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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

6 Relatively Obscure Bit Characters From 80s Movies That I Love
During last week's list day, I made reference to 6 Relatively Obscure Bit Characters From 80s Movies That I Love, and asked if anyone could name the movies they're from. A couple people could get one, but otherwise, no one posted. Is this a reflection of their difficulty or of my low traffic? Regardless, if you're interested in the answers, they're below the fold....
  • Clarence Beeks - Trading Places: Both Louis Winthorpe III and Billy Ray Valentine noticed strange payments to Clarence Beeks in the Duke & Duke payroll, and it turned out that the Duke brothers used Beeks to do various jobs for them, as well as help them corner the Frozen Concentrated Orange Juice market. His name is exclaimed numerous times (Clarence Beeks!) and for some reason, my friends and I used to do this all the time. I don't know why, but it was funny. I guess you had to be there.
  • Enrico Pallazzo - The Naked Gun (Hint: Famous Italian opera singer) - At the baseball game in The Naked Gun, Lt. Frank Drebin sneaks onto the field under the guise of Enrico Pallazzo, a famous Italian opera singer hired to sing the national anthem. This leads to a hilarious rendition, as well as a fantastic callback when Drebin finally manages to save the Queen and a man in the crowd screams "It's Enrico Pallazzo!" Classic. I was surprised that no one got this one, as it seems like a popular reference (it was referenced on a recent episode of Family Guy).
  • Alonzo Mosely - Midnight Run - From one of the more underrated 80s movies, FBI Agent Alonzo Mosely was impersonated by DeNiro's character, and his name features prominently all throughout the movie. Also, he apparently founded a film institute which created this awesome 100 Movies, 100 Quotes, 100 Numbers movie.
  • Ed Traxler - The Terminator - This was a tough one, as he was a relatively small character. I considered using Lance Henriksen's character for this, but Detective Hal Vukovich is much more obscure, and I'm pretty sure his name isn't mentioned in the film.
  • John Cocktoastin - Fletch - I was cheating with this one, as this was one of Fletch's many made up names and it would have been much more obvious if I said the name the same way he did in the movie (plus, it's pronounced differently a few times throughout the movie). Still, classic.
  • Lazlo Hollyfeld - Real Genius - Former whiz-kid who had a breakdown and then moved into the college's steam tunnels (with it's only entrance being a closet). I thought this was one of the more obscure ones, but someone got it. Anyway, it's one of my favorite 80s movies because of its flattering portrayal of geeks (back then, geeks weren't cool like they are these days).
Posted by Mark on May 30, 2007 at 09:11 PM .: link :.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Innovative Films
I've been following along with Filmspotting's Noir Movie marathon, and after viewing a couple of movies, I began to think about how many of the most innovative movies are often somewhat underwhelming when you catch up with them. For instance, I hadn't seen Double Indemnity before. It's a classic film, one of the first Film Noirs, and while I thought it was great, I wasn't quite so sure what all the fuss was about. During their review, Filmspotting's Adam remarked that this was a perfect film, one that he thinks is among the best of all time. Sam thought it was great, but perhaps not perfect.

After looking around a bit, I think I'm starting to see part of why this movie has won so much acclaim. There are some things that would probably come across after multiple viewings, but one of the primary reasons this movie is loved is that it was amongst the first Noir films, and it set the bar for all that followed it. Many of the conventions of the genre were presented for the first time in this film, then copied and imitated as time went on. For instance, the use of lighting through Venetian blinds presents the viewers with a distinct image. The shadows that fall on the walls and on characters' faces look like the bars on a jail cell, and this makes the characters seem trapped by their actions. It's a subtle effect, and it's become a standard convention of the genre.

Venetian Blinds and Lighting

I think part of the reason Sam and I were a little underwhelmed by this is that we've already seen several movies that imitate Double Indemnity, and thus weren't as impressed by the innovative nature of the film. After learning more about the film, after putting it in its cultural and historical context, I'm beginning to see why it's viewed as a classic... but I'm still not sure what it all means.

This happens all the time with classic films. Citizen Kane is often regarded as the greatest American movie of all time, yet a lot of folks watching it today find it to be a bit of a bore. I have to admit that when I first saw it for my college film class, I thought it was good, but I couldn't see why it got such great reviews. There are a lot of reasons, but one of them is that the film was simply revolutionary. Orson Wells' bag of cinematic tricks were perhaps not entirely innovative, but the combination of everything - the extreme closeups, the odd angles, uncanny arrangements of backgrounds and foregrounds, the flashbacks and broken narrative structure - was extraordinary. Wells broke free of the spacial constraints of the frame, and his film has been an inspiration to all who followed it. In Michael Chabon's Pulizer winning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, the main characters, a pair of comic book creators, see the film and are astounded:
... Citizen Kane represented, more than any other movie Joe had ever seen, the total blending of narration and image that was - didn't Sammy see it?- the fundamental principle of comic book storytelling ... Without the witty, potent dialogue and the puzzling shape of the story, the movie would have been merely an American version of the kind of brooding, shadow-filled Ufa-style expressionist stuff that Joe had grown up watching in Prague. Without the brooding shadows and bold adventurings of the camera, without the theatrical lighting and queasy angles, it would have been merely a clever movie about a rich bastard. It was much, much more, than any movie really needed to be.
The two comic book creators saw a way to escape the constraints of their medium as a result of Citizen Kane. Of course, I'm talking about a work of fiction here, but Chabon has said that he based one of his characters on the legendary comic book artist Will Eisner, who has admitted how much his comics owed to the movies, and notably Citizen Kane.

However, even knowing this, Citizen Kane isn't the sort of movie I like to watch over and over again and I can see why lots of people think it's boring. All of the innovations in the film that were so breathtaking at the time are now taken for granted, just as I took the Venetian Blind effects in Double Indemnity for granted. We look at some of these things and think, "Jeeze, I've seen that a million times before." But at the time the film was made, audiences hadn't seen these things before...

This raises a number of questions, and I'm not sure I have any satisfactory answers. Are innovative movies better than what follows simply because they were the first to do something? Are the movies that follow an innovative predecessor any less effective because someone else used a particular technique first? How well will innovative films hold up after time and is a film that uses similar techniques to address contemporary issues any worse? Film is a relatively young medium, and many of the earliest films are difficult to appreciate unless you have a good understanding of their cultural and historical context. Does that make them any better or worse?

I don't think there are any real answers here, only more evidence of the subjectivity of art. Even contemporary films suffer due to lack of context. I've seem my share of foreign films and am a fan of many, but I have to admit that there is a nagging feeling that I'm just not getting it. Many times, I can feel something wrong with the translation, and it's difficult to really tell how well I'm understanding exactly what the filmmakers are looking to do. Citizen Kane is a hard enough nut to crack, let alone something like Seven Samurai. This is perhaps a bad example, as Seven Samurai comes in an exceptional Criterion Collection edition that belabors its many virtues. But a lot of films don't get such treatment, and thus it's more difficult to understand what's happening on screen. Another example, last week, I rented Sonatine and got the distinct impression that I was missing something. The film was released on DVD in America through Quentin Tarantino's Rolling Thunder Pictures collection, and the DVD has a few extra features, including an interview with the film's writer and director, Beat Takeshi (aka Takeshi Kitano). In it, he's asked about what he thinks of Quentin Tarantino's movies, and he responds that he likes them, but that he wishes he spoke English. This makes a lot of sense when you think about Tarantino's style, wihch includes lots of great dialogue. I'd bet that a lot of the intricacies of his dialogue is lost when translated, and I always wonder what I'm missing when I see a foreign film. Film snobs like to complain about the ignorant masses who won't give foreign films a chance just because of subtitles, but I think the translations play into this as well.

Again, I don't have any answers here. Like all art, film is subjective, and while it's important to recognize the achievements of innovative films, it's also important that those films be entertaining and I can see how some folks don't especially care for the "classic" films like Citizen Kane or foreign films like Sonatine. Most people are looking to be entertained and if you're not interested in the history of film or a movie's story, then you're probably not going to give a crap that Citizen Kane pioneered the use of deep focus in film. You'll just yawn because you've seen it a million times before. Context matters, and it's not just the context of the film that's important, but the context of the viewer as well...
Posted by Mark on May 27, 2007 at 02:39 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Friday, the day of lists
I've been lazy about the whole Friday is List Day thing, so here are a couple lists:

Random 10:
  • Tool - "Eulogy"
  • Isaac Hayes - "Run Fay Run"
  • Angelo Badalamenti - "Red Bats With Teeth"
  • Led Zeppelin - "When the Levee Breaks"
  • Fantomas - "Experiment In Terror"
  • U2 - "Sunday Bloody Sunday"
  • Guster - "Red Oyster Cult"
  • Mr. Bungle - "The Air-Conditioned Nightmare"
  • Radiohead - "Bones"
  • Guster - "I Hope Tomorrow Is Like Today"
6 Relatively Obscure Bit Characters From 80s Movies That I Love
Can you guess what movies they're from?
  • Clarence Beeks (Hint: Has info regarding frozen concentrated orange juice)
  • Enrico Pallazzo (Hint: Famous Italian opera singer)
  • Alonzo Mosely (Hint: FBI Agent)
  • Ed Traxler (Hint: Police Lieutenant)
  • John Cocktoastin (Hint: It's Scotch-Rumanian)
  • Lazlo Hollyfeld (Hint: Lives in a closet)
Posted by Mark on May 25, 2007 at 10:10 PM .: Comments (3) | link :.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Commodore 64 Links and Thoughts
Just finishing off the Commodore 64 retrospective with some links and thoughts...
  • Vice Emulator: This is the relatively craptacular emulator I used to revisit the games of my youth. Once I figured it out, it wasn't that bad, but the biggest issue with C64 emulators is that they all lack reasonable documentation (or the documentation is difficult to find). The biggest problem I had was with the Keyboard settings. You see, the C64's keyboard had a different layout than today's keyboards, so the mappings aren't always intuitive. Also, the "Keyboard Settings" dialog needs some work (for one thing, someone needs to teach the interface designers how radio buttons are supposed to work). Oh, and by default, Vice assumes a German keyboard layout. That was a good one. Still, it worked well enough for my purposes.
  • C64.com: Fantastic site where I downloaded the majority of the games I played, but which also has lots of good C64 articles, including some long excerpts from The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Commodore.
  • YouTube has a bunch of cheesy old C64 commercials. My favorite has a funny little jingle that goes something like "Are you keeping up with the Commodore, cause the Commodore is keeping up with you!" Ho man, that's not creepy at all. And this one on Google Video is, well... it's just sad.
  • Interestingly enough, I work in the old Commodore headquarters building. Go figure.
Well, that about does it for the Commodore 64. It was a system of firsts for me: my first real computer, my first programming experiences (BASIC!), and lots of firsts in terms of game styles too. And so I do have a bit of a soft spot for the C64. Next up in the video game retrospective will be the good ol NES. I won't be starting that one right away, but I have a feeling that it will end up being a longer series of posts (too many great games for the NES). Until then...
Posted by Mark on May 23, 2007 at 06:16 PM .: link :.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

C64 Games: Honorable Mention
Continuing the retrospective: There were a lot of games made for the Commodore 64/128, and to be honest, my experience with the C64 is probably less extensive than with other gaming systems. Nevertheless, there were several games I used to play quite often on the C64, which basically amounted to the interim system between the Atari 2600 and NES. Many games have not aged very well, but there is still some sentimental value to these, and some are still genuinely fun to play. The C64 was significantly more powerful than the Atari 2600, so the games were often much larger in scope and began to have more to accomplish than arbitrary point scores (though, honestly, many games were basically run-and-gun, compete for the high score type games)
  • Test Drive/Test Drive 2: A series of games that has pretty much endured the last 20 years and will probably continue to thrive, the first two games were on the C64, and they were great fun. At the time, at least. These games have not aged well. The concept is pretty sound: you're taking a high ticket sports car out for a test drive, and you've got to make it back to the dealership without getting cought by the police (a feature that was pretty neat at the time, and which figures prominently in car games that followed) or totalling the car (a variant has you racing against someone else). But the driving controls are unresponsive and clunky, making it difficult to control and less fun to play. Still, I had a blast with this as a youngster - who wouldn't want to drive around in a Lamborghini or Ferrari?

    Awww yeah, I gots me a Lamborghini   Crashing into a cop ends the game.  I guess that's mildly realistic.

  • California Games: Epyx made a host of popular sports games for the C64 that I used to play a lot, including Winter Games, Summer Games, etc... but California Games was the neatest because it featured non-standard games like skateboarding, footbag (aka hackey sack), and surfing. The different games were varied and depended on differing gameplay. As such, some were tons of fun, and some were little more than an exercise in seeing how many times you could press a button in a short period of time (thank goodness this style of game has mostly gone away). It follows, then, that some games hold up better than others. I'm particularly fond of footbag myself (partly just because I like the names of the tricks, like Jester and Axel Foley)

    Playing hackey sack!

  • Karateka: Probably my first martial arts type game, I was actually kinda suprised at how much I liked this game. I remembered playing it, but not how much fun it was. It's a basic game, with only 6 attacks (puches and kicks, each of which has 3 different heights), but still relatively fun. The controls aren't quite as responsive as I'd like, but it still works out reasonably well. You play a man trained in the art of karate (a karateka), and the goal of the game is to rescue a princess from the evil Akuma. To do this, you must defeat the guards of Akuma's castle and eventually face Akuma himself. It's a very short game, but challenging, as your foes get progressively more difficult to kill (Akuma is really tough). Amusingly, many players got to the end of the game and got killed by the princess because they attempted to rescue her while in a fighting stance (the fact that she's able to kill you with one kick to the head begs the question: if she's so powerful, why does she need to be rescued?!). If you're not in a fighting stance, you hug and kiss the princess. Apparently a lot of players never figured this out and thus never completed the game... By today's standards, this isn't great, but it was surprisingly fun revisiting this game... The game's graphics and animations were astounding at the time, and the game's creator, Jordan Mechner, went on to create the hit Prince of Persia series.

    Take that, weenie!   Fighting Akuma   Yay princess!

  • Skyfox: Now comes my first flight sim game, I don't think I ever really got that far in this game, but there were a lot of things I really liked about it. First, it had a pseudo first-person 3d feel to it, and I think it's one of the first games to have the "cockpit view." When deploying on a mission, the game has a very memorable launch sequence that really stuck with me... The graphics were also good, and I remember being enamored with the enemy units (for some reason, the concept of attacking a mothership was really neat to me).

    Cockpit point of view

  • Temple of Apshai: When going over my atari 2600 picks, I noted that I couldn't get enough of various fantasy games (like Adventure and Dragonfire), and this game was the first to really mimick pencil and paper role-playing games like D & D. I loved it. It's actually not that great. Horrible graphics and an awkward gameplay (when you enter a room, you're supposed to consult your manual to get a description of the room) make this a less-than-exciting experience. It was just a basic dungeon crawl with no real story, but it was also my first taste of an RPG, and I loved it. Needless to say, it doesn't hold up that well, but it's worth noting because it was my first RPG. The one thing I will note is that the soundtrack to this is actually very effective. It has this low, ominous tone that continues as you hack through the dungeon, providing a great ambient background. Plus, for you Homestar Runner fans, Strongbad plays this game!

    Oh noes, a mosquito!

  • Some other games worth noting: Spy vs. Spy (a two player game and funny booby traps, but otherwise not the greatest game), GI Joe (I played this mostly because I loved GI Joe, but the game stunk), and an Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade video game (I can't seem to find the version I played, and I remember very little about the game, except that I used to play it all the time while listening to a Motley Crue album. Should I have admitted that? Probably not.)
Most games of the time weren't that impressive, but they were the direct forerunners to many of the conventions we take for granted in today's games. They're still fun, but they wear thin relatively quickly. One final disclaimer: I'm positive that I'm missing a bunch of really great games, but I should stress that this is a) a subjective list and b) limited to my experience playing video games as a youth. Anyway, perhaps one more wrap up post for the C64, and then it's on to other things.
Posted by Mark on May 20, 2007 at 09:18 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Airborne Ranger
THE ELITE UNIT has always captured the imagination of both soldier and civilian. Units such as the Rangers are the point men of the armed forces, the cutting edge, and they fascinate us to an extent out of proportion to their numbers. We envy them their sharp, distinctive appearance, their high status, their esprit de corps. and most of all their awesome skill in their chosen profession. They have an aura of competence that is at once reassuring and intimidating, as if they will admit no limits to what they can achieve. This unshakeable confidence would seem preposterous if it had not been borne out time and again by events on and off the battlefield. The really are as good as they think they are.
- An excerpt from Airborne Ranger Field Manual
My favorite game for the Commodore 64 was a 1987 military simulation called Airborne Ranger. I don't consider myself an expert in video games of the era, but I believe this is among the first military themed-games that valued stealth and tactical planning, paving the way for venerable successors like Operation Flashpoint, Metal Gear Solid, and Rainbow Six (and all the other Tom Clancy games). Quite frankly, I think I'd rather play more Airborne Ranger than Rainbow Six, which says something about this game. If it weren't for the poor emulator support and controls, I'd probably still play this game all the time.

Airborne Ranger (initial screen)

The game consisted of several missions in which a lone Airborne Ranger, controlled by yourself, infiltrated enemy territory and carried out various tasks like stealing a code book, destroying a munitions depot, knocking out an enemy radar array, and freeing hostages (amongst other such tasks). As you complete tasks, your ranger is promoted, eventually attaining the rank of Colonel. As previously mentioned, some missions require stealth (in one, you have to steal an enemy uniform to infiltrate the target area) and almost all warrant careful planning. While each mission has required objectives, how you carry out your mission is left up to you. You're given a limited amount of ammunition (some of which can get lost during the air drop if you're not careful), so even when stealth is not required, you must choose your targets carefully. If you run out of ammo, your ranger is captured, but when that happens, other rangers in the roster have a new rescue mission available to them (and if you're successful, you can continue playing with your original character). This is a good thing, because once your character dies, he's dead and you can't use him anymore. Of course, you can run practice missions to make sure you've got the hang of a level, but the maps and objective locations are generated randomly each time you play the mission, so there's no guarantee (this also requires you to think quickly during a mission, as you won't know what you're up against until you actually start the mission).

After choosing a mission, you are briefed and then given control of an aircraft. As it flies over the enemy territory, you have a chance to drop 3 duffel bags filled with supplies (ammo, medical kits, etc...) You need to be careful where you drop these supplies though - if one of the bags hits a tree, barbed wire or other obstacle, those supplies are lost.

Flying Over Enemy Territory

As you get towards the bottom of the map, the drop light comes on and you parachute to the surface. This is where the bulk of the game takes place. At this point, you need to carefully make your way up the map, gathering the supplies you dropped and avoiding enemy forces (or not, depending on the mission), until you reach your objective. Once your mission is complete, you need to high-tail it to the extraction point and hold off the enemy until your ride shows up...

Flying Over Enemy Territory

The game is lots of fun, and it holds up reasonably well even today. Sure, the graphics and sound are horrible by today's standards, but the concept is well designed and executed. It's probably comparable to the NES games of the era in terms of graphics and sound, but the gameplay is great (incidentally, there are several other versions of the game for other platforms, including the higher-end Commodore Amiga, which had much better graphics). You play the game frome a pseudo-3D perspective that was somewhat rare at the time and commonplace today (it's similar to the Metal Gear Solid and Grand Theft Auto games). The only thing really holding it back is the controls. This game was far ahead of it's time and because it was limited by the simple joystick and a single button, it made use of lots of keyboard controls, which is far from ideal (this game would probably be a whole lot easier with today's PS2 style controllers - incidentally, the emulators for the C64 have some strange initial settings which make it difficult to play this game, but that's a topic for another post.) Still, I had a blast revisiting the game, and it's something I'd love to see remade with only minor enhancements...

Put simply, it's a great game. The number of weapons, freedom of movement, varying environments (there are dessert, arctic, and temperate levels), stealth action, variety of missions and randomly generated maps make this game a tough one to beat. Unquestionably my favorite game for the C64, and it would probably end up in my top 10 video games of all time as well.

More screenshots and comments below the fold... One of the key tactics you use in the game is to crawl around in trenches that conveniently dominate the landscape in all the levels (it's not that realistic of a game, you know, but still fun). This prevents you from being seen or shot at by fixed emplacements like the bunker shown below, but patrolling enemies often can see you and will pursue you.

Crawling through a trench

The below series of screens shows my plane flying over the mission objective (in this case, an antenna array, shown in the map by those little blue doohickeys at the top of the map that... kinda look like antennas. One thing I should mention here is that these maps are exceptionally well done - all the objects on the map are clear and intuitive). To get there I have to cross a frozen river (the big white area), and deal with some bunkers and machine gun nests (not to mention all the stuff that's not visible further down on the map)

Flying Over Enemy Territory

Taking out a bunker with a LAW rocket
Bunkers are no match for LAW rockets

Crossing the frozen river is mildly dangerous, as some portions of the ice are unstable. In this screenshot, some of my less-than-bright enemies walked on thin ice and fell in...

Crossing the frozen river
Treading on thin ice...

I had used up all my LAW rockets by the time I got to my objective, so I had to make due with a time bomb.

Blowing up an antenna
Tick-tock, tick-tock.

As previously mentioned, you drop bags of supplies that need to be retrieved.

Get away from my supplies!
Get away from my supplies, weenie!

One of the more difficult missions involves cutting a pipeline. Part of the difficulty is that there are tanks patrolling the pipeline area, and they're, you know, deadly. Here, you see me getting ready to destroy the pipeline, just before the tank killed me.

Oh noes, a tank!
Oh noes, a tank!

Here's something you don't see much in games... well... ever. When you start the game, one of the screens you have to pass through is this one, which gives credit to the game's creators:


Posted by Mark on May 16, 2007 at 08:18 PM .: link :.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

A Video Game Retrospective: Part 2
About a year ago, I started a video game retrospective, beginning with my first video game console, the Atari 2600. My intention was to go through my favorite games for all the various platforms I've played on. In typical Kaedrin fashion, I wrote about 5 posts on the Atari 2600 then promptly forgot that the series was supposed to continue. I figure it's time to resume the retrospective, taking on my second major video gaming system: the Commodore 64 (and, after my brother and I destroyed that, the Commodore 128).

The C64's hardware was basically contained within the bulky keyboard (the C128 had a more standard keyboard size, but had a chunk extending back that contained the processing hardware) and you could just use a television as a monitor. Now, unlike the Atari 2600, the C64 is an actual computer - you could do more than just play games on this (I remember writing book reports with some rudimentary word processing software and printing it out with a fancy dot-matrix printer). Indeed, I got my first taste of computer programming using the C64's native BASIC language (not that I produced anything of worth, but it was a start). That said, it was primarily used for video games. Booting up the C64 gave you a command line with a distinctive blueish/purple monochromatic color scheme:

C64 Command Line

It's funny, but that color scheme was very memorable and seems to be a popular target of geeky nostalgia (for all you Opera users out there, there's a user mode style sheet called "Nostalgia" installed by default, so you can browse the web like you're on a C64). It used the same controllers as the Atari (directional stick and a single-button), but it had far better graphics and much more expansive gameplay. You'll see more of this when I go through the games later this week, but the games for the C64 progressed further than the simple, arbitrary goals of the Atari era. I just downloaded the open source VICE emulator and have been getting reaquanted with some of my favorite games. The emulation here leaves something to be desired (particularly with respect to games that require keyboard controls, as the C64 had a slightly different keyboard layout and VICE's documentation is... lacking...), but I'm making due... Again, my favorite games will be reviewed in separate posts, so stay tuned!

Update: Follow up posts:
Posted by Mark on May 13, 2007 at 10:31 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Beverage Blogging
Last week, I hastily threw together a post on Coke, including some thoughts on Coke vs. Pepsi, the advertising of both brands, and Passover Coke. I've run across several people commenting on my post or similar issues over the past week.
  • Diet Coke Zero Prime Plus: Aziz comments on the Coke/Pepsi rivalry and also talks a little about other varieties of coke (Diet Coke, Coke Zero, Coke Plus, Diet Coke with Splenda, etc...)
  • The Other Red vs. Blue: Shamus explains why he usually doesn't drink Coke and points out that Coke has the best ads, referring to the GTA parody commercial (which is brilliant).
  • Mexican Coke at the Costco: Last week, I mentioned that there is clearly a market for Coke made with real cane sugar, and apparently Costco agrees. They've taken to importing Mexican Coke, which also uses cane sugar:
    Costco has conformed to CA and U.S. rules, such as CRV (the sort-of deposit you pay for the bottle) and "nutrition" labeling, so everything appears to be nice and legal. Of course you could always get your sugar water fix at some smaller grocers or taquerias by buying surprisingly expensive "bootlegged" bottles one at a time, but Costco will let Cokeheads stock up by the case at a relatively low price.
    The Mexican Coke adds another wrinkle into the mix: they come in glass bottles, which supposedly make the coke taste better. I'm going to need to stock up on some regular Coke, Passover Coke, Mexican Coke, and sure, let's throw some Pepsi into the mix, and do a double blind test to see which cola tastes the best. Alas, this will have to wait for next year... [link via Kottke]
  • Tall Men: Australia is good at making beer ads: Alex sidesteps the issue and points to a great Aussie beer commercial featuring none other than.... Wacky Waving Inflatable Arm Flailing Tube Man, Wacky Waving Inflatable Arm Flailing Tube Man, Wacky Waving Inflatable Arm Flailing Tube Man!!!!!!! Sorry. It's a Family Guy thing.
  • But who cares about Coke or regular beer when you can brew yourself some Skittlebrau!
  • Speaking of brewing beer, Johno over at the Ministry of Minor Perfidy has been home brewing beer. I'd really like to try his Belgian ale, which he named Trogdor The Burninator "Consummate V" Belgian Strongbad Ale. Considering the price of good Belgian beer (and Belgian style beers, see below), home brewing might be a good activity for me to try out.
And speaking of beer, I spent the previous weekend in Cooperstown. Sure, we visited the Baseball Hall of Fame Mvsevm, but the highlight of the trip for me was a visit to the Brewery Ommegang. It's a surprisingly small operation, but that makes sense when you realize that it's an expensive Belgian-style microbrew. I'm not a beer expert, but I think I've tried more varieties than your average person, and these are my absolute favorite beers of all time. Ommegang only makes 5 varieties, but they are all fantastic. Alas, you have to pay for that quality, but it's worth it. In any case, the tour ends with a beer tasting and you can buy some beer at a slight discount, which I did, giving me this:


Awesome. Ok, I cheated a little. I already had the normal size bottles on the left, but still, that's an impressive array of beer. Looks like I've got some work to do!
Posted by Mark on May 09, 2007 at 09:54 PM .: Comments (3) | link :.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Read or Die
I asked for recommendations a while back, and one of the recommendations was a series called Read or Die. The series was universally hailed as being stupid, but some people thought it was a "fun" stupid and enjoyable nonetheless. While I do believe they're right, I also wish they would have fleshed out some of their ideas a little more. I only watched the OVA (which is only 3 episodes) and not the TV series, so I guess it's possible that the TV series goes into more detail, but the OVA seemed a little rushed and cramped. At its core, there's a pretty good story here though, and I did enjoy it.

The premise is that a Special Operations Division of the British Library employs various librarians with superpowers who fight book-related crime. It's actually a neat sorta mixture of James Bond, super heroes, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and... books. Anyway, the story details a particular incident in which clones of major historical figures threaten to wipe out civilization. The details of how these clones were created, who they are, and why they want to destroy the world are glossed over a bit, but that's because the story focuses more on the relationship between Yomiko Readman (aka Agent Paper, who has the power to manipulate paper - which is more useful than it sounds: she can stop bullets, shoot paper projectiles, among other improbable but clever uses (more on this below)) and Nancy Makuhari (aka Miss Deep, who can make herself intangible and pass through matter - walking through walls and whatnot). It's reasonably involving, though again it feels a little rushed.

Behold, I can move paper!

So yes, it's silly, and there's lots of Huh? moments that even the most unflappable viewer will think are odd. Still, there's a certain charm to the flight of fancy that underlies the series. Its the same sort of feeling I get when seeing steam-punk technology (which actually features significantly in this series as well, so it makes sense). After an initial confused reaction, I generally found myself amused at these episodes, such as when Yomiko creates a paper airplane so that she can chase after one of the villains (who's flying a jet):

A paper airplane!

Yeah, it's absurd, but it's fun, and the action sequences are actually well staged and quite entertaining. As previously mentioned, the writers did a good job coming up with clever ways to use paper as a weapon or shield or whatever. Most of the villains don't have much of a back story, and their powers are sometimes a little over-the-top, but that ends up being fine.

Hi, I'm a villain.

The animation is pretty good and the music is fantastic (it's got a very Bond-esque feel to it). Overall, it's entertaining and fluffy, and there's nothing wrong with that. I'd like to have seen some of the villains and the story fleshed out a bit more, but that's surprisingly not much of an issue. It's just good old fashioned mindless fun (which was actually good, considering my busy schedule of late). Thanks to Roy and Wonderduck for the recommendation. As usual, more screenshots and comments below the fold. This is Drake, the third member of the team (along with Yomiko and Nancy). He doesn't have any superpowers though, and seems to be a bit of a third wheel, though he appears to come into his own towards the end. The role of regular, non-superpowered folks is a bit strange, especially when it comes to the military. Huge amounts of military power is neutralized and destroyed several times throughout the film, and the US president is portrayed as something of a weenie. When confronted with the destruction of a helicopter fleet, for instance, he literally falls to the ground and wets himself. This seems a bit out of place, but it's a minor quibble.


As previously mentioned, they come up with lots of ways to use paper, as in this paper parachute or a paper sword:

A paper parachute? Why not?

Paper Sword gets destroyed

There are lots of books in the movie, and occassionally some of them are rather strangely titled in English. Who could forget such riveting titles as Mr Bad Guy, I Can Hear Music, or At Tha Close of the Century...

Mr Bad Guy

I Can Hear Music (hey, me too!)

And finally, here are some pictures of the striking Miss Deep herself, Nancy Makuhari. She's a badass.

Nancy is hot.


That's all for now. Not sure what's up next in the Anime realm, but I'll blog it when I watch it. In the mean time, I'll be working through season two of The Venture Brothers, and will be catching up on some of my live-action viewing:P
Posted by Mark on May 06, 2007 at 09:36 PM .: Comments (10) | link :.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Link Dump: Coca-Cola Edition
I love Coca-Cola. I hate Pepsi. I probably wouldn't feel like that if it weren't for my parents. My brother prefers Pepsi. For reasons beyond my understanding, my parents nurtured this conflict. This is strange, since they generally just bought what was on sale (and we were growing up during the whole cola wars episode, so there were lots of sales). This manifested in various ways throughout the years, but the end result is that our preferences polarized. When I go to a restaurant and ask for a "Coke" and they ask if Pepsi is ok, I generally change my order to something else (root beer, water, etc...) Now, I'm not rude or even very confrontational about it, but this guy sure is:
"I'd like a Coca-Cola, please," I told the waiter.

"Will Pepsi be OK?" he replied.

"No, I'd like a Coke," I said.

"We serve only Pepsi products," he stammered.

"Does anyone ever ask for a Coke?" I asked.

"All the time," he said, "but we serve Pepsi."

"Could you run down to the 7-11 and get me a Coke -- they have plenty over there?" I asked with a smile.
Now, I've seen people say "No, Pepsi is not ok," but asking for the waitress to run down to the 7-11 is pure, diabolical genius. Still, most of us Coke fiends aren't rude about our preferences. Take John Scalzi, who wrote a great Essay on Coca-Cola a while ago, and delved into the advertising of Coke and Pepsi:
I think there really is something to how Coke positions itself. One hates to admit that one is influenced by corporate branding -- it means that those damned advertisers actually managed to do their job -- but what can you say. It works. Since Coke is the market leader, it doesn't spend any time as far as I can see banging on Pepsi or other brands; its ads stick to their knitting, which is making sure that people feel that Coke is part of everyday life -- and at some point during your day, you're probably going to have a Coke. It's inevitable. And hey -- that's okay. That's as it should be, in fact. I don't know that I would call Coke's ads soft sells (after all, they brand the product literally up the wazoo), but I don't find the advertising utterly annoying.

Which brings us back to Pepsi. Pepsi is eternally positioning itself as the outsider -- "Pepsi Generation," "Generation Next," so on and so forth. Always young, always fun, always mildly rebellious, yadda yadda yadda. Since one goes in knowing that Pepsi is a multibillion-dollar corporation, I've always found the rebellion angle amusing (and not just in Pepsi's case -- if you're a company that's big enough to advertise your wares every single day on national networks, you've gotten just a bit beyond being the rebel's choice, now, haven't you?). Being a rebel doesn't really work for me -- most of what is positioned as being a rebel is actually not rebellion, merely sullenness and inarticulateness. And really, I'm just too bourgeois for that at this point in my life. ... Besides, Pepsi can't seem to advertise itself without bringing up the point that Coke exists, and is the better-selling brand.
And it goes on for a bit too. Great article.

This year, I learned about the existence of Passover Coke. The current Coke formula uses corn syrup as a sweetener because it's cheaper than pure cane sugar, but since it's not Kosher to eat corn during Passover, Coke makes some special batches of cola using pure cane sugar. It's only available in limited quantities for a few weeks a year (you can tell because it's got a yellow cap and Hebrew writing on it). I didn't get a chance to do a taste test this year, but Widge did, and he says that people prefer Passover Coke to regular Coke. This, of course, leads him to make the obvious suggestion:
Look. I know it's easier to work with and cheaper and all that good stuff. But let's face it: consumers are trying to get away from the high fructose stuff. I don't pretend to even understand all the health controversy that's going on, I tried to read up on the Wikipedia article before writing this and it mentioned "plasma triacylglycerol" and my eyes sort of glazed over (mmmm, glaze). It sounds like something the crew of Star Trek Voyager would seek out while being chased by cauliflower-headed aliens. But forget all that: it just freaking tastes better. That's all I care about, because if I was really concerned about my health, why would I be drinking Coke?

No offense.

Anyway, it's obvious you can make the stuff. It's obvious there's a market. I know just what to do: make a huge deal about how you believe in consumer choice and the market deciding things and release it as Coca-Cola Prime. Hell, if it's more expensive, charge more for it. Think about it: GET PRIMED WITH COKE. See? I'm giving you a campaign for free!
I'd buy it. Good stuff.
Posted by Mark on May 02, 2007 at 10:03 PM .: Comments (3) | link :.

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