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Sunday, December 31, 2006

Link to Someone New
A while back, Shamus wrote about the tendency for blogs (and bloggers) to get stuck in a closed loop, constantly reading and linking to the same group of blogs. I'm as guilty as anyone (plus, I have a tendency to not link other blogs at all), so in an effort to combat the blogging equivalent of inbreeding, here are links to three blogs I've never linked before:
  • 79 Soul: The Year in Review, 2006: My friend Roy (aka Samael, who you might remember from his various appearances on this blog) has actually started blogging over at his buddy's site, and has posted a year in review that includes references to movies, music, and graphic novels.
  • The Amateur Gourmet: Chutzpah, Truffles & Alain Ducasse: I have no idea how I stumbled upon this, but it's great. The amateur gormet chronicles how he managed to scam his way into an absurdly expensive restaurant for a free meal. In comic form. Go and read, it's excellent.
  • Russell Davies: how to be interesting: I think most bloggers are already doing a bunch of these things, but it's an interesting (pun not noticed at first, but it actually works kinda well) post anyway.
That's all for now. I hope everyone has a happy new year!
Posted by Mark on December 31, 2006 at 03:37 PM .: Comments (3) | link :.



Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Again New Computer
A few weeks ago, I wrote about what I was looking for in a new computer, and various buying options. I had it narrowed down to a few options, but being cognizant of the paradox of choice, I decided on ordering a Prelude system from Maingear, a small custom computer shop that actually had reasonable prices (I got the system I was looking for: Intel Core 2 Duo E6600, 2 GB RAM, 320 GB Hard Drive, etc...). I probably paid a little more than I would have if I just bought all the components and then put it together myself, but I was willing to pay for the convenience of a pre-configured system. Also, unlike other cheap custom PC shops like CyberPowerPC, Maingear has a fantastic reputation for building quality systems and providing excellent support. I'm pleased to report that Maingear lives up to its reputation. Shortly after ordering my PC, they contacted me to confirm a few things and ask if I had any questions or special requests (I understand they'll preinstall various games for you if you want, provided you have the CD Key. Alas, I have no such games, so I didn't get to request this, but that's a neat service.)

They also informed me that they (like every other retailer) were quite busy at this time of the year, but that they would try to get me the PC before Christmas. And it arrived just in the nick of time, on Saturday, December 23 (another Festivus miracle!). It was well packaged, and appeared to be in working order (as compared to a friend's experience with CyberPowerPC where his DVD drive was mounted incorrectly amongst a bunch of other strange problems). The case looks great (I don't know why, but most custom PC cases are very crappy looking or obscenely gaudy):

PC Case

The insides are arranged about as neat as could be expected, with all the various wires and connectors hidden or tied tightly together. This is nothing short of amazing when compared to my previous computer.

PC Case

And it came with a nice personalized binder that had all of the installation CDs, backup CDs, and documentation for the computer.

PC Case

When I fired up the computer, I was pleased to find that no Windows configuration was really necessary. The desktop was relatively clean (no annoying special offers from AOL, etc...), all the latest patches and updated drivers had been installed, and everything was ready for me to install my favorite apps. As far as performance goes, it appears to be a champ (according to a screenshot they included, it scores a 5453 in 3DMark06 - but I have no frame of reference for telling just how good that is). They also included a copy of Hitman: Blood Money (an unexpected and pleasant bonus), which I've been working my way through ( it's one of those annoying DIAS type of games, but hey, I'm not complaining).

All in all, I couldn't be happier with my new computer. For something I use as often as I use my computer, I think it was worth every penny.
Posted by Mark on December 27, 2006 at 06:52 PM .: Comments (2) | link :.



Sunday, December 24, 2006

Merry Christmas
In the future, pine trees will be extinct, and then what will we do for Christmas trees? We'll use a cactus. I present you with this year's Traditional Kaedrin Christmas Cactus:

Traditional Kaedrin Christmas Cactus

The picture didn't turn out as well as last year (it keeps coming out fuzzy for some reason, perhaps because of all the extra lights or because of the lighting - hey look, a handy guide for taking pictures of Christmas lights), but it'll do well enough.

Moving on, a few other christmas links for your enjoyment: That's all for now. Go forth, and watch your Anime.
Posted by Mark on December 24, 2006 at 10:52 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.



Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Dubbing vs. Subtitles
One of the things movie snobs often complain about is dubbing, and when it comes to your typical live action foreign language films, I'm pretty firmly entrenched in the snob camp. However, animation is different, as it doesn't suffer as badly from unsynchronized lip movement. Most humans find the human face engaging and are wired, seemingly from birth (faces are among the first things babies are thought to recognize), to read facial expressions and movements. So we're very good at recognizing when someone's voice doesn't match their lip movements. Again, in a dubbed live action film, this produces a sort of cognitive dissonance. Animated films always have to deal with this (even when animation is matched to the voiceover, the fidelity of animation prevents an exact match), so it would make sense that a dubbed animated film would probably not be as jarring as a dubbed live action film. In short, I'm already accustomed to the cognitive dissonance caused by animated films, so dubbing should theoretically be fine. Beckonking Chasm recenty wrote about his adventures in Anime, and makes an interesting case:
I always watch the English dub versions. Not to disrespect the Japanese or their language, far from it, but I have absolutely no facility with foreign languages. (My abilities in English are bad enough.) Yes, one can read subtitles, and that’s how I always watch live-action foreign films. An actor’s voice is just as much a part of his performance as his face and the way he chooses to move.

However, when watching Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson argue about who gets to commit suicide first, I can see them in a familiar environment—I don’t have to wonder what the fantastical device is that they’re sitting on, I know it’s called a “couch.” Even in futuristic live-action films, I can still key in on what the environment represents to the characters and I don’t have to watch it continuously to figure out its nature.

In animation, however, everything is brand new. It’s all been designed deliberately from the blank page up—everything has a choice behind it. It’s also frequently imaginative and beautiful. I don’t like taking my eyes away from it in order to read subtitles—I’d much rather hear the dialogue so I can keep watching.
I've recently been watching more Anime, and the question of whether to use dubbing or subtitles is still up in the air for me. My live action snobbery has leaked over to animated films, so I've watched most everything with the original audio and subtitles, but I've also recently tried giving the dubs a shot as well (with varying results). However, I think Beckoning Chasm makes some interesting points. So when I started watching Ghost in the Shell, I decided that I'd give the dubbing a try. Bad move. The english voice acting was so bad that I couldn't stand it and had to switch to subtitles. Then I noticed something interesting. The translations were completely different.

The opening scene in the movie features the Major on a rooftop, eavesdropping on some diplomatic meeting. The dubbed version goes like this:
BATOU: Major Kusanagi, Section 6 is in position and ready to move in.
BATOU: Major, are you there?
THE MAJOR: Yeah, I heard you.
BATOU: I'm surprised you could hear anything. What's with all the noise in your brain today?
THE MAJOR: Must be a loose wire.
And the subtitled version was this:
BATOU: Major Kusanagi, Section 6 is ready to move in.
BATOU: Major!
THE MAJOR: I hear you.
BATOU: There's a lot of static in your brain.
THE MAJOR: It's that time of the month.
Quite a difference, and, um, a little sexist? Even disregarding that, it appears that the dubbing is a more natural translation, even if the voice actors can't emote to save their lives. I finished the movie with subtitles on, then went back and turned on the english language audio with the english subtitles. It's a bizzarre experience.

I didn't watch the whole thing like that, as it's a little distracting to be reading and hearing similar, but different text (talk about your cognitive dissonance). Oddly enough, even though I think the dubbed translation is better, I still think subtitles work reasonably well too. Some of the dialogue sounds ridiculous when voiced out loud, but reading it gives a different experience. Also, it makes sense that the subtitles would be different, as there is a limited amount of space to communicate the same information (apparently there is less space in subtitles than in the audio).

One of the problems with adapting books to movies is that an exact translation is nearly always doomed to failure. You can't typically use the same dialogue as the book, for instance. It will sound stunted and out of place. No one talks they way people talk in books. Hell, no one talks the way they do in movies. That's because the dialogue is adapted to the medium. You can get away with a lot more in prose, but movies need to convey a lot of the same information visually. This is why adaptations are so difficult. However, when I watched the subtitled version of Ghost in the Shell, the dialogue seemed much better when reading it than when listening to it (even though I liked the dubbed translation better). It's almost like an accidental middle ground between a book a movie. It's an interesting dynamic, and I'm not sure what to make of it. In the mean time, I'm going to have to experiment with dubbed versions of stuff that I've already seen. I wonder what Haibane Renmei is like dubbed? Is the translation different? Why do I have the feeling I'm going to spend my Christmas holiday watching anime with the audio and subtitles set to english (then again, December 25 is Anime Day, so perhaps this is appropriate)?
Posted by Mark on December 20, 2006 at 10:39 PM .: Comments (10) | link :.


Animation Marathon: Ghost in the Shell
The next film in the animation marathon is Ghost in the Shell. Like the previous film in the marathon, Akira, I had already seen this movie a few times before revisiting it for the marathon. Unlike Akira, my original opinion of this film was relatively high, and this most recent viewing hasn't changed my feelings much. Ghost in the Shell is not perfect, but it holds up well and is an excellent animated film.

Like Akira, Ghost in the Shell is often held up as one of the essential pieces of anime that anyone interested in the form needs to see. Historically, it was the first anime film released simultaneously in Japan and in other markets (notably the UK and the US), but it proved a little too complex to become a mainstream success. However, it found a market on DVD and has enjoyed cult status ever since.

The story takes place in a futuristic world where technology has advanced considerably and has begun to displace biological components of the human body (this even includes the brain). Cyborgs are common, and indeed, many people are more machine than human (those who can afford it, at least). One such cyborg is Major Motoko Kusanagi. She heads up a team that is part of section 9, an intelligence organization that tends to work more in the shadows (as opposed to their counterparts in section 6, whose role could be described more diplomatically).

The Major

All this technology comes at a price though. Increased internet connectivity and human-computer brain interfaces have introduced new vulnerabilities, and a new crime has appeared: Ghost hacking. The "Ghost" essentially represents a person's individual identity (while the "shell" represents their physical body, be it biological or artificial), and hackers can access and manipulate a human's ghost. A ghost hacker named "The Puppet Master" has appeared on the scene, hacking into various people, erasing their memories and programming them to do his bidding. Section 9, lead by the Major, has been chasing the Puppet Master for a while now, and some pieces of the puzzle are beginning to fall into place...

The Major likes to scuba dive

It's a dense story, and the technological advances pose a ton of intriguing questions about the nature of identity. The Major, whose physical body is almost all machine, is understandably a little paranoid about her identity. Is she really who she thinks she is? Is anyone really who they think they are? What makes me what I am? If my consciousness is transferred into an artificial brain, am I still me? This is the sort of thing that will stay with you long after the film has ended. After watching Ghost in the Shell, Steven Den Beste wrote a fascinating article exploring these concepts:
Ghost in the Shell challenged me to consider the question of what I actually am. What makes me what I am?

What am I? That can be answered in many ways. I am a particular human being; I am this body. But is the entire body really part of the essential me? I don't consider myself to be different – or to have died – if I trim my fingernails or get my hair cut. If I suffered a grievous injury and had a limb amputated, I would still be me. If I received a heart transplant, I would still be me. (And the donor of that heart would still be dead.)
The whole article is great and helps illustrate the intellectually challenging aspects of the story. The film explores these questions in detailed philosophical conversations that may be a little to overt for some, but it works well in a plot that intersperses enough action and intrigue to keep the viewer's attention. While the film does include governmental agencies and a futuristic city, I think it's worth noting that this future isn't a dystopia. It's a well realized vision of the future, but it actually doesn't feel all that different from our own world. That is to say, things aren't perfect, but we haven't descended to the ninth circle of hell just yet either. This is a large part of why I enjoyed this film more than I enjoyed Akira. Both movies deal with big ideas and transcendant themes, but Akira's characters are shallow and unsympathetic and it's ideas are only given a superficial exploration. Ghost in the Shell, on the other hand, has several sympathetic characters and it delves much deeper into it's conceptual vision. The ending of both movies involves some ambiguity, but Ghost in the Shell's ending resonates deeper because I could empathize with the characters (even if the plot was a little convoluted).

A tank fires at the Major

Visually, Ghost in the Shell is impressive. Like Akira, it's a spectacular piece of work, and quite engaging. The animation is extremely detailed and fluid (though I have to admit, I think I'm more impressed with Akira's animation). The action sequences are well orchestrated and sometimes approach a poetic feel. The soundtrack is evokative and well suited towards the subject matter, though the dubbed voiceover is amongst the worst I've heard. Ironically, I think subtitles may suit this script better than spoken word in some cases (see my musings on the varying translations on the dubbing and subtitled versions), as the longer monologues sound absurd when spoken aloud in a monotone voice, but don't seem so ponderous when read by the viewer. Symbolism, such as the use of a wall charting the evolution of life in the climax of the film, is used but not abused. As previously mentioned, the juxtaposition of action sequences with philosophical musings may seem a little disjointed and jarring to some, but I was taken in by the film.

Visually stunning, intellectually challenging, and action packed

Ultimately, we're left with a visually stunning, intellectually challenging, action packed movie. Unlike Akira, this movie had more of an emotional impact and it provoked interesting thoughts. It stuck with me, and forced me to ponder some of the great unanswerable questions. While I wouldn't call it a perfect film, it is well worth the watch and definitely amongst the Anime essentials. Three Stars (***)

Update: Filmspotting has posted their review, and their feelings were mixed. Neither seemed to be impressed with the story (or couldn't follow it) or the visuals, but Sam seemed to like it for the same reasons I did (though Adam did not).

More images and assorted comments below the fold... As with Akira, I took too many screenshots and wanted to show off some of the visuals in the movie here in the extended entry.

Action sequences are frequent and well done. I wanted to use this image in the above review, but it seemed a little out of place and didn't flow with the review or the other screenshots. In this shot, a ghost hacked individual is using high velocity ammo, and the animation shows him bracing his body and still being pushed back by the force of firing his weapon. Neat effect, but it doesn't translate well to a static image:

High Velocity ammo!

This next shot shows the Major and her partner Batou, who is clearly taken with the Major, but not necessarily in a romantic way. There's a dynamic between the two that isn't really explored too deeply, but is interesting nonetheless. It makes sense that their relationship would seem weird to me though, because they're both cyborgs that are mostly machines... and I would assume that things are different in some way.

The Major and Batou

The next two shots show the setting of the movie, which is a large unspecified Asian city. As I mentioned in my review, though the city is futuristic, it's not a dystopia and it doesn't feature all the lame cyberpunk tropes that populate most such futuristic settings. In fact, it resembles current cities, only it's larger and more advanced...

City

Billboards


At the film's climax, the Major faces off against a tank that looks more like a spider than a tank.

The Major and a Spider Tank

And finally, I'll leave you with another closeup shot of the Major (there seem to be a lot of these in the film).

Major Closeup

Again, an excellent movie. It's probably not for everyone, but it's worth watching along with Akira. Honestly, Akira might be a little more visually spectacular, but GITS wins on characters and story.
Posted by Mark on December 20, 2006 at 10:13 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.



Tuesday, December 19, 2006

It was only a fantasy...
I've never been much of a sports fan, but in recent years I have become a fantasy sports fan. The funny thing about fantasy sports is that it totally distorts the importance of events in games. Take, for instance, last week's Monday Night Football game. We were nearing playoff time in fantasy football. My roommate and I were dominating the league, and had clinched playoff spots. There was one other team with a winning record who had also clinched. And there were 2 teams in contention for the final playoff spot. It's a head-to-head league, and I was playing one of the 2 teams. Due to some bad performances by key members of my team (*cough, cough, Tom Brady, cough*), I was down by 5 points by the end of the Sunday games. He had no players remaining, but I had 1 person playing in the Monday night football game. There's just one problem: he's a kicker - not a position known for high scoring. A kicker gets 1 fantasy point for every extra point they kick, and field goals can be 3-6 points (depending on how far the kick is from). So basically, what you had last week was 4 or 5 people throughout the northeast intensely following and rooting for (or against)... a kicker.
Me: They're in field goal range! Call in Wilkins!
Roommate: Dude, it's second down. I don't think they're going to kick it.
As luck would have it, I lost. However, I was still in the playoffs and I ended up playing the same person I would have played anyway. Alas, it appears that my team peaked early. After going 12-1 during the first 13 weeks of play, I've gone 0-2 in the past two weeks. I lost in the first round of the playoffs. There may still be some hope for placing third place, but I must concede that my season didn't end the way I planned. The main culprit here was injuries, as my top Wide Reciever and another solid Running Back both went down in recent weeks, thus weakening my team considerably. Nevertheless, I bear my team no ill will, and so I'll let the Badgers take a bow:
  • Tom Brady: (QB) In some ways, he's been a bit of a disappointment, but in reality, he's done about as well as I could have ever hoped. Quarterback was a tough position to fill this year, what with all the underperforming stars and former stars and rookies and injuries. There were probably only a handful of consistent performers, and a couple of abominable weeks aside, Brady was one of them.
  • Larry Johnson: (RB) At the start of the season, there were really only 3 elite running backs to get, and LJ was one of them. I was fortunate enough to get the second overall pick in the draft, so I was able to get him (Ironically, the 3 backs were drafted in opposite order of eventual performance). Overshadowed by the obscenely dominant LaDainian Tomlinson (who has already scored a record breaking 33 touchdowns, and he still has two games left in the season), Johnson was actually my leading scorer.
  • Kevin Jones: Apparently, this guy went to my high school. Go figure. In any case, for most of the year, he was my surprisingly productive second back (surprising in that, you know, he plays for the Lions).
  • Ahman Green: (RB) He made a nice third back option when I needed him, and managed to fill in well for Jones when the injuries started coming. He spent a decent portion of the season on the bench, and I got him very late in the draft, so I was pretty happy.
  • Larry Fitzgerald: (WR) He was supposed to be my premier receiver and did very well until he got injured for several weeks. He came back towards the end of my run, and put up decent numbers. Not quite the spectacular year everyone was expecting from him, but decent nonetheless.
  • Darrell Jackson: (WR) Up until last week, he's been one of the steadiest players on the team, consistently putting up high fantasy numbers. Then he got injured and didn't play last week. I started one of his backups, Nate Burleson, but he didn't do anything. Darn.
  • Jason Witten: (TE) Tight Ends don't normally put up big numbers, and Witten was no exception. Still, i was expecting more than a single touchdown from the guy. A few years ago he damn near put up a thousand yards with 6 touchdowns (and he had a ver respectible season last year too). No one ever counts on their tight ends, really, and Witten didn't do that bad, but still.
  • Jeff Wilkins: (K) Early in the season, this guy was putting up huge numbers. Huge. This is, of course, absurd for a kicker, and it didn't last. Still, he did better than anyone would ever have expected.
  • San Diego: (D/ST) The SD defence was quite good this year, and netted me a fair amount of points, considering that I drafted them pretty late in the draft. I started the season with Denver, but SD consistently outscored them, so SD got the call for most of the season, and did a good job
  • Miscellaneous: I picked up Brandon Jacobs off the waiver wire and had him filling in for a few weeks during some of the injury-laden times. He makes a surprisingly decent third fantasy back because even though he doesn't get a lot of touches, he gets them where they count: the goalline. Tiki Barber owners must be furious (this is another example of fantasy distorting reality). Kevan Barlow had a similar (but much less consistent) situation going in New Jersey, but pretty much rode the bench for me all year long. Keyshawn Johnson and Isaac Bruce both put up consistent (relatively low, but still decent) numbers and made some appearances at the flex position throughout the year, but neither really did a ton for me. I picked up Tony Romo towards the end of the season, and pretty much regretted not starting him every week (especially the week he threw for 5 touchdowns). But still, how do you start a young, unproven punk like Romo over someone like Brady?
All in all, it was a decent year, even if they did peak a little early and get injured a little too often. I've made it to the playoffs in two of the last three years (and the one year I didn't was due to an uncharacteristic bad draft pick). This is actually not half bad for someone who doesn't pay attention to sports!
Posted by Mark on December 19, 2006 at 08:48 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.



Sunday, December 17, 2006

Just Do It
In Paul Graham's essay Made in USA, he writes about America's tendencies towards design.
Americans are good at some things and bad at others. We're good at making movies and software, and bad at making cars and cities. And I think we may be good at what we're good at for the same reason we're bad at what we're bad at. We're impatient. In America, if you want to do something, you don't worry that it might come out badly, or upset delicate social balances, or that people might think you're getting above yourself. If you want to do something, as Nike says, just do it.
It's amazing how well the "Just Do It" marketing line fits America (the only other tagline that works as well is EA Sports' "If it's in the game, it's in the game" line), and Graham is certainly right about how that affects programmers. I've noticed that there are really two different types of programmers: people who look stuff up, and people who just try it to see if it works. People ask me questions about HTML or CSS all the time. Sometimes I know the answer, sometimes I dont, but most of the time my response is "Have you tried it to see what happens?" HTML is pretty simple, and it's easy to test out various concepts. There's no reason not to, and I'll also note that trying it is also the best way to learn. I'm reminded of this design parable about a ceramics class:
The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the "quantity" group: fifty pound of pots rated an "A", forty pounds a "B", and so on. Those being graded on "quality", however, needed to produce only one pot -albeit a perfect one - to get an "A". Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the "quantity" group was busily churning out piles of work - and learning from their mistakes - the "quality" group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.
There are several interesting things about this. First, as Graham notes in his essay, good craftsmanship means working fast and iterating your design. Second, failure isn't a bad thing in this story. In fact, failure is a necessary component of success. In such a scenario, people who work fast and iterate do much better than people who meticulously plan their designs. As Graham belabors in his essay, this works for some things, not not others.

Of course, not all American designs are bad, and Graham mentions the obvious exception:
Apple is an interesting counterexample to the general American trend. If you want to buy a nice CD player, you'll probably buy a Japanese one. But if you want to buy an MP3 player, you'll probably buy an iPod. What happened? Why doesn't Sony dominate MP3 players?
It's because Apple is obsessed with good design ("Or more precisely, their CEO is.") Interestingly, I think one of the reasons the iPod is so successful is that Apple understands the paradox of choice really well. The iPod isn't and has never really been the leader in terms of features or functionality. But it does what it does extremely well, and I think that's partly because the iPod is actually quite simple. If you loaded it up with all sorts of extra features, there's no way you'd be able to keep the simplicity of the interface, and that would make it harder to use, and much less attactive.

In the end, I don't know that I agree with everything in Graham's essay, but his stuff is always worth reading.
Posted by Mark on December 17, 2006 at 07:41 PM .: Comments (4) | link :.



Thursday, December 14, 2006

A Spamtastic Mystery
One of the joys of maintaining a website is dealing with spam. Over the years, I've had to deal with several different varieties of spam here, including comment spam, trackback spam, even my old forum got inundated with spam. As such, countermeasures were deployed with varying degrees of success. Movable Type has improved its spam blocking capabilities considerably, and I use a plugin to close comments on posts older than 60 days, so the blog has remained relatively spam free for a while now. I replaced my forum with a new system that requires registration (ironically, even the new forum was spammed with a bizzarely intriciate scheme to sell, no joke, biodynamic cheese).

This leaves referrer spam. I don't know that there's anything to really be done about that short of banning IP addresses and the like, but I never really used my site's raw referral logs that extensively, so even though I'm sure I get a decent amount of referrer spam, I don't really see it. Instead, I use sitemeter, a popular web stats application that uses an image and javascript to collect the appropriate info (you can see the little multicolored image towards the bottom of every page on Kaedrin). I'm not sure if sitemeter does something on their end to prevent referral spam, or if spambots simply ignore the technology they use, but I get next to no referrer spam there.

Until this morning.

I awoke to find my site had several hundred hits overnight (much more than usual). When I looked at the referrals, I noticed that I was getting a huge amount of traffic from a bunch of sites that were all variations of the same domain. A sampling includes:
http://qfm96.listenernetwork.com/SearchWeb.asp
http://wmvx.listenernetwork.com/SearchWeb.asp
http://973thebrew.listenernetwork.com/SearchWeb.asp
http://98online.listenernetwork.com/SearchWeb.asp
As you can see, all the referrs are coming from some sort of search application. Going to the various "listenernetwork.com" home pages, it became obvious that they were all radio station sites that were apparently all using some central application to produce cheap, easy sites for themselves (they all use the same template with content and styles tailored towards individual stations). The sites and referrals were distributed all throughout the country. At a glance, they seemed to be legit stations. How odd.

All of the referrals were going to my Neal Stephenson category archive page, which was strange. At first, I thought, hey, maybe Neal Stephenson announced a new book on the radio this morning! Of course, that doesn't make much sense, but I'm a sucker for Stephenson and so I wanted to believe. In any case, it immediately became obvious that something else was going on (damn!).

The most frustrating thing about these referrals is that they're obviously coming from these radio station sites' built-in search engine, which apparently uses a HTTP POST request instead of a GET request. Most search engines use GET requests because then the search parameters are contained in the URL, which allows users to bookmark searches. POST requests hide search parameters, so users can't bookmark their searches and referred sites can't see what the search terms are. So not only was I getting all this traffic from a mysterious search engine, but I didn't even know what people were searching for...

Back to the logs I go. After rooting around a bit, I found some other search engines like ask and google were referring to the same Neal Stephenson page... but they had the search terms in their URL:
what unit of length used in nuclear physics is named after a famed manhattan project scientist?
Allright, so I'm making progress. My Stephenson category page contains most of those terms, so that kinda makes sense. I went to one of the refferring sites and was quickly able to reproduce the search on their site and see my page come up in the results. But this question is rather odd, and there were many people searching with that exact question. What the heck is going on here?

Confused and a little intrigued, I started clicking around one of the referring radio station's sites hunting for clues. Then I found it. Apparently, all these stations run some sort of big national contest, and the mysterious question above was today's "Really Hard Trivia" question. The site even conveniently notes: "Don't know the answer? Search the web below." Bingo.

So it appears that these are all indeed legitimate referrals, though I can't imagine anyone becoming a reader, as they didn't find the answer on my page. However, in the off chance that someone is still looking, the answer appears to be the Bohr Radius, named after Neils Bohr.

It turns out that I probably could have saved myself a good deal of effort by simply googling "listenernetwork referrer spam," as this issue has apparently struck others before. Still, it was somewhat intriguing and I'm glad it didn't turn out to be referrer spam...
Posted by Mark on December 14, 2006 at 05:49 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.



Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Animation Marathon: Akira
There were only two movies in the Animation Marathon that I hadn't seen before, and they were the first two. Next up is Akira, a movie that I have seen multiple times in the past. My first thoughts upon initial viewings were that it had some interesting points but that it was ultimately an incoherent mess. However, it should be noted that I originally saw the movie many years ago on a crappy VHS tape with a dubbed soundtrack and a washed out transfer. The movie has since been fully restored, digitally remastered, and perhaps most importantly, it's recieved a new translation. As a result, the film looked great and I could follow the story much better this time around, and my opinon of the film has improved considerably. It certainly has some flaws, but it really is a spectacular experience. Spoilers ahoy.

Along with Ghost in the Shell (the next film in the marathon), this film is often held up as the pinnacle of Anime and, as such, is generally considered to be "essential" viewing for someone interested in the form. Historically, this is the film that brought Anime to America (it was my first exposure to Anime as well), so it's certainly important in that respect. Even so, I don't know that it really would make a good introduction to the form, unless you are really into the gritty post-apocalyptic genre.

Kaneda on his bike

The story begins by showing Tokyo consumed by a large explosion that apparently sets off World War III. Thirty years later, the war is over and Tokyo has been rebuilt. Like most post-apocalyptic worlds, this one ain't pretty. The streets are overwhelmed with dissent and crime is rampant. The story follows a wimpy biker punk named Tetsuo and his friend Kaneda, who seems to be the leader of their makeshift motorcycle gang. The two get caught up in a governmental experiment that attempts to harness latent human abilities, and Tetsuo suddenly becomes endowed with psychic powers. I think Justin puts it well when he says: "As we all well know, from studying Carrie, rejected nerds with telekenetic abilities do not use their powers just for cleaning litter on the highways." Tetsuo goes on a rampage through New Tokyo in an attempt to reach the mysterious Akira.

Tetsuo

Adapted from a 2,000 page Manga series of the same name, Akira touches on a lot of subjects. As with most adaptations of large bodies of work, there are some scenes or characters that seem out of place and it feels like there is a lot of complexity lurking beneath the surface, especially when it comes to the social and political issues that are only touched on in the film. However, the story works well as a whole. The ending is still a little confusing, but it's much better than the garbled mess from the original translation. Thematically, the film is obviously alluding to Japan's relationship with technology, specifically nuclear weapons. There appear to be strong cultural themes in the film that are a little hazy to a westerner like myself, but there is clearly something going on there.

The only issue I had with the story is that the most of the characters are not very likeable. Tetsuo and Kaneda are ostensibly the center of the film, but they're both self-interested punks and not very sympathetic. I guess you'd call Tetsuo the villain of the movie, so it's understandable that he's not likeable, but Kaneda is supposed to be our hero, and he comes off as goofy, ignorant and immature (granted, he is a kid, but his silly comments were often quite jarring). The only characters that show a noble side are the three kids that are part of the government project, but while they play an important role, they're really only bit characters. However, the film is able to overcome these deficiencies because its vision is sufficiently compelling, and there are plenty of interesting and ambitious ideas to keep the viewer occupied. Action sequences are also well composed and keep the story moving briskly, which helps.

Tetsuo falling

Speaking of vision, this has to be one of the finest examples of animation I've ever seen. It is perhaps a little dated, but when you take into account that this movie was made long before modern techniques (like CGI or digital image correction), it really is a remarkable achievement. Filled with vibrant colors and stunning imagery, the film is a rollercoaster ride from start to finish. I've included a bunch of screenshots from the film, but it's worth noting that the animation itself - the actual movement of various elements on screen - is very well done (and can't be captured in a still). The ambient soundtrack is atmospheric and evokative, with an interesting mixture of instrumentation and electronic music (that doesn't seem at all dated and indeed, may even have been ahead of its time). Symbolic imagery (for example, Tetsuo's growing powers are symbolized in a dream by a flood of milk... or towards the end of the movie, when Tetsuo is being consumed by his powers and regressing into a monstrous creature that engulfs everything in sight, his morphing body clearly takes on the shape of a mushroom cloud) is used, but not abused.

Akira returns!

Ultimately, while the kinetic action of the animation and story serves to hold the viewer's attention, the film isn't especially involving on an emotional level (I think this is due to the lack of sympathetic characters more than anything else). It does tackle some "big" ideas, but not in a way that will have you questioning life, the universe, and everything. In many ways it is a spectacular experience, and well worth the watch, but it is also a flawed movie. Still, thanks to the restored version, I've come to see why it's considered an "essential" film for anyone interested in Anime (though I'm not sure it would be played on the traditional Otaku holiday known as Anime Day). Three stars (***)

More images and assorted comments below the fold... When I went to take screenshots from this film, I ended up saving about thirty of them and I had some trouble deciding which ones to include in the review (damn choices!), so I'm putting a bunch of other pics in this extended entry.

While the movie is visually engaging, it rarely seems like they're really showing off. The below image features one of the few effects that is a bit showy, but they used it sparingly enough that it remained interesting. During a bike chase towards the beginning of the film, the animators used these light trails to emphasise the action.

Bike trails

Here's a shot of Tetsuo using his newfound abilities:

Tetsuo's powers in action

I can't imagine smoke or fire being an easy thing to animate, yet Akira easily features a dozen different types and shades of billowing smoke and explosions.

Smoke

Another shot of Tetsuo, with more fire and smoke:

Tetsuo and his fancypants cape

The bikes in the film have an interesting look, even if they are a bit absurd. Here's a better look at Kaneda's bike:

Kaneda and his fancypants bike

As previously mentioned, the animation and actual movement in the film is handled well, but that doesn't necessarily translate well to a screenshot. The below screenshot depicts a sequence in which Kaneda faces off against a rival biker while on foot. As the biker approaches, Kaneda jumps and kicks, unseating his foe. It happens in a sort of stylized slow motion, and it's very well executed (but you wouldn't know that from the screenshot):

Kaneda on his bike

It's amazing how influential 2001: A Space Odyssey has been in film. Nearly every movie that features some sort of transcendent ending nicks the psychadelic trip scene from the end of 2001 (though most of the thieves have sense enough to keep it brief). The ending of Akira is somewhat ambiguous, and uses a stylized pencil test that morphs into a sort of energy bubble as a voiceover proclaims "I am Tetsuo," implying that Tetsuo has transcended his physical form and become something new (which symbolizes humanity's evolution as well):

I am Dave Bowema... I mean, Tetsuo.  I am Tetsuo.

Again, good film, well worth the watch, but it has its flaws (most notably the unsympathetic characters).
Posted by Mark on December 13, 2006 at 09:25 PM .: link :.



Sunday, December 10, 2006

Blogroll Call
Everyone loves to be on a bunch of blogrolls, but just because you're there doesn't mean you'll get a lot of visitors. This becomes more true as the blogroll gets larger. Blogrolls are subject to an inverse network effect; the more blogs in the blogroll, the less valuable the link. Kaedrin gets a small amount of traffic, so even though I have a short blogroll, I'm guessing most of those blogs don't get a ton of visitors coming from here. So I just figured I'd throw some additional links their way:
  • Transit of Mercury, Photoblogged: Jay Manifold takes some nice pics of the planet Mercury, as well as an amusing comparison of Manifold Observatory and Powell Observatory.
  • Team of Rivals: Andrew Olmsted reviews a recent book that chronicles Abraham Lincoln's rise to the presidency, as well as the coalition he formed and maintained to fight the civil war:
    Lincoln's ability to hold together a coalition of abolitionists, conservative Republicans, and war Democrats during the American Civil War stands as a signal feat of political dexterity that seems yet more impressive in light of more recent American history. ... the book really hits its stride once Lincoln is elected and he assembles his Cabinet, beginning with his three rivals for the nomination. The contrast is particularly stark with modern politics, where Cabinets are formed from the victor's circle of political allies. Lincoln, on the other hand, selected men who not only wanted the job he held, but who viewed him poorly at best in some cases. It's hard to imagine a modern politician selecting men who viewed him with the kind of contempt Edwin Stanton viewed Lincoln, let alone getting the kind of results Lincoln did. Lincoln's ability to get results from such disparate men is an impressive primer in leadership.
    Interesting stuff, and I think I'll pick up the book at some point, as this seems to be an impressive example of compromise and tradeoffs (subjects that interest me) in action.
  • Ars Technica 2006 holiday gift guide: Make shopping for the geek in your family a little easier with this guide (sheesh, that sounded like advertising copy *shudders*). Most of the hardware and gadget gifts are pretty good, though expensive. However, they also include lots of interesting books and smaller gifts as well. Ars always has interesting articles though. I've already mentioned the Ars System Guide on the blog recently, but they also have reviews of the Wii and PS3 that are worth reading.
  • Casino Royale: Subtitle: Die almost never � nearly forever! Heh. Alexander Doenau's take on the latest Bond flick is roughly in line with my own feelings, though one of these days I'll get around to talking more about it on the blog.
    Which may beg the question of some audiences: where is the fun when there�s nary an insane scheme to be seen, and no psychedelically decorated gyrocopters? (thank you, Roald Dahl). The answer lies partly in Bond himself. Without the scary misogyny that Ian Fleming endowed Bond with 50 years ago, Daniel Craig plays Bond as an excellent bastard. This is a Bond so confident in his own skills that he doesn�t give a care who sees him because he has a licence to kill. This is probably the only Craig film we�ll see in which Bond is able to cut as loose as he did in Uganda, because part of the story involves developing a marginally more sensible and responsible MI6 agent, but he takes the sorts of risks that make the movie fun without being stupidly unbelievable.
    I love the description of James Bond as an "excellent bastard."
  • Steven Den Beste has an interesting rating system (another subject I'll tackle on the blog at some point). He uses a 4 star scale, but also includes a "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" graphic (for obvious reasons). This is interesting because it allows him to recognize a technical accomplishment without actually recommending the film (for instance, I would give Grave of the Fireflies **** with a thumbs down because it is masterfully produced, but so heartbreaking that I can't actually recommend it). In any case, if you scroll down on the link above (no permalinks there), you'll see that Steven has started rating individual anime episodes for a series called Kamichu. For episode 6, he rated it zero stars with six thumbs down. I wonder if he liked it?
  • A collection of Jonathan Swift's journalistic texts: Ralf Goergens over at Chicago Boyz makes an Jonathan Swift-related annotation to Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle:
    Attentive readers of Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle will remember Daniel Waterhouse reading a a number of astonishingly vile newspapers. Some of the most acrimonious articles were from Jonathan Swift, writing for Tory papers. Stephenson didn't make that part up, the articles can be found here.

    I didn't have time to do more than a bit of browsing, but some of the historical characters from the Baroque Cycle are mentioned, like Marlborough, Bolingbroke, Harley and of course Queen Anne. There also are extensive footnotes explaining the concrete circumstances under which the articles appeared.
  • Weblog Awards: Kevin Murphy notes that since he was inexplicably passed over for the Weblog Awards, he might as well add a bunch of categories and simply declare winners. Normally, this would seem like the actions of a snarky blogger, but since Kaedrin won a Koveted Kevy, I'll say it was the result of long-standing multifaceted research project considering nearly 2 billion blogs. Also, Kevin apparently knows something I don't: Kaedrin won the Best Blog With A Japanese Word As Its Title. Hmmm. It would be pretty funny if it actually was a Japanese word (anyone know what it means?)
  • The New Threats: John Robb continues his incisive commentary on global guerillas:
    As the debate over the value of the Iraq study group's report rumbles on, it's important to reflect on larger frame within which this debate is taking place. This frame, little discussed, encapsulates nature of the threat we face in Iraq and will be increasingly likely to face in the future. With Iraq, we can catch a glimpse of the new class of threat that will increasingly define our future (and given that even a glimpse is enough to stump the establishment should be a dire warning). This new class of threat is characterized by its bottoms up pattern of growth rather than the familiar competition between nation-states. It percolates upwards through catalyzed organic growth until it overwhelms our ability to respond to it.
    My general reaction to Robb's theories is that he is usually too pessimistic and that there must be a better way to fight these global guerillas, but he always makes for interesting and worthwhile reading.
  • Depressing Anime: Fledgling Otaku's thoughts on Grave of the Fireflies are a little harsher than my own, but I have to say that he's justified in calling it anime for emotional masochists. Don't miss the comment threads on that post, the follow up post, and the recent post (in which he mentions my review). Like me, the more he learns of the context, the more he says he can appreciate its value as a work of art.
  • Tax Law Is Complicated, But Is It Vague? : James Edward Maule reads about a Judge who "struck down a portion of the Patriot Act on the ground that despite amendments to the provisions they remain 'too vague' to be understood by 'a person of average intelligence' and thus are unconstitutional." As a professor of tax law, he wonders if the Internal Revenue Code is actually vague, and asks some interesting questions:
    If everything that could not be understood by a "person of average intelligence" were to be declared unconstitutional and removed from the planet, what would remain? Is there something wrong when a patient cannot understand a medical procedure used by a surgeon? Is there something wrong when a driver does not understand the engineering formulae used in designing the bridge over which the vehicle is crossing? Is there something wrong when someone enjoying a fine meal cannot understand the recipe?
  • Take my advice, or I�ll spank you without pants.: Johno over at the The Ministry of Minor Perfidy takes note of the glorious Chingrish of actual English Subtitles used in films made in Hong Kong. Some of my favorites:
    9. Quiet or I'll blow your throat up. 11. I�ll fire aimlessly if you don�t come out!
    18. How can you use my intestines as a gift?
    18. How can you use my intestines as a gift?
    19. This will be of fine service for you, you bag of the scum. I am sure you will not mind that I remove your manhoods and leave them out on the dessert flour for your aunts to eat. [sic, of course]
    20. Yah-hah, evil spider woman! I have captured you by the short rabbits and can now deliver you violently to your gynecologist for a thorough examination.
    21. Greetings, large black person. Let us not forget to form a team up together and go into the country to inflict the pain of our karate feets on some ass of the giant lizard person.
    This sort of thing is funny, but bad translations are also responsible for ruining a lot of decent foreign movies.
  • Extremely Cool: Indeed it is:
    The Antikythera Mechanism is a 2000-year-old device, somewhat resembling a clock, found in 1902 by sponge divers in the waters off a Greek island. It has long been believed that it was a form of analog computer, used for astronomical calculations, but its precise operating mechanism was not well-understood.
    Interesting stuff.
  • Not the intended market, but still fun: Fritz Schranck has been sucked into What Not To Wear (one of those smug reality shows that berate people for having bad style, then attempt to help them out). While I've never seen this show, similar reality shows do have that sorta "I can't look away from this trainwreck" quality that makes them entertaining.
  • DM of the Rings: In terms of link love, I've been woefully neglectful of Shamus's brilliant DM of the Rings comic, which somehow manages to be both humorous and insightful (well, in terms of RPG gaming anyway). Using screenshots from the movies, it's essentially what the Lord of the Rings would have been like if it were played as a D&D game.
Holy crap, that took a while. I just realized that I would have probably been better off if I'd just done one or two a day. That way I'd have had posts every day for at least a week! In any case, stay tuned for the weekly Animation Marathon review (This week, it's Akira. Review should be up Tuesday or Wednesday).
Posted by Mark on December 10, 2006 at 09:10 PM .: Comments (2) | link :.



Monday, December 04, 2006

New Computer
As I've recently mentioned, my old computer isn't doing so well. Built with turn-of-the-century hardware, she's lasted a long time, more than I could really expect. So it's time to get a new computer. As I've also mentioned recently, the amount of options for building a new computer are staggering (and the amount of choices can lead to problems). However, with the help of the newly released Ars Technica System Guides (specifically the Hot Rod) and some general research, I should be able to slap something together in relatively short order. After some initial poking around, here's what I'm looking for: I'm leaning pretty close to the recommendations from Ars Technica, with only a few minor tweaks. They claim their Hot Rod rig can be had for around $1622.71, but when you add in shipping, an OS, and my tweaks, I'm betting that's more around $1800. Of course, I'll have to order all this stuff, assemble it, and install the OS, which will probably take a few hours, so let's make a conservative estimate of around $2000 (I'm valuing my time at around $50 an hour here). Not too shabby, and it's a pretty impressive PC. So is it worth putting it together myself, or can I order a comparable system from somewhere else that is cheaper and/or easier? Let's take a look at my options:
  • Dell: A comparably configured XPS 410 system comes in around $2200. The only major addition here is the 2 year warranty and support.
  • HP: Well, the HP Pavilion d4650y series computer I configured came in at a pretty cheap $1600. However, I wasn't able to get the GeForce 7950GT 512 MB and had to settle for a 256 MB card (I'm sure there are other computer models that I could configure, but this seemed reasonable enough).
  • CyberPowerPC.com: A comparably configured Intel� Core� 2 Duo Custom Build machine runs about $2017. They also have a 3 year limited warranty and support. However, I should note that a friend recently purchased a PC through CyberPower and was thoroughly dissatisfied: several incorrectly installed pieces of hardware as well as an OS that had to be reinstalled. From online reviews, their support seems notoriously bad. However, it's difficult to tell with online reviews sometimes. The good reviews outnumber the bad. I'm still considering these guys because they can save me some time and energy without having to really pay too much. However, I'm guessing that I'll have to do some mucking around with the hardware and software, which would put the price up a bit when you consider time and effort.
  • ABS.com: ABS is the parent company of newegg and has a mildly better reputation than CyberPowerPC. However, the price here comes to around $2200, and it wasn't exactly what I wanted.
  • Maingear: Most high end brands or boutiques like Alienware, Voodoo, or Hypersonic can get pretty expensive (easily $3000+), but Maingear was surprisingly reasonable. I was able to configure their Prelude system to what I wanted for around $2050. With some fiddling, and perhaps purchasing some components separately, I think I could drive that down a bit. Also, unlike CyberPowerPC (or Dell for that matter), these guys seem to have stellar reputation (there are only 10 ratings on ResellerRatings, but they're all great reviews and they also seem to be consistent with professional reviews). They're service and support appears to be good as well. I've got a good feeling about these guys, and I'm glad I'm writing this entry because I probably wouldn't have found them otherwise.
So I'm looking closer at Maingear and if that doesn't work out, it looks like I'm putting it together myself, unless anyone else has a better idea (if you do, leave a comment below). I'm going to hold off a few days before actually placing any orders, but I think I'll be happy with what I'm getting.

Update: After some fiddling, I got the Maingear PC down to around $1800 without a monitor. I'm also getting a lightscribe DVD burner, which is a totally frivolous expense (extra $70), but pretty neat too.
Posted by Mark on December 04, 2006 at 09:16 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.



Sunday, December 03, 2006

Aliens Board Game
A little while ago, I became reaquanted with a game that I used to play often - the Aliens board game. I haven't played the game in about ten years or so, and I found it interesting for a number of reasons. Gameplay is a bit of a mixture of other gaming styles, combining the arbitrary nature and futility of board games with the wonky dice and damage-table style of RPGs (Ok, you shot the alien with your pulse rifle. Roll for acid!) I noticed a few things about the game that I never did before, some good, some bad.

Before I get into those observations, I'll have to explain the mechanics of the game a bit. The game comes with a few maps and there are a couple of scenarios that you can play, each of which is basically re-enacting a memorable scene where the colonial marines get their asses handed to them from the movie (i.e. the initial encounter with the aliens under the reactor, the later encounter and retreat through the air ducts, and a single player scenario where Ripley rescues Newt and fights the alien queen). There was also an expansion pack which featured an additional scenario. Since we'd all played the game countless times in our youth, we decided to mix things up a little and combine the regular map with the expansion map. Basically, we start at one end of the map and have to make ourselfs to the other end. This is easier said than done.

We hand out all the player cards randomly. Most of the characters are colonial marines, but there is a surprising amount of variability between characters and their abilities. Most characters are given two moves per turn, though Ripley, Apone, and Bishop have three. In terms of weaponry, some of the characters are significantly better than others. Hicks, Ripley and Apone have quality weapons to choose from. Drake and Vasquez have those awesome smart guns. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there's the Burke character, who has no weapons (he's essentially used as alien bait, as he should). Since there were only a few of us, we each got multiple characters to play with (which is a good thing, for reasons I'll get into in a moment). I ended up with three relatively lame characters: Corporal Dietrich (who was armed with only a pistol), Lieutenant Gorman (whose Pulse Rifle was the most powerful weapon in my group), and Private Wierzbowski (who was armed with an incinerator). Gorman's an ok character to play, except he's a tool in the movie. Dietrich isn't quite as useless as Burke, but damn near so. Wierzbowski isn't the greatest character to play, but he's awesome in the movie (The Wierzbowski Hunters are one of those wonderful phenomenons that could only be possible on the internet).

Players on the map (click for larger)
That's it man, game over man, game over! *

As already mentioned, our goal is to make our way from one side of the map to the other. Every turn, four aliens are added to the board in semi-random places (as the game proceeds, more aliens are added per turn). While most of the players only have two moves per turn, the aliens have four moves. If an alien enters on or next to your position, you have to roll a ten sided die. Most of the time, the result is that you are "grabbed" by the alien. Essentially, you need to be rescued by one of the other players, illustrating the cooperative nature of the game.

So the game begins, and the initial four aliens are inserted onto the board. The way the game goes for a while is that we take out all of the aliens, and move forward if possible. Eventually my characters are leading the pack and make it to the next map (half way there!), and the DM equivalent decides that we need to start adding more aliens per turn. At this point, we're fending off aliens from all directions, and we start to take on more and more casualties. Some aspects of the game were becoming clearer to me:
  • Weapons & Range: As I previously noted, my three characters were armed with a pistol, a pulse rifle, and an incinerator. The pistol is next to useless (if you ever play the game, don't choose the pistol - use the incinerator) as it's range is absurdly low and even then, you have to make a tough role to hit your target. The pulse rifle is actually a decent weapon with a good, long range. The incinerator is another short range weapon, and I cannot use it to rescue any of my teammates (I could kill the alien, but I'd also be burning my teammate).
  • Turns: As it turns out, I'm the last person to go each turn, so in addition to my mostly short range, there usually aren't any aliens left for me to shoot at. So every turn, I end up moving forward, while everyone else is stuck rescuing their teammates (sometimes me, even though I can't return the favor).
  • The Aliens: Even if you don't start adding more and more aliens per turn, the game becomes more challenging because as you progress throughout the map, the aliens begin to surround you and they're more difficult to attack when they're coming from multiple directions (if you can get two aliens lined up in a row, a single shot can kill both aliens...)
As a result of my turn placement and my characters' lame short-range weapons, I ended up leading the pack. Lieutenant Gorman, my only decent combat soldier, got attacked by an alien relatively early on, and when a teammate shot the alien, Gorman got sprayed by acid and died. This left me with Dietrich (pistol) and Wierzbowski (incinerator).

We had come to a standoff. The second map had more walls and obstructed views, so it took the aliens longer to reach us, but we also couldn't pick them off from afar. Wierzbowski finally proved useful, as you can use the incinerator to set up a "fire wall" that the aliens can't cross for a turn (This ability is particularly useful on the second map because of all the choke points). Still, our ranks were being worn down. I was able to block the forward onslaught, but the aliens came in on the flank and mounted a devestating attack. More than 50% of the original team had perished, and some of us were wounded (which makes it harder to hit targets). Dietrich had become completely disabled, so I had Wierzbowski pick her up in the hopes of feeding her to an alien if I got into trouble.

The game was running a little long at this point, so the DM decided to insert the alien queen (this isn't really supposed to happen, but we like a challenge). The queen is significantly more difficult to deal with, and she managed to kill the remainder of our team... except Wierzbowski who had made his way into a room with a single block choke point. Using the firewall ability, I was able to make it to the final hallway before being attacked. I managed to take out a couple of aliens with my incinerator, but I had to sacrifice Dietrich in order to get away. Alas, the queen had made her way around, and the valiant Wierzbowski finally succumbed to her deadly advance.

Our variations on the rules aside, it's actually a pretty well balanced game. The aliens are appropriately formidable, and they only become moreso as the game progresses. As in the movie, you can't really complete a scenario without taking significant casualties, and even though our team did pretty well, there's no guarantee that we'd have made it (even if we didn't add the queen). The game was made in 1989, and is no longer available. You can find it on eBay, but it commands a relatively high price tag... It's an interesting game, but it's not really worth the high price these days. In the 90s, the game was a lot of fun. These days, other games have far surpassed it (especially video games). Still, it's nice to play an old favorite every now and again.

* I should note that the game does not come with those nice figurines in the picture above. The game has these chinsy cardboard pieces with pictures of the characters and aliens. Functional, but not as nice as the figurines. Also, yes, I'm a huge nerd and can name all the colonial marines without having to look them up.
Posted by Mark on December 03, 2006 at 08:04 PM .: link :.



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