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Sunday, December 30, 2007

Anime Update
I've been remiss in my anime watching of late. After I finished Cowboy Bebop, I immediately bumped Banner of the Stars to the top of my Netflix queue. Unfortunately, it was marked as having a "Very Long Wait." Two months later, and it's availablity still hadn't changed... so I looked into it, and it turns out that by "Very Long Wait," Netflix actually meant "unavailable." Since the DVDs don't appear to be out of print, I suppose there's a possibility that Netflix will buy a new set, but for my purposes, I'll need to move on to another series.

Looking back at my Anime recommendations post, I've made it through most of the strong recommendations, but there are still a few series left there that interest me, and even some that didn't fit my original requirements, but which also interest me. Here's the list, including series I've already watched
  • Vandread and Vandread: Second Stage - Solid mecha action, decent characters, complex story, good ending. ***
  • Read or Die (OVA): Simple dumb fun. Neat concept, mildly enjoyable, but nothing special. **1/2
  • Martian Successor Nadesico - Very similar to Vandread though it seemed to be more of a parody (thus, I wasn't sure I was getting a lot of the jokes, etc...). Enjoyable, though a little repetitive. **1/2
  • Cowboy Bebop: Very enjoyable series. The ending was a bit dissapointing, but the series is overall great. ***
  • Banner of the Stars: Waiting for Netflix to restock this.
  • Ghost In The Shell: Stand-Alone Complex: Seems right up my alley, and Netflix has it available in their "Watch Online" feature. Looks like this will be next.
  • Trigun: Sounds like fun, and it was recommended by several people.
  • Samurai 7: I'm a fan of the original Kurosawa movie, and this seems like an interesting remake.
  • Last Exile: Need to look into this more, but several friends seemed to enjoy this. Update: Well, maybe not. Still, gorgeous screenshots.
  • Noir: Gets high marks, though not recommended much because of my "no downer" restrictions (which I'm going to say is no longer a restriction)
There are lots of other series after that, but considering how much I watched this year, the above should keep me busy for a while. In any case, unless Netflix suddently gets its act in order, it looks like Ghost In The Shell: Stand-Alone Complex is next up on my list. However, I should note that we're approaching my end of the year movie blowout, so Anime posts may be a little scarce in January. Still, I hope to tackle more Anime in 2008 than I did this year...
Posted by Mark on December 30, 2007 at 03:23 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Aliens vs. Predator
It's actually a clever concept. Setting aside the atrocious movie made a couple years ago, there have actually been a few genuinely good AvP stories.

The original Dark Horse comic tops it all, of course, and it deserves most of the credit for the clever concept of the series. Basically, the Predators are a race of hunters who like to hunt challenging and dangerous game. Now, the Alien is indeed a challenging opponent, so the ever-resourceful Predators actually manage to capture an Alien queen. They lock it up and restrain it, but the also force it to lay eggs. Each egg is inspected, and if the egg contains another Alien queen, that egg is destroyed. Regular alien eggs are then put onto small spaceship probes which are then sent out to habitable planets - sorta like they're stocking the planets with game (and since there's no queens, there's finite number of prey). Predator hunting expeditions then go out to the stocked planet and hunt the Aliens. Again, the Aliens are dangerous, so it's not unheard of for a Predator to lose it's life in the process - but usually the group of Predators still emerge victorious. Now, the comic books up the ante a little. The Alien queen isn't completely helpless, it seems, and manages to trick the automated Predator machinery into allowing an Alien queen egg to be sent out. Of course, those eggs are sent to a planet that also contains... humans! The series goes into some detail on the social habits of Predators, and even manage to establish an individual Predator (who has a chipped mandible) character that we can relate to (he's an honorable guy) and some humans that we care about as well. In the end, the story worked really well, and lots of other projects were kicked off.

The original comic book series was followed by a slew of other Predator crossovers: Batman versus Predator, Superman vs. Predator, and Aliens vs. Predator vs. The Terminator (of course!) are just a few examples. Naturally, none of those series captured the imagination of audiences quite as much as the original. The clever thing about AvP was that the Alien just fits much better into the role of prey, and the writers were able to play around with that concept in new and interesting ways. I've only read the Batman vs. Predator series (which was mildly lame), but it seems like all the other Predator spinoffs were basically reliant on the same premise: Predator wants to hunt something challenging, and Superman/Batman/Judge Dredd/whoever is much deadlier than your average human.

There was a series of video games based on the AvP universe. I've only ever played Aliens versus Predator 2, but it was a great first person shooter - among the tensest games I've played, it constantly had me on the edge of my seet or jumping as an Alien pounces. You also get to play the game as a human, Predator, or Alien, and the game's story (which isn't anything special, but not actively bad either, and playing from different perspectives is actually pretty cool, because you get to fill in some of the blanks). The video games capture the feel of the AvP universe and create a wonderful sense of atmosphere (when you're the Colonial Marine, for instance, you've got the motion tracker pinging away at you, which can be just excruciating at times). The games are quite effective.

A pretty good movie script which basically adapts the AvP comic series was written, but apparently shelved in favor of this crap. This really baffled me at the time (and I guess it still does). I know, I know, what was I expecting? "Versus" movies don't exactly have a high quality ratio and so most people expected dumb action (which the movie barely manages to deliver). Indeed, when I recently saw the Hitman movie, I had appropriately low expectations for the film and was thus not dissapointed (incidentally, that movie was much better than the first AvP movie, which, granted, isn't saying much, but still). However, the Hitman movie was based off a series of video games that had no real plot (you play a hitman who must, you know, kill people), so it would make sense for the movie to be complete crap. AvP, on the other hand, had compelling source material with a proven track record. Not only that, but comic books are notably easier to adapt than literature or video games. The biggest issue with adapting a comic book is knowing which story arc to pick, but AvP was a 4 issue series (i.e. it's not like Spider Man, which has been churning out story after story for decades) so that problem is non-existant. So, to recap, you've got compelling source material with a proven track record that will be really easy to adapt (heck, the comic books are basically a set of storyboards!). I suppose you could be worried that the comic book audience would be bored by a simple rehashing of the original story (which I don't agree with), but you've got to realize that the audience for a new Aliens or Predator movie is much larger than the audience of the comic book ever could be.

So whatever, the filmmakers decide to go another route. Fine. So what do they do? The change the setting to be the polar ice caps of Earth, put a Predator pyramid under all the ice, and put the whole Alien queen contraption in that pyramid. They somehow feel the need to tie this movie in with the Alien series by employing the services of Lance Henriksen (who is not playing an android, but rather the human that the android is based on), but then they get crap talent for everything else. It's just an awful, awful movie. I've already rambled enough, so I won't bore you with all the things this movie gets wrong, but I do want to call out one thing: the Predators are absolute wimps in this movie. In the comic, the Aliens get the better of most of the Predator hunting party, but only because of sheer numbers (because there was an Alien queen on the planet, there were way more Aliens running around than expected). And even then, you've got Broken Tusk (the good guy Predator), who's just an absolute badass and manages just fine despite the numerical disadvantage (with a little help from a human). I dunno, maybe people like the Aliens enough that they want to see them win all the time, but personally, I can relate much more to the Predators. They at least have some concept of honor and personality, and I enjoyed seeing them team up with the humans in the AvP comic books. I mean, they've got the technology, the smarts, and they've obviously been hunting Aliens for a very long time, so why does the movie consistently portray the Predator as being a helpless weenie when faced with even just a single Alien? I really don't get it.

Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem just came out yesterday, and from initial reports, it seems that the new movie is just as bad as if not worse than the original. How this is possible, I do not know. Do I have the guts to actually find out? I'm not sure. I'm usually up for bad movies like this, but I just don't know if I can take another round of this crap.
Posted by Mark on December 26, 2007 at 09:54 PM .: link :.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas
A few screenshots for your enjoyment:

Robot Santa
Oh no, Robot Santa! Hide!

Santa Hitman
Hitman Santa? That's just confusing.

Hibiki Claus
Hibiki Claus says Merry Anime Day!
Merry Christmas everyone!
Posted by Mark on December 25, 2007 at 10:38 AM .: link :.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Two Days of Christmas
I suppose I could have done a 12 days of Christmas post in the vein of the 4 weeks of Halloween posts, but there's obviously no time left. So here are a few things I've watched, read, or listened to recently in preparation for Christmas. That's all for now. Mery Christmas!
Posted by Mark on December 23, 2007 at 09:25 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Some Quick Movie Notes
Just a few notes:
  • I'm looking to do another installment of the Kaedrin Movie Awards for 2007 movies. If anyone has any suggestions for categories this year, let me know. The categories I had last year were: Best Villain/Badass, Best Hero/Badass, Best Comedic Performance, Breakthrough Performance, Most Visually Stunning, Best Sci-Fi or Horror Film, Best Sequel, Biggest Disappointment, Best Action Sequences, and Best Plot Twist/Surprise. Heck, while you're at it, if you'd like to nominate something for any of the above listed categories, just leave a comment. The awards probably won't happen until mid-January (like last year), so we've still go plenty of time.
  • On Sunday, I talked about critics' top 10 lists, and I realized that my top 10 list for this year is looking a little doubtful. For me, this year has been filled with a slew of good films that are seriously flawed in one way or another. Last year at this time, I already had a pretty good idea what films were going to be on my list (most of those films came out early in the year). This year, I find myself pegging hopes on some of the later releases, as a lot of earlier films just didn't connect with me much. A lot of contenders for a top 10 slot this year probably wouldn't have even made it close to last year's list...
  • Alex is doing his annual 12 Months of Movies series of posts, which are great. He's only up to February, but so far so good.
  • A few months ago, I wrote about a list of movies that I wanted to see even though I know they'll suck. One of the movies on that list was I Am Legend, which I just saw tonight. It was surpsingly not sucky, though not especially a great film either. As a straightforward action film, it works pretty good. As a study in human lonliness, isolation, and grim irony, it doesn't work nearly as well as the book (which is extremely different). Part of the issue here is that there are really only a few ways to emphasise the lonliness and isolation in a film, and they've all been done before, probably to better effect. For instance, the main character (who is the only human left on an earth that has been overrun by vampires (the movie never calls them that by name, but at least they didn't call them hemocytes either)) talks to his dog and to mannequins as if they're real people (a la Tom Hanks and Wilson in Cast Away). Mix this in with a typical action film, and you never really worry that the main character is really going to snap psychologically. It's still quite entertaining, even if it doesn't approach the book's brilliance. ***
  • I saw the new Dark Knight preview, which was quite interesting. It starts off by chronicling a quick bank heist planned by the Joker (this is pretty much a self-contained 5 minute story) and that's followed by a more typical movie preview with pulse-pounding music and quick flashes from the rest of the movie. It looks great. I wonder if that first 5 minutes will actually be in the film - if not, this is an interesting trend.
  • So it looks like Peter Jackson's going to be involved in the new Hobbit film after all. This is great news. Jackson's a good director, but his fight with New Line meant that The Hobbit wouldn't just be missing a good director - most of the people who worked on LotR, from the special effects guys to the actors, were very loyal to Jackson and wouldn't have worked on The Hobbit unless Jackson was involved. It looks like Jackson won't direct, but most of the actors and crew will return, which is really good news. Filmmaking is a very collaborative process, so while I'm interested to see who they choose to direct, I'd imagine the rest of the crew will help maintain a continuity between the new Hobbit film and the LotR films. Who are likely candidates for directing? Some people seem to be rooting for Guillermo del Toro or Sam Raimi would be my choice from this list, which contains a few people whose involvement would worry me (I'm looking at you, Terry Gilliam).
That's all for now...
Posted by Mark on December 19, 2007 at 09:51 PM .: link :.

Spam Free
Going on 4 days now, and I haven't had a single piece of spam reach Movable Type (not even stuff that MT immediately recognizes as spam). This is all due to a plugin called CCode, which I installed on Saturday. It uses javascript to block spam before it even gets submitted. It appears to be working admirably (and I appear to be a dolt for not having installed it for the couple of years it's been available) and I love that I don't have to inconvenience anyone by forcing them to enter some extra captcha code or something. I suppose requiring javascript to be enabled could be a minor inconvenience to some people, but I'm guessing those people to be in the extreme minority. If you do have issues commenting, please email me at tallman_at_kaedrin.com.
Posted by Mark on December 19, 2007 at 09:38 PM .: link :.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Critics and Introspection
As we near the end of 2007, some top 10 lists are beginning to appear. By January, most movie critics will have published their top 10, and most regular folks will scratch their head for at least half of the movies on an average top 10 list. When Oscar season rolls around and the best film nominations are announced, more head scratching occurs as people realize they haven't seen any of the nominated films. Part of this has to do with distribution - of the lists I've seen so far, several movies haven't even come out yet (even in limited release) and many never got much of a theatrical bow. I live near a pretty good city for movies, but due to a hectic schedule, I didn't get much of a chance to make the trek into the city to see several of the leading favorite films. Even if I did, though, I'd bet that I still wouldn't have seen a significant number of the critics' best films of the year.

Why is it that the critics seem to be so different than audiences? I've always thought it had something to do with the amount of movies watched. After all, if you want most of the films released in a year, the typical Hollywood formulas probably start to become predictable and boring. When you only head out to the theater once a month, that doesn't happen. Perhaps there's also a feeling of smug superiority that a critic gets when they pick a non-mainstram or foreign movie. In a lot of cases, the movies picked are very somber affairs. Not the sort of thing you'd want to rewatch. I'm sure a lot of people see movies as a form of escapist entertainment, and those folks obviously don't want to waste their time on something that will put them through a ringer. A professional critic has no qualms about seeing such a movie, while your average Joe might wonder why it's worth the expense to see a pretentious, depressing movie.

This is all just speculation, of course, and I should note that I'm not immune to any of the things I mentioned above. While I don't hold the typical Hollywood formula movies in as much disdain as the critics, I also don't tend to see those films as being "great" either. If I ever get around to compiling a top 10 list, I'm probably going to include at least some non-mainstraim or foreign picks. And I watch enough movies that weighty stuff doesn't scare me away.

I was thinking about this recently, and I remembered an anecdote from a Malcolm Gladwell talk a while ago. I listened to that talk when it came out, so my memory of it was a little hazy - it didn't quite fit exactly into my thoughts on movie critics the way I thought, but it's still relevant.
Asking people to think about what they want causes them to change their opinion of what they want. In fact, it screws up their ability to recognize what they want. This problem in Psychology is called the Peril of Introspection Problem - a lot of the research has been done by a guy named Tim Wilson at UVA and he once did this very simple experiment called, the Poster Test. And the poster test is that you've got a bunch of posters in the room and you bring some college students in and you say "pick any poster you want, take it home." They do that. The second group is brought in and you say, "pick any poster you want, tell me why you want it, and then go home"

A couple months pass and he calls up the students and says, that poster you got a couple of months back, do you like it? And the kids in the first group, who didn't have to explain their choice all still liked their poster. And the kids in the second group, who did have to explain, now hate their poster. And not only that, the kids who had to explain their poster picked a VERY different kind of poster than the kids who didn't have to explain their poster. So, making people explain what they want change their preference and changes their preference in a negative way. It causes them causes them to gravitate towards something that they actually weren't interested in the first place.

Now, there’s one little detail on this. There were two kinds of posters; there were these impressionist prints and then there were these photos of kittens hanging on bars that said, "Hang In There Baby!" And the students who were asked to explain their preference, overwhelmingly chose the kitten and the ones who weren't asked to explain their choice, overwhelmingly chose the impressionist poster. Now - and they were happy with their choice, obviously - who could be happy with a kitten on their wall after 3 months.

Now why is that? Why when you ask someone to explain their preference do they gravitate towards the least sophisticated of the offering? Because it's a language problem, right? You're someone, you know that in your head you prefer the impressionist, but now you have to come up with a reason for your choice. And you don't really have the language of why you like the impressionist photo. What you do have the language of which to say is, well, I do like the kitten cause I had a kitten when I was growing up. So, forcing you to explain something when you don't necessarily have the vocabulary and the tools to explain your preference, automatically shifts you towards the most conservative and the least sophisticated choice.
Now, I remembered this incorrectly. I thought that the people who were required to explain their choices chose the impressionist paintings. If that was the case, the parallels with movie critics are obvious - their job is to explain what they're seeing, so it would make sense that they chose more complex films, and it would be interesting to see if they'd like the movies they chose six months later. However, it was the other way around - the people who had to explain themselves picked the least sophisticated choice.

What this would seem to imply is that most people would prefer the arty films, but gravitate towards the more mainstream fare because they have to explain themselves (since most people see movies in groups, they need to convince others to see it, and thus that changes the dynamic). I would suspect that people who go to the movies alone would be less likely to see mainstream stuff and more likely to watch stuff off the beaten path.

But wait, if explaining why you like a movie or why you want to see a movie makes you want to see more conservative, less sophisticated movies, why do critics often go in the opposite direction? The answer is in Gladwell's book, Blink. In short, the reason is that critics are experts, and experts aren't a susceptible to this sort of thing. Gladwell references a study regarding jam. A bunch of experts ranked 44 different brands of strawberry jam according to very specific measures of taste and texture. A psychologst then took 5 divergent jams (the ones ranked 1, 11, 24, 32, and 44) and gave them to a group of college students. It turns out that the students' ratings were rather close to the experts' ratings. The correllation was 0.55, which is apparently very high for this sort of study.
What this says, in other words, is that our jam reactions are quite good: even those of us who aren't jam experts know good jam when we taste it.

But what would happen if I were to give you a questionnaire and ask you to enumerate your reasons for preferring one jam to another? Disaster. ... The overall correlation was now down to .11, which for all intents and purposes means that the students' evaluations had almost nothing at all to do with the experts' evaluations.
When the students were asked to explain their preferences, they ranked the #1 jam second to last. Why do we do this?
It's that we simply don't have any way of explaining our feelings about jam. We know unconsciously what good jam is: it's Knott's Berry Farm. But suddenly, we're asked to stipulate, according to a list of terms, why we think that, and the terms are meaningless to us. Texture, for instance. What does that mean? We may never have thought about the texture of any jam before, and we certainly don't understand what texture means, and texture may be something that we actually, on a deep level, don't particularly care much about. But now the iea of texture has been planted in our mind, and we think about it and decide that, well, the texture does seem a little strange, and in fact maybe we don't like this jam after all. ... what happens is that we come up with a plausible-sounding reason for why we might like or dislike something, and then we adjust our true preference to be in line with that plausible-sounding reason.

Jam experts, though, don't have the same problem when it comes to explaining their feelings about jam. Expert food tasters are taught a very specific vocabularly, which allows them to describe precisely their reactions to specific foods.
I'd love to see a study on this subject that actually tackled movies. Is viewing a movie more or less subjective than tasting jam? Who knows? There is certainly a very specific vocabularly about film, and critics are generally well versed in this. I wouldn't be surprised if you got similar results on a study that focused on film. I'd also be really interested to see how writing reviews impacts a critic's feelings on a film. Gladwell's book suggests that a critic wouldn't be as affected by this as a regular fella, but he's also talking about jam experts. Movies have a specific vocabulary, but perhaps not a explicit as that of jam (Gladwell goes into excruciating detail in the book).

When I started this post, I thought it was a little simpler than it actually turned out to be. I think the above does help explain why critics' choices are generally different than the mainstream, but there is still something missing. Other factors should probably also be considered. For instance, there are lots of great movies that are poorly made. Such movies are usually saved by storytelling. The filmmakers tell a story that connects on some level with the audience. If you're a critic who is steeped in the technical details of filmmaking, your vocabulary requires to to say that such movies aren't that great (and conversely, it probably inflates your evaluation of a technically brilliant film that doesn't tell a good story).

There are a lot of other things that probably factor into movies (that don't affect Jam or posters). For instance, I've often talked about how expectations color your reaction to a film. Marketing no doubt plays a big role in how successful a movie is at the box office, but not how much people really like the movie. For instance, one of the highest rated movies on IMDB is The Shawshank Redemption. This movie barely made $25 million at the box office and was considered a failure at the time of it's release. But it built up a huge following on video and DVD. Everyone I know who has seen the movie has loved it. I'm sure there are lots of other factors too, like novelty or sentimentality. In the end, I don't have a specific answer to why critics diverge so much from the mainstream, but I think the above probably has something to do with it...
Posted by Mark on December 16, 2007 at 02:17 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

I'm trying to diagnose a problem with my rebuild process. For some reason, the individual archive entry rebuild process isn't working. I'm able to create a new entry fine, and I'm able to delete comments from entries fine, so it's clear that Movable Type is able to build an individual entry archive file just fine. I have no idea why the rebuild process is failing though. I keep getting this error:
An error occurred
Can't call method "created_on" on an undefined value at lib/MT/Template/ContextHandlers.pm line 3764.
Fun stuff, I tells ya. Hopefully, I'll figure something out, but in the mean time, you may see some strange stuff on the individual entry pages (particularly with respect to the comments, as that seems to be where the problem is localized.)

Update: Very little progress made. The comments are definitely what's causing the problem. When I remove the code that generates the list of comments, the individual entry archives rebuild fine. When I try to add it back in, bit by bit, I start getting http 500 errors or the original error I was getting above. Somehow, the most recent 30 entries or so have had their comments restored. Beyond that, there's a lot of older entries that have comments, but those comments aren't being displayed because I can't rebuild them without manually rebuilding each entry individually. So if you're on an old entry and you see "Testing something" where the comments would normally be, don't worry. The comments are still in the system, but I can't seem to publish them...

Update 12.15.07: All individual archive pages should be properly displaying comments as of Thursday afternoon. Big thanks to Chad Everett for his help in diagnosing the problem (see comments of this entry for more details). Today, I'll be adding the CCode plugin to help deal with the spam issue. For the most part, I get around 20-30 spams a day that actually make it through the system and on the site. Every once in a while, a spammer will go nuts and submit a couple hundred on one day. So the weekly grind of having to clean up spam has finally motivated me to do something about it. CCode sounds rather clever. It basically adds a hidden field to the comment form, and populates it with javascript. The whole process is obfuscated, but not impossible to break. I kinda think of it as the pseudo-catpcha that Shamus uses (or the one Aziz uses), except it doesn't require the commenter to enter anything. The only catch is that you need to have javascript enabled in order to submit a comment. All of which assumes that this plugin will work well. I'm installing this plugin now, so if you have any issues, feel free to drop me an email (tallman_at_kaedrin.com).
Posted by Mark on December 12, 2007 at 09:30 PM .: link :.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Link Dump
I'm a little brain dead right now, so here are a few things that have caught my eye recently:
  • SFWA's Awesome T-Shirt: Was this funnier when I didn't know the origins of the t-shirt? Maybe, but it's awesome anyway. (Via Scalzi)
  • The High Frontier, Redux by Charlie Stross: A total buzzkill, but worthwhile reading on the likelihood (well, unlikelihood) of colonizing space. Needless to say, we won't be sending out the colony ships anytime soon. It's detailed and interesting, and there are a ton of comments.
  • How Many HTML Elements Can You Name in 5 Minutes?: I got 48 out of 91 on my first try. I kicked myself for not remembering most of the remaining ones.
  • Retro-Future: To The Stars!: Classic scifi illustrations from the 1930s to 1970s, many from former Soviet countries.
  • Air Traffic Video: John Robb points to an awesome video that shows all air transportation flows over the US. It's mesmerizing.
  • Infringement Nation (.pdf): Interesting article on how everyone regularly commits copyright infringement without even knowing it (i.e. this is without even taking into account p2p downloads, etc...):
    To illustrate the unwitting infringement that has become quotidian for the average American, take an ordinary day in the life of a hypothetical law professor named John. For the purposes of this Gedankenexperiment, we assume the worstcase scenario of full enforcement of rights by copyright holders and an uncharitable, though perfectly plausible, reading of existing case law and the fair use doctrine. Fair use is, after all, notoriously fickle and the defense offers little ex ante refuge to users of copyrighted works.

    In the morning, John checks his email, and, in so doing, begins to tally up the liability. Following common practice, he has set his mail browser to automatically reproduce the text to which he is responding in any email he drafts. Each unauthorized reproduction of someone else's copyrighted text-their email- represents a separate act of brazen infringement, as does each instance of email forwarding. Within an hour, the twenty reply and forward emails sent by John have exposed him to $3 million in statutory damages.
    And it goes on from their, until we reach this conclusion:
    By the end of the day, John has infringed the copyrights of twenty emails, three legal articles, an architectural rendering, a poem, five photographs, an animated character, a musical composition, a painting, and fifty notes and drawings. All told, he has committed at least eighty-three acts of infringement and faces liability in the amount of $12.45 million (to say nothing of potential criminal charges). There is nothing particularly extraordinary about John's activities. Yet if copyright holders were inclined to enforce their rights to the maximum extent allowed by law, he would be indisputably liable for a mind-boggling $4.544 billion in potential damages each year. And, surprisingly, he has not even committed a single act of infringement through P2P file sharing. Such an outcome flies in the face of our basic sense of justice. Indeed, one must either irrationally conclude that John is a criminal infringer -- a veritable grand larcenist -- or blithely surmise that copyright law must not mean what it appears to say. Something is clearly amiss. Moreover, the troublesome gap between copyright law and norms has grown only wider in recent years.
    I wonder how much I've tallied up as a result of quoting his article on this blog entry? In any case, it sounds like we're in need of some copyright law revisions.
  • The 40 Worst Rob Liefeld Drawings: I recognize the name, but I've never read any of the comics he's illustrated. Nevertheless, you don't need to read comic books to enjoy this smackdown. (via Galley Slaves)
Posted by Mark on December 09, 2007 at 06:30 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Rhetorical Strategy
Every so often, I see someone who is genuinely concerned with reaching the unreachable. Whether it be scientists who argue about how to frame their arguments, alpha-geek programmers who try to figure out how to reach typical, average programmers, or critics who try to open a dialogue with feminists. Debates tend to polarize, and when it comes to politics or religion, assumptions of bad faith on both sides tend to derail discussions pretty quickly.

How do you reach the unreachable? Naturally, the topic is much larger than a single blog entry, but I did run accross an interesting post by Jon Udell that outlines Charles Darwin's rhetorical strategy in the book, On the Origin of Species (which popularized the theory of evolution).
Darwin, says Slatkin, was like a salesman who finds lots of little ways to get you to say yes before you're asked to utter the big yes. In this case, Darwin invited people to affirm things they already knew, about a topic much more familiar in their era than in ours: domestic species. Did people observe variation in domestic species? Yes. And as Darwin piles on the examples, the reader says, yes, yes, OK, I get it, of course I see that some pigeons have longer tail feathers. Did people observe inheritance? Yes. And again, as he piles on the examples, the reader says yes, yes, OK, I get it, everyone knows that that the offspring of longer-tail-feather pigeons have longer tail feathers.

By the time Darwin gets around to asking you to say the big yes, it's a done deal. You've already affirmed every one of the key pillars of the argument. And you've done so in terms of principles that you already believe, and fully understand from your own experience.

It only took a couple of years for Darwin to formulate the idea of evolution by natural selection. It took thirty years to frame that idea in a way that would convince other scientists and the general public. Both the idea, and the rhetorical strategy that successfully communicated it, were great innovations.
I think Udell simplifies the inception and development of the idea of evolution, but I think the point generally holds. Darwin's ideas didn't come into mainstream prominence until he published his book, decades after he had begun his work. Obviously, Darwin's strategy isn't applicable in every situation, but it is an interesting place to start (I suppose we should keep in mind that evolution is still controversial amongst the mainstream)...
Posted by Mark on December 05, 2007 at 08:29 PM .: link :.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Metroid Prime 3: Corruption
I got a Nintendo Wiii a while ago, and once I tired of the typical Wii Sports games, I looked around for a new game. I settled on Metroid Prime 3: Corruption. It had just come out at the time, I had fond memories of the original (though I'm not sure I ever finished it), and it had great "reviews" at all the gaming sites (even user reviews hovered around 8-10 out of 10). Of course, I'm much more of a casual gamer, so what I'm looking for is typically a bit different than the hardcore gaming crowd. While I can see why the game got good reviews, I really did not enjoy this game. It's got some positive points, but there are lots of negatives that just dragged the whole experience down for me.

Again, I'm a casual gamer, and during the past few months, I haven't had a lot of time to play video games. I think this context is a big part of why I didn't enjoy this game, but I'll get into that later in this post. Another thing to keep in mind: This is my first Metroid game since the original, and though I have a pretty good opinion of that game, I don't really remember much about it either. Here are some thoughts on various aspects of the game:
  • Combat: The game is basically a first-person shooter, so combat is pretty straightforward. The controller scheme for the Wii is well done and easy to adjust to. Basically, you use the nunchck to move your character around, and the Wiimote controller controls where you look (and where you shoot). Pressing A shoots, which is a little strange at first, because B is the trigger on the Wiimote, but it works well enough. Sometimes I thought there was a lack of precision in the targeting method, but it seemed to work reasonably well. Sometimes it got annoying to constantly have the Wiimote pointed directly at the screen - if your hand strays, your viewpoint does too, and that can be disorienting. Lots of trademark Metroid weapons make an appearance along with a new hyper mode. Activating hyper mode requires you to empty one of your energy tanks (each energy tank is made up of 100 life points, and you continually gain energy tanks as the game progresses), but you also get a temporary weapons boost. Personally, I found hyper mode annoying and stupid (more on this in a bit).
  • Bosses: One of the primary draws of adventure games like this are bosses, the enemy that shows up at the end of a level. Usually, battling a boss requires a lengthy effort and you need to use a wide array of weapons to defeat them. Often, there's a series of fun "mini-games" that you play in order to defeat a boss. In Metroid 3, this is certainly the case. The bosses are powerful and indeed take all of your firepower to defeat. Unfortunately, the bosses end up being more annoying than anything else. First of all, it's awfully difficult to figure out which weapon you should be using and in what situation. If it wasn't for this walkthrough, I would have given up on the game a long time ago. For example, here's how you defeat a boss named Korakk:
    Riding Korakk is a Pirate Hussar. Get rid of him first, quickly and easily, with the Hyper Beam. After that, downing the Korakk is a fairly easy but also dangerous process. Keep it targeted and be patient as it hops around. When its mouth glows, it's getting ready to shoot its tongue out (it won't really do it unless you're in front of it where it can see you). As soon as the tongue comes out, fire a shot at it to retract it and daze the Korakk.

    Once that happens, immediately roll into a ball and go under the Korakk's glowing belly. Set a few bombs so that they explode and hit the belly. Then zoom out and go back to normal.

    Repeat this at least one more time. When the second set of bombs hit, position yourself just behind the Korakk as it will finally collapse and expose its rear end. Target it and yank it with the Grapple Arm. The Korakk will then reel on its hind legs and expose its belly. Circle over to the front of it, go into Hypermode and plug the belly with a few Hyper Beam shots.
    How are you supposed to know these things if you've never played the game before? I don't know, maybe I'm just dense, or maybe it has something to do with previous installments of the series that I haven't played. Heck, even once you do know what to do, the process of actually doing it is usually a frustrating exercise in button pressing. In some ways, the bosses are kinda neat, but really, they just ended up frustrating me. By the time I got to Mogenar, a particularly difficult boss (and apparently I'm not on my own, as a quick search confirms that a lot of people found this boss frustrating), I was at the end of my rope, and after three or four attempts (each taking a long time, a half-hour at least), I gave up. I'm not going to play the game anymore. I think the biggest problem is that Mogenar requires you to go into hyper mode too often, and I apparently didn't have enough energy tanks for the battle. The thought of backtracking to a previous level and then making my way back to Mogenar is enough to keep me away for good.
  • Other Game Play: The most frustrating thing about this game is the lack of save points. This became especially annoying when my schedule got really busy, as I didn't have much time to play, and the way the game is set up, you have to play for at least 1 hour (frequently 1.5-2 hours) before reaching the next save point. The game doesn't make you start from the very beginning of the level when you die, but it does if you turn the game off, so there's some annoying repetition involved here. The other thing that bothered me about the game is that it seems like it's trying to create an open ended world (a la the GTA series), yet there is a very specific linear progression that you must go through. What this essentially boils down to is a lot of backtracking, realizing that you forgot something, redoing the same level, and then backtracking again to get back to where you were. I had a hard time figuring out the proper sequence of events at some points, and the game doesn't seem to allow multiple solutions to a problem (which is what usually happens when you have a more open-ended world). I don't mind an open-ended world and I generally like freedom within a game's world. Exploration can be a lot of fun, but this game was trying to get that while also railroading you along a specific path. In the end, the level design was just annoying and repetitious, and I quickly got bored with it.
  • Puzzles: The game mixes battle scenes with little puzzles, and these I actually kinda enjoyed. Where the bosses were difficult to figure out and frustrating, I didn't seem to have as much trouble with the puzzles. However, there really weren't that many puzzles and the game was dominated more by battles than puzzles.
  • Visuals and Audio: This is actually another strong point of the game. The visuals are well done and compelling. The music and voice acting is pretty good as well. The character and level design is a little uneven, but overall it's well done. Samus looks great, and her various equipment is also well designed. This is probably the prettiest game I've played on the Wii (though I should mention that I haven't played that many games:P)
  • Story: Ultimately, I found the story to be rather dull and uninspired. Perhaps I'm just missing something from the previous installments of the game, but the story follows the bounty hunter Samus Aran, who seems to be on a mission to battle Space Pirates and rid the universe of something called Phazon. I'm a little confused by this, because at some point Samus gets infected by Phazon, and the Galactic Federation decides that instead of ridding her of the Phazon, they're just going to give her something called a Phazon Enhancement Device (P.E.D.) That seems smart, right? Got infected by something evil? Great, let's enhance it! This leads to annoying periodic phazon episodes that drain your life throughout the game. There are also several other bounty hunters which are supposedly on my team, but which don't seem to serve any purpose other than to betray me (presumably because of the wonderful P.E.D.) I don't know, this whole universe seems much more confusing to me, and it's nothing like what I remembered in the original Metroid. I'm assuming that my lack of experience with the other Metroid Prime games is causing the problem here, but still, the story seemed silly.
  • Usability: I've already mentioned several issues. The biggest problem, again, is the lack of save points and the confusion as to how to proceed at various points in the game (both because of the level design and because of the confusing bosses). The controller scheme seems to work well enough, and I think it's about as good as it will get for a FPS on the Wii. There are some more advanced button combinations that need to happen at various points of the game, but nothing too difficult to use (a big issue for me was that I had trouble finding 2 hour timeslots to play, so I had to reacquaint myself with the controls every time I played).
I'm not very impressed with this game. If I were to give it a rating, it would be somwhere in the 4/10 range, and I'm really surprised that more people aren't mentioning any flaws in this game. I wouldn't recommend this to casual gamers, or those who don't have a lot of time to devote to gaming. Hardcore gamers or those in love with the Metroid franchise might fare better (a lot better, if reviews are to be believed). Then again, I'm not the only one unimpressed. This person does an interesting job summarizing one of the common complaints of the game:
I mean, honestly... If I wanted to receive orders from someone, I would have purchased Halo or Half-Life. If I wanted to be sent on a linear mission to perform some menial task, I would have bought Zelda. If I wanted to be placed alongside a team of other mercenaries, only to witness each one die on their own or fight them after they turn against me, I would have bought Metal Gear. If I wanted to play mini-games, I'd play Final Fantasy. And if I wanted to spend my time accumulating achievement points, I would have bought a 360 by now.

I didn't buy Halo or any of these other games, I bought Metroid. In the Metroid I know, you start out alone. You have no map, no friends, and no sunlight. You have a gimped weapon, no bombs, and no guide to get you acclimated to the environment. The satisfaction in playing Metroid doesn't come from finishing the game. It comes from exploring it and surviving it, and occasionally finding an item to help you along.

It's a dark game with eerie music. It's a simple, paranoia-inducing game where if something moves, or is even facing you, you shoot it (because it sure as hell isn't going to say "Hi Samus!" and give you a briefing). It's a non-linear game where the replayability comes not from finishing quests in less time, but from attempting to explore further with fewer items.
Again, I have no idea what to say about what makes a Metroid game a Metroid game, as I've only played the original and don't remember much, but what this person is talking about sounds a lot more fun than what Metroid Prime 3 actually was.

As a casual gamer, this game comes nowhere near my standard for the adventure genre, which is God of War. I had my issues with that game as well (*cough* Hades level *cough*), but overall, I was really impressed with a lot of aspects of the game. On a completely abstract level, I actually looked forward to playing GoW, whereas, I almost dreaded playing Metroid (again, consider my context - I don't want to spend a required 2 hours playing the game when my time is at a premium).

Anyway, I traded a friend Metroid for The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. I like this a lot more than Metroid, but there are still issues. Just when I was getting used to the controller scheme, they up and changed my character into a wolf. The wolf level is mildy boring too, though it's still much better than Metroid. I don't anticipate Zelda frustrating me as much as Metroid, but I guess you never know. I'm much more into the Zelda universe though, so I have a little incentive to keep up with the game. As for the Wii in general, the next game I'll actually get excited about is the announced Star Wars game. Now that is something I'll be willing to dedicate a lot of time towards! Otherwise, I might just invest in a little sports game or something (Rockstar's Ping Pong maybe? Seems like a good fit for the Wii, though I gotta wonder how different it is from Wii tennis).
Posted by Mark on December 02, 2007 at 03:11 PM .: link :.

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