Sunday, November 30, 2008

TV: Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex

Masamune Shirow's manga "Ghost in the Shell" has been adapted into a lot of different media, but none are as fit for mass consumption as "Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex," a TV series that first aired in 2002. The basic precepts of SAC are the same as all the other editions of GitS: brain/computer interfaces, cybernetically enhanced cops, and runaway artifical intelligences.

What differentiates GitS:SAC is the 24 minute time limit. The half-hour episodic nature of the series helps to contain the often-sprawling and obtuse storylines of the manga (read GitS: Man/Machine Interface for an especially painful example). The producers even helpfully cue the viewer; the opening title card of each episode indicates whether it's "stand alone" (independent) or "complex" (related to the overarching Laughing Man storyline). As always, it's Major Kusanagi and her crack team of Section 9 counterterrorists versus some new threat.

GitS:SAC also exhibits sumptuous production values, typical of Production I.G. The real highlight for most fans will be the transcendant soundtrack by Yoko Kanno, one of anime's most famous composers. Here's "Inner Universe," the opening theme, featuring Origa:

Movies: Mongol

"Mongol" is a slightly fictionalized biopic about Genghis Khan, the larger-than-life Mongolian leader. The movie's directed by Sergei Bodrov, but shot entirely in the Mongolian language, which is a huge boon to viewer immersion. The film covers the first part of Genghis Khan's life, from early childhood to gaining leadership over the Mongols.

Genghis Khan stands out from most famous military figures because not much is known about his early life, especially compared to well-studied Western leaders like Alexander the Great. This allows Bodrov to weave a colorful tale about loyalty and love, and he plays fast and loose with the truth more than a few times. But overall it's a fun movie to watch.

The battles are mostly disappointing, so don't come in expecting a demonstration of Genghis Khan's military genius. I'm also curious if Bodrov will modify the tone of subsequent films in this series (supposedly, he's aiming for a trilogy). In most of Asia, especially Mongolia, Genghis Khan is a legend, but in the Middle East (especially Iran and Iraq), I believe he's disliked. The Mongols conquered parts of Russia, so I wonder how they view him over there...

Rating: 8/10

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanksgiving without the Turkey

To be frank, not many people in my family are fond of roast turkey. My Mom, for instance, won't touch the stuff without a good heaping helping of cranberry sauce and gravy. Even my Dad (who cooks the darn thing) usually only eats turkey on Thanksgiving.

This year, we're not even cooking one.

It frees up a massive part of the day when you don't have to brine, marinate, or otherwise prepare a 15 pound bird. Instead, we'll be cooking prime standing rib roast for dinner, one of our go-to special occasion dinner recipes. Of course, the traditional Turkey Day fixings will still be coming along for the ride (mashed potatoes, green beans and bacon, stuffing, and my personal favorite, oven-charred brussel sprouts), so it'll still be a feast. It just won't be traditional. Anyhoo, Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

School: Turkey Day in the Trenches

Sorry all - the posting here at Shangrila Towers has been spotty of late. My first exam this semester is on the 11th, and it's also the most time consuming one - Income Tax. Hopefully I'll be able to find some time during the Thanksgiving Break.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Miscellany: Gamerscore Whore

Your Xbox Live gamerscore, also known as "Achievement Points" and "Nerd Points," is a completely meaningless number that keeps rising as you earn achievements in Xbox 360 games. The average game awards you around 300 to 500 points (this is a very rough estimate - games can be either miserly or generous with the points).

My gamerscore is now over 9000.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Food: Some Also-Rans

One of the traditions in our family is "scouting" - to try out new restaurants in the hopes of finding something worthwhile. Typically my Mom is shielded from such duties; it's up to Dad and me to ferret out the good places to eat in town. Here in Gainesville, I've tried to find a really good Italian restaurant, to no avail. But I thought a record of my travels might be entertaining:


Nestled behind the Hippodrome State Theatre in downtown Gainesville, Amelia's has apparently been open for nearly twenty years. It's one of the fancier joints within striking distance of UF, and to be fair, the food is decent. The prices are fairly high, and the portions are small, which really hurts its chances at being a "go-to" choice. For example, I had a fettucine with white clam sauce that was passable, but not for the $13 menu price.


Taking the exact opposite tack is Napolatano's, located off of NW 75th Street (on the western side of Gainesville - go on Newberry about a half-mile past I-75). The prices are lower, the portions are bigger, and the atmosphere is more casual than Amelia's. Unfortunately, the food suffers because of it, and my baked ziti was simply not up to par. Still, if you need cheap Italian, it's hard to go wrong with their $7.25 pasta dinner specials, which come with bread and salad.

Original Pizza Palace

Sometimes pizzerias can serve up decent, Americanized southern Italian food (I still get a craving for Nino's eggplant parmesan from time to time), so I gave the OPP a whirl. It's probably the most convenient place on this list, being located on NW 13th about a mile from University Avenue. Unfortunately, the pizza wasn't anything to write home about, and the pasta was forgettable, too. Throw in higher than average prices, and you have another "also-ran."

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Tech: The New Xbox Experience

There's a certain tinge of guilt I feel whenever I deride Microsoft, since some of my family and many of my friends work there. Despite my ties to Redmond, though, I think the "New Xbox Experience" isn't that great.

For those who might not know, the "New Xbox Experience" is really just a Dashboard update that Vista-fies the old "Blades" configuration that the 360 used. While I appreciate some of the usability enhancements (simple alphabetical sorting that replaces the long lists that plagued the old Dashboard, for instance), the added layer of graphical polish Microsoft has added makes the whole experience slower. Calling up my XBLA game library, which happened nearly instantaneously under the old Dashboard, now requires actual loading.

Perhaps most vexing is Microsoft's half-assed copying of the Nintendo "Mii" concept. The "Avatars" that you can create feel like shinier, but more hollow versions of Nintendo's avatars. As far as I could tell, you couldn't position and resize the facial features, meaning there won't be Avatars that look like Darth Vader or Cleopatra anytime soon.

The only thing about the NXE that directly affects actual gameplay is the ability to install games to the HDD of the 360, a la the PlayStation 3. This does decrease loading times slightly and saves wear and tear on your Xbox's disc drive, but it also requires huge chunks of hard drive space (~6 gigs for the typical game) and it also makes some games, like Halo 3, perform worse.

Politics: General Motors and General Welfare

Congress is currently embroiled in a debate over whether to bail out the Big Three U.S. automakers - Ford, Chrysler, and especially GM. Detroit's CEOs, as well as the president of the United Auto Workers, plead their case before the House Financial Services Committee today. That's a lot of political clout, but then, there's a lot of money on the line - either money from the 700 billion dollar financial sector bailout or money from an energy bill passed earlier this year.

Naive question: Where does Congress get the power to spend money in this fashion? Ever since the New Deal era, the Taxing and Spending clause in Article I has been interpreted to allow Congress nearly complete authority over what and how much to tax, and similarly, over what and how much to spend on items related to the "general welfare" of the country. The General Welfare clause, while a subject of some debate, at least minimally stands for the proposition that Congress can't play favorites by regulating or spending on specific states or regions at the expense of others. Other parts of Article I mirror this concern (the requirement that all duties be uniform throughout the country, for instance).

But how does bailing out specific companies in a specific industry square with improving the "general welfare" of the country? Well, I suppose the argument goes that this is a "bridge loan," not a handout. Like with the financial sector bailout, the government stands to get something for their money, as long as the debtors pay it back. Some commentators wonder, and rightfully so, whether the Big Three are good for it.

Movies: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

"Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" is a 2005 comedy that modernizes a lot of the classic film noir conventions. You know, those movies where the damsel in distress leads the detective into a world of crime and intrigue:

It's the one and only film to date that Shane Black has directed, which is a shame, because it's a fine debut. Petty thief-turned-actor-turned-amateur detective Harry Lockhart (played by Robert Downey Jr.) teams up with seasoned detective Gay Perry (played by Val Kilmer) in order to solve a mysterious murder. Along the way, they run into Harmony Lane, Harry's highschool dream girl.

There are some funny action sequences here and quite a bit of quirky dialogue. Robert Downey Jr.'s narration breaks the fourth wall regularly, so the proceedings never get too serious. At some points the movie revels in its R rating (hence the gratuitous topless shots of Michelle Monaghan and the frequent cursing), which is refreshing. Unfortunately, the movie only saw a limited release, making this one of 2005's most overlooked films.

Rating: 8/10

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Miscellany: Stye and Chalazia

My left eye is infected, and it's probably one of these two conditions - stye or chalazia. It's only slightly uncomfortable (I've definitely lived with worse), but it does make it hard to stare at a computer screen or book for long periods of time. Even blog posting loses its usual luster when your eyelid is swollen up like Rocky Balboa (nothing as bad as the picture above - I just wanted to gross everybody out a bit).

When you think about it, the average person suffers through a lot of minor infections and maladies. Canker sores, acne - nothing life-threatening, more like the by-product of having so many orifices to invade. I guess it's more fun than skating through life untouched.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Sports: Chess on the Gridiron

I'm a big fan of American football. A lot of this stems from my family - both Dad and Grandpa watch football, so I got a good dose of it growing up. I also remember vividly my first (and last) full contact childhood football game - and decided pretty quickly that I'd leave the tackling and blocking to the professionals. But it wasn't until I realized that all those guys on the field weren't moving chaotically, that there was a play someone had called, that I truly appreciated the game.

Other team sports have plays, of course, but not to the degree of American football. Everything on the field is, to a large degree, choreographed, with a complex series of tactical decisions involved: Where is the mismatch where this defender or that blocker can be overwhelmed? How are the weather conditions on the field? How much time is on the clock? Dozens of considerations go into what play is called in a game, making for a sport that's pretty fun to watch just for the strategy.

Even off the field, the planning continues. Trading and drafting players is practically a sport in and of itself, with every team looking to fill positions and to find diamonds in the rough. Even coaches can get on the carousel based on performance - witness the turnaround Tony Sparano has orchestrated with the Miami Dolphins. Move up to the final level - where owners wrangle with the players' union, the media, and local governments to divvy up revenue - and you have an economic contest that's easily as interesting as any computer game.

Movies: Quantum of Solace

Daniel Craig's Bond debut, "Casino Royale," was pretty good, giving the aging series a shot in the arm after the tepid "Die Another Day." Unfortunately, the direct sequel "Quantum of Solace" drops the ball a bit:

At times, the movie, directed by Marc Forster (director of "Finding Neverland" and "Stranger Than Fiction"), feels like a clinical checklist of Bond antics than a coherent experience. Parkour/freerunning sequence? Check. Car/boat/plane chases? Check. Love 'em and leave 'em sex scene with doomed Bond girl Gemma Arterton? Check. Multiple shirtless sequences to show off Craig's bod? Check and doublecheck. There's a certain joylessness to watching Forster go through the motions with a character that's not his own.

You also never feel like Bond is even hampered by the actions of the villains. In pretty much every Bond movie, there's a part where the British superspy gets captured, or at least beaten up a little. Sure, there's never any point when he's in real danger, but at least allow the antagonist to slow him down. Instead, the climactic sequence where Bond faces off against the main bad guy devolves into silliness. Why run away when you can try to kill Bond with a fireaxe?

Finally, the movie contains some mixed messages. Forster seems to implicitly indict free market capitalism and third world exploitation while simultaneously having Bond revel in the luxuries that they provide. When Bond refuses to stay in a low-rent hotel in Bolivia, instead opting for posh elegance, you definitely lose some respect for the iconic hero.

Rating: 5/10

TV: MacGyver

In some ways, the '80s was the golden era of the hourlong TV action adventure. You had classic stuff like "The A-Team" and "Knight Rider" - wisecracking characters, cool explosions, and bloodless violence that was suitable for kids. The thinking man's '80s action hero, though, was and still is MacGyver:

The series starred Richard Dean Anderson as MacGyver, a brainy scientist/engineer who refuses to carry or use firearms. Instead, MacGyver defeats the villains and gets out of sticky situations by employing science to create jury-rigged devices and solutions. Also notable was the MacGyver mullet, a now-iconic hairstyle.

Most of the "MacGyverisms" depicted on the show work in real life, although some have exagerrated effects due to dramatic license. Sometimes the writers take shortcuts, such as when MacGyver used two fictional rocket-propelled grenades called "Vipers" as jet-assisted takeoff units for a stranded airplane. Still, there was nothing as lazy as this (cartoon from xkcd):

The show had an '80s liberal slant, with MacGyver being a strong advocate of gun control. I suppose it'd be pretty convenient if life-threatening adversaries could always be defeated by improvised gadgets. Me? I'll stick with my purpose-built portable projectile launcher.

Friday, November 14, 2008

School: The Buddhas of Bamiyan

In Bamiyan province in Afghanistan, three Buddha statues once stood...


1899 and 1907 Hague Conventions (wartime pillaging)

1954 UNESCO Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (definition of cultural property and its protection during all forms of armed conflict)

1970 UNESCO Convention (protection during peacetime and prohibition of trafficking)

1972 World Heritage Convention (maintains list of cultural property with universal value)


Mullah Mohammed Omar



Thursday, November 13, 2008

Books: Urban's Way

Head football coach Urban Meyer has brought the Gators a lot of success, both this season (the team has clinched a spot in the SEC championship game) and in previous seasons (the 2006 national championship). There are certainly Gator fans around these parts who are interested in what makes the man tick. "Urban's Way," an authorized biography by Buddy Martin, is a good starting point for these folks.

The book includes more information about Meyer's life and coaching career than a non-Gator fan would probably ever want to know; his early football education, his stints at Bowling Green and Utah, and even his decision to come to Florida aren't particularly relevant to a neutral football fan. It does make for breezy reading, but don't come to this book expecting David McCullough.

The parts I liked the best were the breakdowns of how Meyer coaches and strategizes for a football game. Football contains strategy both on and off the field- everything from designing and calling plays to making sure your ace tailback doesn't get arrested for a DUI - and Meyer really breaks it down. If you ever wanted a primer on how to keep 100 young men out of trouble and working hard, Urban might be the one to write it.

Of course, the Xs and Os are there, too. Meyer gives a basic rundown of the spread offense and his "plan to win" (hint: it starts with playing great defense). Meyer's focus has always been on personnel (which is why he's a notoriously persistent recruiter), and his game strategy is sometimes riotously simple: just get the ball to someone who can make a play. There are blow-by-blow accounts of the 2005, 2006, and 2007 seasons, though hardcore Florida fans may not be surprised by anything in here.

For those holding off on the book purchase, here's a video of Urban Meyer dissecting the National Championship game:

Here's a video of Meyer (and some of his players) discussing his coaching methods:

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Tech: Gears of War 2

Lead designer Cliff Bleszinski has famously described "Gears of War 2" as a "bigger, better, and more badass" version of the original. For the most part, he's right:

Emotional music from DeVotchKa notwithstanding, Gears 2 is the same testosterone-fueled gorefest you remember, just amplified in a number of key ways. It's sure to be the blockbuster hit Microsoft needed this holiday season, so this review's mostly about dissecting what does and doesn't work with its new gameplay systems rather than to sway potential purchasers. The singleplayer campaign is good, with some new action setpieces and vehicle sequences, but I figure that real longevity will come from multiplayer matches over Xbox Live.

The big feature of Gears 2 multiplayer for me is that there are more tactics this time around. Assaulting enemy positions is much easier, for instance, since if you down one enemy, the new human shield mechanic allows you to use him as portable cover. It's no longer always suicide to be caught in a 2-on-1 or 3-on-1 scenario, depending on where everyone is. Your shield takes damage over time, but it can absorb the blast from even heavy weapons without too much trouble.

The grenades have been completely revamped - smoke grenades now knock people down, making them an important resource instead of a useless novelty. There's a new poison gas grenade that works great for temporary area denial. Finally, you can tag grenades onto walls for use as proximity mines - very important for protecting your rear and flanks. This also slows down the pace of play considerably; in the first Gears, it seemed like every game devolved into close range shotgun battles, but planted grenades should now dissuade rushers.

There are, of course, new weapons. The new heavy weapons, the mortar and minigun, can easily turn the tide of the match, but the user is vulnerable and has to be protected by teammates. Shelling dug-in defenders from afar with the mortar is particularly satisfying. The boomshield can be planted in the ground to provide semipermanent cover, a fact that clever teams will find ways to exploit in the game's many competitive modes.

The best of these new gametypes is probably Guardian, which is a twist on the old Assassination found in the original Gears. One player on each team is the Leader, and while the Leader is alive, killed team members respawn infinitely. Protecting the Leader becomes incredibly important, and it inspires some interesting attack and defense planning.

The changes aren't all good, though. The game still has no character customization (the RPG-lite "Call of Duty 4" multiplayer has proven to be wildly popular, so this omission is puzzling), the weapon selection does feel constrained at times (I'm guessing 95% of all kills are still made with either the Lancer assault rifle or with the shotgun), and chainsawing people has become almost too easy, especially compared with the difficulty of actually downing someone with the revised shotgun. Still, this is going to be the hot game for Xbox Live this holiday season.

Rating: 85/100

Movies: Trainwreck Double Feature

I like all types of movies. On the pages of this blog, you'll see favorable reviews for big budget blockbusters, contemplative foreign films, and indie horror flicks, among others. Not all of these movies contain deep symbolism - sometimes you just want to watch escapist fare, not a film that you could write a research paper about. When extra layers are there to be explored, the result can be very fun.

A bad movie is a bad movie, though, no matter how much "meaning" people try to inject afterward. Just look at today's two examples - "Caché" and "Justice League: The New Frontier."


Michael Haneke directed "Funny Games" (both the original German language version and the U.S. remake), so I thought I knew what to expect from this movie, billed as a drama/psychological thriller:

Georges and his family are receiving menacing videotapes that show views of their home. It seems like demons from Georges' past are coming back to confront him. When Pierrot, Georges' son, goes missing, the tension becomes unbearable and things start coming apart. There's a whole lot of waffling and indignation over this surveillance, and one scene of sudden, sharp violence.

I wanted to give the movie a chance, but the pacing is completely off - there's plenty of sequences where nothing important happens, except perhaps in the minds of overeager film critics. Supposedly there's some subtext here that involves bourgeois guilt over the massacre of Algerians during the '60s, but it doesn't excuse a mediocre plot that ends with a thud.

Rating: 2/10

Justice League: The New Frontier

There's something tantalizing about seeing multiple superheroes onscreen at once. The combination of disparate powers and personalities can be fun to watch, which explains why both the major comics publishers, DC and Marvel, have their own superhero teams. The DC version, Justice League, is nearing its fiftieth anniversary, but the film adaptation of "New Frontier" is probably not one of the high points in its storied mythology:

This is an adaptation of a six-part comic series, and it shows. The plot is laughably incoherent, with many sequences playing out like vignettes from various separate TV programs. You'll the Flash battle a freeze-ray villain, and then five minutes later Batman and Martian Manhunter are beating the crap out of some cultists - what connections exist between these events are slim indeed. New characters are introduced constantly, too, right up to the finale.

Most irksome is the short shrift given to Superman, one of the pillars that DC is built on. Kal-El has a walk-on part, but the focus seems to be almost entirely on the Green Lantern. I ask you this - if Superman can't solve a problem, what makes you think Green Lantern could do it?

Rating: 2/10

Music: Fire and Rain

There are some songs whose reputations get watered down over time, like James Taylor's first hit single, "Fire and Rain." The catchy melody and sparse production helped to define the whole singer-songwriter sound of the '70s. It's sort of a guilty pleasure nowadays, a mellow adult contemporary ditty that you hear as background music at the mall. The actual lyrics are pretty dark, though, referencing death and drug addiction:

Here's another little bit of trivia - when Taylor guest-starred on the classic Simpsons episode "Deep Space Homer," he sang a version with modified lyrics for the part where Homer is an astronaut trying to get back to Earth safely. The line "Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground" was changed to "Sweet dreams and flying machines flying safely through the air."

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Veterans Day

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan got put on the back burner by the media during the run-up to the election, so this year's Veterans Day marks a refocusing of sorts. Our troops are still doing some very difficult jobs overseas, after all - financial woes simply can't compare. As always, I'd like to wish them good luck and Godspeed during these troubled times.

It's interesting to note that Veterans Day isn't just a U.S. holiday - on November 11th, countries all over the world celebrate the end of the first World War and remember the 20 million people who died as a result of the fighting. It's called Armistice Day, since the signing of the peace treaty famously came on the "eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month."

20 million doesn't sound like much in a world with more than six billion people on it, but it's best to put it in perspective. For thousands of years in prehistoric times, there weren't even 20 million human beings living on the entire planet. The great irony of war is that it's a brutal, senseless luxury that can only be afforded by successful species.

Movies: Vexille

In my "Dead Space" review, I implied that when you're making a creative work, some amount of cribbing from other sources is necessary, or even desirable. But there's a line you mustn't cross, and "Vexille" stumbles all over that line:

There's the standard anime clichés: power armor suits, deadly robots, and the main character is a member of some elite tactical strike team. But "Vexille," directed by Fumihiko Sori, also steals bits from dozens of other movies. You'll see giant metal sandworms a la "Dune," human-like androids ripped straight from "Blade Runner," and even a post-apocalptyic wasteland that would make "Mad Max" proud.

Again, if it were all executed cleanly, it would be a fun movie. But despite the interesting use of cel-shading on the characters, the CGI here is flat and unimaginative in many sequences. A lot of the story elements are ridiculous, and the characters are completely forgettable and disposable.

Rating: 3/10

Monday, November 10, 2008

Guns: Sighting In

If there's a pet peeve of mine when it comes to guns, it's a gun that won't shoot to where the sights indicate it should. If you had the time, I guess, you could correct for this using "Kentucky windage" or by holding over or under your target, but that's an extra step added to what is already a concentration-intensive activity.

To be fair, the system for adjusting windage and elevation varies widely from firearm to firearm. On an AR-15, for instance, you can raise and lower the point of aim by adjusting the front sight post. No special tool is required, only a round of .223 ammunition. It's really an elegant system, one that allows for expedient adjustment in the field with a minimum of fuss.

Contrast that with the system for adjusting windage on a typical AK - it's distinctly inelegant. Moving the point of aim left or right requires a separate tool to slowly drift the sight - using a hammer and punch can loosen the whole assembly to the point where it won't hold zero. Some AKs come with windage adjustable rear sights, but a lot of them don't, and you're stuck buying this sucker from Brownells:

Saturday, November 08, 2008

School: Trial Theater

Posting is going to be light for a few days - I'm in the midst of the first run of trials for my Trial Practice class.

Trials, even mock ones, are time-killing affairs, unfortunately; that much is common knowledge. What the layperson may not know is that trying a case is almost like performance art. I'd compare it to jazz, or DMing, or any number of activities where you're improvising or reacting to what happens in the moment.

It's quite a rush, though, and for a guy like me who normally shies away from public speaking, it can be very liberating.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Guns: Prepare for the Future

[Tam has a good post up on this topic.]

I'm a firm believer in hard assets - and by "hard," I mean steel, brass, and lead. If you don't have a semiautomatic firearm but think you might want one in the next few years, there's never been a better time to buy. I'm already set with my tricked-out AR-15, but anyone looking to buy that shiny new AK or FAL clone should probably pony up now. We all know how eager legislators can be:

Also important are magazines. Thankfully, since the end of the last scary-looking gun ban, magazine manufacturers have been working overtime, so they're plentiful now. But it never hurts to have an extra dozen mags to pick up the slack.

Finally, there's ammo. Again, I have enough reloading components to make a few thousand rounds of .223, and I still feel understocked. Ammunition prices pretty much never go down, even in the short term, so in the event that no further gun control laws are passed, you can sell your excess and actually make money.

I hate to be an alarmist, but it's always better to be safe than sorry. Gun owners across the country are hunkering down, and watching their elected officials closely.

Politics: Mixed Messages

In some ways, Obama's victory in this year's election was a landslide, especially after the relatively close contests in 2004 and 2000. But a glance at some of the most contentious measures on the ballots this year - state constitutional amendments banning gay marriage - shows that the platitudes of "hope" and "change" may apply only to Obama, not to same-sex couples wishing to have equal status under the law.

Ironically, the understandably high turnout of black voters this year helped lead to the adoption of many of these amendments. Many black voters, despite toeing the Democratic line on most issues, are also overwhelmingly against gay marriage. One minority putting another in its much for "change." For committed libertarians, it was a dismaying result.

Books: Runaways

"Runaways" is a comic book series where a group of teens learn that their parents are secretly supervillains. There's some action, quite a bit of comedy, and a dash of romance, all presented in a pseudo-manga style by writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Adrian Alphona. The series won a Harvey Award in 2006, and there's been talk of a film adaptation. Vaughan also wrote "Y: The Last Man" for DC/Vertigo.

The best part of "Runaways" is its willingness to be playful with superhero conventions, and Marvel Comics tropes in particular. The very first panel features a fictional Marvel-themed MMORPG, and characters regularly poke fun at catchphrases like "Hulk smash!" and "It's clobberin' time!" Vaughan has said that he's not as comfortable writing stories with the standard company characters as he is with his own creations; "Runaways" has a loose and creative feel that perfectly captures the spirit of being a teenager.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Tech: Fallout 3

"Fallout 3" is a game set in a post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland:

You're a Vault dweller, a person who's lived his or her life within the safety of an underground bunker. One day your father leaves the Vault without explanation, so you go off into the Wasteland to search for him. Or not.

The beauty of "Fallout 3," like most of developer Besthesda Softworks' games, is that you have nearly complete freedom to go anywhere you want in on your own time. Rather than being stuck in the main quest, at any time you can choose to explore something else. There's a lot to run across in the Wasteland, so even just picking a direction and walking as far as you can will result in some interesting discoveries.

That flexibility extends to character creation. There are a ton of ways to approach any challenge in the game - you can smooth talk your way out of troublesome situations, you can use scientific knowledge to solve problems, or you can just blow everything up with a missile launcher. Additionally, at every point in the game you can choose to be a goody-two-shoes or a mass-murdering psycho. Being evil also grants access to additional quests and locations, so it's fun to run through a second time to see what you missed by being too far to one side of the moral compass.

The most common complaint leveled at "Fallout 3" is that it's "Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion" with guns. And yes, essentially, that's pretty much what it is. But consider that both Besthesda's Elder Scrolls series and the Fallout series, even before this latest gamed, shared the same philosophy - open world, moral choices between good and evil, single character emphasized vs. a party, and customizable skills instead of rigid character classes. Isn't "Oblivion," after all, just a first-person Fallout in a fantasy universe?

The big problem I have with the game, the one that keeps it from being a classic, is that several parts of the main quest are awful, cringe-inducing moments that really kill your fun. Additionally, you aren't free to continue adventuring after you finish the main quest, which is an oddity for a Besthesda game. Finally, some crashing and freezing bugs made their way into the final version of the game, so I'm going to have to give "Fallout 3" a...

Rating: 91/100

Thank God it's Election Day...

The constant barrage of door-to-door campaign volunteers, automated phone calls, and mailings will finally stop.

If there's one thing I'm sick of this election cycle, it's the fact that voting is being extolled as some kind of virtue. Here's one annoying example, complete with snarky comments added after the fact:

Volunteering your efforts to a worthwhile charity? That's important. Or maybe spending time with your family. Heck, even blowing a few hundred bucks on a night out in Vegas does a lot for the economy.

Voting for president is sorta like hiring an employee, except that there's only two applicants, you're forced to take one of them, and whichever one you pick is going to spend your money like a drunken sailor and tell you what you can and can't do.

There's a certain resignation to the whole affair that younger voters probably won't feel as they step inside the polling booth. They'll learn.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Movies: Scream

Wes Craven was on the ropes commercially in the early '90s, after the blockbuster success of the "Nightmare on Elm Street" series in the previous decade. That all changed with "Scream," which became a huge box office draw:

The plot is familiar on purpose. A killer is stalking the students at a high school, and it's up to the protagonist and her friends to scream and run in entertaining fashion. The catch here is that many of the characters are aware of horror movie cliches, though this doesn't mean they don't fall into them (as the opening scene demonstrates).

The most curious thing about "Scream" is that for anyone versed in Wes Craven's other works, this isn't a very good horror movie. It doesn't scare you, it doesn't gross you out (even with an R rating, the film is tame by modern standards), and it certainly doesn't build up tension very effectively.

Rating (as a self-aware comedy parodying or horror pastiche): 6/10

Rating (as an actual horror film): 3/10

P.S. - If you want to see Craven do the postmodern horror route (albeit with slower pacing), I recommend 1994's "New Nightmare." The scene where Heather Langenkamp gets surprised by Robert Englund dressed in a Freddy costume is hilarious and creepy all at the same time.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Miscellany: D&D RPG Starter Set

If I could change one thing about pen and paper roleplaying games, it would be to make them more accessible. Compare the initial tutorial experience in a well-designed MMORPG like "World of Warcraft" to the experience of learning D&D, and there's a stark difference in terms of player retention and understanding. It's not just D&D, either; learning the rules of most RPGs takes money and time, two things that people are loathe to spend.

The "Basic Set" has long been the official mechanism by which the current publisher of D&D tries to teach people how to play, with varying results. I picked up the newly released starter set for 4th Edition D&D so I could introduce a friend to the world of roleplaying, and found that while the new set does a competent job with the mechanics, it feels dry and sterile.

First, the contents. Included in the box is a brief rules primer along with a half-dozen pregenerated characters, a longer 64-page booklet intended for first-time DMs, a set of dice, and cardboard dungeon tiles and counters. I found the cardboard pieces to be the most useful - the tiles are straight out of the official D&D "Halls of the Giant Kings" tile set, so they'll be useful to a DM who decides to continue. The cardboard counters are made of the same stock; sturdy enough to be a useful alternative to standard miniatures.

The rules booklet for new players is hit and miss. The explanation of the core d20 mechanic is straightfoward enough, but I really would have liked some basic character creation rules (perhaps only covering levels 1-3, so as not to cannibalize the sales of the Player's Handbook). And there's almost no talk about how to roleplay a character - a transcript of an actual game session, with examples, would go a long way to resolving the confusion.

The DM booklet copies a lot from the 4E DMG, which is a good thing, since that DMG probably contains the best DMing advice ever seen in a DMG. There's also a mini adventure and a portion of the official Monster Manual appended to the end of the booklet, more than enough to get people started.

So what's the verdict? Is this set useful for teaching? I would say yes, but only if the new player is comfortable running a pregenerated character, and only if someone provides the requisite "how to play an RPG" spiel.