12/2011

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Review Day

There are no major spoilers in these reviews.

Bad Teacher (R):
This movie tells the tale of a bad teacher who tries to win a teaching award so she can afford breast implants. It's hard to do dark comedy successful, and Cameron Diaz is no Billy Bob Thornton. Jason Segel plays every other Jason Segel role he's ever done, and if I see him in too many more movies, he's going on my Seth Rogen overexposure list. Save some time and rewatch Bad Santa again.

Final Grade: C-

Horrible Bosses (R):
This comedy is a step up from others we've watched recently. It channels the vibe of The Hangover from start to finish and succeeds more because of its cast than its plot (which probably could have been told with just two horrible bosses, except that the movie would have been about forty-five minutes long). Charlie Day, channeling Zach Galifianakis, is more shrill than weird, and Jason Sudeikis kept reminding me of the genetic offspring of Ed Helms and Keifer Sutherland.

Final Grade: B

Role Models (R):
Because we've finished The Wire, and you can only watch so many episodes of The Office in a row before it gets old, this movie was the result of our Amazon trolling, in search of a throwaway movie last Friday night. In spite of the horribly contrived set-up to stage your standard bro-mance movie, we found this movie to be a lot funnier than expected (and our expectations were rock-bottom). It was a pleasant way to spend 90 minutes, as swearing street-smart kids are always funny -- this is also why they should re-release Newsies as a rated R movie written by Quentin Tarantino.

Final Grade: B

How I Met Your Mother, Season Six:
Ironically, this show is at its best when it's not talking about the mother. Every episode that toys with a possible mother-meeting tends to be worse than the pure sitcom episodes because they just serve to remind you that the main plot line will be drawn out to infinity or show cancellation. The bulk of this season was pleasant and over quickly, but they still rely on a few too many recaps which just waste time on DVD -- it's like watching a DVD of Whose Line Is It Anyways and having to listen to how each game is played every single time. I think this show had its high point around season two or three, but it's not so bad yet that I'd stop watching it. (I have stopped watching Weeds).

Final Grade: B-

Man accidentally gives away life savings to Goodwill
Woman took 12 year Scientology cruise

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Friday, December 02, 2011

Friday Fragments

like tiny moles of insubordination, burrowing deep into your brain

♠ Wasabi is my favourite spicy condiment because it shows up, stays around just long enough to impress, and departs without any lingering spiciness. More things in life should adhere to the wasabi principle (also sometimes called the one-night stand principle), including buffalo wing sauce, Harry Potter movies, and election season.

♠ We had sushi from Wegmanns on Tuesday night. Comparatively speaking on the "crappy sushi you can eat in the comfort of your own home" scale, Wegmanns sushi is more expensive and has more variety than what you would get at Trader Joe's or Safeway, but lacks the pure economic punch of Costco sushi, which is something like $5 for 18 pieces. Still, it's probably the most tasty option when you're too busy to sit in a sushi restaurant.

♠ Last night, I was busy releasing DDMSence 2.0.0. It now understands simple phrases in most 16th century Western dialects and can kick a soccer ball fifty-two feet. v2.0.0 is the 20th release in 20 months, and I just now pulled the reverse-Walmart on the major version digit to go from 1 to 2 -- this is a practice known as "sane versioning", something which Mozilla Firefox is completely unfamiliar with.

♠ I actually don't have any problems at all with the rapid deployment of major Firefox versions, except for having to apply them on four computers, having the updates run when I open the program and actually need to do something rather than when I shut down, having my add-ons break unnecessarily, having the user interface undergo a reverse waterfall design towards the 1997 era Mystery Meat approach, and continuously receiving the popup message that Firefox is still open for ten seconds after I've closed it to restart it. On the plus side though, sometimes I can use it to look at things on the Internet.

♠ Speaking of the Internet, Amazon Prime is steadily growing their TV collection. When I first evaluated it about a year ago, they only had a bunch of BBC garbage that no one wants to see (but that I could borrow from my parents any day of the week for free). Since then, they've added many recent American shows such as the complete series of 24, nostalgia-inducing ones like Alf and Fraggle Rock, and shows previously prevented from release because of music licensing like Malcolm in the Middle and The Wonder Years. Their movie selection is still awful, but at this rate, I might sign up for Amazon Prime within the year (or as Jack Bauer might say, "within the next 8760 hours").

♠ The weekend is looking pretty tame at the moment. I'm going to kick it up a notch on voluntary overtime for work and will also start composing the end-of-the-year piece for Museday. On Saturday night, Rebecca is increasing the estrogeneration in our household with a Love Actually viewing, at which point I'll retreat into the computer room for a nice game of Skyrim.

♠ Have a great weekend!

Water Pump Hack mystery solved
Gold ATM offers convenience, not glamor, to India jewelery

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Monday, December 05, 2011

Stuff In My Drawers Day

Typical ICQ conversations with Doobie:

    ICQ History Log For:    
            5895156  Doobie
--------------------------------------
Doobie     5/3/00   10:01 PM thyah?
Uri!       5/4/00   2:16 PM  Chrisley Sunday, yes or no?
Doobie     5/4/00   9:52 PM  who is going that i'll be able to ride
                                  with.... / when are they coming back?
Uri!       5/4/00   9:52 PM  we'll find rides for everyone; and we're all
                                  coming back that evening; no overnight
Doobie     5/4/00   9:53 PM  oh, hell.. then yeah... count me in hyah
Uri!       5/4/00   9:54 PM  on the list
Doobie     5/4/00   9:55 PM  ace

Doobie     5/5/00   9:35 PM  thyah. drink. ala here. yes?

Uri!       5/7/00   11:23 AM My room 5 til 1pm?
Doobie     5/7/00   11:57 AM ok
Uri!       5/7/00   11:57 AM "key"
Doobie     5/7/00   12:39 PM hey, steaks are gonna be lunch, right?
Uri!       5/7/00   12:39 PM yup
Doobie     5/7/00   12:39 PM cool, just makin sure i shouldn't eat hyah
Uri!       5/7/00   12:39 PM $3
Doobie     5/7/00   12:40 PM i'm gonna hit the atm before i get to your room
Uri!       5/7/00   12:40 PM ok

Doobie     5/8/00   9:30 AM  new pictures up? new password?
Uri!       5/8/00   10:42 AM done
Doobie     5/8/00   10:42 AM ace
Doobie     5/8/00   10:47 AM hmm, i need more of me.. otherwise though.. nice job
Uri!       5/8/00   10:48 AM well the first one is wallpaper size
Doobie     5/8/00   10:48 AM yeah, it's pretty ace too i'd say.  me and the bitches/hos... npmo
Uri!       5/8/00   10:48 AM which ones are hos and which ones are the bitches... don't answer that
Doobie     5/8/00   10:48 AM haha.. no idea.. maybe i'm the only one.. 


Florida teen detained for purse design
Do nice guys finish last?

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Tuesday, December 06, 2011

2011 Timeline

A smattering of events from 2011

January:
  • We spent the New Year's holiday in Williamsburg.
  • Paige came to visit and steal some DS games, because there is nothing to do in Russia.
  • It sort of snowed, but everyone had run out of lame titles for the storm.
  • I got a new computer, which has proven to be more annoying to configure than the previous one. Pattern detected.
February:
  • Kelley and Kathy move to northern Virginia and Kelley won at poker.
  • I was rewarded at work for an alleged reputation for excellence.
  • We went on an 18-mile hike on the Bull Run - Occoquan Trail. (I happened to stumble across my car at the 11-mile mark, and returned later for the pizza).
March:
  • We spent a weekend along Skyline Drive at Brightwood Farms, where Rebecca fed some goats.
  • We had people over for St. Patrick's Day corned beef.
  • In search of a way to create enjoyable updates from minimal effort, "Memory Day: Snapshots" was born.
April:
  • We went to Arkansas for Baylis & Richie's wedding, and got stranded in Atlanta for hours.
  • We mounted an OTA HD antenna in our attic, in order to get the basic networks for free without doing ancient tribal dances with the antenna at various angles in the living room.
  • Portal 2 came out and was highly enjoyable.
  • We had an Easter party where people got unusually competitive during the egg hunt, not unlike Fairfax youth sports parents.
May:
  • We traveled to Richmond for Sam & Kristen's wedding
  • Rebecca fled to Peru while my Dad and I installed new kitchen cabinets that go all the way to the ceiling.
  • I decided to change jobs within my company, and then spent the next two months waiting for the contract to come through so I could actually start working.
June:
  • We took an extremely muggy hike up Old Rag.
  • We celebrated Rebecca's 28th birthday with a giant barbeque.
  • We joined the FGM Volleyball team, and surprisingly found ourselves in the playoffs.
July:
  • We went to Charlotte for Amanda & Frank's wedding over the Fourth of July weekend.
  • We painted our kitchen ORANGE.
  • We had our near-annual Beach Week at the "Sea Prize" in Corolla.
  • Anna had MORE BABIES.
August:
  • We went on a camping trip with Rebecca's Loudoun relatives.
  • We started watching The Wire.
  • I stopped playing World of Warcraft, for probably the last time ever.
  • There was an earthquake and everyone died.
September:
  • I reread the Harry Potter books, and remain of the opinion that some of the later angst could have been trimmed, especially in Book 5.
  • I celebrated my 32nd birthday with cake, steak, and Guinness.
  • I coded DDMSence 2.0.0, but red tape prevented its release for another two months.
October:
  • We celebrated our second anniversary at the Ice House Cafe.
  • We attended the wedding of Emily & Brian, during which I saved the day by spreading the word that the lights were on in Brian's parents' car.
  • Mike (of Mike and Chompy) restarted his blog and kind of did an okay job of continuing to update it.
November:
  • We celebrated Annie's birthday with all sorts of cheese.
  • I started playing Skyrim nonstop.
  • We had two of our usual three Thanksgivings, one with babies, and one without.
  • We went to Becca & Jason's wedding, where the median age of guests was 6.

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Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Memory Day: Snapshots

I think my current habit of wearing nothing but solid colours can be traced back to having a photographer dad who developed his own pictures in the basement. You see, the solid colours are easier to gauge and provide an easy contrast against a washed out background.

On the lower left, you can also see the Advent Calendar with all of the Hershey's Kisses eaten. I cannot recall ever buying Hershey's Kisses, because there was a perpetual supply frozen in the freezer, solely used for Advent Calendars. By 1996, we were probably still eating the Kisses from 1986.

How That $3.8 Million Supercar Crash Happened
Drunk driver crashes into DWI checkpoint

tagged as memories, media | permalink | 2 comments

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Review Day: Kindle Fire

I am not the primary Fire user in our household -- my main job is to abuse the free Amazon Prime trial by watching old episodes of ALF -- but I thought I would give a few impressions as part of that small demographic of people who are tech-savvy but see no point in a tablet over a laptop (and first bought a cell phone in September 2010).

The first thing to note is that this isn't a true tablet, so much as a portal into the Amazon universe of content. Every review out there that tries to compare it to an iPad is missing the point: the Fire does a few things very well at a very low sales price, but can't compete with a true tablet in any sense. Think of it as a Kindle with bonus features, not a dumbed down iPad and you're on the right track.

The Fire is sturdily built, with enough heft that you don't feel the urge to treat it daintily. It's easy to hold with one hand in landscape oriention, but you'll probably tire quickly if you hold it like the lady (or man with lady hands) in the photo. The interface is intuitive enough, although I find it hard to type without the tactile sensation of keys, and often end up in unexpected places after I accidentally touch the screen in the wrong spot -- I can't tell if this is specific to the Fire, or I just suck at touch-screens in general. As a contrasting data point, I am awesome at programming our touch-screen thermostat.

The device is primarily set up to get books, movies, and TV shows, although there is a heavily-curated set of Android apps available for it as well. I haven't really looked closely at the apps because the Fire does enough as-is (especially reading PDF, DOC, and PPT files or checking GMail), and anything that CAN'T be done directly usually works fine in the bundled web browser. I don't notice much of a speed increase with Amazon Silk browsing technology, but it's plenty fast for a WiFi device and there's no noticeable buffering of streaming video. The lack of 3G network means that you have to plan ahead if you want to read or watch things in a plane or on the road (with a toad), but it's fine if you do most of your browsing at home or Starbucks.

After playing around with the Fire and watching Rebecca use it, I think the target audience would include recreational users who just want to read a blog from the couch, or keep all of their lecture notes in one easily accessible location, especially a user who is already plugged into the Amazon infrastructure. If this describes you, you will find a lot to like here.

My online purchases are generally split 90%-10% between Amazon and NewEgg, so for me, an Amazon-tailored device might make sense. However, I still don't really see the point of having a Fire of my own when I do most of my computing at home or in the office, and already own a laptop. My cell phone maxes out on the technology scale at "texting", so I am probably not the target market for Internet-enabled devices in a variety of middling sizes. In this demographic, I'm quite happy with my classic Kindle.

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Friday, December 09, 2011

Random Chart Day

This looks like a fairly decent life-work balance to me.

Why we lost our thumb drives three years ago
Scientists kick off debate over barefoot running

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Monday, December 12, 2011

Chad Darnell's 12 of 12


5:51 AM: The usual morning routine.

6:13 AM: The ice defrosting off of my back window.

6:28 AM: Breakfast on Mondays generally consists of whatever was left in the lunch room from Friday afternoon Happy Hour, except for the Sam Adams.

7:11 AM: The rising sun.

11:00 AM: Brunch, consisting of Chef Boyardee and football-shaped Oreos.

12:23 PM: Setting up for an afternoon meeting, overlooked by Bob Feeley, of the Feeley Awards.

5:48 PM: Arrive at work in the dark, leave work in the dark.

6:11 PM: Rebecca and Booty have been home and partying for hours.

6:16 PM: Chicken Fingers: Unappetizing, but only requiring 3 minutes.

6:34 PM: Booty is unusually feisty tonight.

7:00 PM: Posting my pictures.

8:18 PM: Watching Malcolm in the Middle with Booty while Rebecca studies.

See more 12 of 12ers at Chad's site!

Vocal Fry creeping into US speech
Prison psychologist accused of faking rape

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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Twelve 12 of 12s

The final post of the 12 of 12 series is a highlight reel with the best picture from each month to show the wide and varied extreme sports you engage in throughout the year.

January: Handmaking pasta, harvested from the pasta trees in our orchard.
February: Never try to watch more than one Pirates of the Caribbean movie at a time.

March: And people say that cats aren't affectionate.

April: And people say that cats aren't affectionate.

May: The second Steak Night to fall on a 12 of 12 day this year.

June: We now have a handle on our cabinets.

July: When you live near D.C., you see famous people all of the time.

August: Herr Metal performs Paradise City.

September: Diagnostics indicate that a koala is effing up my engine.

October: Booty is going on a long journey soon.

November: "Soylent Leaves is CATS!"

December: Merry Christmas!

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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

List Day: 2011 in Twelves

Top 12 Posts from 2011
  • BU has childhood confessions
  • BU judges your taste
  • BU on the cost of living
  • BU on work phrases that need to go
  • BU on averting a government shutdown
  • BU equates Osama bin Laden to LOST
  • BU explains gene therapy
  • BU animates his kitchen remodeling
  • BU beats up on NASA
  • BU is hit by the earthquake
  • BU was always a smartass
  • BU runs for Sterling Supervisor
Top 12 Review Recommendations from 2011

I guarantee that you will not go wrong by buying, watching, or listening to anything on this list:

  • All-Night Cinema by Just Jack
  • Breville BOV650XL Toaster Oven
  • The Office, Season 2
  • Portal 2
  • Weber Spirit E-310 Grill
  • Lost Cities
  • Adjustment Bureau
  • Lenka by Lenka
  • The Wire
  • Record Collection by Mark Ronson
  • The Mating Game by Bitter:Sweet
  • Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Recommend something for me to buy in the Comments section! Hoarding my excess wealth is bad for the economy, and thus, bad for America.

Thieves target tubas in South California
Talk show host offers Newt a million dollars to drop out

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Thursday, December 15, 2011

List Day: 2011 in Twelves

Top 12 Songs First Heard in 2011

Over a year after my cancellation of XM Radio, I'm still doing just fine at discovering new music via Pandora (sanely muted of ads with AdBlock Plus), although they continue to insist that Jack Johnson is a "Chick That Sings". Here are this year's picks for songs that caught my attention. Let me know if you discover something that pleases you!

  1. Koop - Koop Island Blues:
    I really like the haunting mix of instruments on this track, and was pleased to find that the rest of this album was just as quirky.

  2. Zox - Little More Time:
    This is just a pleasant upbeat little ditty. Unfortunately, the encompassing album is not as good as this song.

  3. Mark Ronson and the Business Intl - Bike Song:
    (skip ahead 40 seconds for the actual song) Honestly, this is not that great of a song, so I have no idea why it's so incredibly catchy.

  4. Karmin - Look at Me Now:
    This is a rare case of the cover being better than the original -- it's amazing what a little melody and harmony can do for music. Karmin has become well-deservedly famous since I first learned of them on YouTube.

  5. Dirt Poor Robins - Masquerade:
    I really like how this song is both heavy and bouncy at the same time, not unlike an Austin native on a hill.

  6. Lenka - The Show:
    Lenka is my "A Fine Frenzy" of 2011. She does "whimsical" very well, and it requires active effort to be down while listening to any one of her CDs.

  7. The Fratellis - Chelsea Dagger:
    I still haven't found a good follow-up act to The Darkness, which disbanded in 2006, but this is a group in a similar, less bombastic vein. While researching this post, I just learned that The Darkness is reforming, so maybe they'll be their own replacements.

  8. Just Jack - Doctor Doctor:
    British rappers are a staple in my listening repertoire.

  9. Bitter:Sweet - The Mating Game:
    It was a toss-up between this song and "Dirty Laundry", and the plaintive minor sixths edged this one up.

  10. Mark Ronson and the Business Intl - The Night Last Night:
    Three-part harmony is such a rarity in pop music that this song was a breath of fresh air when I first heard it.

  11. Lenka - Bring Me Down:
    Less sugar and more psycho clown music puts this squarely into my +1 pile: this is the type of arrangement I would have written myself.

  12. Just Jack - Astronaut:
    This is a great, well-constructed song, coherently mixing a bunch of genres and styles together. I got the album containing this song LAST Christmas, and have yet to tire of it.

Previous Picks: 2006 | 2007 | 2008 | 2009 | 2010

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Friday, December 16, 2011

List Day: 2011 in Twelves

Top 12 Website Images from 2011


January 3, 2011


April 7, 2011


June 28, 2011


April 15, 2011


July 5, 2011


July 28, 2011


August 1, 2011


August 24, 2011


August 25, 2011


October 27, 2011


November 1, 2011


November 16, 2011

Giant monsters living in the Artic Ocean
Gifts that Maim or Poison Children
Google Zeitgeist 2011

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Monday, December 19, 2011

Weekend Wrap-up

This weekend was one of the most social we've had in awhile. Now that Rebecca has finished her semester and aced her exams (which consisted of completely taking apart people who volunteered to be in a study and putting them back together again), we actually left the house on more than one occasion. The weekend opened with Gingerbread Night at Emily and Evil Brian's house. The representative image on the right shows how well-constructed our house was -- in no way did it completely collapse except for one wall when we started putting the shingles on.

On Saturday, we watched The Hangover, Part II, which I felt was better than most sequels, but no better than the original. Ed Helms making up songs in everything he does is getting as old as Jason Segel doing the same thing. Our evening became unexpectedly free when a holiday party in the sticks was cancelled, so we headed to the Reston Town Center for dinner and ice skating instead.

We started out at Jackson's, but after refusing to join the patient group of yuppies willing to wait forty minutes for a table, we ended up at Uno's for a five minute wait and some deep dish pizzas. The restaurant was cold because none of the patrons had learned the purpose of a vestibule in public school and kept a healthy breeze going as they entered, exited, or waited in the doorway for their party of 13 to be seated. By the end of the meal, we were too cold to ice skate. We briefly considered going to the movie theatre, but ultimately ended up back at home for a game of Khet 2.0, which is like chess but with laser beams that you shoot at your opponent's pieces between each turn.

On Sunday, we headed to Falls Church to visit with some of Rebecca's extended family that was in town. We caught the fourth Advent service at the Presby church (which ended on a surprisingly dissonant note with an organ piece by Olivier Messiaen) and then sat in holiday shopper traffic to get to Panera for lunch. We then segued into another holiday party with Anamaria and Henry in real Falls Church before going to Rebecca's parents' house in fake Falls Church for some German packages with bits of sausage in them.

How was your weekend?

Introducing the new super power of boob grabbing
"Whatever" deemed the most annoying word

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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Museday Tuesday 2011 Wrap-up

Museday Tuesday is the feature I began five years ago which justifies the cost of my music degrees by forcing me to compose brief throwaway fragments throughout the year, based on randomly chosen adjectives for titles. Every December, readers vote upon the fragment they'd like to be expanded in longer works. After ignoring Evil Mike's yearly attempts to double vote, I bow to the wishes of the community by spinning out the original thirty second fragment into something about two minutes long.

Since 2007, I've composed 88 separate fragments and expanded five, ranging the (Mac)gamut of styles from Swing era jazz to music you'd only find on a senior clarinet recital. I now have 50 minutes worth of Museday Tuesday music which is enough for a self-titled debut album starring William Shatner, who will read the title and its definition before each fragment. Preorder now!

Iodized: (adj.) to treat, impregnate, or affect with iodine or an iodide

This year's final exam, affectionately known by its more informal title, Salt Baby, is based on the fragment I originally composed on August 9, 2011. The full work is scored for a medium string ensemble wrapped in the womb of an electronic rhythm section and garnished with a baritone saxophone and an overzealous first trumpeter.

  • Original Fragment (0:30 MP3)
  • Final Composition (1:46 MP3)

I was actually hoping that people wouldn't vote for this one. The brain dead rock stylings of the fragment were an immediate limitation, and the six note motive had already become annoying before I even attempted to spin it into something grander. I quickly realized that I would have to approach this from another angle, and started with the string introduction, which is built up from filler material in the original fragment. I also stretched incredularity by squeezing a I-IV-V bari sax solo between choruses. The concluding section started out more heavy metal, in my best Saliva impersonation, but gradually smoothed out into something more palatable as I gave it repeated listenings and realized it clashed too much with the beginning.

Enjoy!

Previous Museday Tuesday Wrap-ups

tagged as museday | permalink | 5 comments

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Random Chart Day

I've participated in Chad Darnell's 12 of 12 sixty-four times since 2006. Here are the things I can be seen eating most often.

As a follow-up, here's how long it's been since I last ate each of these items.

  • Ham Sandwich: Two days ago for lunch
  • Shells and Cheese: Yesterday for lunch
  • Bagels: Three days ago for breakfast
  • Totino's Pizza: June 2010
  • Steak: Last Thursday for dinner
  • Popeyes: Last Friday for lunch
Shoplifters robbed while stealing from grocery store
Stomach pen still works after 25 years

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Thursday, December 22, 2011

Review Day: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

There are no major spoilers in these reviews.

Thank goodness Skyrim came out, because I was sick of digging holes in Terraria but just couldn't stop myself. This big-budget role-playing game is easily the most fun I've had with a game in years. It is flawed, but the game generates a lot of good will against these flaws through its fun factor.

I've now played through the game about one and a half times, once as a sneaky mage that could steal all of your jewels and then surprise you with a fireball, and then once as a pure thief/archer character. I am obsessive about mapping in these games, and on my first pass through, I decided to explore every inch of the map and beat every available dungeon before proceeding too far into the main storyline -- it probably took me about 100 hours to see and do everything the game had to offer.

The world of Skyrim is as close as you can come to a living world in a game. It feels like the land and the people continue to exist even when you aren't questing. One example of this craft is an abandoned lighthouse filled with journals of the former lighthouse keepers. As you explore the lighthouse, you learn that they were hearing strange noises in the basement before they disappeared, and you finally uncover the cause of their deaths in an underground burrow behind the cellar. What makes this amazing is that you might never visit this lighthouse in the course of the game -- it's there for the discovering, and is one of many such mini-stories. Most game designers would probably be so thrilled that they made this mini-story that they'd send you past the lighthouse as part of your main quest, just so their work would be noticed.

The main storyline is decent and not cringe-worthy, but it takes up a very small portion of playtime. If you run the main storyline and nothing else, you'll miss most of the best content in the game, from joining the Thieves' Guild to recovering artifacts for ancient crazy gods. I liked the story, but was underwhelmed by the brevity of the ending, which is essentially equivalent to a 1980s "THANKS FOR PLAYING!" screen that then kicks you back into the world to keep playing.

The graphics and sound are top-notch, and go a long way towards immersion. It ran smoothly on my somewhat-new system and only stuttered in a cave filled with about 50 waterfalls. The voice-acting is decent, although one of the voice actors has a raspy voice and is noticeably reused for over twenty characters. I tend to turn on text and read the dialogue anyhow, because I always get impatient.

The leveling and skill systems are an interesting experiment that boils down the usual numbers games into health, magic, and stamina. Rather than picking a class upfront, your skills improve as you use them more often, so you can create any sort of character you want. (Although you can spend hours adjusting the width and height of your character's NOSE, it's a wasted effort because you're rarely watching your own face during the game). If you start out swinging two-handed swords and then realize that swords are dumb, you can easily switch over to magic rather than restart your game from the beginning. There is no discernable Good/Evil system -- but you can pretend that there is one by selecting different dialogue options (that usually end up with the same result). The skill trees are half-baked, as some perk selections are obviously better than others, and some skills, like lockpicking, feel essential even if you don't want to roleplay that way. The UI for the skill trees is easily the worst UI ever designed, and might have been some art design major's senior Flash project.

The UI in general is the weakest piece of Skyrim. Since this game was released on the XBox 360 and the PS3 at the same time as the PC, the PC interface (keyboard + mouse) seems tacked on. It's amazing how unresponsive they've made the mouse, especially when clicking directly on dialogue options. The character management screens are an unending parade of menus and submenus which make it impossible to sort your goods, compare items, or have much situational awareness about your condition (when you're poisoned, it shows up in a completely unintuitive location). On the PC, some of these woes are alleviated through addons like QD Inventory, but I feel like they tried to hide too many numbers for immersion's sake and went too far.

The in-game maps are useless, since everything is in 3D. You can toggle between an up-close map with too much detail to figure out what's going on, and a high-level 3D world map that is covered with artistic clouds and hides many landmarks behind mountains. A top-down map for the overworld, coupled with a 3D map for dungeons (like the Wii Metroid series) would had been much more useful. However, you'll rarely ever get lost in a dungeon, as there's usually only one path to the end. Dungeons get bonus points for having shortcut paths back to the beginning so you don't spend all your time backtracking after killing a boss.

People always say that games made by Bethesda are immensely buggy, but I haven't seen as many game-breaking bugs as others. When you partner with computer characters for quests, they have the bad habit of standing in the way of your fireballs and then complaining when they burn, but that's a problem in every game with escort quests ever. Most of the bugs I saw came from exploring places before I was sent there for quests, but I was able to get around these issues with console commands. I also experienced at least one crash-to-desktop per day, but Skyrim has the fastest save/load system ever, so it was no skin off my back to restart the game. It's a far cry from the Ultima 7 Part 2 days where a crash to desktop meant waiting four minutes and forty-two seconds to reload (I timed it).

Ultimately, the fun factor of this game is what makes it worth the price. Skyrim is a highly replayable single-player RPG which is wholly open-ended without just being a sandbox game. Whether I was trying to shoot a dragon out of the sky with just a bow and arrow, burglarizing every house in Riverwood, or sleuthing after a serial killer in Windhelm, I was always having a great time.

Final Grade: A-

Skyrim: Prima Official Game Guide:
I haven't bought a printed gaming guide since the ancient days of Quest for Clues, where you had to buy a bundled set of 24 game walkthroughs to read about the single game you actually owned. In the days of Google, GameFAQs, and WoWHead, print guides are obsolete. However, this guide is easily worth its $17 price tag (cheaper than many Kindle books these days). It's a jam-packed 656 pages with tiny fonts, detailing every quest, cavern, and item in the game, right down to the hidden chest you might find in a tree stump in the middle of nowhere.

The care and effort that went into this game guide shows, and its checklists are very useful for keeping all of the information straight. I used it more to keep track of things than to figure out where to go next, but whenever I was stuck, I always found the answers here. The book is a little hard to search, and there are a few minor errors (like levers that are actually on opposite walls) but I would definitely recommend it.

Final Grade: A-

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Friday, December 23, 2011

Boy's chimney designed with Santa in mind
2011's worst tech failures

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Monday, December 26, 2011

2011 in Review, Part I of III

based on Reuter's Photos of the Year

Old Pictures of the Year: 2005 | 2006 | 2007 | 2008 | 2009 | 2010

Pudding machine tells kids to scram
Volkswagen turns off Blackberry email after hours

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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

2011 in Review, Part II of III

based on Reuter's Photos of the Year

Old Pictures of the Year: 2005 | 2006 | 2007 | 2008 | 2009 | 2010

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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

2011 in Review, Part III of III

based on Reuter's Photos of the Year

Old Pictures of the Year: 2005 | 2006 | 2007 | 2008 | 2009 | 2010

Louis Vuitton sues Warner Brothers over fake Hangover bag
Conservatory student reunited with $170,000 violin

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Thursday, December 29, 2011

First Impressions: Legenda of Zelda: Skyward Sword

There are no spoilers in this review.

I play Zelda games in order to run around fighting things while solving spatial puzzles. It's a franchise, which means I expect some level of deja vu between games, but it seems like most of the recent iterations in the series are focusing on the wrong aspects the game rather than refining the right ones. In fact, most of my pet peeves from Twilight Princess still have not been repaired. I'm about five hours into the game right now, having just reached the first dungeon, and here are my thoughts:

  1. Motion controls are still tacked on for the sake of legitimizing the Wii. This game even requires an extra accessory to make your Wiimote more accurate, but the precision of the controls will still never be as accurate as a good push of a button.
  2. The game still thinks I am 12, coloring in text and repeating important dialogue in duplicate and triplicate. There's more overemphasis in this game than in a high school production of Les Mis. I have learned (unskippably) that a red rupee is worth 20 rupees four times so far.
  3. A fairy continues to take you out of the action for useless interruptions like "He said that Zelda went to the temple. Maybe we will find her in the temple! Let's go to the temple."
  4. The biggest pet peeve I have is with the cutscenes, which are long, cinematic, and never skippable or even speed-controllable. Every iteration of Zelda tries to be more movie-like, and I'd estimate that three of my five hours of playtime have been spent watching dialogue or waiting through loading screens. If I wanted to watch something, I'd watch a show, not a Wii game.

On the plus side:

  1. When you do actually get to play the game, the action is fun, familiar, and well-paced.
  2. The introduction where you learn to play is still slow, but not Twilight Princess slow -- if that game were like trudging through the first third of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, this one is like watching the first third of Jurassic Park twenty years later when you already know that dinosaurs are involved. A minor improvement!
  3. The game is musically and graphically decent.
  4. The characters have much stronger facial animations now, which makes it easier to connect with the story, and less like you're wading through the mind of a crazy Japanese game developer.

Bottom Line: So far, this game is just as good AND bad as Wind Waker or Twilight Princess, and better than Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask. Based on what I've experienced, I expect that this game will get much better in spite of its problems, but I just wish it didn't have to take so long to get there. Although nothing about it makes me want to run home after work and start playing (see also, Skyrim), I'll probably play it to completion at a leisurely pace.

tagged as reviews, games | permalink | 1 comment

Friday, December 30, 2011

End-of-the-Year Media Day

New photos have been added to the Life, 2011 album. Happy New Year!

Whale sperm and orgasmic feet top 2011 bad science list
Weather may be controlled by Kim Jong Il's ghost

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