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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Year in Reading
As of this moment (and depending on how you count omnibus editions), I have read 30 books in 2011. There's a pretty good chance that I'll finish my current book by the end of the year as well. If you'll permit some navel gazing, here are some stats about what I've read this year:
  • 30 books in 2011 is a big improvement over the 20 books I read in 2010 (which was itself a pretty big year for me). This might be the most I've read in a single year since high school... and it's worth noting that at least 4 of the books from 2010 were read in December of that year (i.e. this has been a pretty well sustained pace for the past year and half or so).
  • According to goodreads, these 30 books translate to 10,964 pages of reading in 2011 (and if you count my current progress, I'm over the 11,000 mark...) This number is perhaps a little suspect, as it depends on print size and spacing and book format and so on, but as an approximation it feels... well, actually, I have no real frame of reference for this. I'll have to enter in dates for my 2010 reading to see what Goodreads comes up with there.
  • 9 of the books were non-fiction, which might also be a record for me (unless you count textbooks or something).
  • Most of the 21 fiction books were science fiction or fantasy novels, and my progress this year was definitely fueled by shortish novels (i.e. around 300 page novels)
  • The longest novel I read this year was Reamde, clocking in at 1044 pages. The second longest novel was Perdido Street Station, which ran 623 pages.
  • 13 of the 30 books were written by women, which is probably another record for me (for a point of comparison, in 2010, I only read 2 books written by women). I should note that this is mostly fueled by Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga - I've read 9 books in the series so far, and may finish the 10th by the end of the year.
  • Goodreads also provides a neato graph of when you read stuff and when that stuff was published (unfortunately, it's a little too big to feature here). As it turns out, I read only 2 books that were initially published before 1986, though one of those 2 was published in the late 19th century, so there's that.
All in all, a pretty great year of reading. For reference, my top 4 books of the year: Oh hell, can we just make the Vorkosigan Saga (as a whole) the honorary 5th best book of the year? Ok then.

Things have slowed down in the latter part of this year, though I think a large part of that is that I've been focusing on longer novels and non-fiction, which obviously take more time. Indeed, if I manage to tackle Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid next year, I expect that will drag down my numbers a bit. Of course, I could hold off on that and slot in 4 short novels in its place, but I should really read GEB, as it's been on my shelf for quite a while... Looking ahead to next year, I'll definitely be finishing off Bujold's Vorkosigan novels, and I was given a Kindle for Christmas, so I'm sure I'll find plenty of things to read there. Perhaps an updated book queue is in order!
Posted by Mark on December 28, 2011 at 07:26 PM .: link :.



Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas!
I hope everyone is having a great holiday, and here are a few links that I put together in 5 minutes: That's all for now...
Posted by Mark on December 25, 2011 at 06:16 PM .: link :.



Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Holiday Link Dump
'Tis the season for linkage: That's all for now. Have a great holiday!
Posted by Mark on December 21, 2011 at 07:44 PM .: link :.



Sunday, December 18, 2011

Holiday Horror
'Tis the season... for cheesy horror movies! It's something of an annual tradition here at Kaedrin, though the pickings are getting a bit slim these days. Two of the three movies below are only slightly related to actual holiday scares. That being said, I always seem to have fun with these movies, even if they aren't so great:
  • Sheitan - So some morons go to a club on Christmas Eve, get kicked out, then decide to spend the holiday at the country house of a girl they just met. Little do they know that the caretaker, Joseph, has other plans for the crew. Satanic plans! Yeah, so the film's big problem is that the protagonists are complete and utter douchebags. French douchebags! Sometimes this isn't the worst failing in a horror movie, but there's a distinct lack of horror here as well (at least, until the end, when things get a little better). Vincent Cassel actually turns in a fun, scenery chewing performance as the satanic Joseph (and apparently he also plays Joseph's wife!) The film is shot well and there's something interesting in the general story. Unfortunately, it's all ruined by our douchey protagonists. **
  • Films to Keep You Awake: The Christmas Tale - Ahh, now this is more like it! Still not tremendously holiday focused, but at least there's a Santa-suit-wearing criminal in this one! 5 kids discover a woman (the aforementioned Santa-suit-wearing criminal) trapped in a well. It turns out that she's a bank robber on the run, so the kids attempt to blackmail her into giving them her stolen money. Things don't go as planned. Also: Zombies (kinda).
    Santa Suit Wearing Criminal
    It's far from perfect, but it's fun and actually pretty tense at times. The kids all put in good performances, and the Santa-suit criminal manages to be pretty menacing after a while. There's a weird movie-within-a-movie thing going on that I'm not sure entirely works, but the general story works well enough and the ending is sufficiently satisfying. ***
  • Demonic Toys - Yeah, so I don't think this one has any relationship to the Holidays at all, except that a bunch of toys are attacking everyone, which is actually pretty cool. Don't get me wrong, this is not fine cinema, but it's fun schlock, and while there's a silliness to the proceedings, I did like the backstory. Something about a demon who wants to be reborn and needs to possess a pregnant woman, who happens to stumble into said toy warehouse. Ok, fine, there's not much to the story or, well, the movie, but I had fun with it. I mean, Baby Ooosy Daisy? Awesome. It's actually a pretty bad movie, but fans of bad horror might enjoy it... **1/2
Well, there you have it. There are still a few more Holiday Horror movies in the queue, including Don't Open Till Christmas (though this is apparently no longer available from Netflix) and Santa Claws (get it?) Well, there's always next year!
Posted by Mark on December 18, 2011 at 02:17 PM .: link :.



Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Link Dump
Time is short, so just a few links to things I've liked on the internets lately:
  • Victorians Smiling - Most old-timey pictures I've seen have featured folks with scowls on their faces, but these victorian pictures feature people who are smiling. I particularly like the last sequence of photos.
  • Lord of the Tweets - John Scalzi recently watched the Lord of the Rings movies and live-tweeted his thoughts. Some are very amusing...
  • The Seven Deadly Sins of Star Wars - Clever. Kottke adds his 7 most egregious changes to the original trilogy (i.e. the greedo shot first complaints), but he leaves out the most recent round of tomfoolery (i.e. "No. Nooooooo...")
  • What the NFL Won't Show You - I don't watch a lot of football, but I found this article interesting, as it pertains to a view of the field that consumers don't actually have access to, but which would be the most clear in illustrating what's happening in the game and how it works. (via Kottke)
  • Overheard in DC: Bike Cops - The bike cop one is good, but my favorite is this one:
    Male and female New Jersey Devils fans at the Caps game Saturday night:

    Guy: "That's icing."
    Girl: "Icing? Cupcakes!"
    Heh. Brilliant.
That's all for now. Stay tuned for some Holiday horror on Sunday!
Posted by Mark on December 14, 2011 at 08:28 PM .: link :.



Sunday, December 11, 2011

Nerding Out on Star Trek
Star Trek has been in the news lately, as J.J. Abrams preps the new movie. It seems that Khan will be the villain again (originally thought to be played by Benicio Del Toro, but that has apparently not happened), though there is also apparently a secondary villain who plays an older mentor to Khan. Or something. It was the obvious choice and I'm interested in seeing what Abrams does with the new movie, but in a lot of ways, it's also a disappointing and lazy choice. Not just because Khan was the villain in the original second Star Trek film either. As Devin Faraci also notes, I think one of the things people forget about is that one of the reasons that film worked so well was that Khan wasn't the obvious choice:
Khan wasn't an obvious choice for the original Star Trek II. Basically Harve Bennett watched every single episode of the original series because he thought Star Trek: The Motion Picture lacked a good villain, and took a shine to Space Seed; while it was always regarded as one of the better episodes of the series, Khan wasn't quite the iconic villain he is today.

What made Khan iconic was the fact that his quest for vengeance led to the death of Spock. It seems unlikely that Star Trek 2 will be a remake of Star Trek II, so it's probably a riff on Space Seed - except made more EXTREME for 3D movie purposes. I bet they get Chris Pine to yell 'KHAAAAAAAAN!,' though.
I think I would have rather seen Abrams go in a completely different direction. Either mining the original series for other obscure characters to update for the big screen, or maybe even - and I know this is crazy talk - creating a new character from scratch. The Star Trek reboot was extremely popular, so they've got a built in audience for this next installment. As long as you can make a trailer with a bunch of lens flares, swish pans, and explosions, people are going to go see the sequel. Why not take a chance? Khan is an iconic villain because of his context - none of which has been built up in this new reboot universe.

Anyway, I got to thinking about the existing movies and just for shits and giggles, I ranked them from favorite to least favorite below. Mostly because this post just wasn't nerdy enough. Here goes:
  • Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan - The obvious choice, and the film most frequently cited as the best of the Trek movies. I actually haven't seen it in a while, but there are lots of memorable things about it, and of course, Khan was probably the most memorable of the villains in the films...
  • Star Trek (2009 Reboot) - Oh sure, it's not a very rigorous movie and I would totally prefer more science in this film's fiction (and what's there is just breathtakingly stupid), but this film is just so much damn fun that it really does catapult up towards the top of the list. I'd actually say it ties with the next few films, but for now, this is where I have it.
  • Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home - Who among us hasn't picked up our mouse and talked to it, saying "Computer? Commmputerrr?" like Scottie does in this movie? It's an unusual movie in that it's a sorta fish out of water comedy rather than a sci-fi action film (and quite frankly, those who complain about the reboot's science should take a look at how time travel is portrayed in this film). Fortunately, it's still a boatload of fun.
  • Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country - Returning to the series more adventurous roots, this film also wound up being really well done. I feel like I'm saying this for all the movies so far, but it's a lot of fun.
  • Star Trek: The Motion Picture - I know, it's slow and plodding and filled with lame glory shots of the Enterprise leaving stardock or something, but I actually enjoyed this one overall. It was a little nebulous and intellectual, but that's what I like about it.
  • Star Trek: First Contact - Certainly the best of The Next Generation movies, this one is pretty fun, but it's also much more of a lame action movie than the series or even the other movies. I think this movie also demonstrates that while the Borg were once awesome villains, their continual evolution into ineffectual dweebs was disappointing. They're better than this movie gives them credit for. This movie works, but there's lots of dumb things going on here.
  • Star Trek III: The Search for Spock - I'm actually surprised this one fell this far on the list. It's not a horrible movie and I don't hate it, but quite frankly, I don't remember much about it (which isn't a good sign).
  • Star Trek: Insurrection - Meh. It's an ok film, and Worf has a space bazooka and everything, but it plays out like a third rate TNG episode. I remember having an ok time with the movie when it came out, but it's ultimately a pretty forgettable experience...
  • Star Trek: Generations - And now we get to the part of the list where the movies are legitimately bad. This movie was just so unnecessary and got the TNG crew off to a horrible start. It's one thing to honor the old crew. It's another to try to cater to everyone, and thus make a movie that works for no one. A horrible movie.
  • Star Trek: Nemesis - Another terrible movie. Hard to believe that's the same Tom Hardy that was in Bronson and Inception, but yep, that's him. I've always thought that the Romulans would be a good villain for the movies, but it never seems to work out...
  • Star Trek V: The Final Frontier - A total abomination, the less said about this the better.
I think my biggest problem with the Star Trek movies is that I consider a lot of The Next Generation episodes better than most of the movies, even including the ones at the top of the list. And even a lot of TNG episodes haven't aged that well, but many are still really well done and interesting. Much moreso than the movies, at least. Speaking of TNG, check out this twitter feed which is throwing out humorous plot summaries from a proposed 8th season of TNG. My favorite episode:
A sentient nebula chases the ship, which has nowhere to hide, because usually it would be in a nebula. Data adopts a dog, snake, and parrot.
Heh, great stuff. Speaking of great stuff, RedLetterMedia has reviews of all the Next Generation movies (in the same style as their brilliant Star Wars prequel reviews) that are certainly worth checking out. Well, I think that covers all the Star Trek nerdery I have right now, so there. I hope you enjoyed it.
Posted by Mark on December 11, 2011 at 07:40 PM .: link :.



Wednesday, December 07, 2011

The 2011 Holiday Movie Season
The holiday movie season has traditionally been Hollywood's dumping ground for Oscar bait. Prestige pictures are rushed out the door to meet eligibility requirements, and film nerds rejoice that we're actually getting some more intelligent, subtle fair. Well, in recent years, the trend hasn't quite reversed, but big tentpole action films are being released during the holidays now. Avatar came out on Christmas, for instance, and this year, we've got stuff like Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. But there are still some interesting looking movies coming out as well, so here's a few that I'm looking forward to:
  • Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel - A documentary covering the career of Roger Corman. The release looks to be severely limited, so I'm wondering if I'll ever get to see the movie, but here's to hoping it at least makes it to DVD/Streaming quickly. It's still right up my alley though, so if I get a chance, I'll jump to see it...
  • Haywire - Steven Soderbergh slumming it with an espionage action flick. He's also reuniting with The Limey screenwriter Lem Dobbs on this one, which is somewhat encouraging. Certainly worth a look, though I'm hearing mixed things and I think I saw a preview for this that wasn't particularly inspiring... so I guess we'll see.
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - An exceptional cast, notable director, and well-regarded source material. It looks a little on the dry side, but color me intrigued. I could go for a slow-burning espionage thriller right about now, and this looks like it will fit the bill nicely.
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - I loved the original Swedish version of the film, and this looks like pretty much the same movie... but with another talented cast, director David Fincher, and music by Trent Reznor, I'm pretty excited to check this out. I expect to be a bit underwhelmed, but Fincher tends to outperform when I go into a movie thinking that...
  • The Adventures of Tintin - Stephen Spielberg has two movies coming out this holiday season, but I'm more interested in this one. I know very little about it, except that it's an animated adventure film directed by Spielberg. What else could I possibly want?
  • Other Stuff: War Horse, A Dangerous Method, and Young Adult.
  • Stuff to Watch on DVD/BD/Streaming: Attack the Block has been #1 in my Netflix queue for a while now, but it's still at "Very Long Wait". At this point, I'm a little worried about expectations with that one. Also looking to get past the "Very Long Wait" on Bellflower. Others in the queue: Another Earth, The Guard, The Trip, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Martha Marcy May Marlene (making the reasonable assumption that I can't find it in the theater), and probably a few others that I haven't figured out yet.
Note, I didn't include movies that are currently out in wide release and/or movies that I've already seen (i.e. that's why The Muppets and Hugo aren't listed...)

I'm actually a little more on top of things than I thought I was with this year's crop of movies. Part of it is that I've managed to catch up with several films on DVD/BD lately. I'm sure a few other things will pop up between now and when I actually compile my top 10 of 2011, but as of right now, this is looking like a banner year (especially if you add in my Fantastic Fest watching) in terms of movies seen...
Posted by Mark on December 07, 2011 at 09:02 PM .: link :.



Sunday, December 04, 2011

Recent Video Gamery
Here at Kaedrin, we pride ourselves on being timely. Well, not so much. Especially when it comes to video games, where I'm a cheap bastard and only buy games after they've fallen in price (usually a year or more after original release). Cases in point:
  • Batman: Arkham Asylum - It's an unwritten (ok, well, probably written many times) rule in the video game world that games based on existing properties from other mediums generally suck. Like, hardcore suck. Like, worst games ever suck. This happens for a variety of reasons. Usually the games are only made because the suits know they're guaranteed to sell a bunch of games to people who love the existing property. Or, more likely, friends and family of the fan. They know the fan likes video games, and they know he/she likes the property, so they naturally figure that game would interest the person. As such, the budgets are usually low on these games. And they're often released as a tie-in with some big happening in the existing property's universe (i.e. the movie release, the start of season 5, etc...), so production schedules are very constrained. All of this usually yields a game that is poorly conceived, plays jankily, and is full of bugs. We've all been there, and we've all been disappointed by the results. Batman: Arkham Asylum's claim to fame is that it's a game based on Batman that doesn't actually suck. And it doesn't! It's actually pretty damn good.

    It's not perfect. There are a few really obvious complaints about the game, notably "detective mode", which activates Batman's special vision where enemies and points of interest are highlighted. This is a neat idea, but it also means that you end up playing the game mostly in that mode. Which is fine, but it also means you're missing out on some excellent production design and artwork in the game. Which, by the way, is probably the best thing about the game. I've never read the comic books, but I'm a big fan of the Animated Series from the 90s, and this game takes place in that universe (notably featuring a lot of the voice talent from that show, though many character designs have been updated), albeit a slightly darker and more grim version (to be expected, given that the game isn't quite as cartoonish). The atmosphere of the game, which takes place entirely on the grounds of Arkham Asylum, is absolutely wonderful, and many of the video game tropes that are present in this game (i.e. the Riddler challenge) give you tons of background on the history and lore of the Batman world. You pick up audio interviews with escaped super-criminals, biographies of other villains, and so on. This sort of "collecting" is usually trite and boring in other games, but here it's actually kinda fun to see what you can find.
    Detective Mode
    Batman's Detective Mode
    Gameplay consists of a mixture of brawling and stealth, with the occasional platforming and (usually optional) puzzle thrown in for variety. The brawling is fun and deceptively simple. At first, it seems like all you do is mash the square button over and over again, which does work pretty well. But there's also the ability to dodge, and if you chain together enough hits, you get some additional moves. I find it lacking the balance of something like the God of War games, in which combat is simple to learn but hard to master. The stealth sections are better, but again, I found myself relying on the same maneuvers over and over again. As with the combat, I didn't really gain a full appreciation for the stealth sections until I started playing the Challenge Mode (which essentially forces you to do alternative takedowns). The Challenge Mode of the game (basically just bite-sized fighting or stealth sections of the game that are independent of story) is actually much more fun here than it is in most games, and as I just said, it helped me gain a better feeling for the complexity of both the fighting and the stealth aspects.

    The platforming and puzzles are pretty straightforward stuff, though I do really enjoy Batman's trademark grappling gun thingy that allows him to climb and fly and stuff. I was also a big fan of the Riddler's little question mark puzzles (which I didn't understand at all for a while, but once I understood the concept, I had great fun trying to line that stuff up...) The story of the game is also straightforward - the Joker has taken over Arkham Asylum and all the prisoners and super-criminals are free! There's some hokum about a Titan Formula that turns people into hulking monsters. For the most part, it's just an excuse to stalk the Asylum and fight super-villains. The boss battles are middling. I enjoyed the Scarecrow sections, but I didn't care for the Killer Croc area. The final boss battle was fine.

    Ultimately, a very good game. And, of course, I played this about 2 years after it came out, right when the sequel, Arkham City, came out. It's apparently quite popular, and I think I did like Arkham Asylum enough that I might check out the sequel... in a year or so!
  • Killzone 3 - Much like its predecessor, this is a generally competent first-person shooter with some odd deficiencies. The control scheme is strangely different than any other shooter (and it has some really weird consequences, as demonstrated by this hilarious tutorial on how to us the Sniper Rifle...) and the story is filled with stereotypical tough-guy bravado and cliched dialogue. There might be a minor improvement on that front, but it's still not particularly good. There's also a minor improvement in the visual design, with some actual variety here instead of the typical gun-metal color palette of these games (there's snow levels and a brightly colored jungle level too). The game is slightly easier than the previous installment too, but I count that as a good thing because the last game got really frustrating at points.

    As with the previous game, I found myself surprised again at how fun the multi-player is... Oh, sure, I still suck at it, but the way this series packages the multi-player modes together in one big match actually makes it much easier to come up to speed with the game, as it gives you time to get to know various maps (instead of constantly switching you around). You get some more variety from the beginning in terms of your available weapons and character classes, but it still works well. I actually really enjoy the multi-player mode and will probably continue to play it for a while (a rarity for me). Ultimately, this game isn't anything particularly special, but it's worth playing. I get the feeling that Sony rushed this one out to be a showcase for their 3D technology (something that I didn't use and wouldn't really want to use anyway).
  • Ico - Originally made for the PS2, this was re-released in HD for the PS3 (in a collection with the same developer's Shadow of the Colossus). It's a sorta minimalist environmental puzzle game following a boy who is rescuing some girl from strange shadow monsters. I'm only about an hour into the game, but it's quite interesting so far. And it looks great. It's still a little dated looking, but it's definitely nice looking (games like this on the PS2 had a kinda vaseline filter on the screen that made everything blurry looking, but this is very clear).
    Ico
    I've actually played Shadow of the Colossus before, and the games both share a certain aesthetic and gameplay design. Unfortunately, since it's a previous-generation game, you have to deal with annoying save points and replay various aspects of the game (a major pet peeve of mine - the only reason it's acceptable here is that it's an old game). So far, though, I think I'm enjoying myself more with this game. The puzzles aren't quite as obtuse, and I'm usually able to figure them out without any help. I'll hold off on any other judgments until I finish the game, but so far, I can see why this game is popular with critics (and is often cited as an example of "video games as art"). Not sure it would go over too well with the CoD/Madden crowd, but whatever. I'm enjoying it... and I'm probably about to go play so more.
There are definitely a lot of games out there that I'm interested in playing, including the next Batman game and the next Team Ico game (which should be coming out soon). I haven't been playing games that much this year, and I don't see that changing too much - I'm generally happy with picking up games a year after they come out. That should keep me busy for a while!
Posted by Mark on December 04, 2011 at 07:00 PM .: link :.



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