Friday, March 31, 2006

I Don't Lent Too Well

A quick anecdote: today, around noon, I get a bit hungry. Looking in the fridge, I see a box of Wingnuts that my roommate Teddy hadn't finished the night before. He's already told me that he doesn't want them, so I think "Excellent, convenient lunch." I eat the chicken.

Today, around 2 pm, I realize "Well crap, today's a Friday during Lent." It's not like this was a purposeful "Haha, Catholic Church, sucks for you"; no, this was just me being not so good at Lent.

Completely changing gears... I've decided (almost typed "deicided" which would have been very funny indeed given the previous story) to give the readers of Isoceleria an insight into my ridicuously eclectic musical tastes by posting a "Currently listening to :" section periodically.

Currently listening to: "La Rejouissance" from Music For the Royal Fireworks, GF Handel

Clearing from the Wreckage

Before I forget, addition to my list of promised future topics: on resurgence of popular media in the past few years.

Let's talk about the good old NCAA basketball tournament, shall we?

So a lot of people's brackets aren't looking so good. Mine, for instance. I correctly predicted zero of the Final Four teams. So did my dad. But it wasn't unreasonable, in my opinion, to pick most of the Final Four teams. LSU, a fine choice. Lost of people were expecting lots of good things from the Tigers, and those good things materialized. Given that a team could beat Duke, most other potential matchups wouldn't be that much of a challenge. So after picking LSU to beat Duke, maybe a bit of an upset but not an unreasonable one, picking them to win the region makes sense.

UCLA, also perfectly reasonable. It's never unreasonable to pick the #2 seed to win the region. The regional final, a classic 1-2 matchup. Sure, Memphis impressed people with their athleticism, but you can't discount the experience and background of UCLA. Florida, nothing wrong with that pick. The #2 seed in the region got there by winning the Big Ten, and as much as I like the Big Ten, they're just not that strong a basketball conference lately. So Florida beats Ohio State (or gets Georgetown to do it for them) and skates into the regional final. At that point, it becomes a tossup between Florida and Villanova.

So, by themselves, those picks make a lot of sense. Put together, it's a gutsy bracket that bets against Duke, Texas, Memphis, Gonzaga, and Villanova at the same time, but it's at least a sensible one.

Now show me a bracket that had those three teams, plus George Mason. Heck, show me a bracket that had Mason and any other three teams.

I have to think that the word "Cinderella" has never been used so often in conjunction with an early American patriot and statesman, but if the shoe fits... (dear God. Horrible pun absolutely unintended.) And I think I know why. Yes, they're only the second #11 seed to reach the Final Four in tournament history, but even more significantly than that, people love to see teams like UConn and UNC lose. If only the Patriots could also have faced Duke.

Review: Oblivion

You might have noticed that, although I promised a whole lot of interesting-sounding topics last week, among them a review of Oblivion, none of that has come to pass until today. That's mostly because I've been playing the game and having no time to review it. I predicted last year sometime that when Oblivion came out, I would lose all semblance of a social life that I might have thought I had. As it turns out, Mock Trial has been more responsible than anything for destroying my social life, but Oblivion is coming in a close second.

Simply put, this game is magnificent. I can't sing its praises highly enough. Everything is done exactly correctly. And so, rather than attempting to tell what the game is about, and how it works, I will give a summary of everything bad about the game, and every other aspect of the game can be assumed to be somewhere between "excellent" and "outstanding."

The first and most obvious problem with Oblivion is its performance requirements. I'm running P4, 1 GHz ram, 256 Mb video card, and I get an acceptable frame rate most of the time, a good frame rate in locations with little activity, and in the open world when fighting, it's pretty jerky. To fully experience this game (which entails not reducing any graphical settings, because they're that good), you absolutely need as much ram as you can stuff in your machine, and the highest-powered video card you can buy.

Secondly, the openness and lack of linearity can be a little overwhelming to players at first. Trust me, though, it was worse in Morrowind. Fast travel and the revamped quest log system make it a lot easier to remember where you are going, why you are going there, and what you're supposed to do once you arrive.

Who should play this game? Obviously, fans of the Elder Scrolls series. You know how every series has its stubborn purists? I've yet to run into anyone who liked Morrowind who doesn't also like Oblivion, which is saying something. For that matter, any RPG fan in general--be it MMO, console, tabletop, whatever--needs to play it. And heck, even if you're not into RPGs at all, but do like other video games, give Oblivion a try.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Tackling my Goals and Keeping my Promises (Part I of unknown parts)

Where to begin?

First, I am no longer under the sway of the Wretched Disease. Z-Pack failed me this time, but Levaquin seems to have done nicely in its stead. Second, it is sunny today, and it was sunny yesterday too. This is good news.

To begin, a couple of reviews. Short ones.

Review: Chicago XXX

These guys just don't quit. Thirty albums over forty years, touring, merchandising... you have to give them credit. And the best part? You listen to a song, and you can tell it's a Chicago song (credit to my dad for nailing that observation). Whether it's "25 or 6 to 4" from Chicago II or "90 Degrees and Freezing" off XXX, it's undeniably Chicago. And that's a good thing. Their latest effort is not without flaws or shortcomings--many of Chicago's songs simply tend to sound the same after a few listens. While I recognize that the band's vocal talents lend themselves to ballads, and that the ballad has been the bread and butter of the band for the last twenty years, that doesn't mean that there aren't fans of the old-school up-tempo songs that Chicago made a name with in the first place. It's not that I want to see less of, for example, "King of Might Have Been," it's that I'd certainly like to see more in the vein of "90 Degrees." But all in all, the band is still making quality music, even with all that other quality music in their past. And the cool part is, they're from Chicago, one of the greatest cities there is.

Review: Auntie Mame

Good old Shiloh Onstage is the only theatrical venue I know of that charges six dollars for a show. Parkview, which is describably better than Shiloh, charges five. Heritage, which is like freaking Broadway compared to either Shiloh or Parkview charges eight. But they deserve to (and damn, their theater is nice!). Hell, Georgia Tech only charges five for students. And Shiloh insists on extorting that extra dollar per person. Oh well.

The only reason I can stand to pay this much is because there are people I know and like both in the show and watching it with me. Usually it's Sally, who's a wonderful actress, who is in the shows I see; this time it was my friend Taylor's sister Mary. And as usual, the person I specifically come to see turns out to be the best part of the show. This was an appropriate comedy for a high school drama department, and it was done with about the amount of skill and talent as you'd expect from a decently good high school drama department. As seems to be typical, Auntie Mame featured the following:

--A reasonably strong lead, who knew the lines and the proper styling to deliver them, but didn't quite push into excellence;
--A couple of supporting characters who were entirely over-the-top, because that sort of thing gets reactions from the high school audience, but who could actually be very good actors if they toned it down just a bit;
--A bell curve of a few excellent performances, a few very weak performances, and mostly average to slightly above average acting by most of the cast;
--Technical difficulties that didn't materially interfere with the production, but made scene changes take a bit longer than they really needed to;
--Lines that could have been very funny, or very emotional, or very important to the plot, that were obscured by 1) overaccenting, 2) not speaking clearly enough, or 3) having someone else talking or music playing at the time;
--"Wait, how long did you say this play was again?"

But of course you didn't need to see Auntie Mame to know any of that happened; that's just how high school theater works. And as usual, a fairly good performance (if not a great one) combined with the chance to watch it with your friends, and your friends in it, made for an entertaining evening.

Now... the discussion of Star Wars to get that impressive-sounding list of topics started.

It's generally accepted that the original trilogy (Episodes IV-VI, "the originals") is much better than the newer trilogy (Episodes I-III, "the prequels"). Exactly how much better is of course a matter of personal opinion and open to some debate. Takes on this seem to range from "Oh, come on, the prequels weren't that bad" to "Wow, that sucked, but hey, it's still Star Wars" to "Holy crap, that ruined what used to be the best science fiction series ever" to "I didn't even like the originals that much, but these prequels definitely cemented my dislike."

So, the natural question is, why were the prequels so bad? Conventional wisdom seems to suggest that George Lucas is at fault. And this stance has a good deal of merit. Take a defining scene in The Empire Strikes Back, where Princess Leia tells Han Solo "I love you." And Han tells her "I know." Now, if you want me to believe that that was in the Lucas script, you're full of it. That was an ad lib moment, and one that exactly nailed the character that Lucas outlined in his script. It's how movies are supposed to work: the director comes up with an idea for a character, the actor comes up with how to play him properly, and it's this collaboration that makes the character memorable. You need both sides of the coin.

In the originals, we got both sides. In the prequels, we clearly did not. Lucas's micromanagement of everything and his death grip on the script, made the characters fall flat. Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, and Hayden Christensen are all accomplished actors. We all know that they know what they're doing. And yet their efforts fell flat because George Lucas wouldn't allow any "I know" moments in the prequels.

But I have two alternate explanations for why the prequels seemed to be terrible compared to the originals: scope and theme.

By "scope" I'm referring to the central conflict of the series. In the originals, the central conflict was superficially between the Empire and the Rebellion, but the more important philosophical conflict involved the Sith and the Jedi. The conflict in the prequels was also Sith vs. Jedi, but I think it might have been more interesting had it been farther removed from the original trilogy. Yes, the rise of Darth Vader is a very interesting premise, and one that's central to the story of Star Wars. However, I think it has more psychological (and therefore literary) than cinematic merit. Just get a decent author to write the book, and it would be a compelling novel. Recall how Jake Lloyd ruined Episode I; that problem would be fixed by novelizing the Darth Vader story compared to filming it. And Vader's ludicrous "Noooooo!" moment at the end of Episode III? In book form, that could have been internal and possibly very emotional, but in the movie it simply looked ridiculous. A better time period might have been, say, the rise of the Jedi in the first place, or the first war against the Sith; something where we didn't have any conceptions about the characters.

And the "theme" I'm referring to has to do with the internal motivations of the main character in each series. At its core, the original trilogy is a hero myth. I won't bore those of you who are unfamiliar with Joseph Campbell by detailing what that means; just think of Luke Skywalker. He was basically a whiny brat in Episode IV who gradually grew into a heroic warrior by the end of Episode VI. He had to deal with temptations from the dark side, having his friends in danger, personal centering and discipline, and weighing his own opinions against those of his teachers; this effected a remarkable transformation in his character.

Contrast this with the prequels, which is a love story at its core. Compared with the insight and majesty of the hero myth, a love story is mere popular tale. Especially one in which the actors involved are not really able to display a range of emotions that could have made the movies good, at least for a love story.

Coming up next... the remainder of what I promised in the last entry, plus a few thoughts on the basketball tournament.

Fogo de Chopsticks?

As you may know, my dad and I are on a mission to eat food from all over the world. I'm not just talking eat some Mexican here, some Chinese there. I mean, see a hole-in-the-wall restaurant called "(unknown non-English word) (name of foreign country) Cuisine" and we're most likely going to stop there. I've eaten Ethiopian yogurt-based bread and raw meat, Peruvian octopus rice, Turkish lamb and pita... you get the idea. For the first time, I had Korean barbecue yesterday, and it's clear that the Koreans know how to eat.

Maybe you're familiar with the concept. If not... maybe you're familiar with the concept of Fogo de Chão. If not, you're being seriously deprived of an amazing culinary experience. It involves gauchos coming to your table and carving you slices of meat, over and over again. But rather than resorting to singing the praises of Fogo de Chão (which is all to easy to do), I'll instead describe Korean barbecue. Think of it as a cross between the aforementioned Fogo de Chão and fondue. Basically, you can go up to a buffet and grab pieces of raw meat (you can grab other things, too, and you'll find that those conform to the general Asian cooking tradition of being almost but not quite Chinese. Very good, but that's not what you come for.) and bring them back to your table. Then--I'm not making this part up--someone will come to your table, light a small grill either built into or sitting on your table, and throw your raw meat onto the grill. The waiter will continue to attend to your meat, turning it, cutting it, etc. until it's ready to eat.

It's an excellent way to dine.

A few mysteries remain, though. A Korean family that was sitting next to us (and you know you're in a good ethnic restaurant when people of that ethnicity actually eat there. Unlike a few places my dad and I have ended up in, though, there were other white people in the restaurant as well. That Peruvian place... I think we were the first two white dudes ever to set foot inside, except for maybe the health inspector. But I digress.) got glasses of steaming beer-colored drink. My dad and I were not able to determine conclusively if there was any alcohol involved, nor what the drink smelled (much like tasted) like... all we know is that the Korean dude next to us was sure guzzling it down. Secondly, next to a fairly good selection of fruit on the buffet, was a tub of brownish liquid labeled "cinnamon drink." It was, in fact, cinnamon-flavored. I have no idea what its real purpose was. I in turn drank some and dipped my fruit in it, and I cannot say if this was correct or not. But it was delicious.

A preview of coming attractions: the already-promised Oblivion review, a couple of thoughts on Star Wars, a discussion of to what degree various religious wars have been motivated by religion (oh yeah), and Ms. Penn's ideas on similarity and oversimilarity. If I have time for all of that.

Friday, March 24, 2006

An Obligatory Spring Break Post

...which of course has nothing to do with what I've been doing over spring break. Or rather, it does, but only incidentally. The purpose of the post is not to provide a narrative of events of my spring break (which would be sorely disappointing to the reader) but to explain how events from spring break have prompted some thoughts.

First, a bit about weather. I hate cloudiness. Over this week (mid-late March, mind you) it's been cloudy, rainy, and in the fifties. Now, I don't care much about the temperature. I would have no problem if it were twenty, as long as the sun was out. That's not how Atlanta works, sadly enough. It's forty to fifty and dark and rainy from the beginning of December through the end of February. Or, in this year's case, through the end of March. And it needs to end. It's time for me to plant something, for me to leave my window open, and for me to see something besides a gray-white expanse of bleak nothing when I look up.

Second, on high school. It occurred to me that I would like to graduate high school again. Not do all of high school again, just graduate. Like the last two weeks. Go to awards night, slack off for a little while, then actually graduate. Which means having a bunch of friends and family over, getting cool stuff, eating cake for breakfast for a week (yep, I did that), wearing more bling than I'll ever have the excuse to again, and making a speech. I just wonder if graduating college is going to be as wholly positive an experience as graduating from high school was.

A bit more on Shiloh specifically. I was wrong about Shiloh, I'm beginning to think. Those of you who know my take on my alma mater might be wondering what sort of blasphemy, idiocy, heresy, or other manner of malfeasance I'm talking here. But now that I'm removed from Shiloh, thinking about it, and having visited there a handful of times, it deserves more credit than I ever gave it. A lot of college kids wouldn't be caught dead at their high school, a lot have put it so far past them that they wouldn't think to go there, and a few make return visits out of some sense of obligation. I've gone back to Shiloh because I honestly enjoy it. A handful of teachers I've had have been such positive influences on me, people whose company I legitimately enjoy, whose conversations I value, and whose opinions and advice I respect.

And a review of Oblivion to come, once I've actually installed it on my computer.

Friday, March 17, 2006

In Defense of the Green Circle

At dinner last night, one of my friends attempted to tell me about a "really funny Starbucks rant" that he'd read on some website. Disregarding any sense of diplomacy that I usually try to carry, I went straight for flippancy: "I don't deal well with Starbucks rants." You see them all over the damn place. In the Technique. In sketch comedy. In stand-up comedy. And, yes, in blogs. And my first reaction to any of them is always the same: "If you don't want to pay $4 for a cup of coffee, then you don't have to."

My second reaction typically goes a little something like this: "You're wondering where they 'get off' charging that much for coffee? If you knew the first thing about economics, you would know exactly why they have the right to charge that much. It's called the market." I could get groteqsuely in-depth and sart busting out elasticity of demand and marginal cost/revenue curves... but that's not necessary. Starbucks charges exactly how much for a cup of coffee that will maximize their profits.

One of the points that the aforementioned rant brought up was apparently that some guy paid seven bucks for a piece of cake and some coffee at a Starbucks, and immediately regretted the decision because he could have gone next door and paid that same amount for a meal that would have filled him up. Well, yes. He could have. As a rational consumer in a market economy, that choice is inexorably his to make. But "personal choice as part of a market economy" doesn't make for a very sensational rant, so of course we must shift the blame from ourselves to some evil external source.

I leave with a quote from Adam Smith: "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest." Id est, we do not expect Starbucks to sell us coffee for the purposes of doing anything nice or kind for us, but for them to provide a service that makes them money.

Friday, March 03, 2006

The Wretched Disease

A little medical condition called "chronic sinusitis" runs in my family. Both sides, no matter which way the Punnett square rolled, my genetic disposition toward chronic sinusitis was somewhere between "exorbitant" and "off the charts." I get sinus infections approximately four times a year, or once a season. Really. December 2004, February 2005, April 2005, August 2005, November 2005, and now February/March 2006. My dad once remarked that he could set the clock to exactly 11 am in nursing homes based on what time The Price is Right came on; you can set the season by my getting a sinus infection.

I have two antibiotics of choice for these infections: Biaxin and Azithromicin. I think it depends on whose drug reps are giving the more extravagant dinners to whichever doctor I happen to be seeing at the time. I'd have to say, though, that the Z-pack (Azithromicin) is by far preferable. Biaxin: 2 pills a day for ten days, and a nasty metallic aftertaste that can only be prevented if you remember to take the pill with a flood of orange juice. Z-pack: two pills the first day, and one a day the next five. That's all.

So I'm on the Z-pack now, as per usual. Health Services, apparently notorious for overprescribing, also loaded me with the following army of medication: an antihistamine, a sudafed generic, some cough syrup, some throat lozenges, and (my personal favorite) Prednosone. Yep, I'm on steroids.

One last interesting bit about sinusitis. While I was Googling the answer to every question for my last Health test (a very good method, should anyone reading this ever get Surrency for HPS 1040 at Tech), I came across a page about the causes of chronic sinusitis. I thought to myself "Hey! I have that!", an eerie premonition that I'd be getting an episode a few weeks later. Or maybe I just looked at the calendar. Evidently, a root cause of the disease may have to do with a fungus living inside your sinus cavity. This was a bit disconcerting to me.