As part of this feature, which I started in 2007, I compose a very brief work (under 30 seconds) inspired by a randomly generated title from an online word generator or suggested by a reader. The composition can be for any instrumentation, and could even be a purely synthesized realization that might not be possible to perform in the real world.
I work on the excerpt continuously for an hour and then post whatever I've managed to complete, even if its a prime candidate for a William Hung Greatest Hits album.
Viscid: (adj.) sticky; adhesive; viscousMy Composition (0:30 MP3)
This excerpt is for viola and flutes over a mishmash of synths.
This week is the final week I'll be driving my 2001 Honda Accord on its ridiculously short commute to Reston (7 miles one way). If all goes according to plan, I'll be getting a new 2012 Accord on Friday, gracefully retiring this ugly plain-jane vehicle for good. Black-green is an awful color for a car in any circumstances, but moreso when you are red-green colorblind and the car is rendered invisible. The next car is expected to lean heavily towards primary colors, not unlike most websites I design.
A habit I inherited from my Dad was to record the date, mileage, amount, and price of gas throughout the life of the car. This provides a historical record of how many miles per gallon you're getting, although I rarely ever used it except to determine that yes, I do drive too aggressively to be considered green. I would lose at hypermiling. On the plus side, this little blue notepad makes for an interesting Wednesday morning update!
This Accord (which Rebecca has named "Cordy" because girls name their cars and boys just drive them) was purchased by my parents in July 2001 (this is why the color is lame). I promptly drove it down to Florida State University, where it sat in the parking lot under Rob Kelley's apartment, atrophying in the salty Southern climate and used only for weekly Sunday trips to Walmart for groceries.
At the time of writing, this car has 99,200 miles, and was taken to the gas station 428 times. My dad changed the oil 24 times. In the charts below, the number on the horizontal axis is the year (so 1 is 2001). I made them in Excel, and the time it would take to figure out how to use a column full of years as the labels was longer than the expected time my dinner pizza was going to take to cook.
The amount I drove in a year spiked in 2003 because Florida is continents away from civilization. It also spiked in 2007 when I started dating Rebecca inside the Beltway, but promptly dropped to normal ranges once I convinced her to move in with me. Shacking up is green.
I'd better tread lightly over the next couple days, because I think my trade-in value plummets at 100k.
My favorite gas memories of all time (discounting methane-based memories) include the BP gas station in Salem, Virginia, near Paige's parent's house, which regularly sold unleaded gasoline during college at 79-89 cents per gallon.
Points of Interest
There are no major spoilers in these reviews.
Terminator, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Season Two:
This season of TSCC (free on Amazon Prime) suffered from 24-Syndrome: No TV show is interesting enough to stretch a plot over twenty episodes. The first season was a fun throwaway show, but this one dragged on without momentum. One episode about two-thirds of the way through was told completely through dream sequences, and it has been clinically proven that dream sequences always reduce the quality of a TV show by 50% (see also, The Sopranos and LOST). The final episode mixed things up very nicely and provided some interesting hooks for a follow-on season, but the show was thankfully cancelled before it could drag on any further.
Final Grade: C
Legend of Grimrock:
This $11 indy game on Steam is a throwback to grid-based dungeon crawlers like Bard's Tale, with a real-time combat mechanism thrown in. It's a good mix of reflex-based maneuvering and (often difficult) puzzles. I got a solid 10 hours of enjoyment out of it before I got bored -- I only made it to dungeon level 5, but felt like the character progression and skill trees didn't really offer anything exciting to work towards. Then the Diablo 3 beta came out and I stopped playing completely.
Final Grade: C+
Kathleen Madigan: Gone Madigan:
A fun, free hour of stand-up which has aged very well. I used to listen to Madigan on XM all of the time -- it's a good mix of (old) current events, and the usual topics without overdoing it on profanity and raunch.
Final Grade: B
The Fat Man on Game Audio: Tasty Morsels of Sonic Goodness by George Alistair Sanger:
The Fat Man was the music designer for most of computer games in my youth, and though this book has been out of print for years, a version is now available on the Kindle. With the exception of two chapters, the book is barely about working in the game audio industry, and is mostly a collection of stories and tall tales from The Fat Man's life. The content is eclectic and enjoyable, even without much of a nostalgia for the old computer game days, but the Kindle formatting is highly distracting. The layout makes me think the original book had a wacky, artsy look to it, which doesn't translate well on an e-book. Also, some of the text is actually the same color as the background, which means you can't always read every sentence.
Final Grade: B-
The weekend, in list form:
For the longest time, I thought that my first written composition was The Proud Beagle, written for the Reflections Contest in the fifth grade. Just recently, I discovered an earlier gem in the piano bench at my parents' house.
Listen (0:30 MP3)
Although it is untitled, and apparently I had not yet discovered the "bass clef", I composed that entire modulation from C major to d minor by instinct alone, converting VIIb to VI with panache. And as any music theorist will tell you, it doesn't matter if a composer knew what he was writing -- what matters is that it was there to be discovered after the fact.
This picture was taken in 1983, somewhere along the Potomac River (update: Pohick Bay Regional Park). I'm wearing that exact outfit in so many pictures from 1983 that only one of two conclusions can be drawn: I only owned one outfit, or all of the pictures were taken on a single, extraordinarily busy day.
There are no major spoilers in these reviews.
Cougar Town, Season One:
This series mixes the setup of Friends with the heart of Scrubs. It starts off as a show about a woman in her forties dating younger men, but in the span of the first six episodes, it's almost as if the writers realize how little there was to milk from that premise: it morphs into more of an ensemble comedy about friends living on a cul de sac. Plenty of solid laughs, and worth a viewing.
Final Grade: B+
Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol:
My review of the third MI movie pegged it as a movie version of Alias. This one doesn't feel quite as derivative. It has an anemic cookie-cutter plot that's used to glue together some great set pieces, and features a few scenes where the stunts actually feel dangerous. It's a little on the long side, but entertaining throughout.
Final Grade: B-
Path of Exile, Beta:
This game is a Diablo-like action RPG being developed by an indy team of four developers. It kept my interest for about twenty hours but no longer. The game improves on some of the features of the genre, but has an impenetrable skill system, ho-hum loot, and just doesn't feel as fast-paced as Diablo. The most impressive aspects of this game are how good it looks and how much such a small team could accomplish. I might take another look at it when it's finished, but for now, it's no more than a passing distraction during the wait for Diablo 3.
Final Grade: C
If you ever suffered through Ultima VIII in the early 90's, will surface all sorts of traumatic repressed gameplay memories. I usually tire of video reviews after a few minutes, but watched all 30 minutes of this one.
I fail to see any correlation. I'm just bad at keeping in touch with people.
6:39 AM: Showered and foggy.
6:45 AM: Booty, having been evicted from the master bedroom at 3:17 AM for trying to wake us up, has established an alternate bed zone elsewhere.
8:11 AM: Soft-boiled eggs and toast for breakfast.
9:00 AM: Morning cartoons to transition from lazy to productive.
11:16 AM: Scrubbed and spotless deck.
12:23 PM: Spring cleaning with six years of Consumer Reports back issues and assorted books, including Zarlino's Music Theory tome.
2:45 PM: Enjoying the clean back porch with a bottle of Narmada Midnight, while researching vacation options.
4:05 PM: Visit of the Smiths.
4:24 PM: High five!
8:03 PM: Poker time.
10:17 PM: Ben triples up.
11:07 PM: Forlorn, leftover cookies.
Round-the-Clock Blues was my last composition from the high school era, before I went off to college for formal training to write seriously serious music with themes and other garbage. I got the title from a dictionary of cliches, which is common for most blues charts but which doesn't reach the creative heights of Stan Kenton's Blues in Asia Minor. This was the longest composition to date, clocking in over six minutes in length and taking two and a half months to write.
As previously mentioned, I learned jazz harmonies by requesting sample tapes and scores from sellers of jazz sheet music. Kendor Jazz was especially bountiful in this regards, often providing complete miniature scores for twenty songs per year. From the sound of this chart, I was still awed that you could stick a major 9th into a minor 7th chord and not impact its character. This chart also contains my first attempt at a contrapuntal ensemble section (3:59 - 4:49), inspired by similar sections from arrangements by the Tonight Show Band.
I was a fairly weak improviser in high school. For the two solo sections in the realized MIDI, I recorded myself improvising over the changes over many, many takes, and then cherry-picked the least offensive lines to transcribe.
After this piece, it would be another three years before I returned to a pure jazz chart, because budding composers aren't supposed to write music with consonant harmonies.
If you are one of the millions of people that blew sixty bucks on Diablo 3 instead of buying food for your cat and/or baby, you might be interested to know about an obscure gameplay option that will greatly increase your enjoyment of the game: Elective Mode. It is literarily impossible to invent a more unhelpful name for this important option, so today's post will reveal its secrets.
In Diablo 3, there are 6 possible action hotkeys: the two mouse buttons, and the numbers 1 - 4 (which can also be remapped). Each hotkey corresponds to one of the 6 categories of skills that every character learns throughout the game. The categories are fairly arbitrary, and it is not always clear why one skill was categorized the way it was. At the beginning of the game, your "primary" category and your "secondary" category are tied to the mouse buttons by default. As you gain levels, you unlock the four numbered keys and can assign skills there.
The problem is that these unlocked hotkeys are restricted to specific categories of skills, and you'll find that some categories have plenty of fun skills while other categories are nearly useless when they first open up. The default UI forces you to pick exactly one skill from each category to play with.
Turning on Elective Mode (under Options, then Gameplay) almost completely eliminates this restriction1. You can assign a skill from any category to any of your available hotkeys (by right-clicking on a slot in the hotkey bar at the bottom of the screen, and then wading through far too many pages of skills), and can pick more than 1 skill from each category. This gives you greater strategic flexibility to choose a more offensive or defensive build, or do something completely off the wall.
Here's a concrete example: When a Demon Hunter reaches level 4, it has access to 2 Primary skills (Hungering Arrow and Entangling Shot), 1 Secondary skill (Impale), and 1 Defensive skill (Caltrops). At this time, the default UI unlocks hotkey #1, and forces you to assign a Defensive skill (the only one available is Caltrops), at the expense of your extra Primary skill. By turning Elective Mode on, you can choose any 3 of the 4 available skills, regardless of which categories they're assigned to. This might not seem like a big deal early on, but consider the possibilities when you have over twenty skills fighting for one of the six slots!
While you're at it, enable Advanced Tooltips. I know the game wants to be friendly to new players, but "This spell hurts stuff" is almost demeaning.
1: The only remaining restriction is that the left mouse button must be some sort of attack skill, so it doesn't conflict with "click-to-move".
There are no spoilers in these reviews.
The Laser Game: Khet 2.0:
This game has been on our shelf for a few months now, but we've only played it a few times. It's a very neat concept, similar to chess with lasers. There are a handful of different game pieces, each with very simple movement rules, and at the end of each turn, you push a button to fire a real laser across the board. Some pieces are defenders, and can survive a frontal laser, but not one from the sides or back, while other pieces have mirrors which reflect the laser at a 90 degree angle. The goal is to kill your opponent's king with the laser.
Playing the game requires a change of mindset from normal board games, since geometry is involved, which is probably why we turn to more traditional games when we're tired at night. However, I can see this being plenty of fun for people looking for a purely strategic two-player game without any luck involved.
Final Grade: B-
Jaipur is a two-player card game of market trade. There are various types of goods that you can sell for tokens, and the goal is to have the most tokens at the end of each round. You can only have seven cards in your hand, so saving up for a big sale will prevent you from grabbing newly arrived expensive goods on the market. There are plenty of camels involved too, but they are a double-humped sword. Owning camels will get you bonuses, but taking them from the market instead of goods frees up a market slot for new goods that your opponent can then take. This game plays like Lost Cities with slightly more setup time.
Final Grade: B+
Game of Thrones, Season One:
I didn't expect to like this going in, because it looked like Lord of the Rings, and Lord of the Rings was stupidity stretched over a near infinite time period. However, the HBOification of the genre made it compelling and instilled an urgency to quickly watch it to the end. The first season had solid character actors, a good momentum (in spite of a final episode which just felt like setup for the next season), and a dense but followable tangle of intrigue. Since I was not familiar with the books, having the bundled pictorial family tree with the DVDs was very useful. I'm slowly reading the book now, and find that the progression of the story is nearly identical between the book and the show. HBO also takes its inventory of boobies to an epic level, which sometimes does nothing to further the story at all.
Final Grade: A
May 18, 2012: The first day when more Google searchers are interested in video game key bindings than how to cheat at various ear training programs. Cue the infamy.
This is a story I wrote in the first grade on February 12, 1986, which was graded by my surrogate second grade teacher, Mrs. Uhler. If I recall correctly, she identified superb work with a grade of "S", although one could be forgiven for thinking she was grading it as "Satan", based upon the pointed ears and eyes.
I had fun in the snow. I and my sister made 2. snowmen. What fun it was! And I throuh a snowball at my sister's face. And made a little hollow fort. And throuh snow in the air. I went out two times. Ellen went two tomes to. It snowed hard yester day. I did not know where the Animals were hibernating. I went in than I had hot dogs and Potato rounds inside. I walked on ice with out slipping there.
There are no major spoilers in this review.
At its heart, Diablo 3 is a manifestation of the slot machine principle: you run around killing monsters by clicking on them, and get showered in gold, gems, and magical loot. Occasionally, an amazing piece of armor or a weapon will drop, powering you up for harder fights and ensuring that you want to keep playing in search of better loot. Diablo 2, the ultimate time-wasting game released 12 years ago, was a huge success and attaches high expectations and baggage on its sequel, but this new game stands strong on its own. There are parts which could have been done much better, but nothing that takes away from the sheer fun and addictiveness of the core gameplay mechanics.
At the time of writing, my primary character is a Level 45 Demon Hunter in Act II at the Nightmare difficulty level, although I have played the other four classes (Barbarian, Monk, Witch Doctor, Sorcerer) at least to Level 11.
This is definitely an evolution of the Diablo series, which is a good thing. The game design plays it safe, refining many of the annoyances of the older games without introducing anything that completely changes the genre. (When Half-Life came out, I was bored to tears because I really just wanted to play a new version of DOOM). All of the character classes feel fun, viable, and have a nice sense of progression towards unstoppable power. The handling of potions and life / mana regeneration makes battles slightly more strategic, and the character stat pages have all the numbers and clear descriptions you could possibly want (although you can have just as much fun ignoring the numbers under the hood).
The biggest change in gameplay is the elimination of skill trees and point allocation. In games like Diablo 2 and World of Warcraft, you earn points at each level which you can then spend to get better at specific skills. This system required much planning and research to ensure that you didn't make an irrevocable stupid mistake, and I was weary of starting every Diablo 2 game by looking up builds on the Internet. In Diablo 3, there is just a big bag of skills with various modifiers. You eventually learn every skill, and you customize your character by picking out your 6 favorite skills. You can swap out your skills with minimal penalty, which really encourages experimentation and natural growth. I'm onboard with the change, and would become a Fan of it on Facebook if it were a celebrity and if becoming a Fan actually meant anything.
The game has four levels of difficulty, and the challenge feels about right so far. Normal mode is sometimes tricky, but never so demanding that you're afraid to experiment with your build. Nightmare ramps up nicely so far, and feels difficult without feeling frustrating. Every map is randomized each time you play, and I continue to stumble across little random events that I hadn't seen before.
Graphics and Sound
The style and tone of the game are very well done, and the graphical look is perfect. I have a 2010 vintage graphics card (aged in oak) and the framerate is rock solid in all but one dungeon (which has lots of water effects). Skills look and feel progressively more powerful, and the music easily walks the fine line between ambient garbage and being too melodically recognizable. The voice acting is solid, though the little quips that are humorous at first can get noticeably repetitive. I don't care much about speech anyhow, since I read fast and click impatiently through walls of text.
The game's main plot is the MOST INCREDIBLE STORY EVER to win third prize in an elementary school Reflections Contest. It's eminently forgettable, and the dialogue is often laughably bad, as if it were all written by an English major (that failed out and switched to business) who was told to write a haiku using only eight syllable words. This doesn't matter though, because the lackluster story doesn't make the game any less fun -- it just means you can safely ignore almost all of the plot and go about your business of killing monsters.
A noticeable flaw in Diablo 3 is the user interface, which was obviously designed by the same guy who thought it was a good idea to make the text next to ATM and gas pump buttons not actually line up with the button being described. The UI is overly busy, insisting on holding your hand through each quest and informing you of the most mundane details that don't really matter. Every alert is flashy and animated, and popups litter the screen like a Punch the Monkey website from the late 90s. It can be very distracting to play with all of these notifications firing, similar to reading online articles on websites that insist on putting automatically updated Twitter feeds next to the prose. You cannot turn any of these annoyances off, and it is very easy to miss the information that matters, like which new skills were just unlocked when you gained a new level.
The skill UI is intentionally obtuse, to make it so you cannot easily switch your 6 skills in the heat of combat (and making a UI worse to prevent an action perceived as harmful has never been a successful design principle). Turning on "Elective Mode" is a must, so you can select your 6 most useful skills, but even then it can be hard to see the big picture of your full skill set, since the skills are spread across six separate pages in the UI. A list approach to this aspect, with all of the skills on a single drag-and-drop page, would have been much more intuitive.
Diablo 3 is designed as a client/server game, where the guts of the game are actually running on Blizzard servers, and the part installed on your local computer is just used to render the graphics and let you click on stuff. There are definitely solid technical reasons for this approach (preventing cheating, ease of hotfixes, etc.) but undeniably and without caveat, it's a stupid idea to require an Internet connection to play a single-player game. I'm lucky enough to have a fast, consistent connection, and have had minimal problems with the servers after the Launch Day debacle, but I would still prefer to just be able to fire up the game locally without having to deal with lag and logins. So far, this is not enough to dampen my enthusiasm for the game, but it's something to take note of.
Blizzard's online environment, battle.net, has not improved in the least bit since my Starcraft II review in 2010. Blizzard's attempt to transform gaming into a social venture is awkward, like Google thinking that Plus will catch on if they just integrate it everywhere. For me, gaming is primarily a solo endeavor, and sometimes I just want to play a game without talking to other gamers or inadvertently revealing that I played Skyrim for 160 hours in the last two months of 2011. I would mind battle.net much less if I could go "invisible" or have some privacy control over what details are available to friends.
The final piece of the online puzzle is the Diablo Auction House, where you can buy weapons and armor for in-game gold or real currency. I would strongly recommend not buying from it, because it defeats one of the primary joys of playing the game: what sense of elation can you possibly get from an amazing prize that randomly drops in the game, when you know you can just obtain better gear more easily and with less of a time commitment in the auction house? The gear for sale from other players will always be better than the gear you get in the game (sometimes 2 and 3 times as good) because of the way minimum level requirements work. For example, the best sword you can use while at Level 9 would not actually drop in the game until you are Level 15, but you can immediately buy it at Level 9 from other players who are further along. Just use the auction house for selling your old gear and your playtime will be a little more fun.
Diablo 3 is well-polished with a ton of replayability, and can be enjoyed with or without prior knowledge of the series. If you don't mind a kludgy skill interface and the always online requirement, this is a solid purchase.
Final Grade: B+
WARNING: This post spoils the crap out of the TV show, LOST.
This week marks the two year anniversary of the series finale of LOST, which petered out of existence like the tail end of a mime parade. LOST was actually the last TV show I ever made time for when it aired, and I have to admit that there were some great concepts and individual episodes throughout the run -- the writers were good at crafting smaller stories and season finales, although they obviously had no idea what the forest looked like from high above.
If you have never watched LOST, you can save yourself 84.7 hours by reading this chart, which tracks my level of interest in the show as it progressed, and summarizes each episode. Enjoy!
The problem with tagging posts consistently is that your tags are either too specific to ever see much use, or too general to be useful for searching.
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Fourteen years ago today, on May 30, 1998, I was home for the summer from Virginia Tech. I had just finished my sophomore year, living with Beavis and taking that stupid engineering class where you fill a box with wires to get the result of 1 plus 1 (the answers was 10). I still wore huge glasses, which allowed me to see twice as much as other mortals, and a hand-me-down Members Only jacket.
May 30 was a Saturday which I spent giving a workshop to prospective drum majors from my old high school, because it is totally cool and not creepy at all when a college guy comes back to visit his high school band all of the time. However, my workshop was more than just an afternoon of conducting -- it was a way of life, starting with a seventeen page packet distributed in early January which opened with this scary statement.
The position of drum major is not the easy path to get through marching band season. You do not just "stand up front and wave your arms around", as one sophomore proclaimed last season. Being a drum major requires a strong work ethic and commitment; it is easily the most difficult position to do well that you will ever encounter in your high school career.
Actually, being a drum major is pretty easy if you can maintain a steady tempo at least 40% of the time (based on my college marching band experience), so I was probably just trying to scare away the less serious candidates. The packet went on to describe the pillars of a successful drum major: COMMITMENT, WORK ETHIC, MUSICALITY, and LEADERSHIP. In reality, the pillars are SHOW UP, PRACTICE SOMETIMES, STOP AT THE FINAL BARLINE, and DON'T BE A DOUCHE.
The packet also included a 9-question leadership survey, with hard-hitting critical-thinking questions like:
3. The band director, intending to start at measure 64, tells the band measure 66 by accident. He then gets fairly upset at the band for starting in the wrong place. What, if anything, would you do in this situation?
Other focus areas of the packet included:
The actual audition piece was also far more difficult than it needed to be, employing a VT score full of ritards, annotated with my insightful commentary like "Bring the other hand back in here!".
After the initial workshop session, the running for T.C. Williams drum major gradually dropped from seven to three candidates. Some were incapable of clapping on 2 and 4, or 1 and 3, or any known downbeat. One guy quit because he didn't want to miss the activity bus for practice sessions. Another apparently thought he was auditioning for an American Sign Language flash dance.
1998 was not the last year I worked with the band. I would go on to train drum majors for one more year, and then did a stint writing marching drills that included Mickey Mouse's head before leaving marching bands behind for good!
There are no major spoilers in these reviews.
The Hunger Games (PG-13):
We watched this movie in the theatre last Sunday, bringing the total number of theatre visits for 2012 to 2, and bringing the total number of theatre visits since 2008 to 2. This is a pretty faithful adaptation of the book by the same name (which is also the best of the book trilogy). Well-cast, well-paced, and filled with actors like Stanley Tucci, who is obviously having a great time with his role.
The only problem with this movie is that the ultimate winner of the Hunger Games is "shaky cam". All but a handful of scenes in this movie are filmed in a handheld manner. While this is an effective way to slip the large amounts of non-gratuitous violence into a PG-13 wrapper, it really doesn't add anything to the rest of the movie. I have not seen so much "shaky cam" in play since I saw the second Bourne Identity movie in theatres (and even today, I'm not completely sure that Matt Damon was in that movie because the camera was so shaky).
Final Grade: B+
Pushing Daisies, Season One:
This nine episode season is available for free on Amazon Prime, but is even worth a purchase. The story is a modern-day fairy tale about a pie maker who can bring people back to life, but only for one minute. Episodes are reasonably standalone, as he uses his power to solve a different murder each week. What's unique about this show is its visual and musical style -- bright patterns and colors, a full orchestral score, and a whimsical dialogue patter that suggest a Tim Burton TV show, if Tim Burton were less emo. The show occasionally falls into the trap of recapping too much information from previous episodes (most noticeably when you watch them in a row), but I still greatly enjoyed its cleverness.
Final Grade: A-
Cougar Town, Season Two:
This show's second season about as funny as the first. A few episodes seem a bit more mean-spirited than necessary, as if it were channeling Everybody Loves Raymond rather than Scrubs, but overall it's worth a watch for some easy laughs.
Final Grade: B
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