn't really improve their quality of life, and most importantly that they are still humans with all the human frailties that we have, plus a few more we can't comprehend.

Almost weirdly, it's only comedy that actually respects the brain-injured, by being willing to treat them like everyone else (e.g. South Park's Timmy or the Farrely Brothers movies, like Stuck On You.


Stiller's character in the movie is the one I have the hardest time connecting to a real world actor. He's sort-of Willis. Maybe Schwarzenegger or Stallone? Sort of a melange, or archetype, but a lot of what he did would've been physically funnier if he were 6-plus-foot and ripped.

That's nitpicking, since there's plenty of absurdity and good jokes to go around.

On the other hand, Downey plays, essentially, Russell Crowe. I don't know if Crowe is a method actor, but Downey plays one of those guys who gets so into the role, he loses himself. That, of course, is a little nod to himself, since that was reportedly what happened with Chaplain. Since Downey is playing a black guy, he becomes a kind of parody of Fred Williamson and Richard Roundtree--which really pisses off the actual black guy in the cast, played by Brandon T. Jackson (whose character goes by the moniker Alpa Chino and sells "Booty Juice" and "Bust-A-Nut" bars).

Meanwhile, Jack Black plays...Robert Downey Jr.! Not exactly, of course. His character is a melange of those comedians like Eddie Murphy who play all these different roles in one movie and wear a lot of fat suits. But he's the bad boy drug user who can't be insured--and if that's not Downy ca. '95, I don't know what is.

So we have these three mega-actors and their mega-egos on set with a green director trying to make a "serious" war movie. In desperation, the director (played by Steven Coogan of Tristram Shandy - A Cock and Bull Story) ends up listening to hard-bitten war vet Nick Nolte (author of the book on which the movie is based) and decides to go guerilla by seting the actors down deep in the jungle and letting them fend for themselves.

Hilarity ensues.

No, really, it does! This movie balances very delicately on the line between dark humor and absurdist comedy. Something that Stiller, the director, has not always succeeded in the past. (Compare to The Cable Guy--commonly regarded as too dark--and Zoolander--which is very broad, and not dark at all, except in the actual filming.)

What I'm saying is that land mines aren't all in the movie. Kill everyone and you have a movie people aren't going to see. Make everything goofiness, well that's a turn-off, too.

On the other hand, paint your characters as ridiculous but still very human, don't be completely cynical, and be as real as you can without dragging the movie down--this is a damn hard thing to do and Stiller pulls it off.

Cruise's character is the closest to pure evil, while McConaughey is given an opportunity to do the right thing in the face of a very tempting offer.

Everyone liked it. I found myself wondering halfway through why it was R-rated, until Black, going through withdrawals, described in detail what he would do to Jackson's penis if he'd let him go. It's only about 30 seconds long and it's not that graphic, but, eh, what's a ratings board to do?

Before closing out, a shout-out to former child actor Jay Baruchel (of Are You Afraid of the Dark?) who plays straight-man to all the heavyweights and does a fine job.

A great close to a pretty damn good summer.

Good vs. Evil and Politics

I stated in the last post that I leaned strongly toward voting for Obama till I discovered he was part of the Chicago machine. If you ask yourself how terrorists, gangsters and radicals can be prominent in politics, you just have to look at The Machine, which cares about nothing more than loyalty.

Until then, he seemed like an outsider.

I am one of those voters who likes outsiders. My theory is that politics is a sort of poison. A spiritual poison that slowly turns people into shadows. Sort of like acting.

We all are faced with ethical dilemmas from time-to-time, where the right decision isn't obvious. In fact, the beauty of many great action narratives is that the bad guys wear black hats. They announce their evil to the world. Who wouldn't want to go up against a Darth Vader--and didn't Lucas screw that up with his prequel trilogy?--or a Jack Wilson (Palance in Shane)?

Real evil comes like Iago in Othello, disguised as a friend. Or Cassius, in Julius Caesar, convincing others that he's doing good. And convincing you to join him. (Not, sadly, like Vader offering you power if you join the Dark Side.)

This is what messes people up: Those good intentions that pave the road to Hell.

And that is an apt description of politics. Even Ted Kennedy, who has outright stated his dedication to destroying the USA (as it is), does it because to him, the USA is a black hat.

It doesn't really matter what side you're on, politics is a sticky mess guaranteed to require you to compromise--in other words, to do something you know is wrong. If you're honest, of course, you weight the outcomes and try to pick the greater good.

Imagine our politicians as wanting to be responsible for a great many things. In the USA, the one who aspires to be President is essentially wanting to be responsible for the whole world. (Yeah, we're that important. Suck it down, everyone else.) Let's give them the benefit of a doubt for a moment, and say that at least some of them really, really are good enough and big enough to want this for non-selfish reasons.

As politicians are forced to compromise, that circle of awareness collapses, until ultimately they end up looking at what's good for them, personally--and believing that it's good for the country. Some of the greats hold on to certain core principles to anchor them. Others invert the entire universe to revolve around themselves and perversely pick choices that they think will reflect well on them in history books. And some of the might-have-been greats see the threat to those principles and abandon ship.

And who can blame them? Politicians deserve our pity. Look at the Founding Fathers: They had to make a country, and they couldn't do it--it could not be done!--without incorporating slavery. To a lot of them, this was anathema, and they probably all could see the Civil War looming in the future. But they had no choice.

The disgust you would feel at founding a country where some were considered 3/5ths human is the same disgust some of them had to have felt. (Thomas Jefferson must've been a seething cauldron of complex contradictions.)

That's gotta have an impact. And nodern politicians do this sort of thing, writ small, every day.

Anyway, the upshot of this theory is that I'm actually for political "inexperience". The President is not a micro-manager or an accountant nor even a General. He (or she!) is a decision maker. The less time in politics, the greater the clarity of vision.

There's another point: Evil requires obscurity. The Left likes to paint the Right as un-nuanced cowboys--as black hats, in fact. Generally, however, you know where the Right stands. Hell, you generally know where libertarians stand (who straddle conservative and liberal concepts).

While it's good to be suspicious of people who only see things in terms of black-and-white, from an engineering standpoint, some things effectively are black-and-white! Russians aren't evil but, in fact, the USSR was, in fact, an evil empire. Same for the Chinese. Hell, same for Germany in WWII. Same for Saddam's Iraq. Etc.

Palin, unlike Obama, says exactly where she stands on things in stark terms. And has a track record to prove it. Even though I disagree with her on a lot of topics, she's a lot easier to vote for than Barack, who promises in vague terms to improve things.

And again, there's that Chicago machine--with Ayers--and there's Wright in there, too. I'm not saying Obama is evil--far from it. I very much suspect that he, personally, is a post-racial kind of guy. I think he's visited a lot of radical worldviews as an anthropologist and politician, not as a true believer. For all the delusion and hysteria that accompanies his fan base, a lot of it comes from a recognition of what's good in him.

But for a guy who's a newcomer, he's had to compromise a whole lot to get where he is. A lot of playing ball and political poison ingesting.

Palin seems to have fought against corruption in her party and with the surrounding business interests. She seems to have anchors--more than one, while some pro-lifers have nothing but anti-abortion sentiment to anchor to--and, deliciously, she and her husband seem to be weirdos. Outliers. Alaskans.

No one knows what will turn up, of course. Maybe there's some Alaskan machine or something--Lord knows Stevens and Young are perfect examples of having political poisoning.

But for now I'm rooting for the outlier. Even if I can't bring myself to vote for the other guy on the ticket.

Rope-A-Dope

Althouse is swamped with Palin stuff.

Startling choice. I was sure he'd pick Pawlenty. As C4 pointed out in several threads it's a PC choice, she doesn't have enough experience. (Though, truth be told, if she were topping the ticket, I'd vote for her without hesitation, for the same reason I would've voted for Obama before I found out he was part of the Chicago machine.)

This morning, though, I see that it's a rope-a-dope. Obama's supporters won't be able to resist attacking her over experience--which rebounds nastily on him--and on gender--which will alienate some disaffected HRC voters.

Update: Yep. Already it begins. Under this rational post at Feministe, you'll find all kinds of justifications for attacking Palin in sexist terms. BECAUSE OF TEH HYPOCRISY! as Goldstein would say.

Hey, if you came over from Ace's, I apologize for the blind link. I could've and should've put the body of this in my post there rather than forcing y'all over. Sorry!

What do you think? Did McCain's camp--are they smart enough and savvy enough--to have done this deliberately, knowing Obama's fans would do the rest?

"Next thing they'll be breeding us like cattle!"

It was Charlton Heston night on TCM last night.

Tonight it's Brando.

"You're an errand boy...sent by grocery clerks...to collect an unpaid bill."

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Treadmill Desk, Day 7

Six hours. The last 40 minutes were a bitch, too. And I was pretty wiped out for the next couple hours, too.

I may be pushing it.

Dunno if I'll be able to get in six hours on Friday. "Tropic Thunder"!!

Drive Me To Nevada

Stuff like this is ... it's just ... Ugh.

I don't want to vote for McCain, I really don't, but the terrorist thing with Obama--he needed to throw these murderers under the bus along time ago. The Democrats need to distance themselves from radicals the way the Reps have had to with theirs.

Just like I don't want to leave California.

The tax wouldn't even affect me, theoretically. Of course, if it started looking like it was going to affect me (which is far from impossible), I'd leave. My lifelong home to which I'm unreasonably attached (I mean, seriously, most of my peers moved away years ago).

Of course, like all creepingly totalitarian governments, there's an "exit tax". So if you dare to express your dis-satisfaction with the state, they'll require a bribetax to let you out. Then, to keep you from sneaking out, they'll build a wall.

California will have a sea on one side, a wall on the north and east borders, and an open access coming in from Mexico. They'll keep you from going out if they think you're trying to escape the "exit tax".

They say conservatives are liberals who've been mugged by reality. I think some of them must be liberals who've been mugged by the government.

I don't think it'll pass, even if it gets on the ballot. I hope.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Treadmill Desk, Day 6

My day off, in theory. I did three hours today anyway. Really gotta finish this project.

The feet were good, mostly. Better than before, for sure. It's all been pretty positive so far. I'm posting this with a Wednesday date, although it's actually 2AM on Thursday. I'll do that from now on, so the entry is always the last item for the day.

Waiting for the parts from Sole. I guess they didn't overnight 'em.

Tony Curtis

Tony Curtis night on TCM.

One of my favorite movies, The Sweet Smell of Success, photographed by the great James Wong Howe. It cemented Burt Lancaster in my mind as one of the greats.

Ironically, perhaps, given Janet Leigh and her importance to the blog, Tony Curtis doesn't do it for me. Though I get him mixed up with Kirk Douglas, who does it even less for me. (In fact, I tend to think of The Sweet Smell of Success as being Kirk Douglas' best role. Heh.)

Nice to see he's still alive in working, though I'm always surprised that his career has been so tepid in the past 30 years. Though I guess given my own perception of him, maybe I'm not alone?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Treadmill Desk, Day 5

Day 5, I didn't quite make the six hours. I'm not sure if I did 310 minutes or 350 minutes.

Lost track at one point. Feet started hurting again but they're better now. I had the speed at 0.8 mph at the last two hours to see if that helped the feet. (It didn't.) I think the lack of use on the weekend and Monday was a factor there. Everything was fine Friday. We'll see how I do tomorrow, foot-wise--if it's like Friday where my feet were fine.

The Sole tech support guy called. They seem pretty on the ball. They've given me the opportunity to return the machine a couple of times, but are just going to send out the full hardware kit plus the missing heart monitor.

Unlike the previous treadmill, the current one allows me to do 2.5 hours at a stretch. That's quite helpful. I took a bit of a rest between leg 2 and leg 3, and it was hard to start that third leg. (I took a longer break than I meant to, which is why I didn't hit six hours.) Once I get in some stretching and get acclimated, I think I won't have that problem.

So, thumbs up, for now. I did get some work done, which is the main thing.

Juice Plus...plus?

I just went to that modern version of a Tupperware party known as the "nutritional supplement information presentation".

I know that sounds snarky but, hey, Tupperware is good stuff. My mom has stuff from 35 years ago that still works. These days they're all MLMs.

So, you kind of have two strikes there: Nutritional supplements and MLM.

But it was hosted by my chiropractor. My chiropractor is probably the least...chiropractor-y chiropractor I've ever had. Often, chiropractors--the red-headed step-children of medicine--are into far-out stuff.

I'm not knocking far-out stuff. I've seen some far-out stuff work. (I'm also a big fan of placebos. I think they're under-rated.)

Anyway, this stuff looks interesting and when one of the person singing its praises is a similarly staid cancer patient talking about how it alleviated 99% of her chemo- and radiation symptoms, well, I have to take notice.

The light research I did before the presentation was fairly good. I thought I'd see how it did with the brood.

"I'd better sign in and get a receipt."

Janet Leigh night on TCM.

This blog's patron saint. Touch of Evil was followed by Psycho.

We all go a little mad sometimes.

Awesomest Awesome to ever Awesome an Awesome

Suppose you’re a voter, and you’ve got candidate X and candidate Y. Candidate X agrees with you on everything, but you don’t think that candidate can deliver on anything at all. Candidate Y you agree with on about half the issues, but he can deliver. Which candidate are you going to vote for?

. . .

This has nothing to do with what’s going on now.

--Bill Clinton speaking at the DNC on nothing in particular

Treadmill Desk Day 4

Day 4, 0 minutes.

I went into the office Monday and was pretty much tied up all evening.

I have a theory that all offices eventually turn into Initech from Office Space. We're being asked for car insurance information and being told to put the company on our insurance. In case we're on a business trip and in an accident, presumably, the company isn't liable. (The company doesn't send me anywhere, of course. I even work at home, fercryinoutloud.)

But ask yourself: Is it good for the company?

Anyway, today (Tuesday) is looking good. I've already done an hour. Should be able to get six in today and finish up some big projects.

The Only Living Boy On The Net

Tom, get your plane right on time
I know your part'll go fine
Fly down to Mexico
Dah-n-doo-dah-n-dah-n-doo-dah
And here I am
The only living boy in New York


Monday, August 25, 2008

Summertime and the Livin' is Easy

We actually haven't had our usual blistering dog days this summer. Last year this time, we were having 110+ degree heat and it wasn't dropping below 90 at night. It's only 72 degrees now (2AM) so even though it's staying in the 90s during the day, this is the kind of weather that can wear you down.

But we got the new A/C in in June, and summer has been pretty irrelevant, even though the system still needs some tweaking, and I'm not confident how well it would handle a real 120 degree scorcher.

There are typically only 2-3 weeks in a summer where A/C is a virtual necessity. Not that you absolutely need it, but that you can't do anything else but wait for it to be over.

However--and I knew this would happen--we've had the A/C on every day this summer, at least for a little bit. There's a difference in what is easily tolerated versus the temptation of absolute comfort. Also, in fairness, the others endure less well than I. Children, in particular, tend to melt in the heat. (I did, too, though I often ventured out into it, and the smog.)

Usually we can get the house cool at night, down to the low '70s. But somewhere between 2pm and 4pm, it starts to get stuffy. Then it's anywhere from 9pm to 1am before it makes sense to open up the house to cool it down again.

The only scary thing is that we've still yet to get a power bill.

Hold me.

TransSiberian: Like TransAmerica, minus the gender reassignment

A stable, staid couple hooks up with a wilder one causing havoc in their otherwise ordinary lives. Sure, we've seen it before, but have we ever seen it on a train crossing Asia?

Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer have just finished helping some orphans in China have decided to take the train back home instead of a plane, when they meet a sexy, sleazy Spaniard played by Eduardo Noriega, and his twitchy, sexy girlfriend Kate Mara. Hard-nosed Ben Kingsley is sniffing around with his lapdog Thomas Kretschmann, ratcheting up the tension.

I actually can't describe much more without giving away the plot twists. This movie can be commended for missing about half the usual clichés of this well-worn plot. The normal trajectory of the "good couple gone bad" has them clashing with the "bad couple" and doing desperate things to restore normalcy back to their life. The theme of this movie is more about faith and honesty.

This latest film from Brad Anderson lacks the eerie atmosphere of his earlier film The Machinist, though it has much of that movie's predictability. It generally seems above-average by missing a lot of the typical turns, as I've noted.

The Boy liked it but felt it was a bit slow in parts. I didn't find it such, but with movies with foreign languages I (sorta) know, I'm always trying to parse out the foreign language.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Italia: Molto Bene!

The Italians kicked ass in boxing, the one sport I have a really strong affinity for. (And, at the same time, am repulsed by the fallout that comes from gigantic men smashing each others heads in with those 10 oz. clubs called "boxing gloves".)

I saw Cammarelle's gold medal super-heavyweight fight against the Chinese, but the one that really caught my eye was Russo against the American Wilder. In both fights, the Italian was the smaller guy. In the Russo-Wilder fight, the American was about half a foot taller. And something like 7-8 years older.

In both fights, the Italians forced their opponents to close and then just weren't wherever their fists were. Their opponents were not nearly so lucky, suffering all kinds of blows as the Italians slipped in and out on the hard-charging American and Chinese brawlers. They didn't show us how Russo lost his medal--at least, I missed it--but I would've liked to see the guy who was better.

The boxing judging was intermittently atrocious, so I don't know if he lost fair-and-square, but that's the sort of fighter I would've liked to be back in the day.

Meanwhile, the Italians performed a stunning rhythmic gymnastics performance and ended forced out because of the Chinese factor. (The Chinese did well, but they were nowhere near on the level of the Italians, who did about 12 things that had you gasping "How did they do that?")

Oh, well. There's a reason the Chinese got so many gold this year, and it ain't entirely because they've improved so much.

Treadmill Desk Day 3

I did 50 minutes on Saturday. The last serious Olympics day. Actually, it was sort of desperate. They showed the entirety of a marathon on NBC and a single-scoring soccer game on Universal--and after it was over, they should the entire single-goal soccer game again.

Good lord, soccer is boring. I know, I know. Typically American of me. But it is. The field is too big.

Soccer fans talk about how the game never stops. Like Hell. It stops all the time. They kick the ball out of bounds. Someone gets fouled and lies, weeping, on his back for five minutes. Pssssh.

Victoria says cricket is baseball on valium. If that's true, soccer is cricket in a persistent vegetative state.

Oh, right, treadmilling: Nothing super exciting to report, except that after my feet hurting like a mofo on Friday, they were fine all Saturday. I really do think I shortened my tendons dramatically during that one death march.

That's encouraging. I'm a little too young to be hobbling around like a nonagenarian.

Combat Systems II: Batman Wins

So, last time, I was talking about the complexity of actual combat--particularly space combat--and ended by allowing how it was understandable that games simplify it. Good board game design means simplifying as much as possible while keeping it interesting, while good computer game design can allow tremendous complexity but needs to still be accessible so that a player can puzzle out good choices from bad.

Take a game like Risk: Military battles on the scale modeled in risk are vastly complex things as well, but reduced to the players rolling (no more than) three dice at once. Fair enough. That keeps things at the strategic level. First edition Dungeons and Dragons took the entirety of martial combat and reduced it one 20-sided die roll--though with substantial rules behind that. 4th Edition D&D is basically geared toward detailed, tactical combat (incidentally signaling its demise as a storytelling medium).

But 4th Edition D&D illustrates perfectly the struggle of the game designer: You want to allow free action on the one hand, but on the other you have to make actions which are compatible in order to compare them meaningfully, which in any system, requires restricting actions. 4th Edition answers the question of Batman vs. Superman by saying, "Superman--but Batman shouldn't encounter Superman until he's leveled up and has comparable powers".

Yet everyone knows that whenever Batman and Superman clash in comic book fiction, Batman wins. Because the alternative is boring and predictable. In fact, Superman almost always loses to every good guy. He has to: He's invulnerable. That's almost a literary necessity. It is a literary necessity that the battle be difficult, or you have no story. (Intriguingly, combat gaming must also be difficult, or you have no game!)

But can you have a game system that can make it possible for the Batman to win, simply by being smart? Can you have a game system that allows Frodo to defeat the big boss?

This feeds into the starship combat discussion, at a slightly different angle: Can you have a game system that allows for a wide variety of variants so that creativity is endlessly rewarded?

Let's look at StarDock's highly regarded Galactic Civilizations II, a game that I've played far more than I've actually enjoyed (for complex reasons best left for another time). GalCiv--a space-based form of Civilization--actually goes back to the OS/2 days, but in its latest incarnation has the option to "act out" space battles.

GalCiv, much like Civilization 4, takes a "rock-scissors-paper" approach to combat. But before we get to that, let's look at what the next step might be past "roll a die/higher score wins".

Obviously, the "higher die roll" is boring. It works in Risk because Risk is a strategic game, and the tactical simplicity gives just enough randomity to make the strategic game something more than a decision tree.

If we go back to Civ 1, we see the next level of complexity (or one potential level of complexity). In Civ 1, (if I recall correctly) units had an attack strength and a defense strength. Comparing the attacker's attack to the defender's defense gave the probability of success. Let's say any unit has a 50% chance of successfully destroying another. Now, let's say the attacker has an attack value of 6 while the defender has a defense value of 4. We can do the math like this:

6/4 = %150 * 50% = 75%

So, an attacker has a 75% chance of success. The problem with this approach is that it gets dull, fast. If the attacker has a value of 8:

8/4 = %200 * 50% = 100%

So, in any situation where the attacker's attack value is double the defender's defense value, the attacker always wins. This isn't the way Civ actually worked, as it was famous for having the occasional stone-age spearman beat the occasional modern tank.

A better approach is to improve the odds without ever making them zero. So, if we have attackers with varying attack values of 6, 8 and 800, we could calculate the chance of failure as:

1/2 * 4/6 = 1/3
1/2 * 4/8 = 1/4
1/2 * 4/800 = 1/400

Not bad. This sort of system allows us the opportunity to reflect a wide scale, and it works pretty well for a strategic game where technology allows creation of units with higher attack and defense. This single dimension of attack/defense allows us to evoke a battle between swordsman (high attack) and spearman (high defense). It also creates the user-infuriating situation where a spearman--maybe one time in 400--beats a tank.

The next level of complexity, for Civ games, was to add hitpoints. Instead of one "die roll" to determine the fate of a confrontation, one die roll determined whether a point of damage was done. So, where our little spearman before had a one in 400 chance to destroy the tank, now it has a one in 400 chance to cause a point of damage. And the spearman might have one hitpoint where the tank has 20, and his chances of success go down to 1 in 8000.

If we go back to our Batman v. Superman battle, we can see Batman's in serious trouble. Superman is at least a tank, and Batman doesn't even carry a spear.

One of the best implementations of attack/defense/hitpoints in tactical game was the combat sequences in the Heroes of Might & Magic series. In these classic games, a stack of monsters would attack another stack, but instead of chance to hit, the monsters had a range of damage they would cause, and the attack and defense values were used to scale that damage. The stack itself functioned as another layer of hitpoints, only one that didn't regenerate after a battle.

This gave Heroes tremendous opporutnities to provide interesting combat. For example, the genie (in HOMM I) had the power to halve a stack (which was huge, and overpowered, but not dull). The top troll in any stack could regenerate (I think). Ghosts (in HOMM I & II) added to their stack for every creature in another stack they killed. And so on.

But HOMM added something else to the mix we haven't talked to, because the combat was highly tactical, and not the sort-of strategic/tactical mix of the Civ games: A combat field. In HOMM, the combat field was like a chess board, and the two sides were placed on opposing sides of the battlefield.

So, the first thing an attacking monster had to do was to close on an opponent it wanted to attack. This offered huge tactical possibilities: Range attackers didn't have to close (but in version 3, they did half damage if their targets were far away or had cover); flyers could cross the board in a single swoosh (in version 1, in later versions, that was only true of some flyers); regular melee attackers had to walk across the board before they could attack. A range attacker also did half damage if a melee attacker closed on it, which gave you the tactic of barricading your ranger attackers with melee attackers.

When you factor in speed of movement and range attacks, poor Batman is toast. Clark fries him from space with x-ray vision.

HOMM, being tactical, also had multiple types of troops engaged at once, which gives us another new attribute to consider: Initiative. (Who goes first?)

Now we have attack, defense, hitpoints, speed, range and initiative. And we're still dealing with very broad abstractions. We also create the possibility of ships that can attack and not be attacked. (A ship with a high enough speed and a long enough range attack can attack and stay out of range of a slower ship.)

If a system can't produce a disastrously unforeseen outcome, it's probably not very interesting.

Next time we'll look at how we could build a space combat system with these ideas in mind.

Olympic Irony

The gold medal basketball game between Spain and USA was pretty damn good. It was hard not to root for Spain, just because they were such underdogs. They couldn't really lose, though. Anybody who scores against the American team is a winner--and Spain mounted more than a merely credible effort. They actually led at one point and kept the pressure on the whole time.

Of course, the Portuguese 18-year old is going to play in the NBA, just as some other NBA players were fighting for the Argentines. The Russian lady (she's 29! Update, no: 33!) who should have won the gold in the vault (but got the silver due to some bizarre judging) was playing for Germany (because Russia couldn't find it in their bureaucracy to treat her cancer-ridden son). Foreign-born Americans played for their home countries, and immigrants to America (and their children, like Nastia) played for us. Chinese dominated ping pong, playing for all different sorts of countries. A lot of foreign medalists train in the U.S.A.

The joke of the "medal count" was that the Olympics were supposed to transcend nationalism. (Medal counts were "illegal" for decades.)

It was hard to watch these games without believing, on a very real level, that they have.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Surprise!

The Barbarienne, who has the cutest farmer's tan*, just peed on the floor.

When she was done, she stepped to the side and indicated her puddle with an open palm and said, "SURPRISE!"

She's a laff riot, that one.



*Actually, her legs are tan but her butt is white.

Paging Buzby Berkeley, Mr. Berkeley To The Red Phone...

Can there be anything more decadently western, more American, even, than synchronized swimming?

These women are tremendous athletes, no doubt, though the event itself is even less a sport (and more a contest) than gymnastics.

But the suits, the makeup, the smiles evokes nothing so much as Busby Berkeley and his "Gold Diggers" movies. There's something poetic about the Russians and Chinese doing so well in it.

Treadmill Desk, Day 2

I did at least five hours on Friday on the treadmill.

I took a couple of breaks, though. It's not the speed; everything's smooth enough that a 1mph speed is easily doable--except for the feet.

My feet really hurt. So I took a couple of breaks and lowered the speed for a while.

Promisingly, however, Saturday morning my feet were fine, so I'm thinking this will wear off over time.

Sole's customer support is apparently overloaded. I've told my story of woe to Jennifer a couple of times--she has a delicious southern accent, I don't mind--but apparently she's just front line and doesn't send anything out. I'm waiting for a call back from their technical support to itemize what's missing and what they can send out.

It's not stopping me from using it, though it would be were I running.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Bottle Shock: "It's just that I'm British...and you're not."

'Why don't I like you?"
"Because you think I'm an ass. And I'm not really. It's just that I'm British...and you're not. "

If there's a danger in Randall Miller's new flick Bottle Shock, it's that it might be just one big pro-America pander. Which, I confess, is not much of a danger, both because it's unlikely and because it would be refreshing.

This neat little film is "based on a true story" and centered around the 1976 wine-tasting competition in France where California wines beat out French wines in a blind tasting.

It's really two stories (and perhaps weaker than it could be as a result): The first is the story of affable Brit snob Steve Spurrier (Alan Rickman) who, with his Wisconsinite friend Maurice (Dennis Farina) contrives the contest as a way to raise his stock with the elite French wine culture.

Rickman and Farina are a delight, as might be expected, as Farina mooches off Rickman's failing wine "Academy" business, and as Rickman travels around Napa valley, tasting a variety of wines along with Kentucky Fried Chicken, guacamole, and whatever else American cuisine has to offer.

This is a fun story and the better (and smaller) part of the movie.

The other story concerns xenophobic, perfectionist, pig-headed wine owner Jim Barrett, who's watching his dream go down the drain with debt as he refuses to release his wines before their time. ("Gallo" is a name spoken with disdain in this movie.) Barrett is played by Bill Pullman, who seems to be channelling Martin Sheen with this uncharacteristicaclly harsh (but compelling!) character.

A burr under Barrett's saddle is his son, a fun-loving late-hippie ne'er-do-well named Bo. (Bo is played by Chris Pine, who will probably become a lot more famous once he's known as Captain Kirk in the new "Star Trek" movie.) As Bo comes out of his daze and starts to take action, he actually pisses his stubborn father even more. (Jim is convinced the wine-tasting is a setup to bash America on the bicentennial.)

This story is a bit sparser and somehow less compelling--perhaps due to shortage of Rickman, though Pullman gives a great performance. It may be because it's the more traditional of the two stories. Or maybe it was because I spent the whole movie thinking, "Get a haircut, ya damn hippie!"

But it's not a bad son-vs-father-vs-hot-chick-who-thinks-he-can-be-more story, as those go.

Rounding out the cast is Freddy Rodriguez as the son-of-a-migrant-worker who's building his own vinery on the sly, Rachel Taylor as the hot-n-sexy intern/love interest, not nearly enough Eliza Dushku as the local bar owner, and character actor great Joe Regalbutto, whose role I won't elaborate on, since it would be a spoiler.

Other points of interest: Mark Adler's score recalls (not unfavorably) David Newman; the movie has a nice, authentic '70s feel, not too camped up or bogged down in bell bottoms and disco; I wanted more from the cinemtography--Napa is beautiful and this doesn't really showcase that, except in one or two places--but it is a low budget film so I suppose the budget wouldn't allow for much; and the attitude is affable but not cloying.

On that last point, the moviemakers seemed not to be trying to Make A Point, much, about anything. Rickman brings real humanity to a character who could have been completely unsympathetic (as could Farina's). Pullman is hard to get along with, but for understandable reasons. Bo is a screwup, of sorts, but he finds in the girl a reason to not be.

It's not super-deep or nothin'. But it does demonstrate that you can make a good popcorn flick for a few bucks that doesn't need a lot of profanity, nudity or violence to hold an audience's attention for a 100 or so minutes.

The Boy sez, "I liked it very much."

A documentary of the event would also be cool.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Treadmill Desk, Day 1 (anew)

So, I still don't have the parts and didn't hear from Sole today--I'm going to group all my Sole posts together for potential customers--but I used the treadmill anyway.

Got about five hours in. I suspect that will be the low end of my daily walk. Long days will probably go as long as eight hours. I'll usually hit in the 6-7 range, I suspect.

But, I went from 200 minuntes on the old treadmill, with lots of breaks to let the machine cool down, to 300 on this one. (It's actually a bigger jump since I wasn't doing much this past week while waiting for the treadmill to arrive and then setting it up.)

Observation: My feet hurt. I hope that goes away with time. Perhaps I should wear shoes. But that's crazy talk. Next I'll be saying, "Perhaps I should wear pants." Please. What's the point of working at home if you have to wear pants?

The machine is quiet and smooth and good at ranges from .5 to 1.5 mph, so I can adjust according to what works at the moment.

It does reset itself with abandon, unfortunately. Not exactly abandon, but if I need to take a break for lunch or to bark at the mailman, and stop the machine, it resets itself to zero after about five minutes. And sometimes, the mailman needs a lot of barking at.

Anyway, fun note: We're five weeks exactly from Knott's Scarry Farm's opening day, which is when The Boy and The Flower and I take the day and gallivant around Buena Park. It amounts to over seven hours of walking (from about 6pm to 1am) and The Boy and I have traditionally prepared by going on long nightly walks.

With the desk for me, and him swimming like Phelps, we aren't going to need much special training this year.

I think I need some stretching exercises, though. The lower back is very stiff. And some ab exercises, too.

Dreams

When my blog grows up it wants to be S. Weasel.

Right now she has a flow chart explaining the basics of negative attacks, an essay on the dangers of speaking "desperate clinginess" if you're not a desperate clinger yourself, and a bit on some Greek holidays that involve throwing flour around, and wading in amongst penises (not at the same time, though!).

Conversations from the Living Room, Part 5: Olympic Investments

"I'm so invested in this!"
"Well, it is water polo."

Stupid Sayings

That which does not kill me makes me stronger.

This one's annoyed me for a long time. It's demonstrably untrue at every level.

Physically? If I cut off your arms and legs, by what measure are you stronger physically?

Mentally? Victims of mental torture techniques are not known for their stability.

Spiritually? Even here, if you take as the measure of spiritual strength as an ability to maintain an honest, forthright position, spirtiual "damage" in the form of (say) corruption only makes further corruption easier.

Now, what various forms of abuse can reveal--reveal not create--is an awareness of exactly what one can endure. In these comfortable times, we're not often pushed to anything close to our limits.

But the actual ability was always there. (We could argue the extent to which awareness equals ability but that's for another time.)

Treadmill Reboot

Well, the Sole S77 arrived on Tuesday.

After the initial vicissitudes from the previous delivery, the parts in this shipment came in a Food Lion bag, sans a few crucial pieces.

WTF?

I got all the screws, though the manual suggests there should be more of one type there's no place to put the extra ones it suggests are needed. So I think that's a typo.

However, no Allen wrenches. No lube. And as Orlando Jones would helpfully remind us: "There's always time for lubricant." I thought there was supposed to be a heart monitor but I'm not sure that that's the case. One of the arm fittings (they cover the wires from the console to the arm) was a real challenge to put on, and the other seems just grossly mismatched.

The Flower and I put it together, though, which was fun.

I called the Sole and the woman was genuinely horrified at the situation, though she wasn't able to send out a new kit. I'm supposed to be contacted by tech support before the end of the week.

This seems less than optimal. But I'm hanging tight--and I'm using the machine as it is, because I'm not going very fast.

I thought initially it was mashed up at LAX--the box was fairly trashed (again!)--and I thought maybe they had inspected at the airport (I guess it wouldn't have to be LAX) and not bothered to put it back right.

Now I'm thinking this was a return product and it got returned and then shipped out to me without being inspected.

That aside, the machine itself is quite impressive, compared to the one I've been using. (Similar model here.) Granted, that one was half the cost of mine new, and I bought mine off Craig's List for $50. So, no complaints against the old ProForm, and I understand the new ones are better.

However! The Sole S77 is a good example of getting what you pay for (relative to the cheaper Proform).

  • It's really quiet. You can't hear the motor at all. Just the sound of the belt as it moves around, and sometimes not even that. (I haven't figured out what the magic is that makes it quiet.)
  • It's smooth. You set the speed and it transitions smoothly from whereever you are to where you want to be.
  • It's safe. The Proform had some plastic pieces at the end that I could get my feet under if I pulled a George Jetson. This may have been a factor of it being a fold-up (the S77 isn't) or of sloppy construction or just of being used, though.

Although it's not a big issue for me, the S77 is defnitely fancier. The console has a music widget that I'll never use, and some built-in fans that are somewhat useful. Even though I have no heart monitor, you can grap these little motorcycle-like handles on the console to take your pulse, which is kind of cool.

Sort of amusingly, the Proform had a speed problem: It was highly uneven at low speeds. (Maybe at high speeds, too, but I didn't use it at high speeds.) I adjusted to this unconsciously; it never bothered me. The new one is so much smoother I can use it at higher speeds easily. But--this is the sort of funny part--I may develop a program to alter the speeds randomly. My theory is that the speed change is probably good for the brain, though I'm extrapolating from this and other experiments.

The only thing I overlooked--a hazard of exclusively shopping online--is that there are buttons on the arms (for speed and elevation). The desk would smoosh those buttons, though they're well protected and it might not matter. Rather than risk it, I took some styrofoam and carved it to fit over the arm, without touching the buttons.

I was thinking about doing something more elaborate but so far I'm happy with what I have.

Apart from tht, it still remains to be seen about how Sole responds to the issues, but this is a really fine machine for the purpose, at least on the surface.

Anyway, tomorrow I should be able to do a full day of walking and working. I'm thinking of resetting my counter to Day 1, since it's the first day I'll be able to do the full monty.

Olympic Fevah

It's pretty bad around here. Staying up all hours and getting emotionally invested in the games.

Yeah, they're rigged. They always are, one way or another, and the competitors know it. That makes it all the more intense. You have to be that much better than the judge's bias.

I'm less sanguine about the tendency to whitewash the totalitarian horror that is Communist China, but really, I'm don't see how harping on it would've been better. China shouldn't have gotten the Olympics in the first place, if that was going to be an issue.

And it's hard for me to have any antipathy for the Chinese people, just as I can't help but find Russians lovable whatever crappy thing their government does.

I do know that I could look at this smile all day:

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Gaming: Computer vs. Pen and Paper

This was a response to a guy (named "ghy") over at Ace who said he didn't get the whole pen-and-paper gaming concept; that computers could handle the rules more fairly and competently, so why aren't all the P&P types giving up their buggy whips for the wonders of the modern age?

I've played both from about the inception (of both). Not only that, I've written more than a few CRPGs. And even though I don't do much of either these days, and it's a way bigger deal to get a group together for a real game of D&D, and there's a huge social aspect to MMOs, there's really no comparing the two experiences.

That's not to say that there couldn't be a remote form of D&D, like Neverwinter Nights tries, and the new 4E D&D's helper program could facilitate. They're both sort of approaching the same idea in different directions. Still, CRPGs are just shallow distillations of mechanics (and I say that as one who has played and loved both "Nethack" and "Planescape: Torment").

As a guy who was a DM (almost exclusively, in fact), I can say that when I write a scenario, I might think of several different ways for the players to handle it, and only hit about 50% of the time the way they do handle it.

I sort of hate the new rules (4ed) precisely because they seek to reduce everything to a computer game.

CRPGs are generally combat-oriented. Go someplace and kill something. Even the most number crunching combat-oriented D&D games are more than that, with a good DM.

A good DM doesn't do "level grind". Good CRPGs--actually, many computer games--live off the level grind. That's their feedback mechanism. RPGs can provide for feedback that's far less mechanical. When I was introducing The Boy to D&D, he and his pals came across a city of ratmen, where he became a heroic figure. (Later, the party ended up undoing the magic that allowed the city to exist, and he was devestated.)

DMing is part performance art, as well: I once had a game where the characters started in the typical tavern, and never left. It wasn't part of my plan. I had planned for them to sally forth and, you know, do stuff but they were completely convinced that there was intrigue going on between them.

I wasn't completely innocent here. The rules said that there was a 5% chance of a particular action causing a demon to be summoned, and as they were teen boys, there was always some smartass who thought it would be funny to tempt fate. I rolled, hit the 15%, and so sent a demon to torment them.

But unlike some hacks who would have it appear and attack--something I knew would just result in its death, and I always liked to play monsters with the idea that they wanted to survive, too!--I had it arrive invisibly. And then throw a gem on to the table where they were all sitting.

The resultant paranoia was consuming. But entertaining for all

So, I rolled with it, and re-used the scenario the next time we got together.

Good DMs don't let the game get boring any more than a musician lets his set get boring.

Although I don't play much any more, I wouldn't trade the past experience for the world. Being a DM helped me think about how the world works. Playing CRPGs, on the other hand, makes me think about how the game works. That's fun, but it's not at all the same.

Mirrors, The Playthings of Men's Vanity

I was not particularly optimistic about seeing Mirrors, the latest Asian horror remade American-style, but the initial buzz was pretty good and, as I've pointed out before, horror movies are substantially better in the theater.

OK, so, Kiefer Sutherland is a down-on-his-luck cop whose life fell apart after shooting another cop the previous year. He's estranged from his life, sleeping on the couch at his sister's, and working as the night watchman in a burnt out department store where the former night watchman (seen gruesomely dispatched in the opening scene) kept the store mirrors meticulously clean.

Shortly after beginning his new job, weird things start happening to him, and he's ultimately forced to go on a sort of mini-quest to save his family. Think The Ring.

This movie initially annoyed me as it seemed to not have a consistent internal logic. The opening scene suggess what happens in the mirror happens in the real world: Just as you control your reflection, generally, your reflection controls you. But in other situations merely the effect shows up in our world.

The effect seems less egregious as time goes on, and the movie builds nicely to a somewhat odd action-y climax. (This modern trend of ending horror flicks with explosions is not that appearling to me.) Then there's a stinger.

The stinger is often the worst part of horror movies, as filmmakers try to recapture that feeling they had when they were ten and first saw "The Twilight Zone". This one was not so bad, though I felt it was either pointless or a set up for a sequel. The Boy liked it because, as he said, it didn't undo the entire movie.

Yeah, that's a real problem. "It was all a dream" or "If only I had thought of that sooner" tends to feel like a rip off.

Plus, it was new to The Boy, and I have to admit, I haven't seen that twist used in 30 years or so.

Anyway, Keifer pretty much dominates the film, though Paula Patton does a good job as his wife--who thankfully gets on board sooner than in most horror films. They shouldn't have put her in so many low-cut outfits, though. It was distracting. (They were distracting?) The children were beautiful and did their parts well, too.

One thing that makes this work, I think, is the change-up of horror "effects". (Not as in "special effects" but as in "effects used to create fright"). Any movie is a series of scenes, and in horror movies, there are certain clichés used to pad things out till the real action starts. Things like the frightened cat, the phone ring, the door slam, etc. This movie rather successfully keeps you uncertain as to when you're getting a fake-out versus when you're getting the goods. It's not always sensible, but it's fairly entertaining.

The Boy liked it quite a bit. And if you like Sutherland II, he does his thing here. Since only a few characters know what's going on, it's up to them to sell the horror--and Kiefer most of all--and they do a good job.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Weekend Update

I did treadmill over the weekend, but I'm hampered by the stopping of the treadmill.

The new one comes tomorrow, allegedly.

Meanwhile, it's pretty much all Olympics all the time. Everyone's staying up late and looks like they've been beaten with a stick all day, but there are only a few more days to go.

Kelly@LoadedQuestions and I once postulated forming a luge team. (Lying down: how hard can it be?) She likes to point out that there's no luging at the summer Olympics, but I say that's the best way to medal.

I'll post a review of Mirrors later (The Boy sez "it's great!") and try to finish my combat system post, too.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Flower Loses A Tooth

So, The Flower is losing a front tooth.

The last tooth she lost, she put under her pillow, and then grieved that the Tooth Fairy had taken it. She wrote trying to get it back but the Tooth Fairy is a little disorganized.

Anyway, I told her she looked like a Chinese gymnast. So she's going around with her hands in the air while smiling.

My Stance On Reckless Driving

Speaking of bad advertising, I passed a billboard by the perennial Ad Council, with a sort of '50s-by-way-of-the-'80s man grinning at you saying

I WANT YOU TO SPEAK OUT AGAINST RECKLESS DRIVING!

I'm boggled by the sequence of events that had to occur in order for this billboard to come into being.

  • First, reckless driving had to become en vogue enough to attract someone's attention. This is possibly the most phenomenal part in the series of events. Seriously, given the dangers of reckless driving, one has to wonder how it could ever get to be very popular.
  • Second, someone had to say, "I must do something about this!" That's not so hard to find, especially among branches of the government that constantly cast about for things to do something about.
  • Third, someone had to decide that the problem was, the driver of reckless driving, as it were, was popular acceptance. That is, the reason people drive like maniacs and risk their lives is because of peer pressure. That's kind of an astounding conclusion to come to, when you think of it.
  • Fourth, someone then had to decide this could be handled by putting up a billboard.
Anyway, I guess I should do as the sign says. So, let me say that I think, with some caveats, that reckless driving is bad. You really shouldn't do it. Being all nuance-minded, I have to say that if you're a NASCAR driver or in a monster truck rally, you probably need to drive recklessly.

And, frankly, if you want to drive recklessly somewhere away from public roads, I think that's pretty much your right.

I hope this doesn't reduce the power of my denunciation.

So, yeah, I expect those reckless driving rates to start dropping shortly.

Bad Commercial Alert

Let California Ring has a stupid, stupid commercial on. You can see it at their website.

If you don't know what it's about, you wouldn't know what it's about, which I think is probably the hallmark of bad advertising.

Basically, it's a bride trying to get to the altar, and things are in her way. Mostly, it's the sort of coincidental vicissitudes that happen to us all--stuff in the road, clingy children, etc.--although at the end, some old lady swings her cane out and trips the poor dear. The groom rushes to help her up but his groosmen hold him back. The bride sits there in the aisle, looking forlorn.

Figured out what it's for? How about if I tell you the stinger?

What if you couldn't marry the person you loved?

Got it now?

Personally, I married for tax reasons. I didn't really think much of it at the time. And despite many warnings to contrary, it changed nothing on a personal level. (I think because most couples who are living together are hedging, whereas we were just too busy to do the paperwork until it became a serious tax liability. The previous year it had been a huge tax benefit not to be married!)

Of course, at this point, I'm pretty much barred from marrying the person I love, what with the bigamy laws. So I guess I should relate?

But back to the commercial. LCR proclaims that it puts the viewer in the shoes of gays and lesbians who want to marry.

I was more sympathetic before I saw the commercial. No, not really, it's just a poor analogy. It trivializes the issue. My mom faced far worse when she remarried and catered her own reception.

I've detailed my position here, and maybe this commercial will work in their favor. I found it off-putting.

Friday, August 15, 2008

How Do You Feel About Woody Allen?

Quoting myself from Althouse, where she lauds the new Allen movie Kathy Alameda Catalonia or whatever it's called.

Allen movies are disturbing.

Doesn't matter whether they're the early comedies or the Manhattan-based dramas or this latest more generic seeming stuff. They all disturb.

They disturb in the way Glen and Glenda disturbs, though obviously with a lot more technical skill.

We're living in a man's neuroses for two hours. He's proficient enough to costume them, somewhat, but they get under your skin.

I've been told people are more likely to have nightmares after seeing one of his movies than they are after seeing a horror movie. I don't know if that's true but it wouldn't surprise me.

But, hey, that's just my opinion (and it well predates the whole Soon Yi thing). You go ahead and enjoy the guy.

I'm not actually sold on the creepiness of the Soon Yi thing. I mean, it sure seems creepy. But it's probably a good word of warning to women not to bring men into their lives if they have daughters who might be competition.

Is that horrible to say? Probably. I think it's also probably true.

The other message, though, is probably about not marrying narcissists.

(This is the kind of thing that gets me into trouble over there.)

Does Lucas Turn Everything Into Crud?

The best new things to come out of the recent Star Wars revival ("recent" meaning the past ten years, since about the re-release of the original trilogy) were:

Bioware's Knights of the Old Republic, which took place a thousand years or before The Phantom Menace, and relied on Bioware and Black Isle's proven talents as RPG developers;

and

Star Wars - Clone Wars, which took place between the second movie and the third movie, and relied on Genndy Tartakovsky's proven talents as an animation director.

Bioware developed Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights,the former ushering in a new standard for RPGs, and the latter being the first serious attempt to let DMs run their own campaigns. Meanwhile, Black Isle developed the greatest post-apocalyptic RPG ever, Fallout and what some would call the greatest RPG ever: Planescape: Torment.

Using this talent for making KOTOR is a no-brainer, right? The only embarrassing thing is that most agreed that Bioware surpassed LucasFilms in writing a story that was a compelling foray into the universe he created.

Genndy Tartakovsky, after creating the cartoon powerhouse Dexter's Laboratory and having no small influence on Craig McCracken's Powerpuff Girls, had just created the smash Samurai Jack. Tartakovsky abandoned Jack to work on the Clone Wars, which was delivered in a few dozen five-minute installments. (However excellent, no substitute for the originality of Jack.)

So, naturally, given the success of the series, you'd hire the same guy to direct the feature, right? Right? No, you'd hire some guy with a fraction of the experience and get a 5.6 on IMDB, even with a third of the voters being fanboys who gave it a ten before seeing it.

I'm not a big Star Wars (or Trek or Search) guy, but I thought this might be fun. 19% on Rotten Tomatoes? How can such a genius producer keep dropping the ball so badly?

Screw it. I wanted to see Bottle Shock more anyway.

Combat Systems, Part 1: Who Would Win In A Fight Between Batman and Superman?

It's the modern version of How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? (Can there be any doubt that monasteries are where nerds used to go?) Who would win in a fight between Batman and Superman?

The answer, of course, is whoever the writers wanted to win. This is true for a fight between Superman and Pikachu, or The Hulk and Bambi's mother, as well.

I was thinking about this because--well, actually, I used to get that question a lot on the playground, or one like it, being the neutral and wise arbiter. (In any straight-up brawl, The Batman loses. No superpowers.)

But more relevantly, I was thinking recently about how, in my early teens, I turned my spaceship doodles into a pen-and-paper combat game (that I ultimately somehow coded--at least partially--into a now long-gone computer program). I had probably about a hundred different ship designs, mish-mashes from movies and TV shows, and remember giving thought to the question of scale and technology advancement.

For example, Star Wars technology struck me as far more primitive than Star Trek technology. The Death Star can destroy a planet, sure, but it's intimated that the Enterprise could do the same. And Star Fleet has six or seven of those. And while there's talk of shielding in the Star Wars universe, clealry there isn't any to speak of, since every little X-Wing fighter could shoot the freakin' Death Star and cause an explosion on the inside. We won't even talk about unguarded exhaust ports.

I was thinking about combat systems in games, and what makes them interesting (or not). I particularly was thinking about them in a space opera concept; sometimes when I sit down and consider the ramifications of minuscule objects traveling at, potentially, hundreds of thousands of miles per hour, throwing particles at each other, the very concept of space combat seems ludicrous.

The Star Wars model is heavy on the dogfighting/aircraft carrier style. But the modern dogfight requires our jet pilots to slow down if they want to engage. Targeting someone going mach 3--seeing someone going that fast--must be challenging indeed. One would presume that star fighters could go much faster, though actually, I'd guess the Death Star run in Star Wars is actually happening at something more like car-chase speeds, if you scale appropriately.

The Star Trek paradigm, on the other hand, views space ships more like battle ships. Slow moving and somewhat cumbersome. This, curiously, only applies to battle. The Enterprise otherwise navigates tight turns at light speeds that would make you spend your day writing out zeroes if you tried to calculate the amount of energy used.

Energy is something only discussed for plot purposes, as well. Nobody ever ran out of gas in the Star Wars universe. I mean, Darth Vader pilots his damaged tie fighter to safety--despite being surrounded by watching enemies--in between the original movie and first sequel.

Battlestar Galactica incorporated the concept of fuel into their dogfights. They also had turbo boosters and could--without any harm coming to pilot or ship--push a button that shot them in the exact opposite direction. This always surprised the Cylons, as well it should have, defying physical law and common sense.

Babylon 5 used a more sensible approach of having ships simply flip around and fire backwards, which I suppose beats mounting guns that can fire to the rear. B5 also re-introduced the beam weapon, which in Star Trek was always portrayed as leaving the ship as diverging lines, but which always managed to converge on their target.

I guess the point of all this is that combat in space is very complex. Especially when it's primarily a, you know, literary invention.

So game designers can be forgiven for having a system where combat is resolved by each player rolling a six-sided die, and the higher one winning.

Next up, I'll discuss different existing systems.

Contributors