Friday, December 31, 2010

Playstation Move

A few Best Buy gift cards we got at our vow renewal have been sitting in my wallet for months, and so we finally decided to go ahead and spend them on a Playstation Move. This is the new interface for the Playstation that lets you get physical -- don't let Sony hear you say it's an answer to the Wiimote, because they insist it's so much more, but it really is.

Unlike the Wiimote which stands alone, the Move is integrated with the Playstation Eye, which is a webcam (with microphone) for the Playstation that's already used in some Playstation Network services and a few games; so the Eye is included in the Move starter bundle, which means I could now use the PS3 to video-chat with people.

Right now there aren't too many PS3 games that support the Move yet, and the only one I have is the one that came with it, Championship Games. This is a suite of physical games that take advantage of the Move. So far I've played all of them but beach volleyball, and beaten all of the ones I've played except table tennis. (I think table tennis may have been a particularly bad choice for a first game to play, as the number of movements required, and the complexity of mapping them to game moves in a way that felt natural, was a bit trickier than the others.)

Archery is more than a bit silly and feels entirely unlike actual archery. It's super-simple. You reach over your shoulder to get an arrow, then point it where you want it to go. There's a bit of accounting for range and wind, but mostly it's a matter of having a steady hand. The motions feel nothing like actual archery, and ultimately archery is not really a good match for the Move. This is disappointing since archery was one of the promotional images used for the Move, and it showed someone using the Move in combination with the secondary controller (which I don't have yet) in a very archery-like position, but if this game supports that, they don't mention it at all. (I suppose it might just not show until you have the secondary controller, though.)

Bocce was surprisingly compelling as a match for the Move. You don't feel the weight of the ball in your hand, of course, but it quickly feels natural to be throwing the ball. Sometimes it's hard to gauge how hard you're throwing it without throwing too high, but with only a little practice you can get to where that's not a problem. The same applied to disc golf (disc in this context means Frisbees).

Gladiator Duel is easily the most goofy fun, in part because the motions you're making are quick and forceful, not subtle. But by the same token, it's probably less challenging. This is made up for by adding complexity: you can move both a sword and a shield, dodge side to side, and build up to using power moves. Some of these motions are done by the Eye tracking your own movement around the room, and some with pressing buttons on the controller; it would be better if it was more of the former and less of the latter. The Move has the possibility to have the best of both the Wiimote and Kinect, but the software has to be developed that way.

Ultimately, though I had the most trouble with it, I think that table tennis might be the most compelling use of the Move. When it worked, I felt really natural, like I was actually playing table tennis. The movements were about the same, including the twists one does to put spin on the ball, but by the same token sometimes the difference between real table tennis and the game jumps out at you because you can't feel where the ball is to match it so well. I suspect a little more practice at it will narrow that gap. Playing it is surprisingly physical: exercise, but not exhausting, the way casual table tennis is.

These sports games are an obvious first Move game and show off the physical aspects, and they're well chosen to be moderately vigorous but not geared only to die-hard sports fans. But I really want to see how the Move will be used in other games. I also look forward to having a second controller and trying playing some of these things against other people. If I were a more dedicated gamer, I suppose it'd be a bigger deal. But I doubt the Move will ever be used as a drumstick in a future version of Rock Band! So in the end I'm not sure how much I'll use it.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Fiasco in the Regency period

I haven't even played Fiasco yet, and it's probably not going to turn out to be a favorite game since I don't seem to like the genre much; but I keep trying to think of places where it could be used. I think that's a natural outgrowth of my effort to understand what the genre actually is. (For instance, I still haven't gotten anyone to talk about whether it could be used to run something like The Out-Of-Towners.)

So I was thinking about whether you could use it to tell a story set in the same world as Jane Austen's books, but it would necessarily be a different story. So far as anyone I talked to can think of, there are no major works set in that period which actually tell a fiasco-like story. Protagonists often face terrible adversity but in some way, they triumph over it. Antagonists often come to messy ends, but as a result of comeuppance for their acts. There are grim things in stories, but they don't have the same character as in fiasco movies. You might even say that fiasco movies are in part a reaction against a standard paradigm of storytelling that was thrown into sharp focus during the period in question.

Thus, in playing Fiasco in that setting, or just writing a fiasco story in it, you would be fighting against the grain of all the tropes that the setting usually brings, and you would have to watch what you were doing very carefully. It would be quite a challenge. But I think if you could pull it off, the contrast and incongruity would be powerful, and force a new look at a familiar time period and setting. It could be very incredible, but it'd be very easy to get wrong.

The time period is rife with fiasco-like outcomes, though. Consider how badly ruined you are in that time if your reputation is sullied, and how hard it is to recover -- a story element Austen plays with extensively. Consider how mind-numbingly awful debtor's prison is (even if that speaks more of Victorian than Regency periods in terms of appearing in the fiction of each time, though they certainly fit into either). Consider how terrible the medicine of the time is, so even a minor injury can be crippling for life. The seemingly spotless ethics of Jane Austen's characters barely concealed a deep fascination with forbidden perversions of all sorts even amongst the upper classes. The disparities between the classes, and the way people of different races are treated, provides tons of fodder for the kind of motivations that would drive a fiasco story. And while many fiasco stories are firmly rooted in the criminal and working class worlds, with even the bigwigs little more than the biggest dung-beetle in a dung-heap, I think a lot could be done with tossing one or two upper-class folks into the mix, either slumming, or just drawn into the schemes by whatever desperate ploys one side or the other have used.

Since I am doubtful I'm even going to do "vanilla" Fiasco very well, I'm certainly not the person to explore these ideas farther. I am not even that familiar with the Regency period, and have never read any Jane Austen, beyond the snippets one can't help but absorbing through exposure to pop culture and some notable Austen fans in one's circle. I probably would have little fun playing in a Regency Fiasco. But I hope someone can use the idea.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Preserving the flaws of old technology

It's surprising how often the flaws and limitations of an old technology become something we depend upon, so that a new technology, through nothing more than eliminating a flaw, creates a problem that seems so hard to solve that instead of solving it, we reintroduce artificial versions of the same flaw to preserve the old "solution". I'm particularly thinking of things where, if the flaw hadn't always been there, no one would ever consider introducing it.

One of the most egregious examples is the noise cars make. If cars didn't exist, and then you invented the first one and it was quiet, no one would ever suggest, hey, what that really needs is a lot of loud, dissonant roaring and grumbling. In fact, over the years many efforts (most obviously mufflers) have been made to reduce the noise level. Finding ways to contain the noise is a whole facet of civil engineering; cities have to choose where to put in roads based on keeping the noise from making areas unliveable, and build sound barriers designed to channel the noise in less harmful ways.

And yet, the advent of hybrid and electric cars which can run almost entirely silently has a lot of people complaining. It's a danger: people can be crossing a road without any idea that a car is coming, because they're used to the noise, and don't bother to look. And what about those with vision disabilities, who can't easily rely on looking? It is actually being seriously proposed, and stands a real chance of coming to pass, to require silent automobiles to include an artificial noise generator, constantly running when the car is, wasting energy to create unwanted noise, just because a hundred years of noisy cars has caused us to take the noise for granted and we don't want to go back and think of better ways to ensure the "safety" that we currently get from noise, and then go through the probably difficult process of putting them into place. (We're so hesitant to make any change that requires retraining, or a commitment to infrastructure-level changes; the only big sweeping changes we can embrace are ones we can do piecemeal and haphazardly, never ones that are decided and planned and executed. That's why we still don't use metric, for instance.)

The entire issue of digital rights management exists largely because a flaw in all previous methods of copying media, the loss of fidelity, meant we never really had to address the "copying of information" question that carefully before, because the flaw left an innate limitation on how far it could go. Yes, you could always buy an LP and then copy it to tape, and yes, the record industry always made a big fuss about that; but a few tape copies here and there was a drop in the bucket compared to widespread MP3 sharing. Yes, you could always make a photocopy of a book for your friend, or lend your book to your friend, but you couldn't spread it very far that way, it was too costly and limiting; being able to share eBooks as far as you like changes things. The same for movies, photos, and any other content you can think of.

Suddenly, the progressive loss of fidelity during copies was removed, and suddenly, no one can figure out a fair way to balance the rights of the content creator, the content distributor, the distribution infrastructure, and the content owner. While it certainly doesn't help that the two middle parts of that equation (the distributor, e.g., record companies and publishers; and the infrastructure, e.g., ISPs and cable companies) are rapacious, territorial bastards without the slightest compunction about being as unfair as they can, the problem is deeper than pointing a few fingers at the obvious villains. Even when you remove them from the equation and use the power of the Internet to connect creators to consumers directly, the problem doesn't go away. Creators still need to be sure they've got a chance to make a profit commensurate with their investment of both effort and talent, or they won't bother to create; consumers need to be sure that their money will get them the product they want and a reasonable expectation they'll be able to keep having access to it for its lifetime, along with "fair use" provisions like reasonable levels of sharing with friends. On both sides, expectations have been inflated to ridiculous levels by the old system. Creators dream of "hitting it big" and even those who are content making a paltry salary and keeping a day job still nurse the idea because they can't help but compare themselves to the millions being made by others in their field. Consumers were spoiled enough by being able to freely lend and copy their stuff for friends, but are ten times more spoiled by years of using Napster and BitTorrent, and can easily expand an observation about how this record company is evil, or that rock star is a pretentious git, into a rationalization that doesn't allow for any content creator to get fair recompense for his work.

Some people have actually proposed reintroducing loss of fidelity to copying, but no one really has the power to do that; the genie is way too far out of the bottle. Instead, most of the overzealous attempts to reintroduce the old flaw have gone even farther by completely eliminating all copying opportunities. They're kind of forced into that because once you can make a copy there's no way to limit what you do with it. But they've also gone too far. Even when they completely control the format, so they could introduce appropriately limited copying rights, consumers argue that they should have far more, and they overreact by giving them essentially none. There's a fairly obvious happy medium where both sides give up their unrealistic expectations and meet in the middle, but no one's moving towards it.

This reminds me of another juicy one: when CDs were new, a lot of people insisted that they sounded worse than LPs for many years. Of note was the fact that classical music fans latched onto CDs instantly and without hesitation. Classical music recording was always about capturing the experience of being there in front of the symphony or quartet, and CDs did that far, far better than LPs. But pop music fans had been, for decades, listening to albums which had been mixed by sound mixers who knew about the limitations of LPs, the distortion and hum that would later be called a "warm" sound, and had been mixing their albums around it, making sounds more austere and harsh and "cold" so that when the LP added its hum the sound would be what they wanted. There were certainly sounds you could never achieve this way, but at least the sounds we got were good ones. The first CDs were simply pressed from the same recordings, and we heard them as they were, not as they were intended, for the first time, and a lot of people balked. It's so cold and bland. Time to get the LPs back out.

Then the CD makers realized what was happening and started remixing for CD, and most of the LP-diehards came around, though they still remain as a marginal subculture. (I'm not counting the people who like phonographs to play old things not available on other formats, or who just like the nostalgia; I mean only those who still insist LPs have better sound quality than CDs.) And nowadays those who mix music don't have to guess at what a particular phonograph will add to the sound; they take the sound they want and put it on the CD and bang, you get it. If they want the "warm" sound of a late 60s Beatles album, they can do that, and if they want something a 60s LP could not have done, they can do that, too. But for a while, everything was simply carefully recreating and reintroducing the distortion of old LPs because that's what people were used to; and there's still a surprisingly large amount of that.

There's plenty of other examples where we've taken a flaw we're used to and preserved it artificially. If only we could learn how to, as a society, step back and ask how things should be, how we'd make them if we could wipe the slate and start clean with the resources we have now; and then let that inform what we do, instead of always doing things by tiny, big-picture-free steps.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Inglorious Basterds

Of the Tarantino movies I have watched so far, Inglorious Basterds is easily my favorite. I wouldn't say I loved it, but I enjoyed it.

In some ways, it is the most "conventional" of the three, at least in terms of storytelling: more than the others it's a single story that builds to a conclusion, with mounting tension and plot complications. The classics are classics for a reason: they work. And yet this makes it sound like that's the only kind of story I like, and I don't think that's true. I can think of plenty of things I like that don't follow that structure. But there are a lot of ways to put a film together other than the classic formula, and I can not like a particular few (like the ones Tarantino seems fond of) without disliking others.

What I like best about the movie ultimately is Aldo Raines. I don't know how much of the credit to give to Tarantino (as writer and director) and how much to give to Brad Pitt. I just know that his totally brash, artless, straight-as-an-arrow spirit stole every scene he was in. His explanation for what was wrong with fighting in basements was a delight.

The depiction of Hans Landa also stands out as impressively nuanced and unusual. Nazis are the very definition of one-dimensional villains, but Hans is smart, polite, socially awkward, brash, and stops just short of being sympathizable. It's not even the occasionally-used trick of him being charming just to make his ruthless brutality seem more stark or disturbing. No, Hans is an interesting person who happens to be both a Nazi, heir to all the cultural conditioning and viewpoints that brings, and a brilliant detective.

Spoilers Below

Throughout the whole movie there's a suspense that mostly comes from the fact that you know how it has to end, and yet, you don't know how it can possibly end. After all, you know how World War II ended. How can the story we're seeing end up fitting within that? As the minutes tick away and the end of the movie approaches, you're wondering, how can he possibly get to a resolution that will fit what we know, or at least explain the difference between what "really" happened and what all the history books tell? The movie keeps refusing to start showing how it's going to get there, and that builds up a potent suspense.

And then in the final chapter, the answer that comes out is a surprise. Tarantino managed something unexpected: a historical film, set in a period whose history we all know, that has a surprise ending. The surprise is this: this isn't our history, our world. World War II doesn't end here like it did for us. Which means, we suddenly realize as we watch Hitler's body riddled with bullets, that all bets are off. Everything is up for grabs. Even as we watch the theater burn and then explode we're wondering all the usual cop-outs -- it was all covered up, it's just a dream, there are clones of Hitler and Bormann on ice, and so on -- but by the time the last pieces of glass fall to the pavement it's clear that that's not going to happen. This is not that story. And suddenly you realize you have no idea how this movie is going to end.

This is a remarkably gutsy decision. I don't think I would ever have come up with the idea to do it. Sure, the idea of an alternate history version of WW2 is easy enough, I've seen that a zillion times. But it's always clear from early on that it's going to go that way. I've never seen a movie string us along until the very end before making that clear, and yet, at the same time, when you think back on it, nothing in the movie ever precluded the possibility. The movie never put the possibility on the table, but it never protested too much against it, either. Taken as the story that leads to the ending it has, it was simply telling us what happened, completely honestly and in a very straightforward way. It's just that we brought our preconception about what could happen -- quite honestly earned, since it's what did happen -- and the movie never had to say anything one way or the other, to let us do all the work of fooling ourselves. If it had indulged itself in something that we could look back on later and say, ah hah, there the movie was winking at us about what it was going to do, egging us on, that would have cheapened it a little. Full credit to Tarantino for not only taking the gutsy choice, but also doing it honestly, without trickery, and standing behind it.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Pulp Fiction

Pulp Fiction is a very well received movie. Not only do many people think very highly of it, but so do a lot of people whose opinion I respect on such matters. Not just fans, and not just critics, but also people who make movies, and who make good movies. This makes it hard for me to say much about it because I don't have much good to say.

And I don't just mean in the sense of "it's a well-made movie that just doesn't interest me" -- I don't even see where it's a well-made movie. But I don't mean to be disagreeing with all those people in the way that one would expect, where I think I'm right and they're wrong. I fully, honestly, sincerely imagine maybe there's something I'm not picking up. Trouble is, when people say that, so often they mean they really do think they're right and everyone else is wrong, but they don't want to say so, because it sounds arrogant. Everyone knows that, though, so when people demur from that claim, everyone reads in the subtext.

So anything I say about the movie inevitably has to come off confrontational, like I'm claiming it's not nearly that good a movie as people think, and I'm the only one who sees that (which I actually did, to some extent, with The Matrix). So I say things about the movie as an act of taking a risk: maybe I'll get some more insight into the movie, but more likely, I'll just offend people who like it and think I'm dissing it.

First, what was good? Certainly some of the tense moments had a tension I appreciate. I was intrigued by the unexpected use of non-linear storytelling -- we get about halfway through the movie before we even realize that things aren't entirely chronological. While a lot of the acting felt too distant for me to know if it was good, what I saw was solid, convincing, engaging. Harvey Keitel's character was amusing to watch, and the oddly-themed restaurant was interesting. Several scenes had some incidental-seeming conversation that was amusing, in the sense that if you deleted a few dozen F-words from it and retooled it a bit, a stand-up comedian could have made some material out of it.

What didn't work for me, though, is two main things: the plot and the characters. My problem with the plot is that it doesn't seem so much like it had one, as it had a bunch of parts of one that never entirely got to go anywhere. Maybe half of the things that happened probably wouldn't've changed much if they hadn't happened. Most of the things that started never finished; in fact, the whole movie doesn't actually end so much as come to the conclusion of a scene and then fail to have another one after it. Don't get me wrong: I am not the kind of person who only likes movies where everything is tied up in a neat bow at the end, far from it. But I am conventional enough to want a story to go somewhere, and I don't feel like this one really ever did.

I was trying to think about what about the characters bugged me and I suspect people might think it's because I find them unlikeable or alien. I think that's missing the point. To me, as I go through the characters, I think every one of them can be summed up in precisely two sentences, and short ones at that. The first sentence says what the character obviously appears to be: a hedonistic, shallow trophy wife; a hard-ass gangster; an opportunistic, washed-up boxer. The second sentence describes what is revealed in some single scene to also be true of the character, which isn't obvious from the first sentence, or may even appear to contradict it. The boxer also has a conscience; the gangster wonders what it's all about. And that, so far as I can see, is it. That's all the complexity, all the development, all the humanity any of them have.

Admittedly, that's more than characters sometimes have in action movies. How much more could you say about Dallas from Alien, or Sarah Connor? But those movies aren't counting on there being a lot more depth or layers, usually. There's other things you're going to those movies for. Pulp Fiction acts like it's primarily a character study, a vehicle for a bunch of characters to interact with one another, change, or reveal things about themselves.

So is it not really primarily a character study; is there something else and the characters are just there to move through it? Or if it is, what am I missing about the characters?

If I got answers to these things that satisfied me, it would probably change my reaction to "okay, so it's well done, and Tarantino's style is just not to my tastes," which is why I'm not looking forward to the other of his movies on the must-see list, and tempted to set them aside and watch something enjoyable for a bit before going back to the chore. But as of this writing I've seen most of Inglorious Basterds (the copy I had on my Archos was cut off, so I have to watch the rest at home), and a bit of Reservoir Dogs, and I'll at least see those through before I take a break.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Tron: Legacy

We now interrupt the string of movie reviews of movies I watched while travelling, for a... movie review, of a movie I watched after travelling. We saw Tron: Legacy in 3D the opening weekend, and I definitely think it was worth seeing in the theater, and in 3D.

Avatar has really set the bar for using 3D the right way: to bring you into the world and intensify the action, without cheap gimmicks (like the "axe flying at you" thing that the Resident Evil movies, at least according to the trailers, seem to think is what 3D is for, harkening back to Friday the 13th sequels). Tron: Legacy doesn't do as well as Avatar but it does a hell of a lot better than Clash of the Titans at using 3D. Notably, it uses 3D both for some breathtaking visuals and for some story elements (such as the transition between worlds).

Visually the movie is amazingly done. Very little of it feels too frenetic to be watched, even in the fast action scenes -- the director hasn't bought into the idea that the key to intense action is not being able to see it, and there's no shakycam and only occasional overuse of too-close, too-fast cuts. Compared to the digital world of the original, it's even darker, and there's less color, but the color that's there provides greater contrast. I don't just mean that in the sense of the colors popping off the screen (though they do); I also mean there's more contrast between one place in the digital world and another, and what kind of feels those different places are intended to have.

The story feels a little less deep and full of wonder than the original to me. They can't just make another version of the first movie because so much of the first movie was built around the wonder of Flynn figuring out what was going on around him, and us figuring it out with him. The original made the wise decision of not having Flynn stagger around in disbelief for half the film, as many movies with that much "culture shock" do; and the sequel, again wisely, has Sam do even less of that, because Flynn has brought him up with stories of this world (though told as bedtime stories which maybe Sam wasn't supposed to believe literally, or maybe was). 30 minutes of Sam going through the same discovery as Flynn would simply have felt dull to us now.

But what do they replace it with? There are a few new things to discover: changes in the world from what we knew, and new developments. But mostly the movie fills that gap with a new story that raises the stakes, but in a conventional action-movie sort of way. It's compelling, but not in quite the endearingly goofy way that the first movie had.

Both movies also go much farther than most movies in failing to spell out just how things work, except when the story requires it. If you try to imagine running a roleplaying game in that world, you'll see just how much we don't know about what programs can and can't do, what powers users have, what would happen if you did this or that. Despite that, in some ways, the internal physics of the digital world holds together a little better in this movie than the previous one.

Though there are three glaring exceptions that make no sense, but which probably won't bother anyone. Since they're all spoilers, I'll encode them with ROT13. Click to decode:
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As far as acting, very little is asked of Garrett Hedlund; he just has to be cocksure and swaggering a bit, and he does just fine. Olivia Wilde gets a little more material and handles it well, but one feels a bit short-changed that she isn't explored more and given more of a chance to act. But Jeff Bridges does enough acting to make up for everyone else in the film. The man really can carry off some complex balancing acts between different viewpoints. Kevin Flynn seems on the surface like a jumble of oddly mismatched mannerisms and ideas, but they absolutely work together and make sense. And when you're seeing Jeff acting opposite his digitally-younger self, the two Jeffs absolutely come off as two distinct characters without making you conscious of the duplication, as you often see in the slightly stilted timing and movements you're used to seeing in actor-playing-against-himself trickery in the movies. Jeff is pulling off some very impressive expression of considerable depth and non-obvious character exploration at the same time as he's treating the challenges of acting against a green screen like they didn't exist, like he was really in the computer. The man deserves a lot more credit than he gets, and given in what low regard effects-heavy action movies are held, more than he's ever going to get for the performance he gave here and the challenges he overcame giving it.

If you haven't seen the original movie, or just not recently, you might actually miss the many allusions, which just goes to show how gentle they often are -- and still just as satisfying as a stroke for those of us good kiddies who remember the first movie. A number of key lines got repeated, but very rarely did they feel forced in, or recited because they had to work them in somehow. Wisely, there was no allusion at all to Bit. (There's one thing that might have been intended as one, but it wasn't really that shape, so if it was, I don't know why they did it like they did.) There are also some lovely allusions to the time of the original movie; the authentic arcade sounds when Flynn's gets powered up are a little bolt of amusement for anyone who lived then.

I love the way they updated the light cycles game. The original game seemed a bit limited: a faster engine or greater numbers should always win, and there was no good reason why the engines got faster and slower at times, but tactically the game just didn't seem like it could go anywhere. The new twist preserves what was great in the original game, is visually exciting, and also makes the game itself a lot more compelling. Usually they pay no attention to making the game also work as a game, and focus only on it making good movie footage. (Space Paranoids certainly fits that, from the original movie.) Maybe they thought about how the Tron arcade game made tons more money than the Tron movie, and that's even more important nowadays when that kind of game/movie tie-together is de rigeur (it was fairly odd back in the days of the original movie).

Speaking of which, I know their focus for games will be consoles and PC games, and those already are lining your Best Buy's shelves. (I still don't know if the PS3 game is Move-compatible; I want to throw discs!) But will they make a new coin-op arcade game? They do still make coin-op games, and most of them are tied in with movies, so there was never a more natural extension; yet I haven't heard anything about one. I wonder if it's pie-eyed to imagine a Tron arcade game reviving interest in coin-op arcades just a little bit.

In all this is a movie well worth seeing. I don't think it's going to have quite the impact and longevity of the original, but it's still a great movie, which both inherits the legacy of the original and manages to refresh and reinvigorate it. There are so many interesting ways the next movie (I assume there will be a next movie) can go, and I look forward to seeing which one they take.

Saturday, December 25, 2010


Yes, I really had never seen this movie. I think I'd seen a few minutes here or there, but that's it. As the movie's been around a long time and doesn't really depend on suspense, I won't work too hard to avoid spoilers here.

There's certainly a lot of badass in a concentrated place and tons of action-movie checklist items; but the movie was surprisingly slow, and really dull as a result. I am trying to imagine if maybe all that slowness was more impactful when the movie first came out. Goodness knows Alien is slow-paced, and has as little, maybe less, actually happen; and yet it is still one of my favorite movies of all time. I don't think the slowness in Predator works in the same way, though. And that's because, despite the obvious similarities that beg comparison, from the basic premise to the checklist of plot elements, they're really completely different movies.

The reason for that is the characters. The aliens are not that different, but the human characters could hardly be more unalike. Everyone in Predator is so stoked with Badassery that they can hardly see over their bad asses. It is the defining trait of everything they do, and thus, of the entire movie. It sets the tone of everything, even the times they're being hunted, even their losses. The characters in Alien are not, in the slightest, badasses, and that sets the tone for everything they do, and for the entire movie. (Sure, Ripley ends up a badass in the sequel, but in the original, even the homicidal superhuman android manages, while in the process of attempting to murder one of his shipmates, to come across as slightly effeminate. Think about the tone that sets, compared to what the whole movie would have felt like if Ash had been more like a Terminator, the way everyone in Predator is.)

There's nothing inherently wrong with the idea of a bunch of badasses against an alien predator. That's essentially what Aliens is, and that movie absolutely works. But to pull that off you need to use the right pace, and the right tone. Predator is like the premise of Aliens made using the stage dressing of Alien, and the combination just doesn't work. It just makes the slowness feel slow.

The scenes with ArnieDutch making traps puzzled me. Maybe I wasn't watching closely enough, or the small screen I was watching hid important details; but while I got the general gist of the traps, I didn't really get much of a sense of what most of them actually were, or how they worked. Again, that's fine, I don't have to, but they spent a lot of time showing me their construction, but still managed to do so in such a way that I didn't actually know how most of them were constructed or what they would do.

I'll give the movie credit for introducing some concepts that were relatively fresh at the time. Aliens were rarely "amongst us" then and when they were it was invariably as moles within society, meaning humans were somehow important. The best thing the movie does is demote Earth to a backwater that's regularly visited but for no reason other than going on safari. There were also some nice touches in how the creature needed heat (I was surprised that this didn't prove instrumental to its eventual defeat) and how that was reflected in its vision, both augmented and unaugmented; I suspect if you sat down and thought through the biology, you'd find it holds together better than a lot of aliens do, particularly aliens in movies like this where there's really no need for it to be consistent.

It could have been so much better if it had played a little more than it did with the idea of "good sportsmanship." We saw some of that. Billy squaring off against the alien for a "fair fight," that mad look in his eye clearly driven at least in part by respect for the alien's warrior-animal-spirit. The alien eschewing its shoulder-gun to take on Dutch mano-a-mano, or earlier, refusing to attack the unarmed (although it did regularly hunt people from the villages in previous years). But too often that part was ignored when it mattered. Sometimes the alien turned down easy kills and then at other times it took even easier, less sportsmanlike kills. The end didn't end up trading on the idea of a fight between two great hunters or warriors (apart from that one bare-knuckled-fight bit). It came down to a stupid bit of luck.

And then whatever credit they'd earned, they threw away with that awful, awful laugh. Was there anyone who actually found it menacing or anything but comical? It grated on me that, after so much attention was paid to making the alien alien, they give it a laugh that sounds just like any maniacal scenery-chewing villain. All I could hear in my mind was Wash saying "Mine is an evil laugh!" It felt like the movie stopped for thirty seconds to spoof itself, and then expected us to pretend it hadn't happened once the thirty seconds was over.

Ultimately I groaned a lot at the movie, and cheered very little. I hope that the takeaway is that the movie didn't age well. But I feel like I wouldn't've liked it that much even back when it came out.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Donnie Darko

Beyond the chorus of "you have to see this" and the knowledge that it's supposed to have a mind-blowing twist, I knew nothing about Donnie Darko when I started on it. Not even who was in it, and so I was surprised to see how many people I recognized; I had gotten a vague idea it was a low-budget movie somehow. I also don't remember if I saw the theatrical edition or the director's cut, as it was months between when I loaded it onto my Archos and when I watched it.

All in all, I'd say I enjoyed it, and it held my suspense as I tried to figure it out. By twenty minutes in, I'd gotten a grasp on the tone and style, and after that, it mostly went the way I expected; yet there were some surprises, notably on which of the various plot threads were picked up and which never panned out.

Much of the credit the movie's gotten is in how you really have to think to figure it out, and even if you think you have, you can't be entirely sure. I certainly appreciate that you have to think it through, but what I am not decided about is if there is an answer. The appeal of a mystery loses a lot (not all, but a lot) of its edge when it becomes clear to me that either there isn't an answer, or if there is, the filmmaker deliberately didn't give us enough information to figure it out, no matter how clever or deliberate we think about it. That's just too easy a path to the appearance of profundity. As Nietzsche said, "Mystical explanations are considered deep. The truth is that they are not even superficial."

For an example of what I mean, compare Memento with Primer. The former includes everything you need to figure out what was actually going on, but boy, is it quite a puzzle to actually figure it all out. The latter deliberately excludes a lot of necessary clues, and deliberately obfuscates much of what it does include. I enjoyed both movies, but I respect Memento a lot more, and I consider the "it's such a puzzle!" aspect of Primer to be a red herring; it's not really a virtue at all, it only seems that way at first glance. I'm not sure where Donnie Darko falls on this spectrum. It's certainly nowhere near as bad as Primer, and I feel it quite likely that the filmmaker did have actual answers in mind, but I suspect there's some things that are simply unexplained in the film. That said, I admit I might just not have put it all together. I didn't work as hard on the mystery as I might have, mostly just because I didn't have the free time to do so.

One thing it has in common with Primer is that I don't think the filmmakers really intended the mystery to be the point of the movie. The primary point of the movie was the feel. The mystery isn't nothing, and it's not merely a device for establishing feel, but when the two conflict, the tone wins. So not answering some questions, and not picking up on some apparently storyline elements, is an intentional way of directing the feel of the film even when that interferes with the idea of treating it as a puzzle.

All in all, I appreciated the movie, and of the many movies I watched during my recent travels it was one of the more suspenseful and enjoyable, but it's not one I would hurry to watch again. There's nothing wrong with the movie. It's well produced, well acted, and tightly scripted. It just doesn't grab me. The feel and tone sustain my interest only so far, and the mystery doesn't make me feel compelled to rewatch it to try to solve it.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Blood Simple

The last of the fiasco-genre movies I watched (at least for the sake of familiarizing myself with the genre -- other movies I watched are in the list, maybe, but that's not why I watched them) was Blood Simple. Of the three, A Simple Plan was my favorite, and Blood Simple my least favorite, with Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels falling squarely in the middle.

Mostly, it's because the story in Blood Simple didn't interest me at all. It's not just that I didn't care about the characters, or what happened to them. It's also that I really didn't find there to be much there even to be disinterested in. It felt like there was about 30 minutes of movie, and then an hour of moody camera angles. With everything so slow, and every character so miserable that you didn't care what happened to them, it seemed like the movie tried to overcome the ennui by making sure what happened to them was so, so, so awful that it somehow overcame the unconcern. But even when it got to its worst (those who've seen the movie might guess which scene I'm thinking of -- though I have two in mind) and my reaction was suitably (though mildly) horrified at the idea, I still didn't quite care.

I can't blame the acting or production or even the direction (apart from the incredibly slow pace). It really comes down to that there was nothing about the story to intrigue me at all, and there wasn't anything else.

But since I wasn't watching it for enjoyment but instead to understand the fiasco genre, I think it served that purpose.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Simple Plan

The second movie in the "Fiasco" genre I watched, after Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, was A Simple Plan. Of all the fiasco movies I've watched, this one was my favorite, and the most impactful. I'm going to avoid spoilers, but inevitably in the process of talking about the movie I'm going to reveal some things about the tone that might hint at the plot a little and dampen the impact of parts of the story, so if you haven't seen it and want to avoid spoilers it still might be best to avoid reading this.

The thing about LS&2SB that made me feel largely unengaged was that I didn't care enough about how it was going to turn out to either root for or against anyone, or for or against any particular outcome. I wrote a fair amount about why that is in my previous post, but I think the biggest reason is the one I came up with last. In a conventional "good guys win" movie, you know how it's going to end, roughly; but you don't know how it'll get there, and therefore, you don't know what the effects will be, what the costs and consequences will be on the characters, that come from how they got there. The one thing you do know -- that the good guys win -- is only one of several important things you want to know. The other important things are, what does the victory mean to the characters, how does it affect them? In a fiasco movie, however, the one thing you do know -- that the characters will all end up screwed -- is really the only thing that matters. There's no analogous second question about which there may be suspense. The only thing you don't know is the precise path they take to get to their miserable ends, and which specific miserable end they'll have, but that really doesn't matter that much.

This does affect A Simple Plan somewhat, and this is enough to ensure that if I had never seen it I wouldn't feel like I missed out. However, A Simple Plan still struck me as a much better movie because it engaged me a lot more, and that's for one simple, even simplistic, reason: I could identify with the characters. As they progressed down the path to eventual ruin, I felt like the path was one anyone could have ended up on. I could have, or anyone I know could have, ended up in the same situation easily enough, if the dice had happened to fall the right way, and just a few easily-made mistakes got made.

Contrast that to LS&2SB where the characters, one and all, are in the messes they're in not just because of mistakes they make, but also because of the kind of people they are and the kind of life they've chosen. It's a life that feels alien to me, and perhaps I'm being condescending when I say it, but I feel like they're at least partially to blame for their situation: they put themselves into a world where that kind of thing happens to lots of people.

But the characters in A Simple Plan are fairly ordinary people dealing with fairly ordinary challenges who happen to run into something that is unusual, but could plausibly happen to almost anyone. They make some poor decisions, and they have a few notable cases of bad luck, terrible timing, and the like, but by and large, they find themselves drawn, step by step, into a ruin for which they can only blame themselves. Before long they're looking back saying, how did it come to this? How did I end up doing the things I've done, that I would not have thought myself capable of? That's not something that almost anyone in LS&2SB can get away with saying with a straight face.

For this reason I found the story and the characters far more compelling. I suspect that what's really happened here is, I don't particularly care for the fiasco-genre part of the story, which is why I haven't really enjoyed any of the other fiasco movies I've seen; but I have found something else to like about this movie, a different place to latch onto it. I don't mean to suggest that what I like about the movie is something the creators didn't intend, because I'm sure they absolutely meant me to feel what I felt. The movie is simply operating on several levels. It's a fiasco movie, but it's also using that to do things that not all fiasco movies do, and it's that other stuff that was working for me.

The movie's craftsmanship was also pretty amazingly well done. Most notably the casting was fantastic. Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton were just perfect, and did a great performance. I don't know how flexible Paxton is; I have seen him in a number of roles and never been wowed, but never felt like he did a bad job. (Though some of his delivery in Twister was pretty clumsy.) But there's nothing he does better than the regular schlub with whom you can sympathize. And Thornton is incredible. There wasn't really a lot of noticeable cinematography or other production stuff, but the production did precisely what it should have done, facilitated the story. In hindsight I'm impressed with what they had to go through to get the story to work and to deal with the winter setting, but at the time I didn't notice any of that.

For all that, I wouldn't've missed the movie much if I hadn't seen it. It was a solid movie, and it's impressive how well they strung the story together, but it's not a story I really needed to be told.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Liking movies

I have been watching a lot of movies lately that I feel I should have seen, or that people, on hearing I haven't seen them, react with surprise. Some of these I have liked some, some I have liked not much, and some I haven't liked at all. There hasn't been a single one yet to which my reaction was "that was great" or to wish I'd seen it sooner. But they're all ones that I really ought to be familiar with, as part of being aware of the pop culture in which I live, and for other reasons.

In the process of thinking about them, and why some people I know like them so much more than I did, I put my finger on a thought about the way I appreciate movies and how it differs from how other people do. It's not easy to explain so I'll use an analogy even though the analogy will only get us so far before proving to be flawed. But it'll frame the idea in the right tone.

Some of the music I like tells stories -- think of the works of Harry Chapin, for instance. Some music tells interesting stories, but a lot more music tells a story that, if you took it out of the song and just started telling it, it wouldn't be a very interesting story at all. And lots and lots of music doesn't even try to tell a story. When a song tells a story that's interesting that might be part of why I like it, but even if it tells a dull story or no story at all, I could very well like it. A song which told a really awful story might annoy me enough to not like the song, but that'd be fairly rare; if the song is good, the story won't be enough to make it bad, generally. In the end, I like the music itself, for itself. I like the medium of a song, the form, the way songs are put together.

Drawing an analogy between this and movies doesn't really work because the story is a much more central part of what a movie is than what a song is. Even so, I think the analogy helps me pin down the difference I'm looking to pin down.

If you took a story that I wasn't interested in, and made it into a movie that was really excellently well done, with great production, great acting, great effects, great cinematography, great direction, great costuming, and so on and so on, you'd have a movie that might be a great movie, but which I simply wouldn't like. If you took a story that I found really interesting and made a very bad movie out of it, I might not like it, but I would still probably like it better than the well-done movie about a story I found wholly uninteresting.

However, I think for some of my friends, while they certainly can love or hate the story of a movie, and that will certainly impact how much they like the movie, they have an appreciation for the movie itself -- for the form, the medium, the way it's put together, the experience of simply watching a movie -- that I don't generally have. They can enjoy the movieness of the movie even when the story isn't one that, if it were distilled away from the movie and retold in another form, wouldn't interest them, and I rarely can.

This is certainly not a cut-and-dried thing. I don't mean that they can like the cinematography of a terrible movie in which nothing happens, or like the story doesn't matter. And I don't mean that I will have no appreciation for the craftsmanship of a finely made movie about a dull story. But I think the difference helps me understand why sometimes I feel like I'm being too picky about movies compared to other people, and helps me feel better about the idea that I not only can, but very often do find myself saying (or at least thinking) "it's a great movie, I'm sure, I just don't like it" and knowing something about why. It's similar to how I feel when I talk about music to people who only like music that they can dance to, and don't know how I can appreciate music that doesn't lend itself to dancing (or if not dancing then any of many other possible things they need to take from music to appreciate it).

Quite a few of the movies I've been watching recently will fall into this category. I'm sure they're great movies. And when I say I didn't particularly enjoy watching them, I really, really mean that that doesn't take anything away from the craftsmanship of the movie or my appreciation for the people involved. It just means that the story itself didn't interest me. Hopefully that focus will help clarify the reviews I intend to write soon.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Last-minute flying

The second half of last week we spent on an unplanned trip to Florida for three days, though really it was one day there, and two days in transit. We flew out Wednesday morning, arrived Wednesday evening in Orlando, drove to Ocala, then returned Friday morning and got home Friday evening.

We had pretty good luck with the air travel itself. On three out of four flights, we had at least one empty seat in our vicinity, and boy, does that make all the difference. One of them, when we booked all we could get was middle seats on opposite sides of the plane, but there ended up at least a dozen empty seats around us and we got to have a row together to ourselves. The only flight we got crowded on was the last one (which was also the only one that got delayed); that one was a tiny plane with only three seats per row, one on one side and two on the other. That flight was uncomfortable for a number of reasons, but still not as bad as being two of three people in a three-seat row.

This was also my first flight using the noise-cancelling headphones I'd purchased from Woot. Previously I had used them mostly while exercising and I was dubious about them. With them turned on, they did block a bit more noise than with them turned off, but not as much as you'd imagine. The form-fitting ear cups did most of the work, and the creaking noise that the recumbent bike at work makes was able to cut through that, making it hard to hear the movie on the Archos sometimes. However, their intent isn't really to block short, loud noises, so much as to dull them. What they really do is cancel out low, constant drones, like the one the plane's engines make. And they really worked at that.

I can safely say that after each trip I got to wear them, I felt a lot less exhausted, drained, and cranky than I have after flights in the past. I can't say how much of that is due to the hypothesis that cancelling out that engine drone is a key part of it, and how much is because of having had shorter flights, more comfort, and a psychosomatic sense that it should be better because of the headphones. But I'm certainly planning to keep using them this way.

I didn't actually use them for music (that might actually work better at drowning out airplane noises), but for watching movies; I've been working my way through the list of movies that I really should have seen, or that everyone assumes I would have seen, but that I haven't seen. In fact, upcoming blog posts will be including a number of movie reviews.

I also brought my Kindle but in the end I didn't use it on the whole trip. Even so, it did occur to me that there's exactly one way in which the Kindle is inferior to a printed book: that limitation, which for all I know is entirely arbitrary, against electronic devices being used at the start and end of flights. (I seriously doubt a Kindle with its wireless turned off could possibly be emitting anything at all that could even be detected at 20', let alone interfere with things. But I can certainly understand why the airlines don't find it worth it to set up a program by which electronics manufacturers certify their equipment as plane-safe. I mean, we can't even bring a bottle of Pepsi onto a plane. Are they going to start trusting that that Kindle is really a Kindle, not an IFS-jammer?)

The visit to Florida wasn't for pleasure, it was for a funeral, and we didn't even set out to visit nice restaurants. (By happenstance we did get to have one unusual and good meal, though.) For all that, it was kind of nice to have a couple of days of sunshine and even some warm weather as a little break from the relentless grey that is December in Vermont. But it was really nice to be back home too.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

You can dislike a change without disliking change

In a fairly minor coincidence I've run into the same fallacy twice this week, so it's been on my mind. The fallacy goes like this: If I warn you I'm going to do something different, I should then be immune from criticism about the specific different thing I do.

The first example is an event going on in Lusternia. Just like how on a TV show, something big happens once a year because the season ends (Babylon 5 made this really obvious since seasons corresponded to calendar years, so for several years in a row, huge events happened on New Year's Eve or thereabouts), in Lusternia, once every 29 game years (that is, every real-world December) the world goes to hell in a handbasket, resulting in imminent doom, the apparent release of the Soulless Gods, the weakening of the Great Seals, and ultimately, a big contest in January and February for ascension to a state of godhood. Everyone knows it's going to happen, and like any event, it will inevitably feature a lot of crap being piled on everyone, a lot of nigh-unkillable critters invading everywhere, a quest that involves gathering eleventy-frillion of something, a lot of reasons for the nations to backstab one another plus one or two reasons for them to work together, and a lot of absence of the Elder Gods (partially so we can't appeal to them to save creation, since it's in their best interests to do so but it wouldn't be a fun event, partially because they're busy behind the scenes running the event, and partially so they can have a little time off for the holidays). So far so good.

But there are a few bad things that sometimes come into these events, things that must seem like a good idea briefly but which some of the admins haven't realized are actually terrible. The unkillable, rampaging denizen one is de rigeur despite the fact that it totally demoralizes and drives away loads of new players; every event, they do that, then after there's enough complaints they change something so it only attacks higher-level players, but by then the damage is done, and then the following event they forget all over again. We're used to that. But this year they've pulled out two chestnuts of awfulness. First, there's the pointless makework grind: something you have to do every ten minutes, which is frustrating, unfun, tedious, carries absolutely no reward (not even gold or experience; in fact, it costs supplies), and which absolutely must be done. In this case, it's constant forest fires, which is about as interesting and creative as replacing your favorite TV show with non-stop commercials. Second, there's the kind of plague that forces characters to try to avoid one another. Way to make a social, multiplayer game more fun: force us all to avoid our friends.

All that might be okay if it were part of something bigger and laced with interesting things, but right now, it's just basically being jerked around. All the danger, the obligation, and threats could be fun if they were part of something fun, but as it is, they replace everything we might want to do in Lusternia with two things: tedious time-wasting chores, and avoiding people. I've been waffling about being critical about it on the forums; sometimes I have, and other times I've thought I shouldn't, but not because I don't think criticism is unwarranted, just because I don't think it'll be fruitful. But criticisms, from me and others, have been plentiful, and have elicited the same old reaction: "You shouldn't complain about having something new; these folks worked hard to make this, and we should appreciate that."

Well, I do appreciate the work, but that doesn't change the outcome. If you spent a thousand hours making a sculpture and it was ugly, the hours wouldn't make it not ugly. Maybe you can say "I don't want to hear if it's ugly," but then, maybe you shouldn't put it in a public place if you don't want a public reaction. Unfortunately, if you try to disclaim a criticism by also acknowledging appreciation for the work being done on your behalf, the disclaimer not only doesn't have the intended meaning, it seems to make things worse because it sounds patronizing, no matter how intended.

But the bigger fallacy is the argument that, because it's "something different" that means it should be appreciated regardless of what it is. There's also an overtone that because we knew it was coming, we shouldn't complain. (This all gets mixed together, along with old standbys like "if you don't like it, log off," the fallacy of which hardly needs pointing out.) It comes down to suggesting that if you don't like this particular new thing, you must not like new things, or newness itself. When you put it like that, the fallacy is obvious, which is why I've put it like that; yet the argument seems to compel a lot of people. I would certainly welcome an event that was a good adventure and a good story (and doing both at the same time takes a lot of balancing), but this is neither. (Most events in Lusternia are one or the other at best, but rarely both. Some of that is due to the limitations of the multiplayer form, but most of them are just that the kind of things that the people who run events seem to like are rarely good stuff. So many of them feel like the railroaded D&D modules of 1989.) In the end, you put something in front of a lot of people, you have no recourse if they level criticisms except to demonstrate how the criticisms are unwarranted, or to take them. To be sure, the critics should also be fair with their criticisms and appreciative of the attempt, and often are neither, but that doesn't change it.

A similar situation has come up with the now-annual New Year's Eve trivia game. Last year, the person who runs them came up with a "twist" that sounds great on paper, and which turned out to be tactically interesting, but which really didn't work. It was predicated on breaking up people's teams and forcing them to turn on one another (a little) and be separated from one another. This caused a lot of negative emotions at the time, and really undercut the fun. Ultimately, people don't go to trivia games to have a tactically interesting game, and then just happen to have friends around; they go to trivia games to have fun with friends, and just happen to have it facilitated by a trivia game. The game runner forgot that and got the priorities reversed, and it bounced back. She took a risk and it didn't pan out.

The resulting criticisms, so far as I know, were good-natured and joking in tone, though still critical. This year, the announcements of this year's game are very defensive and fly the same fallacy. While it contains reassurances that teams won't be split up, it goes on at some length about how there will be some unexpected, unannounced twists, and it's our problem to deal with them, be prepared for them, and not complain about them. It equates us being resistant to the particular "smackdown" game of last year, with being resistant to any game that isn't "the same old thing." And that's horribly unfair. I don't think anyone really objected to there being a change (though some people may have worded it that way); they were objecting to that particular change which happens to have been poorly conceived.

I hardly want to argue with her about it because she's obviously a little too stung by last year's incident, and because this is all in good fun anyway. But it is a pernicious fallacy, and while we can laugh it off when it's referring to idle pursuits like the ones I used as examples in this post, it's the same fallacy when it applies to vitally important things, like the politics of an entire nation, like environmentalism, like futurism, like values, like social change. It's a very common tactic to brand anyone who favors a particular change as being in favor of change for its own sake, or anyone who opposes a particular change as being inflexible. But it's just like an ad hominem attack: it's not that it's a change that matters but what the change itself is. Every change is subject to its own evaluation and criticism.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Our local WalMart

There's a tiny little Walmart near me that, unlike most Walmarts, isn't in its own building but is in a space that another store left vacant in the end of a mall. It's the smallest Walmart on the east coast, as they are ever so eager to tell you any time they don't have what you want in stock. About an hour away there's a more conventional big-box Walmart -- huge by Vermont standards, but by Walmart standards fairly middling -- it's not a Supercenter, doesn't have a grocery side, and certainly no Sam's Club.
In the comparatively rare case when I end up at the bigger Walmart, it's usually during the day on a weekend, since that's when I do the kind of shopping that brings me up there. The local Walmart, I might be at on a weekend or a weeknight, in day or night.

If you look at the clientele of the big Walmart up in Burlington the typical visitor immediately inspires a particular stereotype: the soccer mom. That Walmart is mostly visited by suburban, comparatively upscale people, usually well-dressed (casual but still presentable), no-nonsense, busy folk. Whereas, the Walmart down near me tends to attract a much more blue-collar crowd, bordering on what one might call "trailer trash" -- I don't mean that in a disparaging sense, but just as one subtype of the blue-collar crowd that happens to frequent this Walmart.

I thought at first that the time of day might be responsible for at least part of the disparity, but being at our Walmart on weekdays during the day shows no real shift at all in the clientele. So now I wonder why the difference is so pronounced. I would not be surprised to see some difference just because of the difference in the population of Williston and its surrounding areas, and the population of Montpelier and Barre and their surrounding areas; but I am surprised at how stark and broad the difference is. I also don't typically see a gap anywhere near as large at other stores and restaurants; the difference in most places is about what you'd expect given the differing populations. Why is it that Walmart has so much broader and more sharply defined a difference?

Friday, December 17, 2010

Rock Band drums tweaks

While so many things have improved in Rock Band 3, there's a few simple things that could make the drums so much better. Maybe they can work on these for Rock Band 4; goodness knows they're going to be hard pressed to think of anything to add after the tour-de-force that RB3 turned out to be.

Tempo Changes: The only indication when a song's tempo is about to change is the spacing of the notes and the pale white lines changing. That's enough for playing guitar or keyboard, but not for drumming. If you're familiar with the song you might not need to be warned, but if you're not, it's really important. It'd be a great improvement if any tempo change came with some kind of visual warning, like a blinking red bar, for the drummer.

Fill Sounds: On RB3-native songs I've noticed that the sounds the drums make during fills aren't always the same sounds; some songs have a more electric-drum-set sound, for instance. That's a step in the right direction compared to previous versions of Rock Band, but it's not enough. The fill drums still often don't sound like they fit the song. How hard would it be to use samples from the actual song?

Cymbal Riffs: Drummers probably have a term for this but I don't know what it is. You know how sometimes when a song ends, there's a sort of soft sussuration on one or more of the cymbals that just trails off, somewhat arhythmically? When these show up in Rock Band songs I hate them, because they get reflected as a string of notes that are not in any rhythm that bears any resemblance to the song itself, and it's nearly impossible to hit them. You have to play the screen, not the song, and it's so arbitrary and hard to hit. It bears no resemblance to what a drummer would be doing at that time. Get rid of them: replace them with something like a fill or Big Rock Ending just for the drummer, when only cymbals can be played. Or just omit them if that's too hard.

Omitted Notes: When you're playing on Easy or Medium difficulty, a lot of the actual notes in the song get omitted. Sometimes, though, it'd be easier to be able to play them because they're so compelling (for instance, on those long tom-tom runs in "Sister Christian" where towards the end there's that extra note in the middle, twice). Other times, if you're feeling adventurous, you think you can fit the extra notes in. It would be nice to have an option where, if you played extra notes that precisely matched what would be present in a harder mode, even though they weren't displayed, you at least didn't get penalized, or maybe even got some extra points.

Fill Scores: I'm not sure how possible this is from a coding standpoint, but I would sure love it if the system somehow identified a good fill from a bad one. I really try to make my fills fit the song (and if it's a song I know, I often try to play the fill that the original recording includes -- when you nail that, that feels good). But if you just want points, the best thing would be to always play red-yellow-pause-crash and pay no attention to the song or its rhythm. Wouldn't it be nice if the game at least made some token effort to identify if the notes you're playing are at least in time with the song's tempo? Sure, making the computer measure the artistic quality of your fill is impossible, but it could at least reward you for keeping the song's tempo, and maybe a little more for playing several pads instead of just one or two.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Train of thought

At any given moment when I'm not doing anything particular that occupies my mind, if you ask me what I'm thinking, and I can stop the process long enough to give a frank answer (and it happens to be something I'm willing to say aloud), the thought of that instant in time will be almost random. Sure, it's more likely to have something to do with something that's going on in my life, or has been, than not, but the connection can be pretty tenuous. Because if you also asked me how I came to be thinking about that, and again if I stopped to give a totally honest answer (which I probably wouldn't), it would almost always turn out that I can trace back through a series of other subjects that have only a minimal connection, and there'll be dozens of them in a minute of free-form thought.

I'd love to give an example, but odds are within any typical minute there'll be something either too personal to mention, or too embarassingly banal to admit to, in the mix. Besides which, the act of trying to capture the list for a minute would probably take ten minutes and disturb the thing I was trying to capture. I don't really decide to go off on a series of detours; it's a perfectly normal thing that happens every day. I only notice when I find myself wondering how I got to something, or trying to remember what I was thinking about a moment ago that I didn't finish and having to "pop the stack" to get back to it.

If this is a 'train of thought' then the analogy I suppose means to suggest that each thought is connected to the next like the cars in a train. (Surely the analogy can't refer to the course the train takes on its linear tracks!) But for me, it'd be more like having the locomotive followed by an airplane, which is followed by a crow, which is followed by a Native American, which is followed by Kevin Costner, which is followed by Kevin Bacon, which is followed by an electric guitar, which is followed by a PS3, and if you keep going, by the end of the minute maybe if I'm lucky the train will end up with caboose because I happened to work my way back to it through Java programming and model railroading.

I'm sure everyone's mind goes through these kinds of twists. But when I've talked to people about it, I often get the sense that they don't do it as much or as often, though people don't like to imagine anyone else's mind is twistier or weirder than theirs and so tend to engage in one-up-manship. (As if it's a badge of pride to have a more meandering thought process!) Unfortunately this tends to cut short any speculation on why my mind does this so much.

I must note that once I'm thinking about something, my mind doesn't tend to wander; this only happens at times like when I'm in the passenger seat in the car, for instance. When I'm doing almost anything, my mind tends to stay fairly firmly on whatever I'm doing, with few wanderings. Once it doesn't have anything to keep it busy, though, it's off darting in any direction, wildly. It's as if it just has to keep moving all the time and if it has no path ahead of it it just does a crazy-man walk to keep moving. But does that mean people who don't do this have a mind that finds a path all the time, or one that is content to stop moving when it has nowhere particular to go?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Five years of the Prius

Later this month I'll be making the final payment on the five-year loan to buy our Prius, and on January 2nd we'll have had it for five years. We figure we have a few more years in it before it's worth it to trade it in, too.

We're definitely getting to the part of the car's life where keeping it going costs more than it used to. We just put almost $800 into it earlier this week, due to the big 90K-miles maintenance, brake work (the first major brake work the car has had), and a hodgepodge of other things. While that kind of bill hurts, I must also note that other cars, by this point, have typically had bills twice that high for things like transmission rebuilds (something the Prius never needs), and will have had brake work on this scale at least once before. Then again, there's a battery replacement that's going to happen someday that'll be about the same amount as that transmission rebuild. But overall, keeping a Prius going past 100,000 miles is at least as doable, and somewhat less expensive, than doing it for most cars.

It'd be a more marked difference in flat, warm places. Hills put a lot more strain on a car, particularly on brakes and their regenerative braking system. But winter's the real car killer. Salt, slipping, the effect cold has on batteries, caked-on dirt in snow and ice, and salt. (Salt's so bad you have to list it twice.) Getting cars past 100,000 is not that easy in Vermont.

Sure, I'd love to get the next-gen Prius with better Bluetooth, a nicer interior design, and better mileage, the best thing to do is try to make this one last until the generation to follow. Rumors are within a couple of years we'll see a Prius with a new battery system that doubles the mileage, so maybe this will end up timed nicely.

The $800 still stings, though. (Especially since it took them two days to do it. We arranged it long in advance and got in first thing to make sure they could finish it in a day, and told them ahead how many things needed doing and that we needed to get it that day, but they still only got it into the shop at 1:30pm and weren't done by the end of the day, so we had to go through the shuttle-bus shuffle twice. Very annoying. I never seem to come out of this dealership without feeling either robbed or misused or both. At least they have WiFi in the waiting lounge.)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The universal particle of Christmas music

The eleven notes of the chorus of "Jingle Bells" are like a universal particle of Christmasiness in music. If their Christmas song isn't Christmasy enough, it's always those eleven notes that they turn to. Just tack them on, usually right at the end of the song, and bang, instant Christmasiness. Of all the Christmas standards it is by far the one most likely to be quoted this way, probably outnumbering all the others put together by several to one.

While I wonder why that particular set of eleven notes is singled out amongst all Christmas music, I can't help but observe that "Jingle Bells" isn't even really a Christmas song. Like so many other standards of the season, it's entirely about winter itself, and is precisely as appropriate in February as in December. My absolute favorite Christmas song, "Let It Snow," is another one of these, along with so many others -- "Baby It's Cold Outside," "Frosty the Snowman," and on and on.

Sure, that's a technicality. Those are all songs we play around Christmastime and of which we are usually tired by Boxing Day so we stop playing them the rest of the winter. For all practical purposes they are Christmas songs. Okay, I get that. But I'm not saying "Jingle Bells" shouldn't be played at Christmastime; I'm saying, why is it elevated over all the songs that are actually about Christmas as the single source of the most concentrated essence of Christmasiness, the one everyone always uses to make a song more seasonal, whether the song is actually about Christmas or just winter?

Monday, December 13, 2010

Game room revival

With the dog and cats living together (mass hysteria!) I've finally been able to unwrap, clean up, and reclaim the game room, which I spent most of Sunday doing. Results were mixed.

The room itself is now clean and presentable and welcoming again. I love the look of the various posters and decorations on the walls. The music system I cobbled together works pretty well in the space. The only real problem with the room itself is that I still have an unassembled "cubbie cabinet" there, because it's too darned heavy to move and I don't know where I'd move it even if I did. They were at a fantastic price at Big Lots so we got two; one is Siobhan's knit stash, and the other's just waiting for us to need it. I think I'll try to move it into the closet. It'll be a pain since it's so heavy I can only move one or two pieces at a time, plus I'll have to clean out the closet to make room.

As for the games, results are mixed. The electronic dart board works fine. The laser tag guns hanging on the wall look great. And to my surprise, the air hockey table seems to have recovered from the abuse the cats gave it with little additional damage.

The jury is still out about the Asteroids Deluxe game, though. When I first took it out of its sheathing tarp and fired it up, the screen looked wasted: only the left half showed, and the right half was all squeezed into one line down the middle. This is the kind of failure that kills a machine like this: replacing monitors in a vector graphics coin-op is crazy hard since they don't make that kind of monitor anymore and it has to fit precisely. After a couple of hours, it snapped back to a normal display. Maybe there was just some moisture trapped inside the tarp and the system needed to warm up and dry off, and now that that's happened, it'll be fine. This seems a bit dewy-eyed but it's possible. The screen stayed good after turning it off and on, so it might be.

The bad news, though, is that the MAME system is down. The damage to the cabinet was readily repaired with a glue gun, but for some reason, the system itself won't boot up. Actually, I don't know if the system won't boot up. This is an Asus EeeBox Nettop PC, very compact, energy-efficient, and ideal for this kind of embedded system, but there's one problem. The only video output is an HDMI port, and HDMI is prone to subtle handshaking problems. There's no onboard audio, either. So when you have no video... there's no way to tell if there's a problem with the video, or a problem with the system. There's no POST beeps to listen for (even if I plug speakers into the audio output), so all I have is... a blank screen. Not really anything to try from that.

I know that it's not the monitor, because I have the same result in the living room on the TV there (which is working fine). I also noted there that something is going on in the HDMI: when nothing is plugged into the HDMI or the computer has no power, the screen is the blue screen that the receiver shows when it's getting no input at all. But when the HDMI is plugged in and the computer turned on, I get a blank, black screen. That goes back to blue when either is disconnected. So the computer is doing something on the HDMI port, but no idea what.

I've tried different power outlets, different cables, even different keyboards. I've tried hitting the keys that switch video around, that go into BIOS setup, and then just tried hitting all kinds of keys. I've tried leaving power off for a while, and repeated power-ons. I've searched high and low for a "reset" pin (there isn't one). I've tried booting with nothing in USB or many things. I've tried power on and off in different combinations and sequences. But nothing changes anything.

The thing is, I can't tell if it's not booting at all -- is it just getting stuck before BIOS even starts to start? -- or if it is, but I'm not seeing anything. So it's a total dead end so far. I'm going to sleep on it to see if I can think of something else to try; I've also posted a tech support inquiry to Asus, but I am not too hopeful there. I'll throw my question at a few other people. And hopefully anyone who's reading this will try to think of other things for me to try.

Unfortunately this means most of what I planned to do -- load updates to Windows and MAME, and start getting all the games installed and configured -- I didn't even get to start. Seems unlikely that, even if I'm able to get this problem remedied, I'll be able to get more than a few games up and running in time for the Christmas guests. But at least the rest of the room should be ready.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Why combat is different

There are two things about Lusternia that make it head and shoulders above any other MMORPG I know of.

First, there's a much larger variety of things to do. It's hard to describe this without seeming like I'm exaggerating, particularly to those unfamiliar with Lusternia but used to other MUDs and MMORPGs that they think of as having a lot of options. But there's easily four or five times as many ways to spend your time as anything else I've seen, and I'm not just talking about different kinds of grindy quests or bashing or crafting, I mean things that are entirely different activities. Lusternia's not just an all-you-can-eat buffet, it's got four times as many dishes available as any other restaurant in town, and it's not just lots of variations of the same rice and noodles and casseroles and deep-fried things; it's got stuff you've never even heard of, and stuff you'd never expect on a buffet, and a lot of it is done very well, too.

Second, there are a handful of dishes on the buffet that are done very, very well, as well as or better than anyone else does them. Certainly not everything on the buffet is like that, but enough things that plenty of people come to the buffet just for one of those few dishes. The most notable of these are combat (Lusternia's combat system is easily twice as rich as the next best I've seen), lore (the history and background packs in a ton of richness and variety, with the same "cram a lot of things in there" sense as some published RPG worlds, and stealing influences and ideas from real world sources with impeccable selection; yet it also manages to weave these together into a largely cohesive whole, and avoids the logical problems of them contradicting one another, or failing to have common explanations), crafting (the breadth and opportunity for creative expression, along with the opportunity for industry, is exceptional), and writing (an extensive culture system including library and theater systems, music as part of combat, creativity contests that are part of the big events of the game, and more).

But the one thing I find people not understanding, time and again, is that combat is unique in a way that undercuts the value of everything else, and it doesn't have to be, except that apparently it does. The thing about combat is that, everything else you do only because you choose to do it; but combat, one person can always force another into doing it, and nearly as much as they like. Lusternia does have some precautions (notably Avechna the Avenger) that limit how much you can be forced into combat in some parts of the game. But there are so many ways around that, and so much of the important stuff is in other parts that are not protected, that Avechna provides only minimal relief. Essentially, the only way to avoid combat being mandatory is by limiting your choices of character to those who do not actually care about their organization, or its lore or motivations, or about their standing in it, or about how people feel about them, or about all the group activities that depend on one of those -- which limits you to a tiny, tiny part of the buffet.

I have no objection whatever to the people for whom combat is the major draw to Lusternia, even those few-but-loud folks who really do nothing but combat, and only engage in other things to the minimal extent necessary to support their combat interest. That's fine with me. More power to them. And I don't even resent that they draw me into combat some of the time; combat is one of my interests, just not as much as many people (and currently hampered by my problems with finding a suitable client and curing system). But it only takes a few people who love nothing but combat to force a large number of other people to get little or no chance to do anything else but combat; and then that breathtakingly broad buffet is limited to a few dishes, and most of it goes to waste. Partially because of the time required to do combat, and to be prepared for combat; partially because of the intermittent, interruptive nature of combat, preventing anything that requires scheduling or a period of time too long to not expect a raid during it; and partially because people are just too worn out by the wearying demands of frequent combat, and lack the energy to really throw themselves into other things, even during the down times.

So what's the solution? The annoying thing is there's a perfect solution, or so it seems to me, just sitting there unused almost all the time. The combat-monsters could be having as much combat as they want against one another, either in the arena (where there's no loss for dying, and you don't even use up most supplies), or in any of many places where combat has no particular significance that forces other people to participate (Faethorn used to be a great one for that -- anyone who wanted a fight could go there and there was just enough pretext for someone else who wanted a fight to be justified in going to meet them, but not so much that anyone else had to feel obligated to go, or like they'd be sacrificing their commitment to ideals or standing within their organization if they didn't go).

But there's something about the psychology of most combat-monsters that makes this entirely unsatisfying, and it baffles me. They are not happy having combat for six straight hours unless it's with people who don't want to be doing it. And I don't know why.

There are lots of pat answers that don't really hold up. The most common one is that combat-monsters, the people who only visit that one dish on the buffet, tend to be a lot better at it than those who spread out their energy on many dishes. (This is only a general rule; some people with many interests are as good at combat as many who do nothing but, but in the overall population, those who do combat 99% of the time tend to be better at it on average than those who do it only 50% of the time.) But combat-monsters aren't always looking only for a win. Many of them do, certainly, but it takes more than that to explain how they refuse to settle for arena-fights, or fights in places others aren't obligated to join in, that they can usually win. And their compulsory-combat exercises certainly don't stop when they are likely to lose, either. (There's a whole subclass of them who seem to especially love starting fights they can't win, and then escaping unhurt, in fact. Which I suppose is another kind of "winning" for them.)

Lusternia sometimes makes changes that help drain off the energy of those combat-monsters in some way that gives everyone else a chance to visit the rest of the buffet. The most successful technique has proven to be having periodic conflicts that can't be done constantly, like the old nexus world conflict system, order wars, and about half of the village influences. However, the trend has been away from these things; almost all of them have been either removed or altered to allow for a constant conflict in between the punctuated one (the current village feelings system is a great example of a good idea that turned out bad because of un-punctuating one of the few remaining periodic conflicts). The other thing that has been known to work is to make it so raids require some setup that can only be done every so often, and without that, the raids are either impossible or highly disadvantaged; however, Lusternia has almost entirely eschewed or discarded solutions like that. In fact, it's almost eliminated anything to drain off the combatlust of combat-monsters other than the whining-mosquito-buzz of constant, petty, meaningless raids which do nothing other than force people to do combat instead of everything else.

But this all is necessary only because the combat-monsters refuse to settle for combat that doesn't involve the unwilling. If we could only figure out a way around that twisted bit of human psychology, then all the rest would vanish in a puff of superfluity. Unfortunately, the people who have that need, and they are many, also seem to be blinded to the fact that they have it. Some of their rationalizations for why their behavior is not just justified but ideal can be painful to watch. If only they would fight each other 75% of the time, everything would just fall into place. I wish I could see some way to push them in that direction.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Name That Movie!

Last night we went to the second of the weekly "Name That Movie!" games that Jen, late of Question Derby and other trivia games, is hosting. It's a one-hour weekly game in the downstairs area under the Savoy, which is half movie theater and half bar/lounge, and looks very nice and cozy.

The game is twenty clips from movies, or the trailers for movies, and your job is to identify the movies. They're presented in alphabetical order, so you get some extra help in knowing about what letter the movie might start with from its place in the list. In this particular week, there wasn't a single genre movie; the nearest we got is Earthquake. But apart from that, there was a pretty broad variety. Here's what got played; I've also noted the most notable actor or other thing we saw in the clip.
  1. About A Boy: Hugh Grant
  2. Arthur: Liza Minelli (the clip we got didn't show Dudley Moore)
  3. Bye Bye Birdie: Anne Margaret
  4. The Cider House Rules: Michael Caine
  5. D.C. Cab: Mr. T
  6. Earthquake: The L.A. skyline
  7. The English Patient: Juliet Binochet
  8. Extract: Jason Bateman
  9. Funny Girl: Barbra Streisand
  10. He Got Game: Denzel Washington
  11. The Hurt Locker: Iraq
  12. The Italian Job: A bunch of Mini Coopers
  13. Legal Eagles: Robert Redford
  14. Love Story: Ryan O'Neal
  15. Night On Earth: Armin Mueller Stahl
  16. No Country For Old Men: Javier Bardem
  17. The Out Of Towners: Jack Lemmon
  18. Ruthless People: Danny DeVito
  19. Sabrina: Humphrey Bogart
  20. Take The Money And Run: Woody Allen
Our team was just me and Siobhan. We won with a score of 16 out of 20; the next highest was 12. I suspect that if we had Siobhan and Joe there at the same time, we'd probably get 19 or 20. Just to see how well I'd do, knowing Siobhan would be much better, I counted my own answers; had we been separate, I would have gotten 11, with which I'm quite happy. (And Siobhan would have gotten 15. She didn't know The Italian Job. I'd never seen the original, which is what we saw, but I half-saw the remake, and the chase scene with the Mini Coopers was so striking in that one (and kind of out of place) that when I saw a chase scene in an old heist movie featuring a line of Mini Coopers, I figured it had to be that, and it falling in the right place in alphabetical order clinched it.)

The ones we didn't get were D.C. Cab (Mr. T as a cab driver, discovering that the couple that he'd picked up were engaging in activities that might be appropriate to her employment as a prostitute, but not particularly appropriate to happening in the back of his cab); Extract (apparently a groin-impact-humor-based movie about someone in a beer factory suing due to the injury to his ummentionables, with Gene Vincent as his lawyer); Night On Earth (another scene in a cab, with Armin Mueller Stahl as the cabbie who apparently didn't knowing how to drive one); and Sabrina (Bogart saving a very young Audrey Hepburn from carbon monoxide poisoning).

The game was somewhat hampered by technical difficulties that I'm sure Jen will have ironed out soon, this being only the second time. She started about a half hour late while she struggled with the video system. Twice, she forgot to cut off the video before popping out of the clip, letting us see the titles; thus, everyone got He Got Game and Love Story as freebies (and last week she gave away two the same way). Some of the clips were a little jerky (she was streaming over the Net, mostly from YouTube) and often had bad aspect ratios or poor quality. A few times, the sound really could have used a boost; I couldn't make out anything they were saying in The English Patient, most notably. I feel sure these problems will be resolved in future weeks.

There wasn't a huge crowd there but there were about seven or eight teams, some of them only one or two people. The game was fun, but it would definitely be more fun if we had a few more people there on our team, since it's a social thing as much as a game. The venue also suits it being social, with nice little nooks for people to gather in. One group brought a young child, though Jen did warn us that she did play adult clips sometimes (the clip from Ruthless People certainly included dialogue about adult matters).

The special for the night was a dollar off Switchback, but as I don't know what Switchback is, I assume it's something alcoholic and not my problem. They offered free popcorn (well, included with the $2.50 entry fee) and we also bought some premium sodas ($2.50 each).

The prize was a 20% off coupon for dinner at the Black Door, plus two free admissions to the Savoy, but the catch was they had to be used this weekend. And the Black Door is too full to just stop in; you need a reservation, so how can you use a coupon like this, if you don't know you're going to win far enough in advance to make a reservation? We ended up giving both coupons to someone else.

I'm of two minds about whether it was worth it. It happens to happen on Fridays, which doesn't work as well for me as if it were any other day of the week, since I work from home that day. Any other day, we could head straight from my office and save some road time, but on Friday, I have to put on shoes I otherwise don't need to wear, and Siobhan needs to leave early to come home and get me and come back to town. Even so, it might well be worth it. It was fun, but it would be a lot more fun if we had a few more people there. With just us, it's right on the edge; it could be worth it if I feel like going out and not worth it if I don't. If a few of our friends were also going, then it'd be definitely worth it.