Thursday, December 17, 2009

Games Requiring Strategy Guides? Boooooo!

First off, while this isn't a game review, I want to make it clear that I am not saying you shouldn't buy these games. Quite the contrary, both of the games discussed in this blog post are fantastic games and well worth playing (especially The World Ends With You (Nintendo DS), which can be purchased on Amazon for less than $15 at time of writing). I've very much enjoyed playing them, and continue to do so (in fact, I'm going to play the second one after I finish this post).

Now, that said, let's talk about why these games suck. TWEWY (ha, that's a pretty entertaining acronym, actually) is an off-beat role-playing game that has some very good stylus-based combat and requires some interesting multitasking to really play well. Weapons/spells in the game are equipped using a system of "pins" that give your character various abilities. The cool part is that pins gain experience, can level up, and in many cases even evolve into cooler, more powerful pins.

But here's where the suckage begins. You see, each pin has a maximum level, and once you reach it, the pin might evolve into a new one. The word "might" there is the key. The game is kind enough to tell you whether or not a pin can evolve, but that's all it tells you. So, what's so hard about evolving a pin? Let's see. When I first started leveling up my pins, I noticed that some successfully evolved while others hit the max level and did nothing. I saw a multicolored meter showing pin point growth, but had no idea what it meant. Finally, I gave up and read it on GameFAQs. Here's what I found:

There are 3 types of "pin points" that you can earn: battle, shut down, and mingle. Battle pin points (BPP) are, as you guessed, from battles. Shut down (SDPP) are earned on any pins you have currently equipped while the game is off. Mingle points (MPP) are earned by mingling with other DS users or various random mingle encounters. Each pin has a particular type of points that must make up 50% or more of the experience for the pin in order for it to evolve - otherwise it just hits max level and does nothing. Note that there is no way in the game to know what type of points a pin needs.

On top of that, apparently SDPP and MPP are worth 9x the amount of pin point credit (but not 9 times the pin points, just the credit for 50% or more) compared to BPP. So if I earn 100 MPP and 300 BPP, my little bar will actually be 75% credited to MPP (100 * 9 / 100 * 9 + 300).

This is where I got pissed off. There is no reasonable way to know any of this without tons of trial and error, and even then there's quite a lot of it I never would have figured out. I don't need to know what type of pin it evolves into - finding that out is fun and exciting. But to have no clue how to evolve it, which is a necessary part of the game, is beyond frustrating.

The game is intentionally being opaque and ambiguous, and I can only guess, based on the fact that the rest of the game is well-designed, that this is an intentional move to try to sell strategy guides. But at least with pins you can earn points relatively quickly. It's not like some rare skill point that you only earn once per level up and have to carefully plan to spend in a very difficult RPG...

...which of course was a fairly forced segue into our other offender, Etrian Odyssey II (also for the DS). This is a challenging old-school RPG that forgoes any real story, existing purely to give players the opportunity to crawl through a dungeon, kill things, get loot, and level up. It's quite fun, and is also impossible to play competently without a guide.

You see, each level a character gains yields a lone, valuable skill point to be spent at your discretion. You can level up your hit points, your strength, or add and level up new skills. The tricky part is that you have no idea what exactly a level up does (and aren't told later either). Some level-ups (like hit points, which the first level gives you a 2% bonus to your 40 hit points) are entirely useless, while others suck unless you dump multiple skill points into them (something you're unlikely to do if you spend only one and find it to be worthless). For a number-crunching, storyless, battle-focused, nearly NPC-less RPG this is a high crime, and makes the game nigh unplayable without having GameFAQs open up next to it.

I don't understand this trend. Is it really just an effort to sell guides? Is it lazy design? I see it in Flash games too - people have leveling up of skills, weapons, towers, soldiers, whatever, but often don't give you the stats associated with them, making it impossible to make a careful decision regarding what to do with your valuable resources. So consider this a plea to game developers: make your stats transparent, allow the gamers to know what's going on, and let us strategize to fully enjoy the game. Or just keeping being opaque if you must - just rest-assured all you're doing is driving traffic to GameFAQs and not selling copies of your guides.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Nit quicks - console A/V cables and insulting promotions

Finishing up work today so I can't spend long on a post, but I came across two things that annoyed me today and felt like venting for a second.

First, does anyone remember when game consoles used to just have Red/White/Yellow A/V cables on the back of them? It was easy to plug in and you could use those cables for anything. Starting last generation (PS2/Gamecube/Xbox) everyone started having custom dongles for their systems. This was not only a cheap way to make an extra buck, but also meant that when I went to try to find A/V cables to today, everything I found had some proprietary piece of crap connector on the other end. Argh. (Granted, the 360 and PS3 do offer native HDMI support, at least in the later models, so that's a big win, but didn't exactly help me today).

Other quick rant: I got an email from e*trade telling me I could get $500 for opening up a new account with them. Ok, that's a little more than than the usual "$25 for opening an account" promotion, so I bit and read the details. Here's the fine print:

"To receive the cash credit, you must open a new Power E*TRADE account by January 15, 2010, and deposit funds or securities from an external bank or brokerage account within 45 days. Deposits of new funds or securities from existing E*TRADE Bank and E*TRADE Securities accounts are not eligible for this offer. Credits for deposits of cash or securities will be made as follows: Accounts depositing $250,000 or more receive $500; accounts depositing between $100,000 and $249,999 receive $250; accounts depositing between $25,000 and $99,999 receive $100; accounts depositing between $1,000 and $24,999 receive $1."

Wait, what? You want $250,000 to get the $500 bonus? And if I have less than $25,000 you're giving me...a freakin' dollar? A dollar. Really. I can find that in my couch if I need a dollar. That's supposed to convince me to convert to your service? And if I did have $250,000 to shuffle around, you think $500 (that's a whole 0.2% of what I'm putting into the account) is going to sway me away from my well-researched, high quality wealth management firm?

So uh, yeah - thanks, but no thanks. I'll stick with my bank that isn't insulting me with absurd offers. Oh, wait - my "interest bearing" checking account with my current bank is giving me about 0.1% annually. *sigh*

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

"Unlock Xbox" Flops

Wow, it's been a month since my last post. Sorry everyone! Between being sick and traveling to San Fran, Nashville, and Louisville, it's been a busy month. Anyway, I just came across something I needed to rant about, so here I am.

So, who's heard of Doritos' Unlock Xbox contest? It is a game-design competition where people submitted game designs with the goal of having Doritos sponsor the two best ones to create an Xbox Arcade game. They just started showing off the 8 "finalists".

My only reaction is "Why the hell did I not enter this competition?" I've looked at the first four, and it's just gut-wrenchingly depressing so far. These games are not original (in all cases I can name a game that's done exactly the same thing), are poorly thought-out/pitched, and I have to say the marketing people did a horrible job making these people look like even remotely socially-adjusted. I know many of us are geeks, but come on...yeesh...

Anyway, I'm just ticked off (and slightly ill) at this point. This competition would have been almost a guaranteed win for anyone who really put some time into it and came up with something new. Honestly, I feel bad for Doritos if these are legitimately the best suggestions they got. Gah - how did I not enter this competition? *headdesk*

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

What can I get for a dollar? A proposed experiment.

In order to provide the appropriate context for this little rant, here is a recent 30 second ad that's been running for McDonald's Dollar Menu:

Does anyone see something wrong with this ad? What do you think would happen if you went into a McDonald's and gave them a dollar bill for something on their Dollar Menu? If you said "They'd give you the sandwich as advertised in the commercial", you'd be wrong. Unless of course you live in Oregon, land of no sales tax. Everywhere else you wouldn't get squat until you coughed up seven pennies to go along with your dollar bill. Now, I'm not really a McDonald's patron (doesn't fit so well with the "trying to lose weight" thing), but I'd love to see what would happen if someone went into one of the stores with a dollar bill and an iPhone with this commercial cued up in case someone asks (which they will). Would the manager honor the advertisement? There's certainly no disclaimer given, outside of "prices and participation may vary", which is given on every promotion, and unless your particular McDonald's doesn't have a Dollar Menu then they are certainly participating, and by definition the price cannot vary. Would be a fun experiment to be sure.

As an additional nitpick, what the hell is up with "now, more than ever" being appended to everything? Yes, we're in a recession and money is tight. Now, more than ever though? This is the worst economic turn we've ever been in? Not to mention we hear that phrase all the time anyway, recession or not. It's one of these phrases that we've almost been conditioned to react to - we have a Pavlovian compulsion to buy or watch or do whatever it is that's so, more than ever before. The "something" isn't actually given, and really I'm even just assuming the "before" as well. Could be now, more than ever again. Well gosh, that's even more dire, isn't it? Ambiguity leads to the implication that this thing, whatever it is, is, more than ever before or ever again. That's pretty intense.

Though it is a bit more appealing than the more honest "McDonald's Dollar Menu: Now killing Americans for less money, if adjusted for inflation, than ever before, though likely not as cheaply as we'll be doing it next year."

I'm not going to quit my job and pursue a career in advertising slogans, in case anyone was concerned.

Women of Year...say what?

I have a longer post I've been meaning to write, but I just saw this on front page and had to put up a quick one:

Amy Poehler, Rihanna, Tyra, and...Bill Clinton? Yes, fine, I'm sure he was just speaking at the show rather than winning an award (never mind the irony that he has the dubious distinction of being well known for inappropriateness toward a woman), but the headline definitely earned a significant double-take from me, so I thought I'd share. :)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Amazon Has a Sense of Humor

This was great. Many days Amazon features a single track of an album as a free download (in hopes that you'll like it and want to buy the whole thing). Today had a (I hope intentional) ironic twist to it:

Yeah, that's Weird Al's song about downloading free music illegally. Nicely done Amazon. :-) Head over to the download page if you want a copy.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The WiiMotion Plus - A Prophetic Essay Released Too Late

I wrote the following essay over a year ago (last save was June 20, 2008), before the announcement of the WiiMotion Plus. I'm sad to say that I never attempted to publish the essay, which sucks because I totally called this one. In any case, for my own amusement and patting myself on the back, as well as because it still contains some awesome ideas, I'm finally going to publish my essay, which is untouched since June of 2008. Enjoy the amazing prophesy that has already come true!

How Nintendo Almost Started a Revolution

As a recent college graduate hoping to eventually be gainfully employed, I’m in the midst of my search for a career. Video games are my passion, and it has always been a dream of mine to work as a game developer, so I began applying for positions in the industry, only to discover the age-old Catch 22: “Must have experience to get job, must have job to get experience.” Time for Plan B: Find a way to get experience without a job. For that, I needed an idea.

I had often said that I was disappointed with my Wii due to the lack of any games taking advantage of the Wii's unique capabilities. Don’t believe me? According to, the top 5 best-rated games at the time of writing, in order, are: Super Mario Galaxy, Twilight Princess, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, Resident Evil 4, and Metroid Prime 3. Galaxy doesn’t make any real use of the Wii controller outside of some pointing capabilities (no, I don’t count “shake-the-controller-to-attack” as a technological breakthrough). Brawl is actually best-played with a Gamecube controller, and both Twilight Princess and Resident Evil 4 were in fact released on the Gamecube itself! Metroid Prime 3 is just a first person shooter – perhaps with innovative controls for a console, but PC-gamers will laugh at anyone who finds a pointing device to be truly innovative.

The only ways that we’ve seen developers actually do some cool stuff with the Wiimote is through mini-games, or what I’m going to term “micro-actions”. Wii Sports, WarioWare: Smooth Moves, and Rayman Raving Rabbids are the only good games that stand out in my mind as really taking advantage of the true innovation of the Wii: motion sensing. In all of these cases, we have little micro-actions that the Wiimote senses and then projects to the screen. Pump your hands quickly. Swing your hand to hit something. Drop the remote at the right time. Fun? Sure. Huge-innovation-enabling-totally-new-types-of-gameplay-experiences-as-was-promised-to-us? Hardly.

My mission was clear: I needed to show these developers what they should be doing with Nintendo’s brilliant new hardware. Mini-actions are fine, but macro-actions - large, continuous movements over long periods of time - were the future. I had grandiose plans. I would develop a mind-blowing technology demonstration, submit it for a presentation at the next GDC, and then stun the audience with the amazing new gameplay I had created. After the presentation there would be thunderous applause, a shower of job offers falling from the ceiling like confetti, and Shigeru Miyamoto himself would come on stage and bless me.

Step one of course was to develop the technology demo.

I set out to find a good API that I could use to create the demo. After a bit of online research, I found one to my liking and began to delve into the details. I found a nice list of all of the motion data available to the programmer. It had acceleration in 3 axes, the X/Y coordinates of the IR pointer, and an estimate of the distance of the pointer from the TV. After reading this list, my jaw dropped. My dreams shattered. Miyamoto would never bless me in front of thousands of adoring game developers. Why? What’s missing from this list? Any sort of rotational acceleration! It turns out that Nintendo didn’t bother to include any gyroscopic sensors in their formerly (and now ironically) codenamed Revolution.

What does this mean? Developers have no way to track true position through 3D space. Instead, they must make assumptions about the way the player is holding the controller. Does this sound familiar? Yup: micro-actions. The motion-sensing only feels realistic and accurate when the developer can tell the player how they’re “supposed” to hold the controller. If we know that the player is holding the Wiimote like a steering wheel then we can make an assumption about the tilt of the Wiimote based on the acceleration provided by gravity. But this is a cheap hack, and doesn’t work if the assumptions are broken. For example, try playing Mario Kart holding the Wiimote like a big rig wheel and rotating it about the vertical axis. Nothing happens! The implication is that the Nintendo Wiimote is likely to never move past pointing at the screen and the use of contrived micro-actions.

Suddenly my blame shifted from the developers to Nintendo. How could you do this to us? You were on the verge of completely redefining video games, but you were too cheap to put in a couple of gyroscopes? I would happily have eaten the cost for the incredible possibilities that they would have enabled. Allow me to paint a picture.

Remember that rather absurd commercial for Red Steel with the guy hiding behind his couch to avoid enemy bullets? Perhaps it’s not quite so absurd. With gyroscopes, you could strap a second Wiimote to your chest and the Wii could calculate the position of you, and even your body orientation. You could actually be forced to dodge incoming fire in your living room! And heck, with a couple of positional clicks you could tell the Wii the exact location of your couch in real 3D space, which could then act as a barrier and provide cover for you as you fire from behind it. The possibilities are, or were, endless.

Fortunately, not all hope is lost. A little internet searching turned up a new product called Darwin from Motus Corporation that does have the proper sensors. It is aimed specifically at non-Wii hardware, and if it gains popularity (and more importantly, good games), it could drive quite a knife into the back of Nintendo’s newest child. Historically speaking though, a peripheral is not generally going to attract a large number of games that require it, but at this point I can only hope that this new device, or something like it, will give us the “Revolution” we were once promised. – Darwin

So yeah, maybe Darwin didn't do anything, but I did say "or something like it", which clearly meant "the WiiMotion Plus". :-)

Friday, October 16, 2009

Yahoo! Answers a little too optimistic

I came across this gem while trying to find out how to use a AAA discount through Expedia:

So if I keep trying it might spontaneously un-delete itself, eh? Yahoo! is apparently run by the same people who keep pressing elevator buttons and who think it's mathematically possible to give 110%.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Movie Rant: Quarantine

I'm up to five followers. I feel so special. :) Plus I think my wife reads them too, so that's kinda six. Not that she's "kinda" a person, but rather that she "kinda" counts as a follower... I imagine I'm gonna get smacked when she reads this.

Anyway, I was trying to think of something to write about today and I ended up remembering that I watched Quarantine recently with my wife. This is not going to be a full movie review - more just a brief rant on some stupid jackass of a marketing director who ruined the movie for me.

First off, if you haven't seen a trailer for Quarantine, don't watch one. It contains a huge spoiler that truly ruined the end of the movie for me. Here's what you need to know: it's a pretty good scary movie filmed in the Cloverfield handicam method and generally done quite well. If you like scary movies it's worth checking out.

***Spoiler Alert***

Now, I generally hate spoilers. Like, someone told me the end to a book one time so I promptly put the book down and didn't read it again until years later when I forgot what happened. That's probably why I'm so angry about this trailer. You see, the very last 5 seconds of the movie are actually shown in the trailer. And this isn't in the sort of "Oh, I remember I saw that" kind of thing. This is a crucial part of the trailer that you spend the whole movie going "I wonder when that part is going to happen", only to realize, as you approach the end, that it was very clearly the end of the freakin' movie that they decided to broadcast to the world.

It's one thing to show all the funny jokes in a comedy trailer. But for a scary movie, which generally had tons of great material to pull from for a trailer, featuring the final scene not only in the movie, but also on the freakin' front cover of the DVD and the movie posters, is just ridiculously dickish. My wife and I both genuinely enjoyed the entire movie (she jumped so hard at one point that she spontaneously gave herself a charlie horse in both calves!) until the end, when we both got very annoyed and lost the entire suspension of disbelief. So thanks Mr. Marketing Jerk - you ruined the movie for us. But we did watch it, so I suppose you did your job. Jackass.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Recommended Daily-Deals Sites

I have a small collection of sites that I check regularly to keep up on any special deals or discounts that might be available on that particular day. I will warn in advance: this can often lead to spending when you weren't planning on it (one of the sites even has the oh-so-true tagline "How to go broke saving money"). That said, I've found some amazing deals on these. There is going to be some overlap of the big stories too, but I've seen enough variety that I often find it worthwhile to have at least two of these on permanently-open tabs in my browser. - This might be my favorite all-around deal site. It's well-written and often has useful information and extra links on top of the deals. Occasionally has some non-techy deals but usually focuses on computers, gaming, and electronics. - This is a great source for deals on games and hardware (especially on hardware - they tend to be very on top of the current cheapest deals on the net if you're looking to buy a new system). I used to focus primarily on their more specific site, but this one is a bit broader so I'm starting to favor it. - Don't be fooled by the name - while it may aim to focus on Apple products it has a lot of other deals as well. Most specifically, I daily read their RSS feed on MP3 deals and have gotten some amazing deals through them. In fact, I've built up a fairly decent (legal!) library almost entirely from scratch using these deals and have only spent more than $5 on one album so far (Chili Pepper's Blood Sugar Sex Magic, which is totally worth full price anyway). Just last week, I purchased Jason Mraz's Mr. A-Z, Daft Punks's Discovery, and Radiohead's Kid-A in one day for a combined total of $5.98. - For some reason I haven't kept up with this one as well recently but I used to follow it religiously. I'd still recommend it as it is loaded with a variety of daily deals and probably has the strongest forums (including one on each deal) and community of any of these sites.

Oh, good lord...I just looked at PS3 with an extra controller for $249? I'm currently debating the benefits of a blu-ray player with my wife. See, I wasn't kidding with that warning at the beginning. Anyway, does anyone else have any good deal sites they would recommend I check out?

Monday, October 5, 2009

Shameless Plug For My Game Blog

In case anyone is interested, I'm working on creating a Flash game and have recently released a blog to discuss the development process. The game is going to be awesome (and is already shaping up very nicely) and has a very talented development team behind it. Check it out at :)

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Amazon Finally Drops Forced 1-Click

So, it's a bit strange to give credit to someone for ceasing doing something stupid ("Hey Johnny, I'm so proud of you for not licking a frozen pole this year!"), but as a constant source of stress and annoyance to me I feel like recognition should be given for a company making a change that its users have been clamoring for.

Amazon has this concept of 1-click purchasing. It's very convenient for some, but is also risky, which is why they allow you to opt-out of it and use a traditional cart system if you'd prefer. That is, unless you want to buy MP3s. In that case, apparently you're so computer-savvy that you must have such incredible control of your mouse that it's impossible miss-click, so there's clearly no reason to allow you to opt-out of MP3 1-click purchases.

As someone whose touchpad occasionally jumps without warning, this makes browsing MP3s very nerve-wracking. Despite not missclicking yet, I had written a few emails complaining about this policy but received no response. Having checked online other users simply recommended removing your credit card info from Amazon to protect yourself.

Fortunately, Amazon finally saw the errors in their ways and now gives you a single confirmation page when you click a 1-click purchase button. Yeah, sure, it's not technically "one click" any more, but it's still incredibly fast and efficient, while also preventing your from accidentally purchasing things with a single missed click. Plus, if you're adventurous, you can turn off the confirmation screen and go back to true one-click purchases. So, thank you Amazon. It should have been like this earlier, but at least you had the guts to recognize the mistake and make the change that your customers have requested.

As a side note, Amazon does deserve credit for having some of the best customer support of any company I've worked with. They're fast, knowledgeable, and have always been helpful. Credit where credit is due.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

I'm Batman!

So, this isn't actually a game review - that will come later. It's more of a late announcement of some encouraging news. Having started at 206 pounds, as of two Fridays ago I got under 190 pounds (and thus got to open my copy of Arkham Asylum). So...w00t!

Eat more Netflix.

That's my new motto. My record so far is 188.5, and it's still heading down. Go me. :)

Sunday, September 20, 2009

How to botch a great idea: Xbox Live's Indy/Community Games

It should not be a surprise that I like indie games based on my involvement in the Flash gaming community. As much as I enjoy a high-end, big budget game (review on Arkham Asylum to follow when I finish it, if not earlier), I often feel that the business side of things prevents big developers from taking risks (hence Devil May Cry 4, Tekken 6, Final Fantasy XII, and Dynasty Warriors Who-The-Hell-Is-Still-Counting). Indie developers can often develop games on much lower budgets (i.e. little to no money), much quicker, and with less pressure to make money. That's not to say that they don't want or deserve money for their talents, but there's certainly less pressure when there aren't millions of dollars on the line. The result is that you see most of the innovation, creativity, and originality coming out of the indie scene.

Valve's Steam service launched an indie channel, and to the best of my knowledge has had fairly decent success with it. Microsoft saw an opportunity to pimp its XNA platform and opened up its own indie gaming marketplace (previously called Community Games, now Indie Games) to allow small developers to release games on one of the biggest gaming platforms available - the Xbox 360. Seemed like a dream opportunity for developers and a great revenue stream for Microsoft.

Where did they go wrong? How could they possibly mess that up? Turns out it can be done in more ways than one.

First off, until just last month, there was no concept of rating games in that channel, and there's still no way to write a review of it. Yes, every game has a demo you can download, but with only a few screenshots and no descriptions from anyone besides the developer, it can be hard to decide if it's even worth the time to try to download and play the game.

With a 1-5 star rating system we can get a little more information at a glance, though the sorting methods are laughable at best. At the same time, there have been numerous games released for the platform, meaning that unless you keep up with releases on nearly a daily basis, you'll have a very hard time finding the unique gems in the mound of indie games (most of which are admittedly pretty crappy).

Things get even worse when you get into the interface that lets you load up and play the games. With their "Arcade" games, which is basically the professional channel compared to the indie channel, each game is a self-working download. Once it's on your Xbox you can play it anywhere, any time. Not so for the Indie games. If you don't have a valid internet connection you can't load them up. Even better, when you purchase a game, there is no indication in your game library that the game is a full game. For your Arcade games and DVD games they show up in the Full Games section, but Indie games just get ignored, forcing you to search through your collection of Indie game demos to try to remember which ones you've purchased.

Add to that no support for high scores with friends (come on, Flash game portals easily do this on free sites, how can Microsoft not offer support on their for-pay service?) and no achievements (sure, I can see why they'd cap it to maybe 50 gamer points so as not to get abused, but if someone wants to spend some money to get some easy gamer points why the hell not?) and you start to wonder why Microsoft even bothered. It's a great idea, and a great market, but if you're only going to do a half-assed job with it then you end up shooting yourself in the foot while simultaneously hurting all of the game developers who are trying to use your service. Don't get me wrong - it's close. With some good tweaks and a little more official support it could be a great market, but right now it feels rushed and unfinished.

Speaking of which, has anyone downloaded the Darkest of Days demo? How on earth did that get past the Microsoft quality requirements? The game is embarrassing on so many levels. It looks like a PS2 game (and not even a good one) loaded with pop-in, laughable animation, ridiculous "AI", and the most amateur "Settings" screen I've ever seen in a professional game. I can't imagine a single person purchasing that game after playing the demo.

Update (2009-10-11): I'm not sure when it changed, but I just checked today and my purchased Indie game now shows in the Full Games menu, which is much appreciated. I'd still like to be able to play without being connected, but at least this makes it easier to find games I've purchased. So, nice step forward, but still quite a few more to do.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Holy crap I have a follower!

Hooray, my first follower! How exciting. :-) This seems more like a tweet than a blog post (blost!), but I felt like it was an important milestone. Also, I got a comment from someone reading my blog saying that when he saw the URL he was expecting shirtless, well-toned men. Not to disappoint, here are pics of pecs for Pec's Picks, from the Governator no less:

He's kinda scary though. Here's one that's more for the ladies (or guys, as the case may be):

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Movie Review: Chocolate

Just to make sure we're starting on the same movie, there's an "e" at the end of that name, meaning this is a Thai martial arts movie, not a French romance movie. I haven't seen a lot of Thai movies - I think so far I've been limited to the sensational Tony Jaa in Ong Bak and The Protector. Both were quite entertaining though, and Netflix used their fancy algorithm to predict that I'd really like this one too, so I had high hopes. Fortunately, I was not disappointed.

I will go ahead and say that this is a martial arts movie first and foremost, and if you don't enjoy the genre this one isn't going to have the wider appeal of some of the more beautifully-shot imports like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Hero. However, if you're like me and can watch a martial arts movie the same way as a ballet, then this movie certainly delivers.

Like most martial arts movies, the plot is inconsequential and contrived to lead to a series of increasingly improbable but awesome fight locales. In this case, we have an autistic girl with a goofy but well-meaning friend and a sick mother who was previously involved in organized crime. The girl is fairly low functioning, with the exception that she can pick up martial arts moves by watching kung fu movies. The premise probably would have felt somewhat exploitative (especially in a certain autistic kid vs. autistic kid brawl) if it wasn't for a heart-felt message at the opening of the movie dedicating itself to "the special children of the world". I decided to give it the benefit of the doubt. In any case, the plot was serviceable, slightly more interesting than a Jackie Chan movie, but nothing to write home about.

As expected, where this movie really shines is in the whole kicking-the-crap-out-of-people department. I don't feel qualified to judge the 24 year old actress on her autism portrayal, but she does a bang-up job on the crap-kicking. The choreography puts American action movies to shame, featuring longer uncut sequences and some very clever interactions with the environment. It's not quite as funny or over the top as a Jackie Chan flick, but in this case it worked well because it felt slightly more realistic and gritty while still being completely insane.

Watching this movie, along with Tony Jaa's films, has made one thing very clear: Thailand has the best, and absolutely craziest, stunt teams in the world. The stuff these guys do with few (or perhaps no) wires or CG effects is absolutely amazing. In fact, in true Jackie Chan style, we're "treated" to a montage of outtakes at the end of the movie. Honestly, this sequence made the rest of the movie somewhat disturbing when as you begin to realize how many people were injured (at least one ended up with a neck brace and was hospitalized I hear) during the filming of this movie. I hope these guys are paid well, because they produced an incredible product and really put their blood, sweat, and tears into it. Except the tears part. There's no crying in Thai martial arts movies.

Reflecting back on the movie, I really genuinely enjoyed it and would watch it again. I give it an enthusiastic 8/10, though with the asterisk that it really is a movie for people who enjoy martial arts movies. If you were unimpressed with The Protector and didn't love Legend of Drunken Master then you might as well skip out on this one too.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Movie Review: Severance

Severence is dark British horror/comedy about an office off-site trip that went horribly wrong. Given the simple but deliciously punny title I had high hopes for the movie. I'm pleased to report that those expectations were well-exceeded.

One thing I didn't anticipate was just how funny this movie would be. It spends its opening act introducing its cast of characters in something closer to The Office than any sort of horror movie and has quite a few laughs to go along with it. The cast was stereotypical, but in a good way. You have the slightly incompetent boss, the rebel/slacker, the player, the liberal/hippie girl, the hot chick, the token black guy, and the hopeless brown-noser. They go on a trip, hilarity ensues, and then terrible things happen, which are still hilarious.

What I enjoyed about (most) of the movie was that the characters generally maintained a fairly level head. It was rare that I found myself yelling "No, you idiot, don't go upstairs!!", which was nice. The scary/gory elements of the movie were pretty par. I won't spoil anything about who the bad guy/gal is, but it's not a movie that's full of plot twists and double-crosses - you're aware of the villain pretty early on and you track the non-villains' attempts to survive. There are some tense moments, a few jumps (though not many), and some gore (though not nearly as gory as some horror movies - I think it hit a happy medium of appropriate but not over-the-top). Really, fairly standard fair for a scary movie.

What elevated this to a really enjoyable movie though was the humor. I found myself laughing harder and perceived it as more often (though I imagine part of that is contrast with the scary parts) with this movie than with many comedies (including the previously-reviewed Pineapple Express and Darwin Awards). Granted, the style of comedy is not for everyone. If you didn't think Fight Club was hysterically funny you probably won't like this type of humor either - it is exceedingly dark. For me, this was comic gold. It caught me off guard and had me hooked throughout. Now, it's not all fun and games. Somewhat like Shaun of the Dead, there are some legitimately serious parts of the movie, but if you're looking for a nice combination of pitch-black comedy and horror movie you can't do much better than Severance. I think I'll go out on a limb (and against IMDB and Metacritic's mid-6 reviews) and give this one a solid 8/10. Might not be for everyone, but I loved it thoroughly. (Did I go overboard on the parentheticals today? (Yes)).

Thursday, August 27, 2009

3.5 Pounds to Arkham Asylum

Ok, I think I'm making the executive decision to drop the forced "Picks" thing. I'll keep using lots of them, but it was getting to the point where the labels were getting contrived and losing usefulness. So, I formally introduce the Netflix Diet label (which will be retroactively tagged on a few prior posts).

Anyway, the "diet" is going relatively well. On the food side, I'm primarily trying to watch portions a bit, make some smart decisions when eating out, and drink primarily water with meals. I still treat myself fairly regularly, especially on weekends, and I get a desert after most meals (which I just carefully choose to be low-fat, low-calorie ice cream and frozen lemonade and such). Which is the great thing about this diet - it doesn't feel like dieting.

For the exercise portion, I've been keeping up my running very well. I'm averaging over 4 days a week, at 30 minutes a day. I have a very important piece of advice for anyone starting any exercise regimen: keep a log. I have a spreadsheet for this diet, but for my first one, a few years ago, I just wrote it down on paper. This is crucial. Record your time, your distance, what settings you used on your machines, how many calories, any kind of statistics you can. You'll be amazed at your progress over time, and if you don't record it you'll likely not notice how much incredible improvement you've shown in even just a few weeks.

For example, my first day I only did 20 minutes, but after that I started at my 30 minute runs. That first 30 minute run I did 1,888 revolutions on my elliptical, burning an estimated 562 calories. Just a few days ago, I hit my record of 2,620 revolutions, at 744.6 calories. That's quite a large improvement. :)

Additionally, at the beginning of March, I weight 205.5 pounds. As late as July 6, I was still 203.5 pounds and hadn't really started my Netflix Diet. Now, only 7 weeks later, I was at 193.5 pounds this morning. 12 pounds in 7 weeks is a healthy, steady progression that I can happily keep up for months.

So, what's that title of the blog post all about? Well, I decided to promise myself rewards over this process. At 190 pounds, I get to open up my pre-ordered copy of Arkham Asylum, which is apparently an amazing game. I've very excited. :) At 175 (my end goal), I get to go on a shopping spree for new clothes. I'm not sure if I'm going to set any goals in between those, but I think one at 182.5 might be good too. Maybe Knights In The Nightmare? I've had my eye on that game for a while... Anyway, 3.5 pounds to go!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009 - and what a party it is!

Time for my first website pick. There's not a lot to say about this one besides that it is extremely simple, very funny, and can make almost anyone sound witty and clever in about 10 seconds. One of our programmers, Andrew, linked this site into the company chat room, and very literally the next 2 hours was nothing but people posting their favorite results from this website. The whole company ground to a halt with one link. Which is deliciously ironic, considering our entire business model hinges on reducing the productivity of the world with a website. Oh, oh, I mean, on raising happiness and satisfaction by providing a fun and interactive place to play games and meet people...

In any case, is simply an English -> Japanese -> English -> Japanese -> ... translator. You give it an English phrase and it keeps translating back and forth until it reaches an "equilibrium" (or as the math geeks say, a "point of convergence"). This may sound boring, but it's surprisingly addictive and funny. For example, Theresa, our graphic designer, discovered this gem:

"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."


"The score of 47-1 to China, free and fair, we were created under the guidance of our ancestors."

And you just thought to yourself "Where did China come from?!" Yup, that's the great fun of this website - you never know what'll happen.

Sadly, it sometimes stalls out, and I'm not sure if this is due to traffic or translation timeouts or what. But in general it's quick and easy fun, and it lets you communicate with people entirely through URLs, which is a skill we clearly needed in this world of typing as few characters as possible.

Movie Review: Pineapple Express

I went into Pineapple Express with fairly high hopes. The movie was not hated by critics and had been recommended by a few friends. I find Seth Rogan to be funny in most things I've seen him in, so it seemed like a good combination. While this is a movie where the trailer spoils some of the better laughs, there was still plenty of fun to be had.

It starts out like a...typical?...pot movie, follwing a twenty-something stoner in a crappy job with a how-the-hell-did-he-end-up-with-her? love interest and a goofy drug dealer. Then a crime gets committed, some people witness it, there are chases, gun fights, a lot of stoner jokes (many of which were quite funny), and a somewhat bizarre over-the-top action sequence near the end. There's a buddy-badguy duo that tries to be Vincent and Jules from Pulp Fiction but never quite reaches that goal, though Craig Robinson seems to be some up-and-coming talent between this, The Office, and Zack and Miri (which, by the way, is a much funnier comedy, nothing against this one).

I actually don't have a lot to say about this movie. It's not deep or life-changing, and I'm writing this review about 2 weeks after having watched the movie and I'm having a hard time recalling a lot of details, so it obviously didn't make that lasting of an impression on me. None the less, I know I had a good time with it and would certainly recommend it to anyone who is up for a goofy movie with a good heart who doesn't mind a lot of swearing and a little bloodshed. Not the best comedy ever (heck, not even Rogan's best, which would be Zack and Miri or The 40 Year Old Virgin, depending on how you define a "Seth Rogan movie"), but still worth a watch. 7/10.

By the way, have you noticed that almost everything I've rated so far has been right around a 7/10? My theory is that I'm successfully picking movies that I like, but nothing that I love since most of those I would have seen by now or am waiting to watch with Shelly. Something tells me that streak will be broken with my next review... which way will it be? Actually, since almost everyone reading this is probably reading in the "reverse blog order" with newest posts at the top, there's really no suspense at this point. Oh well.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Seeing Jesus on a Toilet

I recorded this off of this morning's local news program.  I'm having some difficulty coming up with things to say about it because it just seems too easy.  This isn't meant to mock Christians because I feel confident that most Christians (i.e. probably everyone except this woman's boyfriend, who has no choice) would look at this and say this woman is a few fries short of a Happy Meal.  In any case, there is just too much wonderful irony / WTFness involved in this video to ignore.

A woman who is having financial difficulty sees an image of Jesus and feels uplifted and gets renewed hope. Ok, that's not so bad. Except the "image of Jesus" is exceendingly hard to make out (even by normal "I see Jesus in some toast" standards), it's on a I [Heart] Las Vegas bumper sticker, and that bumper sticker is plastered haphazardly on the underside of a toilet lid. I feel like this one just speaks for itself.

Somewhere, Andres Serrano is cackling madly.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

A study in efficiency: Microsoft and the RROD

Time to start a new category. Rather unexpectedly, I feel the need to tell a story of a pleasant surprise. It may be a geeky story, but credit should be given where credit is due. Which brings us to Microsoft.

*showers to get rid of that dirty feeling*

So, where was I? Ah, yes - Microsoft. Many of you geeky types are probably familiar with the famous "red ring of death" on the XBOX360. For those who don't know, it looks like this:

If that doesn't look ominous and horrible, I don't know what does. At least it's more appropriate than the famed blue screen of death - the XBOX360 doesn't joke around. When it's toast, it let's you know.

Basically, this is a problem that comes from over-heating of the 360. It has been a persistent problem for Microsoft, who even admits themselves to a 3%-5% failure rate. Other studies have put this problem at anywhere from 10% to 30% of all 360s. So, while very angry, I was not terribly surprised when I booted up my 360 one day and saw the menacing red glow staring me down.

I was able to easily find Microsoft's support request page through a quick Google search and I promptly registered my problem. I immediately printed out a pre-paid shipping label for UPS and packed up my 360 to get sent out. A mere 9 days later I have my 360 (or most likely, another refurbished one, but whatever) in my hands. Fast shipping, quick service, and even a 1-month XBOX Live Gold card (worth about $6) taped to the system as an apology for my troubles. I am very impressed with how efficient they've been in handling this rather large and pervasive problem. So, bravo Microsoft - you made the process quick, easy, and relatively painless.

I'm a little surprised that you have a typo in your apology letter, but whatever. The core experience was excellent and I'm very pleased with your service. Though I have attached an intercooler (and one of the ones with it's own power supply) to my 360 just to make sure this time. :)

Now to get back to the Netflix diet that I had to go for a week without.

A brief poetic play on words

I can't claim to have written the words to this poem (it's actually a very famous progression), but I don't think I've seen anyone punctuate it before, so this is my contribution.

I, in sin, sing Sting.

String staring...


Strange what we think up in the shower, isn't it?

EDIT: I changed the opening line so that now I'm singing a Sting song, which makes much more sense. However, the "string" is fairly nonsensical. Everything else makes perfect sense, so that's a little annoying. If you have any ideas of how to make the string make sense, lemme know!

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Dr. Some-Assembly-Required or How I Learned to Stop Reading and Loathe Directions

I feel a major rant coming on, but it's over something pretty trivial, so this gets the "nitpicks" label instead of a full-fledged "bone to pick". Still, make no mistake, the rage is boiling up. I'm in the present tense because I'm still working on it, and will be "live blogging" through the process.

This all started in an effort to have some better organization and storage space in the kitchen (due to not really having much of a pantry). We bought 3 short shelving units with doors to put side-by-side as a wide unit along the back of the bar. Granted, these are cheap units from Target that were on sale for college, but that means I'd expect cheaper wood, not impossible directions.

The first bookshelf had a number of brilliant moments. For example, the first step says "Gently tap hinge pins into holes in top panel, and bottom panel as shown." Ignoring the runaway comma it sounds fine. Except it's not actually shown anywhere. It's not in the picture to the side, nor are the "hinge pins" even listed in the relevant pieces needed for step one.

Next step, we get "Attach strike plates to top corner of doors to create left and right doors...Strike plate holes are not pre-drilled." Great - no holes (unlike everything else), nothing that says you need a drill (or at least a hammer and nail to make a pilot hole) - just twist this screw into the wood. Better yet, there's no indication of where exactly to do it or how to measure it. Icing on the cake, which was only delivered as a punch line after the entire construction was finished, is that the image showing the installation is upside down, so now I need to re-attach the plates.


As much swearing as that induced, it only got worse when I got to the third one (the first two were identical) which now has a drawer to install as well.

First step and we're already off to a brilliant start. "Attach drawer glides to left side and right side in holes shown using 4 drawer glide screws." Sounds easy enough. Wait a second...there aren't 4 drawer glide screws. Well, there kind of are - but there are 2 of one and 2 of another. They're very similar, but clearly not identical. After enough searching, I've decided to just run with it.

Now, to attach the glides to...wait, there are two sets of holes. Which one do I use? Nothing in the directions. Nice. Oh, and the holes are ever so slightly off no matter which set I use. I can tell this is going to be even more fun than the last one. Oh well - I'll just guess and pick the set of holes that looks better.

Next brilliant point: in the image in step two I'm shown a picture of screwing the magnetic clasps into the "top panel", which is all and good, except that's what it is in the non-drawer model of this unit. The drawer model, which is what I'm working on, has those screwed into the fixed shelf instead. Confidence is not rising...

I'm glad I don't only speak French, because Step 8 has an entire section of the French translation in English.

Step 9. Got the main unit assembled, now I just need to put together the drawer. Uh, wait - why is the drawer now pictured in Step 9? I haven't touched the drawer yet! What the Hell is going on here?

*flips back through previous steps looking for when I missed the drawer construction*

Nope, nothing. Oh - it's in Step 10. I can almost hear the piece of paper yelling "Psyche!" at me.

Step 10. Gotta find 4 of these strange little round pieces. Ok...there are only two. These are really obvious, I can't possibly be missing them. Please tell me they didn't forget to include some pieces...

*checks inventory on front page*

Oh, there's only supposed to be 2. A typo. I'm shocked, truly.

Still in step 10. I quote: "Align drawer bottom on all sides and gently nail drawer bottom to [it]." Has this person ever used a hammer before? "Gently" nail it on? If you are using a hammer gently, not only are you doing it wrong, you're probably not doing anything at all. Gently nailing something is a physical impossibility. I can imagine some poor person trying to follow these directions precisely and spending hours trying to drive a nail through wood without hitting it. It's an exercise in futility that would be daunting even to the WMD search crews in Iraq.

Ok, just about done. Drawer is assembled, all I need to do is slide it onto the rails. Sweet! It worked! Now hammer in the drawer stops's done! Finally done!

*slides drawer all the way in to unit...hears unfriendly clack*

Hmm...the drawer's not closing...that's odd...why is it not...oh. Oh, that's so not cool. So uh, remember that first step when I just had to guess which set of holes to use? All the way at the beginning? I apparently lost the coin toss. Serves me right for...wait...I didn't do anything wrong at all! I'm going to hunt down the children of whoever wrote this, grind them into a paste, and make burgers out of them. Rare burgers. Because I need to taste the blood of innocents.

By the way, ClosetMaid is not a brand I'd recommend purchasing if you have high blood pressure. Also, I'm having a cookout next Saturday. Bring your own beer, I'll provide the burgers.

Friday, July 31, 2009

A Sinister Plot Against Left-Handers

I have a confession: I'm left-handed. Well, sort of. I eat left-handed and I write left-handed. However, I punch, bat, bowl, throw, etc. right handed. I ended up specializing my left hand for fine motor skills and my right hand for gross motor skills - I am by no means ambidextrous. This was not a conscious decision, but it turned out well for me. (Note: Wikipedia informs me that this is called mixed-handedness or cross-dominance - I never knew there was a name before, but I'm happy to keep company with that list of people!) In any case, I certainly identify myself as a left-hander since most things that are left/right specific end up requiring fine motor skills.

Included in this list is the Nintendo DS.

I would really like to understand how freaking difficult it is to enable your game to be left handed. In some cases perhaps it's non trivial if you have to move your entire UI around, but the ones I'm talking about are generally simple button-remapping. And this isn't a trivial part of your audience. Wikipedia states (yes, I cited Wikipedia - deal with it) that a British study in the 70s found that 11% of people aged 15 - 24 are left-handed, and a separate study in the US found 12% of 20 year olds to be left-handed. So, that's a core age demographic for you, and at 11% of all of your gamers you'd think it'd be worth noting the fact that your game is nearly unplayable for left-handers. Hell, how do you not have at least one left-handed on your dev team? It's unbelievable.

Yet we end up with games like Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings that map all scrolling to the left D-pad and a few low-priority buttons on the right hand. So, anyone using their left hand for the stylus is stuck trying to also control the camera with that same hand. And it gets even worse with Ninja Town. You know what the 4 buttons do on the right side? NOTHING! Not one damned thing. They're dead buttons. How hard would it have been to map them to the same movement as the D-pad? The answer is it would have taken the programmer about 30 seconds. If he were a slow typist. I can't really think of a bigger "Screw you!" to left-handers than just killing the buttons that are so easily accessible to them. And yet I purchased this game, only perpetuating the idea that it's okay to give lefties the finger if you're a game developer.

Screw you and your cute little ninjas

And yeah, sure, in the grand scheme of life left-handed oppression is really not all that important or even really oppressive. The original study that showed a 9 year decrease in life expectancy for left-handers has been debunked repeatedly. But these are people whose job is to make a fun, enjoyable game that people will buy, and yet they can't seem to get basic interface principles down. It truly boggles the mind.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Verizon - America's Largest Network, Most Archaic Practices

I've been on the fence about Verizon for a while. I started my cellphone life with Alltel (much later than most, I didn't get a phone until 2004). Service was decent, but they clearly have the crappiest selection of phones on the market. A gadget-lover like me just can't be satisfied with such substandard fare. So, I moved over to Verizon once my Alltel contract was up. They have a good family plan, great coverage, a new and invaluable "friends and family" feature, and a few decent apps (including a very slick VZ Navigator GPS application - more on that later). However, they also have some mind-boggingly boneheaded policies and procedures that seem to keep them behind everyone else (except of course recent partner/acquisition Alltel).

I remember first being annoyed with them when I realized how locked-down their phones were. No Java apps here - everything must be BREW, which means they have tight lock and key over any installations. Want to use Gmail's cool, free mail app? Too bad. You have to instead pay a ridiculous $15/month to use Verizon's email service. Want to check out some cool free games? Not gonna happen. Only games purchased through Verizon's store will work.

I'll be up-front - for the most part I've been reasonably happy with Verizon's customer service. I don't recall getting screwed over too often, except a recent event that involved an accidental activation of their $10/month GPS application. Now, I love their VZ Navigator app - it's very effective, updated with new features fairly regularly, and even has voice-recognition built-in. I've happily paid $10/month for it for years, as has one other person on my plan. A few months ago, I noted that a third Navigator app was being charged though. I realized it accidentally got turned on on my brother's phone.

So I called them up on July 24 to see if I could get it turned off. Now, my billing cycle ends on the 23rd of the month. So, I'm calling on the first day of the month to cancel a monthly service. I did not request refunds for the two months that I had missed - all I wanted was to cancel this coming month and not have to pay for it. Apparently, this was completely impossible. "There's no way it could accidentally be turned on" I was told, and therefore they are completely unwilling to return my subscription fee for the month that just started today. Unbelievable.

But during this conversation I discovered the real gem of their WTF-policy-making-department. They've switched to a megabyte-usage system for internet use. Previously I had been charged $5 a month to connect to the internet. Now it's $2 per megabyte. Considering I only check my mail and occasionally wikipedia or amazon, I figured I might even save a buck or two. However, I started noticing charges when I hadn't been on the internet. Turns out, those megabyte charges apply to any apps you download from their store. So, buy an app, and pay an additional megabyte or two of download charges. Apparently they're taking their pricing lessons from airline backage-check policies. But it gets much, much worse.

You see, apparently, in order to view their store on your phone, you have to connect to this thing called the internet. Yes, that's right - they charge you for the mere privilege of oggling their wares. Can you imagine if stores charged for window shopping? What kind of moronic, backwards, I-got-an-MBA-but-know-nothing-about-people kind of marketing decision is that? Not even the elitist fashion boutiques on Fifth Ave. in New York charge to look around. They know that the best way to get customers is to let them see what you have and covet it. And not only that, but to add insult to injury, apparently adding up parts of megabytes is too complicated for the Verizon computer system, so each time you connect to their store you have to pay at least a $2 fee. I'm just flabbergasted at this policy. I've bought numerous games from them in the past, but now I'm never going to look in their store again. There goes any more revenue for them from games for me. Nice job guys. Pat yourselves on the back for being complete marketing idiots. You wholeheartedly deserve it.

On a related note, the only reason I'm staying with Verizon at the moment is the Friends & Family calling circle thingy that they stole from Alltel. I have a couple of calls (most specifically my daily conference call for work) that eat up a lot of my minutes, and if I don't have a couple of landlines that I can call for free my minutes skyrocket (specifically, my personal monthly minutes dropped from about 700 to about 150 when I added just 3 numbers to my plan). If I can figure out a way around that I will be very seriously giving the new iPhone a thorough look-over.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Movie Review: The Orphanage

The Orphanage, or El Orfanato as it is known in its native Spanish tongue, is a 2007 horror/mystery movie "from" Guillermo del Toro. I say "from" because on the front cover it says "Guillermo del Toro presents...", but in fact he neither wrote nor directed the movie, meaning he was probably about as involved in it as Steven Spielburg was in the Animaniacs (which, while I could be wrong, I imagine basically amounts to signing a paycheck for putting his name on it). The result of this misleading though effective advertising is that I had the wrong expectations going into the movie.

I was thinking "Wow, Guillermo del Toro did a horror movie! This should be aboslutely amazing." Because really, if you think about the gorgeous cinematography and incredible creature designs of Pan's Labrynth, or of the over-the-top but still inspired and original creatures from the Hellboy movies, you have to think that del Toro would be most at home in a true horror movie. Unfortunately, this movie is not that movie, but if that movie ever happens I'm totally there.

That's not to say the movie is bad - it's really not. But when you're expecting del Toro creatures and you get typical horror movie small-scary-children it's more than a little disappointing. Still, let's look at the movie for what it is: a good, though not great or inventive, horror/mystery movie. I hesitate to call it a horror movie outright because it really lacks the gore, scares, or general terror to really fill that genre (and is a rather mild R-rating). But it's more than just a mytsery or a thriller because it does genuinely have a few very creepy scenes.

The rough plot is that a woman now lives in the orphanage she grew up in (already the audience gets a little bit of a wtf from that one). She has a husband and a young, sick boy who likes to play with "imaginary friends". One day, he decides to go off and play and disappears. Anyone not see that coming? The movie then follows our herione's efforts to find her lost boy. A common theme in the movie is the concept of a clue-hunt where one clue leads to a location where another clue is found. These hunts come across like The daVinci Code in fast forward and without the code-breaking, and really to me seemed kinda silly. I won't spoil the ending, but don't hope for anything too shocking or ground-breaking - it falls into one of the few stereotypical endings for these movies, while still leaving you will a few unanswered questions.

On the plus side, the movie has a few genuine shocks in it, some creepy characters and scenes, and the single most terrifying game of "red light, green light" I've ever seen. I will say, watching a scary movie on an elliptical can certainly motivate to run a little harder at times. In any case, I'll give the movie a 7/10. Competantly acted, a decent though somewhat derivitive story, and some good scares. If you like horror movies but have a very jumpy date, this might be a good one since it's often tense but only jumpy a few times. If you're looking for a better horror movie, I'm still partial to The Ring (thought primarily on first viewing - it gets weaker each time you watch it) and probably my favorite horror movie: The Descent.

On a related note, my Netflix Diet is going well. I was down to 197.5 pounds this morning, which considering I was at 203.5 less than 3 weeks ago that's pretty encouraging. I'm sure that'll fluctuate naturally a bit and I'm probably on the low end, but still progress is progress. :) I'm also keeping a daily log of the duration, calories burned, distance, etc., which I find to be encouraging and would recommend to anyone on a new exercise routine since it gives a good sense of accomplishment and progress.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Movie Review: The Darwin Awards - A semi-cute comedy quickly eaten by better movies

The Darwin Awards stars Joseph Fiennes as a hematophobic forensics investigator who ends up helping insurance investigator Winona Ryder in a series of suspicious insurance fraud claims. The concept was very interesting to me: I enjoy forensics shows/movies and I've always enjoyed the Darwin Awards - should be a perfect match, right? Well, not quite...

As a forensics investigation movie, it pretty much flops. Some (perhaps all?) of the cases were actual Darwin Awards, which was cute, but meant that it was bloody obvious what was going to happen to anyone who's heard about some of the most famous ones. The ones that were less obvious were just too ridiculous for the viewer to have any hope of guessing, yet somehow Fiennes manages to intuit this absurd sequence of events. It all comes across as unbelievable, while at the same time spending far too much of the plot on showing us how these events came to be. The Metallica concert scene was just painful - a very unpleasant 10 minutes that felt more like 30, and I'm a big Metallica fan.

Instead, the movie shines more as a comedy, with Fiennes showing off some mad slapstick skills. It wasn't a roll-on-the-floor comedy, but it managed to elicit a few of chuckles, a couple of good laughs, and one hearty guffaw at the "shower scene" (which is much funnier and less sketchy than it sounds). Still, as a romantic comedy I feel that it fell flat thanks to Ryder's character being fairly unlikable, having me feeling like Fiennes could do better the whole time. It's hard to enjoy a "romantic" comedy when I don't want to root on the unlikely couple.

All in all, the movie isn't great, but it doesn't suck. It has some slow parts, and seems almost insultingly obvious at times. The ending is silly and stupid, even though they managed to reference a popular fabricated Darwin Award, which I enjoyed. The film student who follows Fiennes around (whom I'm sad to say I didn't recognize until I saw the credits) filming his every move is a pretty funny foil for Fiennes' straight-man character, but ultimately feels like it's the same joke over and over. There are a number of impressive list of cameos though (David Arquette, Chris Penn, Metalica...), including a real surprise (that I won't ruin here) as the pair who own the army surplus shop. Honestly, seeing that cameo alone made the movie worth it to me, but if you're less geeky you might not appreciate it. I enjoyed the movie, but I wouldn't watch it more than once. For a movie touting Darwin, it fails to really stand out as a dominant fish in the sea of comedies. 6/10

*Chomp* - The 40 Year Old Virgin

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Poor ad placement #1

I'm being bold and calling this #1 because I fully intend to collect a bunch of these. In any case, I'm guessing this particular page was not the best one to try to convince people to come see your movie:

Yeah...that's a 0% recommendation of the movie.

Church of Treason

Alright, it's rant time, because I need to get this one off my chest.

I'm not a church-going man, but occasionally I'll go along to support family members who are singing or have a special occasion or whatnot. This past weekend, 4th of July weekend, was one such occasion. They had a mildly patriotic service, including having military servicemen (and, well, there actually weren't any women there) stand up and be recognized. Everyone applauded and it lead nicely into the sermon about commitment.

However, at one point in the service, someone got up to sing a "special song" according to the bulletin.  A lot of times, special songs at patriotic services go something along the lines of "God bless America, and no one else".  Sure, they're not quite that blatant, but there's usually an implication that our country is far superior to all other countries, and even the "chosen one" of the nations of the world.  I find this to be mildly offensive, but tend to just smile and nod and let it slide.  

In this case however, the song was "In God We Still Trust" by Rio Diamond. To only slightly exaggerate, he might as well have gotten up there and started singing Mein Kompf set to the Afghanistan national anthem. The song was a direct attack on America and our freedom. How so? Here are the two versus (the chorus was pretty mild "We all believe in God and so should You" stuff):

"You place your hand on His Bible, when you swear to tell the Truth
His name is on our greatest Monuments, and all our money too,
And when we Pledge allegiance, there's no doubt where we stand,
There is no separation, we're one Nation under Him.

Now there are those among us, who want to push Him out,
And erase His name from everything, this country's all about,
From the Schoolhouse to the Courthouse, they're Silencing His Word,
Now it's time for all Believers, to make our Voices heard."

What's wrong with this song? Let me count the ways...

Verse 1:

1) Swearing on the Bible in court is optional.
2) Monuments don't dictate policy.
3) "In God we Trust" was added to coins in 1864 (nearly 100 years after we were founded), and on bills in 1957. It has also disappeared from coinage occasionally and is hotly debated.
4) "under God" was not added to the Pledge of Allegiance until 1954.
5) No separation? This is where the song goes from silly to an assault on some of our country's dearest principles. We're going to reject what our founding fathers have set in place (despite attempting to use historical religious sentiment to justify current policy just a few lines previously) and declare that there is no separation of church and state and in fact we should be a theocracy. Screw you Bill of Rights.
6) "stand" definitely doesn't rhyme with "Him".

Verse 2:

1) This country is all about the Christian God? I must have missed that part of US History, especially when Ben Franklin said, on his death bed, that he doubted the divinity of Jesus.
2) God's Word is being silenced in school. Ok, I might see the desire to include it in school, though not to be taught as "God's Word", but instead as Hebrew Mythology, since those stories are very relevant to modern literature and culture. But to teach it as "Truth" would be highly irresponsible and a violation of the 1st amendment.
3) God's Word is being silenced in court. This was the line that really set me off. To claim that our legal system, that our laws, should be governed by the Bible is offensive to the highest order. We would be turning ourselves into a full-on theocracy - the very thing that this country was founded in protest of.
4) Now it's time for believers to make their voices heard? Perhaps I'm reading too much into this one, but it sounds a lot like a threat of force. "You're not listening, so we're going to make you listen." This is where we start to cross the line over to a physical threat of assault and overthrowing the government.  

So, what did I do when I heard this nearly treasonous song, sung 4th of July weekend, in front a number of war veterans? The same thing as everyone else: nothing. I don't know if other people didn't notice, didn't care, or agreed with the song's sentiment. But I do know that no one said anything at all.

Now I wonder to myself: "Should I have spoken up? Should I have stood up in the middle of a church I'm a guest at, in front of my family, and lashed out at singer, telling him that he was spitting in the face of the veterans who sit before him?" The answer is "probably not". The damage done to my family wouldn't have been worth it. Most likely, everyone would have thought I was a raving lunatic and instead agreed with the singer.

Was my silence correct? These were just words, not actions, but they were poisonous words. Should they be corrected, or would the low likelihood of correction, combined with the potential to alienate family, make it so that such an outcry would be foolish?  I don't know.  I hesitate to take silence as tacit approval, for I was silent myself.  I don't tend even to feel that the singer is evil or malicious, but more misguided.  What scares me is that he, and the other members of this church, are voters.  It is precisely in situations like this that I realize just how wise the founders were when they created different branches of the government.  Without the Supreme Court to strike down such misguided voting this nation would have fallen long ago.
In any case, it's easy for me to sit here, retrospectively imagining an impassioned and articulate speech that was so compelling that everyone in the room would have agreed with me, when in fact such a spontaneous outburst without forethought probably would have gone something like "You guys are a bunch of poopie-heads who hate America."  So, instead of that supreme form of embarrassment, I am writing this blog post.  

God bless the edit button.  

Monday, July 6, 2009

Movie Review: JCVD - Van Damme Flexes His Heart Muscle

I have never thought much of Jean-Claude Van Damme, so one has to wonder why I would watch this movie. It's called JCVD, starring one Jean-Claude Van Damme, or, as he admits (partially) in the movie: Jean-Claude Camille Francois Van Vaerenbergh. Good job to whoever told him to get a stage name.

This, however, is anything but a typical Van Vaerenbergh movie. The plot is deliciously, if not a bit ridiculously, self-referential. The Muscles from Brussels plays himself in this film. He is a huge action movie star who feels that all of his movies are crappy, low-budget action movies that will never amount to anything. As his director asks in the opening scene, "He still thinks we're making Citizen Kane?" In other words, this actor, Jean-Claude Van Vaerenbergh, longs to create art, and we can only imagine this film is his attempt to do just that.

At the beginning of the movie, he gets into a custody battle over his daughter after his most recent movie shoot, hits some money problems, and heads back to Brussels to try to "get a new start". A few minutes later, we see him making demands from the police chief from inside of post office full of hostages. He's now starring in his own personal real-life action movie. It's an interesting interpretation of "get a new start", but let's roll with it.

I won't go into much more detail about the plot because I severely hate spoilers, but the movie was actually pretty enjoyable. I won't say I loved it, but I genuinely liked it. The movie is entirely in French, though I saw a dubbed version, but I didn't mind too much. The acting seemed competent, and I found myself really sympathizing with JCCFVV as an actor as he laments his "plight" of being an international movie star. At other times though, the movie almost gets a bit preachy; you get the feeling that this is a Belgian movie defending their international superstar and trying to play him up to the world, including a bizarre prayer/rant sequence that calls out American moviegoers.

There were a few other interesting characters in the movie, and some plot turns that had me guessing. The filming seemed quite good (the opening action sequence was cool and done entirely in one take) and the musical score was effective, if not almost a bit over-dramatic at times. I get the feeling this director would do an excellent horror movie if he hasn't already.

There were a few plot inconsistencies - some characters didn't really act in a way that made sense, and there were some loose ends I would have preferred to have been tied up, but it was fun to see JC2FV2 playing a serious, dramatic role, and doing a decent job at it. All in all I enjoyed it - check it out if you're feeling like something a bit different. I give it a 7 / 10.

Plus, for those following my Netflix Diet, this was 90 minutes of elliptical work - so go me. :)

Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Netflix Diet

I wonder how motivational it'll be to give some personal details about myself publicly where they can be read by...well, no one at this point...and know that I have pressure from complete strangers to actually keep working and progressing.

I'm a little heavier than I, or my doctor, would like me to be. At about 5'9", my 202 pounds puts me just shy of a 30 BMI. Ideally, I'd be down in the 170 range. I've been down as low as 185 a few summers ago (from my previous high of 215). I'm not morbidly obese - I can still run a 5K in under 30 minutes - but I could use some work.

My plan of attack, like last time I set out to lose weight, is a combination of diet and exercise. Amazing how well such a simple combination works. I tried the South Beach diet once. That was a disaster. I didn't enjoy eating any more, but much worse I found myself blacking out after exercising, presumably due to the conspicuous lack of carbs. I changed instead to some portion control, smarter snacking, only water to drink, and minimal/no desert. Combine that with 45 minutes of rowing and running 5 days a week and I shed almost 30 pounds in 6 weeks.

I'm now hoping to do that again, although the timeframe isn't as pressing (last time my girlfriend was out of the country for 6 weeks and I decided to surprise her). I started at 206 pounds in May of 2009.

Step one was to acquire an elliptical since I no longer had access to the university gym. We landed a pretty sweet NordicTrack AudioStrider 990 on Craigslist for a very reasonable price. I started using it occasionally - a few times a week, but nothing regular enough to really have a large impact, having dropped only 4 pounds in 2 months.

Where does Netflix come in? Well, I used to watch movies. A lot. I was in a movie club. I was a member of BlockbusterOnline. I rented movies constantly when I was home alone in the evenings in my apartment. In the past year, I've lacked the time and the opportunity to watch many movies, and I've missed that.

This morning, I decided to get up and hop on the elliptical, but instead of watching some TV, I booted up Netflix on my Xbox 360 (which is freakin' awesome by the way) and started watching JCVD (review to come in a few days). I got 30 minutes into it when my running program ended, and then I stopped it. I don't get to watch more until I run again, which is some great motivation.

Now, I'm going to be able to get my exercise (might even bump it up to 45 minute programs) and watch tons of movies without feeling like I'm wasting my time. I'll be able to get through almost two movies a week if I run each workday (which is my goal), and then I can write up my reviews here. It's a win-win situation and is dirt cheap: $9 per month and you get 1 out at a time plus unlimited on-demand video. Awesome. :)

Car Allowance Rebate System idiocy

Time for my first Bone to Pick.  This one isn't huge, but it's more than a Nitpick, so it gets to start off the new category.  

What is the Car Allowance Rebate System (beyond one of the less awkward but still silly government backronyms)?  It is a plan pushed through by Obama to incentivize purchasing of more fuel efficient cars.  I'm not exactly sure where the money for it is coming from, but assuming funding is available, it seems like a pretty sweet plan.  It stimulates the ailing car market (which we all own stock in, so yay for stimulation), promotes and raises awareness of fuel efficiency in cars, and even helps to just generally make everyone happier.  Not too shabby.  You can read more about the details at

So, where's my complaint?  The basic plan goes like this: you trade in your old vehicle and buy or lease a new one with better gas mileage, and the government gives you an instant rebate of $3500 to $4500, which is pretty awesome.  I'm looking to get rid of a '99 Ford Taurus with a busted air conditioner and blah gas mileage.  In order to be eligible, the new car must cost less than $45,000 and have a mileage increase of at least 4 mpg.  Damn, no Denali.  I guess I can settle.  Honestly, we were pondering a new Prius, with an EPA estimated 46 mpg.  The old car must be in working order, less than 25 years old, and have an EPA estimated combined mileage of 18 mpg or less.  

Cool.  Check.  Check.  And...shit.  Ford Taurus: EPA mileage of 19 mpg.  Are you freaking kidding me?  So yeah, I'm ticked off because this hurts me personally, but it also led me to think about the implications.  The government would rather you trade in your 18 mpg car for a 22 mpg car (increase of 22%), than trade in a 19 mpg car for a 46 mpg car (increase of 142%)?  That's absolutely ridiculous.  Something like: "must be at least 4 mpg increase, or for cars over 20 mpg must increase by at least 30%" would have made a lot of sense and had much farther reaching benefits.  But no, apparently we're only aiming to get rid of the worst of the worst and don't care about trying to really push everyone to really improve their mileage.   

Perhaps it's an effect of having limited cash.  Perhaps they just had enough money to be able to focus on the worst offenders, and I suppose that makes sense.  But geez - I was all excited about going full-on green (well, just shy of a sparkly new Tesla Model S), but because Ford made my car just efficient enough I'm out about $4000.  Nice.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Things that are "natural"

All over the place, I see the phrase "all natural" or "only includes natural ingredients".  Now, I love Whole Foods as much as the next person, but I really have to wonder why everyone is so obsessed with things being "natural".  Let's list some natural things:

- Poison arrow frogs
- Necrotizing fasciitus (don't click if you've eaten recently)
- Anthrax 
- Arsenic 

Hell, that last one is on the periodic table of elements.  It's one of the fundamental building blocks of the universe.  Can't get much more natural than that.  And it'll kill you real quickly, too.

Now, for some unnatural things:

- Many antibiotics
- Many vaccines
- Many drugs (most drugs probably by now)
- Air conditioning
- Computers / the internet

So, remind me again why anything "natural" in inherently better than things that aren't natural?  If a cereal box wants to explain to me why I would care, what chemicals are removed, and what risks would come from using food treated with those chemicals, then maybe I'd listen.  But generally we get the "all natural" plug and that's it.  I'm interested in reading up on potential harmful effects of not using natural or organic products, but generally we're just bombarded by pictures of plants and trees and told that it's all really good for us.  

EDIT: One quick example.  I decided to google "dangers of preservatives" and this was the first result.  It's a huge long article listing all the horrible things that are in our food.  However, it fails in almost every single case to give any evidence whatsoever of harm done to humans, especially in the amounts consumed.  Our body is great at filtering things, and if trace amounts of some poison make it in, we'll filter it out.  I'm not saying that I want my food to be filled with the stuff, but I'd like to see something a bit more concrete before spending 50% more for food that won't last more than a couple days in my pantry.  

Picking up a new hobby

This is my first "pick".  I'll be exploring exactly what that means in the future, but my intention is to create a blog primarily for therapeutic reasons.  I'll talk about things that are interesting to me, or that I need to rant about, or whatever.  Y'know, the normal things people do when they've never blogged before - only I have "clever" puns for mine.  Hopefully someone will enjoy reading it as well, but that's just gravy.  :)

So, what categories should we have? 

I'm pretty sure I want to include:

- Movie Picks (movie reviews)
- Game Picks (game reviews)
- Web Picks (cool websites and web content)
- Nitpicks (minor things to gripe about for fun)
- Bones to Pick (major issues I feel the need to discuss)
- Cool Pix (not sure about this one, but might be nice to have some pictures)
- Pickles (conundrums, problems, questions for the anonymous world)

Some of these could use better names - any suggestions?  Also, what should we call generic posts?  I'm gonna call them Pick-less for now, since they have no picks.  

Additionally, the Labels widget is ugly.  I'm hoping to get a nice horizontal menu bar, but I've spent an hour already trying to get one to work and that's enough for now.