Sunday, May 18, 2008

Ironically, my last post was number 108

The irony here is that this is yet another Lost-themed post. 108 is of course immediately significant to fans of the series as the sum of the numbers. At this point in the series, a mere two weeks before the season 4 finale, I feel the need once again to summarize some theories I've had about the show's intrigue and mysteries. As usual, I can't take credit for all these theories myself, but I've compiled existing theories and added my opinions.

About the Monster, aka Cerberus:
  • The monster, as we know, is named Cerberus, an allusion to the three-headed dog that guarded Hades in Greek myth.

  • The monster can, and regularly does, appear as a cloud of black smoke. This is one of Cerberus's "heads".

  • The monster has also appeared to Mr. Eko as Yemi. (This was confirmed by the producers.) This suggests that the monster can appear as people. This is the second of Cerberus's "heads".

  • In a podcast, the producers referred to both Yemi and Christian Shepherd as "undead".

    • But they've also referred to Christian Shepherd as "dead".

    • We know for a fact that on Lost, if you die, you're dead. The island can heal you miraculously, but even it can't resurrect.

  • So the Christian Shepherd that we've seen is another Yemi-like manifestation of the second of Cerberus's heads

  • Maybe this explains some of the mystery behind Richard Alpert, too. If the Richard we see is a manifestation of the monster, then there's no reason that it would ever get any older.

Questions raised and unanswered by this theory:

  • We've seen Richard Alpert three separate times, as well as Christian once, off the island. This would suggest that the monster can escape the island, which we have no evidence of it being able to do.

  • Can the monster only appear as dead people? As humans? As one thing at a time, or more than that?

    • The producers also referred to Kate's horse as "undead"; is the horse another manifestation of Cerberus's second head?

  • What is Cerberus's third head?

    • Maybe this is what Locke saw when he "looked into the eye of the island" way back in season 1?

  • We've seen that Ben has apparent control over at least the "smoke monster" manifestation; can he control either of the others?

  • Does the sonic fence stop all three heads or just the smoke monster one?

    • Maybe Mikhail's mysterious return at the end of season 3 was a smoke monster manifestation?

  • How in the hell did this thing get on the island, and who put it there? Why?

Theories about Widmore and finding the island:
  • We know that Widmore is looking for the island. Also, we know that Widmore and Hanso have collaborated in the past through the Widmore Corporation.

    • Widmore may have had some connection with the DHARMA Initiative specifically; chances are good he at least had heard of it.

  • Additionally, Ben tells us that Widmore wants the island for his own. He is currently looking for it by means of the freighter.

  • Widmore has probably looked for the island before.

    • The boat race around the world and whatever Widmore did with the Black Rock's ledger were almost certainly his prior attempts to find the island.

    • Rousseau's science expedition and Henry Gale's balloon flight could be other efforts by Widmore to find the island in the past.

      • According to the producers, Ben and the real Henry Gale "had words". If Ben knew Gale was from Widmore, he would react a lot more hostly toward him.

      • And remember, Henry Gale's balloon had a Widmore logo on it.

      • Why would Ben be so interested in raising Rousseau's daughter as his own? So he could have some leverage over Widmore.

  • The only reason that this expedition, as opposed to any Widmore had sent over the last 25 years, was successful, is that the electromagnetic anomaly surrounding the island and controlled by the hatch is not in play anymore.

Questions raised and unanswered by this theory:
  • What exactly does Widmore intend to do with the island?

  • What prior history do Ben and Widmore have? And what are these mysterious "rules"? If the theory concerning Rousseau is anywhere close to correct, then the relationship has been hostile for at least sixteen years.

Theories about the freighter and the wreckage:
  • There exist two similar, but non-identical and mutually exclusive, sets of orders for various teams on the freighter:

    • Keamy's team of mercenaries is to apprehend Ben Linus and kill everyone else.

    • Naomi's team is supposed to extract Ben Linus.

  • Overwhelmingly, the evidence points to Widmore as sending Keamy's team.

  • Matthew Abaddon sent Naomi's team; before the introduction of Keamy's men, it made sense to assume that Widmore was the man behind Abaddon's team also.

    • But it doesn't make sense for Widmore to have sent both teams.

  • So it appears Abaddon is working for someone else.

  • It makes sense that that "someone else" is DHARMA.

    • DHARMA knows about the Purge, and wants revenge on Ben Linus for orchestrating it.

    • It's "metagaming", but we know that both the Initiative and the freighter people (Faraday, Charlotte, and Miles) are going to be increasingly important in Season 5.

    • This explains Charlotte's excitement at finding the DHARMA polar bear in Tunisia.

    • Perhaps Faraday, Charlotte, and Miles (possibly Naomi and Lapidus, too) are themselves former DHARMA as well:

      • That explains why Abaddon would select a "ghostbuster" and a "headcase" for the mission: they know something about what's going on, if only a little.

      • This also explains why all the freighter people are so dismayed to see that the wreckage of 815 had been found: it suggests proximity to the island, and DHARMA sure doesn't want knowledge of the island to be floating around.

  • Alternately, Abaddon could be working for Oceanic Airlines:

    • This could be off-base, but I seem to remember the guy Lapidus spoke to on the "Oceanic Hotline" as sounding a lot like Abaddon.

    • Oceanic would have a lot to gain from being able to manage nicely exactly where the plane went and who survived.

      • That's also a motivation for Oceanic to have staged the wreckage in the Sunda trench.

  • Tom seems to think that Widmore placed the wreckage in the trench.

  • That's plausible, but Widmore doesn't want knowledge of the island to get out any more than DHARMA would.

Questions raised and unanswered by this theory:
  • How far is the Sunda trench from the island? The closer it actually is, the less likely Widmore was to have put it there.

  • If Abaddon works for Oceanic, why does his team know about and care so much about Ben?

  • Regardless of who Abaddon works for, how did he get his team onto the freighter that obviously had different orders?

  • How does Abaddon know to speak to Locke about the Walkabout?

I won't bother trying to speculate on the Orchid, because all of that will be revealed in a couple of weeks anyway. Finally, if you want a ridiculously detailed and comprehensive conspiracy theory about time travel on the show, then check out the time loop theory. (I had no part in making this.) A lot of it is very convincing, and it does touch on a variety of the show's mysteries. My only criticism is that it talks a lot about "fate" as a motive force, which seems awfully abstract compared to the rest of the show's very real--if unexplainable--circumstances. And that I really, really hope time travel doesn't play this huge a role in the overall mythology--that would just be a cop-out.

Currently listening: "March" from Second Suite for Military Band, Holst

Saturday, May 17, 2008

How Narrow are your Stairs!

Review: Narrow Stairs

"Unquestionably the best thing Death Cab has ever done" from music writers; "I heard it was really bad" from music listeners. One thing's for sure: we're not on Barsuk anymore. This is apparently Death Cab's seventh studio CD, or sixth, depending on what you consider a "studio CD". (I think that's akin to giving an adequate definition for "indie" or "alternative", so we're going to ignore the question for now.) Indie kids were all abuzz over The Photo Album and Transatlanticism--I can never keep these two straight, but they're both good. Then came the dreaded Major Label Debut of Plans, where droves of indie kids started whining, because "Soul Meets Body" was played on mainstream radio airwaves. Talk about an infraction.

They'd of course argue that they weren't complaining about that, they were lamenting the decline in quality associated with Being on a Major Label. Except, you know, there wasn't a real decline in quality. In fact, the album sold a million copies--which, in retrospect, probably didn't help in the eyes of those hardcore indie kids either. No, Plants was not the same record as Transatlanticism, but if it were the same, there would be complaints about that too.

Oh, to hear the indie kid reaction now.

If Plans isn't the same record as the previous ones were, then Narrow Stairs isn't in the same dimension. I've talked already about the album's influences and what about it made me sort of scared. I remarked specifically about the CD sounding like 1960s wind band music, and thankfully it does not. It does, however, sound like whatever-decade prog-rock, a direction that I was not at all expecting the album to go in. It's not per se bad, except when the songs get too absorbed in their own progginess to seem like Death Cab anymore.

"Gee, Mr. Gibbard! Is that a B3 rock organ I hear on 'You Can Do Better Than Me'?"
"Yes, it is, clever listener! Did you hear it anywhere else?"
"Now that you mention it, at the end of 'Grapevine Fires'! And I thought it really interesting how you included not real strings, but synthesized strings in 'Your New Twin-Sized Bed'."
"Right, that gave it a completely unique sound. But can you guess what my favorite random instrument to throw in was?"
"Easy! The tabla on 'Pity and Fear', of course."

All of the positive reviews I've already read have said things like Death Cab has traded in their brightness for something dark and brooding, a process which we saw beginning on Plans and that's continued into Narrow Stairs. And they say this as if it made the CD significantly better. If dark and pessimistic is your cup of tea, then you'll get along with this album splendidly. See "No Sunlight" as an immediate example of this mood.

For those of us that like a little more sunshine in our music, "Long Division" sounds happy enough, and ironically "No Sunlight" does too. I agree with just about every other reviewer out there in that "Cath..." is the best song on the album, no matter what mood you expect to get out of Death Cab. And "The Ice is Getting Thinner" is probably the weakest track in both energy and storytelling--shouldn't the otherwise lyrically adept Death Cab be able to come up with some better metaphor than thin ice?

On a whole, don't let terms like "sludgy" and "dissonant" and "lunar" scare you. Narrow Stairs doesn't turn into any of the horror that it conceivably could. While it's not as good as Plans or Transatlanticism, at no point did I ever ask aloud, "Death Cab, what in the hell are you doing?" Maybe a few "?" thought to myself, but that's going to arise anytime something takes a new direction, regardless of if that direction turns out be good or bad. Here, it turns out to be mostly decent, with a few missteps. Not "the best thing they've ever done" by a long shot, but after the disappointment I'd been bracing myself for since February, something of a pleasant surprise.

Currently listening: "We Are What You Say," Sufjan Stevens

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Who Is Pretty (and Matt's Top Five)

A constant quandary that seems to spring up in all sorts of discussion venues is the notion of the Top Five. If you're unfamiliar with this concept, it's the mostly-facetious list of five totally unattainable people that you'd really like to get with, and that your spouse/partner/significant other would actually allow if the opportunity presented itself. Generally, this is actors, musicians, or otherwise celebrities. Something like "the guy who brings our UPS packages" or "the girl two doors down" is against the spirit of the Top Five.

So who's in my Top Five? (Note that you're still allowed to have a Top Five even in the absence of a significant other.)

Ever since I've known that I liked girls, I've had a thing for Natalie Portman. I suspect that a lot of other Star Wars fanboys feel the same way. She seems to be fairly universally recognized, if not a member of a given man's Top Five, as a respectable choice nevertheless.

A tribute to Eva Longoria is that she made it socially acceptable for men to say they watch Desperate Housewives. "I dunno, my mom/sister/girlfriend/wife had it on." "Yeah, so leave the room." "Right, I was about to, then Eva Longoria came on." "Oh."

If she didn't want to be prominent on Top Five lists, then Kate Beckinsale should have stopped inserting herself into guy movies--and geek guy movies, at that. Underworld and its sequel, Van Helsing, and goodness knows what else have catapulted her into virtually all of my friends' Top Fives.

Now, for a bit of an unconventional turn, I'm going to go with Kristen Bell. I never watched Veronica Mars, nor have I gotten into Heroes even though I've been told time and time again that I'm supposed to. Oh, and she's a vegetarian, which is a little weird. But I'll let it slide.

Finally, if Kristen Bell is a little unconventional, Tina Fey blows convention out of the water. Her literate presence and sharp wit go a long way here. Granted, her Weekend Update interpretation didn't exactly top Norm MacDonald's, but whose did?

So what prompted this? Magazines like to push lists of people we're not as attractive as onto us. One recent choice offered as a cover shot was Kate Hudson. This got me thinking, "yes, good job magazine, this woman is legitimately attractive." Usually it's some crap like Angelina Jolie or Katherine Heigl. Now, let's talk a little about Angelina Jolie. During one outing where friends and colleagues were grilling me about my Top Five, someone (a girl) asked "so really, no Angelina Jolie? You don't think she's sexy?" To this, I honestly responded "no, she's more scary than sexy." And sorry, Ms. Heigl, a successful chick flick and a crappy primetime hospital drama does not earn you any respect.

Who else might make the list, given its expansion? Evangeline Lilly would be toward the top--coming from a diehard Lost fan, this should be no surprise. Keira Knightley has dropped several places now that she's looking more and more like a stick every day. The female half of the band Eisley should go without saying. Taking a Wikipedia trail from Kristen Bell -> Heroes -> Hayden Panettiere, she's now up there too. I like both Olivia Wilde and Jennifer Morrison from House, the second best show currently on television.

And now that it's socially acceptable, Emma Watson can join this list. An ending poll, fueled from countless conversations with my roommate last year: what's the youngest a woman can be before you'd feel creepy thinking she's attractive? Obviously, this doesn't apply to guys younger than 18. After 18, I think this is still a function of age, though less strongly. My personal opinion is 16, and I have reasoning to back that up: if she's old enough to go places by herself, she's fair game. My roommate (who, granted, is a year and a half younger than I am) says 15, while our friend and fellow PL Alex says 17. His roommate Jeff says 12, though he's kidding. Hopefully.

Currently listening: "So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright," Simon and Garfunkel

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Bière je t'aime

This post is not entirely about alcohol. In fact, rather little of it is. I recognize that college kids are going to drink, and I'm not going to go puritan and say "Now, children, drinking alcohol is bad for your studies." I will express a preference for generally not wanting to get drunk, and I'll act according to that preference. And thus follows one of my biggest pet peeves: people who have little to talk about except for alcohol. Lest I think this is confined only to my experience, the Onion video podcast (highly recommended) a few weeks ago reported that "80% of roommates got 'so wasted' last night."

It's common knowledge that I'm a budding wine snob, or at least I'd like to think of myself as being one. Something about the wine culture and the implied pretentiousness is just amusing to me, yet there has to be something material there if such a developed following of this beverage has existed for thousands of years. In most cases, beer just doesn't have the same sophisticate appeal. What's classier? Drinking a glass of pinot noir, or a can of Miller Lite? More importantly, which tastes better?

The problem with beer, I've come to realize, is that the floor is a lot lower. There's bad wine, to be sure. Take the 1.5 Euro bottle I drank some of over last summer. Horrible. But most wine in the "average" price range of $10-$15 is going to be at least drinkable. The "average" beer is defined less by a specific price and more by popularity--granted a popularity that probably comes from a low price. In other words, the perception of the "average wine" to most people is something along the lines of a $10 or $15 bottle--not necessarily exquisite, but no reason it can't still be delicious. And "average beer" is going to be your Budweisers, your Millers... which to me (and a lot of legitimate sophisticates) are utterly undrinkable.

There is good beer out there, though. It's just harder to find. Hofbrau, Hoegaarden, Leffe, Guinness, and how many others I first had over last summer? So enter Epsilon Upsilon, a friend's plan for a fraternity. Here's the premise: we drink the same obnoxious amounts of beer as any other fraternity, but the critical distinction is that it's good beer. Armed with $50 that may or may not have been from a Housing reimbursement from a fake program, I set off to Whole Foods and bought enough to last a couple months. And I experienced the high-class implementation of this beverage.

This got me and my roommate thinking. We're always looking for ideas for a Campus Movie Fest short film. We actually had a quite good one last year but never got it off the ground. Our latest idea is "Bière je t'aime", a film directed in pretentious foreign-film style but about frat boys drinking beer. This is an obvious reference to "Paris, je t'aime", which I've never actually seen, but I imagine to be in some sort of pretentious foreign film style of its own. We're not entirely sure whether to use English or French, but the line "Ou est le Icehouse?" has to show up at least once.

Our other idea, which I thought was quite good, is as yet untitled. It deals with camping in front of Brittain dining hall, waiting for it to open, in a parody of people camping in front of the stadium for football tickets. The characters in the film would be extremely enthusiastic so they could be the first in line to get the morning's pancakes, be disappointed because there were no bananas... and of course make bright, happy conversation with the Brittain employees.

One final over-the-top artsy fiction setting developed by me and my roommate is this one. Say, in the future, there's a way to induce limited long-term memory loss. In this state, you could remember what you ate for lunch yesterday, but not any of the significant events from your life's past. It would be turned into a game. You'd have this procedure done, be deposited in a site that you could connect to something significant, and win if you found out that significance before the procedure wore off. For instance, pretend there's a man from Atlanta who has just been married. He'd be dropped off in Atlanta, have to ask people to figure out where he was, slowly retrace some of the steps of his life, and if he found his new wife, he'd win the prize.

The idea here is that coming across certain milestone locations would trigger some of the blocked long-term memory. The house where you grew up in is the obvious choice, but also say your high school or college, the place you got married, or even something traumatic, like where you'd gotten into a fight as a kid. As the person successfully traced his way through these places, certain memories would open, leading him eventually to his current life. Significant people would have to be in on it, too... if this guy finds his brother's house, the brother is supposed to be a trigger, not say "hey, you're in this game, go to this address to win."

That's the premise. The conflict comes in when, inevitably, the process goes wrong. Maybe it fails to erase memories of itself, so when the contestant wakes up, his last memory is some people he doesn't know performing a mysterious operation on him. He then ignores his supposed goal of finding his wife and instead seeks revenge on these enigmatic people for destroying his memory. Or possibly it fails to work altogether, leaving an enterprising young man able to do whatever he wishes under the guise of memory loss. It's very Jason Bourne, except a bit more cerebral (and sadly with fewer explosions).

Currently listening: "Saint Simon", the Shins

O GRE, Harbinger of Doom

Coincidence, that "O GRE" spells out "ogre"? I think not.

Most of my peer group is done with this standardized test business by this point in their lives. It probably began fifteen years ago with some nice Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, progressed through all manners of state- and local-mandated curriculum based assessments, a Gateway test to see if you're really ready for the rigors of... 8th grade! Then the PSAT shows up, which really has no bearing on anything except whether or not your college feels like giving you a thousand dollars a year for free.

By that time, you're ready to face the granddaddy of them all, the SAT. Or maybe you're up against his brother, the ACT. Either way, no single test is as critical to so much of the populace as these college-entrance exams. Maybe the driving test, come to think of it. But the DMV doesn't care how many times you have to try before you get a license. Countless hours and dollars go into preparation for the SAT, such that by the time you're ready to take it, there's no way you won't know what's coming. No guarantees as to how you'll do, what score you get, or what super-elite establishments you may have the credentials to join once you take it. But you've at least met the guy before.

My impending endeavor is the GRE. If the SAT is the granddaddy of standardized tests, and to extend the metaphor way too far, the GRE is that guy who's vaguely related to your family somehow. You call him "uncle" despite the dubious at best evidence for blood relation. Maybe by the time you're twenty, twenty-two, you start to ask around about this guy. Your cool uncle Stan (short for Stanford Binet, naturally) pulls you aside and tells you what's up. "Uncle GRE? Sure! He's really a lot like your grandfather, but he's harder to get to know, so a lot of people never bother talking to him in the first place. Such a shame..."

I decided it was high time to orient myself and at least pull together some modicum of preparation for my last test. (Not true, really. I still have plenty of exams, and of course the dreaded Quals once I actually get into grad school. But it's the last standardized test I think I'll ever have to take.) And honestly... this is like the SAT over again, but with harder words. Still two sections that count, verbal and quantitative, plus a writing section that nobody cares about.

Naturally, I assume that the quantitative section matters to me more as an engineer. The one piece of advice I get, common among literally everyone I talk to about the GRE, is "don't fret the math section. If your major at all involves math, there's no way you won't do great on it." That's solid advice; everyone gets the same GRE. Doesn't matter if you're intending to study spectral field applications of tensors in grad school, or if you're pursuing degrees in medieval literature. But I started to get the kernel of doubt: well, I deal with a bit of calculus in my major, and a lot of plug and chug into correlations to calculate dimensionless quantities, but how much straight up math do I know?

When I saw the section in a GRE book about "the two special right triangles in geometry", I knew exactly how little I should worry.

The words are a different matter. I don't think, realistically, that a low verbal score would hurt my chances to get into grad school. I mean, look at the demographics of who exactly becomes engineering grad students, and English isn't even the first language for probably a majority of them. My quantitative score should be high, my grades are good, and I've done some decent research, so I'm probably in okay shape. But as long as I'm taking this test, I'm not going to embarrass myself and completely bomb it. So I invested in a GRE word book.

Some of them, I straight up don't know, like "contumacious", which has such a mess of prefixes and suffixes that there's no way I could have found the root and figured out it meant "rebellious". But I was impressed on an initial skim with the number of words that I did know, from unlikely geeky sources.

First, Latin: I didn't know what "peccadillo" meant, except that it was probably Spanish. But... "pecavi" is Latin for "I have sinned", so maybe it means something about sin? Yep. "Impecunious" clearly reflects the Latin root "pecunia" for money. "Meretricious" needs no introduction except for the Latin "meretrix", prostitute. (For the love of etymology, this further comes from "merere", to earn; literally, a meretrix is a female who earns.) Thank you, Dale Buff.

And second, role-playing games: "augury", "glibness", and "hoary" are "prediction", "quick-tongued", and "elderly white" respectively. Wouldn't have known those without a bit of D&D.

Currently listening: "Fall: Allegro" from The Four Seasons, Vivaldi

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Everyone needs an excuse to use the phrase "Wii Wheel" in conversation

And now we all get one!

Review: Mario Kart Wii

A motif that's developing in Nintendo's big flagship first-party games is a near-reverence for its old big flagship first-party games. It makes a deal of sense, really. If it got them this far, why not milk every drop out of each and every series? They've turned out brilliant games a decade ago (Ocarina of Time, Mario 64) and brilliant games within the past year or two (Twilight Princess, Mario Galaxy).

And it's the duty of Nintendo's multiplayer party game trinity--Mario Kart, Mario Party, and Smash Brothers--to tie all these games together. In past generations, they've been content to incorporate Nintendo characters and settings and thematic elements in general. But in the Wii incarnations of these games, we get not only the Wii interpretation of the Nintendo stock history, but the Wii renditions of previous interpretations of Nintendo's annals.

That's usually a good thing. Previous games has shown what's worked and what hasn't. That makes the later version doubly good, as it can use the elements that do work for its original content, and it can appropriate the best of the old content. And that's exactly what Mario Kart Wii has done. To date, every Mario Kart game has invented sixteen new levels. Most of these levels were entirely new content, and each game featured a remake of two iconic Mario Kart levels: Bowser's Castle and Rainbow Road.

The Wii version does the same thing: fourteen completely original levels, some of them rooted in the larger Nintendo culture and some of them made up for the game, plus the obligatory Bowser's Castle and Rainbow Road. But Wii doesn't stop there. We get sixteen of the best levels from Mario Karts past--including, yes, two Bowser's Castle incarnations. So from the start, Mario Kart Wii succeeds in exactly the same place that Smash Brothers Brawl did: in evoking a nostalgia and appreciation for the old days of Nintendo gaming. I played Mario Kart on the SNES when I was 8 yeard old and first got a game console, so I'm on the tail end of the gamers that would actually appreciate each and every one of the references in the game, from the lowly SNES Ghost Valley 2 to the grand and storied DK Mountain from the Gamecube version.

The biggest, most apparent addition to this game is the inclusion of bikes--and tricks. I was skeptical of the bikes at first--after all, this is Mario Kart, not Mario BMX or something like that. They grew on me, and fast. It adds a sliver of complexity to the game that it didn't per se need, but turns out to enhance it a lot. New characters, excellent as always: I'm a Dry Bones fanboy myself, and Funky Kong is another nice throwback to the SNES glory days. And the aforementioned Wii Wheel may never be used in another Wii game again, but it's what the Wii is supposed to be: clever and intuitive.

Pursuant to the Nintendo tradition, of course, were a few missteps. I'll never understand why a sequel to a game should ever be worse than the original, or fail to include elements from the original that made the original so good in the first place (eg, Oblivion). Here, there's a bizarre turn on the battle system, where it's not the last-man-standing that we've become accustomed to from the previous games. But that's not even the problem. The real issue here is that there were incredibly fun modes of battle from the Gamecube version (I was a huge fan of the "bomb the crap out of everyone" mode) that were merely left out of the Wii version.

Finally, it's good marketing to allow the use of the Gamecube controller in these multiplayer games. After all, if someone has, say, two Wiimotes but a lot of friends who may want to play, this person may get discouraged from buying a game that mandates the use of the Wiimote. But a considerable fraction of the people who own a Wii are also going to own a couple Gamecube controllers... problem solved! The place where this becomes a problem is in the ultra-hardcore gamers, the ones who care enough to test every controller configuration and are willing to sacrifice the spirit of the game (and the console for that matter) for a few extra seconds' speed. These people have way too much time on their hands anyway; the least Nintendo could do is level the online playing field by standardizing a controller configuration.

All in all, Mario Kart Wii is an excellent game, absolutely recommended for a fun multiplayer game. If you're a casual gamer, don't expect too much out of the online mode except for last place, but that's the beauty of the Wii: the ability to simultaneously appeal to anyone from the most apathetically casual to the most obsessive hardcore gamer.

Currently listening: "Joggin Gorgeous Summer", Islands

Saturday, May 10, 2008

It's May, and everyone knows what that means

The Summer Blockbuster, of course. Or rather, the first of many. This year promises wonders like a new Indiana Jones movie, and all manner of big comedies with huge stars. First on this summer's list, though, was Iron Man.

Review: Iron Man

How in the heck many superhero movies have we been subjected to over the past few years? Three Spidermans, three X-Mens, a Hulk and a Batman with more of each coming this summer, a Catwoman (that most people would perhaps rather forget), a Superman, and doubtless others that I'm neglecting to mention. Add Sin City and 300 and V for Vendetta if we want to extend the category to "comic book and/or graphic novel movies".

Most of them are decent. Not excellent, not hideous, but entertaining. And that's what you expect. The Spiderman movies and the X-Men movies have both gotten worse as the series have dragged on, but let's face the fact that most people interested in this sort of movie aren't going to fashion themselves into playing movie critic.

So with a healthy dose of skepticism, I followed those Movie People friends of mine into a theater to see the latest in the flood. And to my surprise, I actually could play movie critic on this one and not have it destroy my opinion of the movie. The characterization was excellent, especially with respect to Tony Stark himself. Nearly every other superhero movie features either 1) some emo guy who accidentally acquired superpowers and has Internal Conflicts about how to use them (eg Spiderman), or 2) some mystical, otherworldly Force of Good must battle Forces of Evil to save men (eg X-Men). Tony Stark is neither.

In fact, he's something of a douchebag. Billionaire weapons dealer, doesn't give a crap about anyone but himself, and downright hilarious to watch. When he's captured by al Qaeda-esque terrorists, he naturally becomes a lot less of a douchebag--though his personality doesn't immediately and completely swing to implausibility. The best part, though, is that his superhero status doesn't emerge as the result of any powers. It's his own cunning that allows him to become Iron Man. And that's a refreshing shift from "ooh, I have superpowers, but I don't know how to handle them, whine whine whine."

Of course, Stark goes to exact some revenge on the terrorists, the leader of whom bears a striking resemblance to any number of 24 villains, but not before he realizes that... guess what? His "loyal number 2 guy" has been in league with the terrorists the whole time. Okay. Just once, is is too much to ask for the "loyal number 2 guy" to be legitimately loyal? That has to be the most overused plot device in the history of storytelling: the hard working protagonist eventually attains success, only to be betrayed by his deputy. In a slight variation on the theme, the protagonist comes to deal with an honorable guy in charge, only to be rebuffed by the guy-in-charge's vizier, who of course happens to be not only evil but also diametrically opposed to the protagonist's goals.

And like in every other story, in the Climactic Battle, Tony Stark defeats his betrayer, manages to survive himself, and maybe learns a lesson from it? Another distinction from your run-of-the-mill superhero movie, though, is the obligatory "love interest" subplot. In the majority of other superhero movies, you'd have to lump "gets with the girl he's been after the whole time" in with the list of climactic plot devices. Not here.

The one scene that sticks out in the movie is Stark's interaction with his half-love interest and half-assistant Pepper at a party. It's appropriately awkward, with both Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow cutting each other off at exactly the right time to make it seem unscripted. Making the two of them get together at the end of the movie would have been disappointingly cliche enough to devalue the believable predicate that the movie had worked hard to achieve to that point. Fortunately, it didn't. Superheros, like the rest of us, have relationships with shades of gray to them.

And I have to give credit to the writers for the delayed gratification of not having Stark utter the line "I am Iron Man" until the very end, and having the possibly-eponymous Black Sabbath song roll over the credits. Any earlier in the movie would have been unnecessarily cheesy.

Currently listening: "Sweet and Low", Augustana

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Revamping the Freshman Experience

First week of my mini-summer vacation, and I have lots to talk about. First, an update about what's going on with me. Two and a half weeks from now, I head to lovely Roxana, IL to, as I put it, refine the crap out of some oil. I really have no idea what to expect... first internship, first chance to do some real chemical engineering.

"Wow, sounds interesting. What are you actually going to be doing?" Answer: "operations". You have as good an idea as I do about what that means.

"Ooh, big oil. Really?" Answer: yep. I'm not sold on working for oil for a career--though I'd have to think it's better than working in some Lyondell plant--but it's experience, and they're paying my a crap ton of cash. Seeing as how I do not have a degree in anything as this point, that's all I can ask for.

"What do you do in Roxana?" Answer: ...well, I don't really have one. If anyone knows the St. Louis area, I'd love some input on this.

Before I go, I have a lot to talk about. This first one is a carryover from the school year, and a bit of a reflection on the housing job that I've had for the past two years, and I'm finally retiring from now that this year is done. The biggest question that people ask me is if I liked the job, or if I'd recommend it to others. I don't know if I can give that a straight answer. It's too complex, and it's been tied too directly to my Tech experience, to answer with a mere yes or no.

A better answer is something along the lines of "it takes a very specific person to do this job well." I'm not one for small talk. I don't know if I necessarily want to compare myself to Hu Jintao, but I read an article about him in a Time magazine as I was waiting for the dentist today. It remarked that Hu doesn't make small talk either, because his knowledge of relevant subject material is so masterful. I won't go so far as to make that claim myself, but given the choice I would much rather talk about something rather than nothing.

The point here is that this is actually a critical aspect of the job that you don't necessarily find out about until you're already in over your head. You need to be both willing and able to chat with your residents about whatever degree of irrelevancy they want. That usually surpasses Seinfeld in terms of sheer "nothing" potential. There's nothing wrong with this, or at least there ought not to be if you're doing this job. I found myself with less and less patience for this sort of thing as my two years ran on, which is one of the important reasons I needed to leave.

I could sit here and complain about training, and the facilities, and the unfortunate responsibilities you find yourself having to exercise. But that's not going to change anything. There are, however, two areas that I can offer material and useful insight on: resident assignment and the Freshman Partner program.

One of the primary challenges in any housing environment is diversity. Maybe that can mean racial/ethnic/national diversity, but I don't think that ever presents a big problem at Tech. I find international students among the biggest attendees of programs, the most conscious about following directions, and the most excited about Georgia Tech in general. Besides, I've always said that ethnicity is but one dimension of diversity, and probably the least important one. A much more important measure is diversity of thought and belief. And along that axis, Tech is relatively homogeneous anyway.

A significant subset of the population that does exhibit this diversity, however, is the Greek community. That's PC for "frat boys". Doesn't matter what nationality they are, these are simply a different sort of resident than non-Greeks. Much less willing to be part of the hall, to come to programs, and to care about anything outside the fraternity. Obviously, this doesn't apply to everyone who's in a fraternity, and I would guess that it's more prevalent among freshmen than anyone else. And plenty of fraternity people do contribute a whole lot to the hall. But it is frustrating as a staff member when your perceived relative success is partially a function of not your own skill, but of who you happened to get in your section.

My answer for this, developed in conjunction with my friend Alex (a fellow staff member), is to have designated Greek and non-Greek housing. Or, more to the point, exclude future Greeks from the Freshman Experience. Add a simple question to the housing application for entering freshmen: "Do you intend to participate in IFC rush with the goal of joining a fraternity?" (I say fraternity and guys simply as a reflection of the population of Tech, but the principle applies to girls as well.) People who say yes still get housing with student staff, but it's not as elaborate as the FE.

Yes, it smacks of segregation. And no, there's no way to enforce this. Maybe you rush and want a bid, but don't get any. Maybe you get bids but don't like where you got them from. On the other hand, maybe you rush for the free food and don't have any intention of pledging, but meet a bunch of guys you really get along well with. But this would accomplish at least three goals. First, it would allow staff in freshmen dorms to have a better chance of getting residents who actually cared. Second, it would relieve some of the burden on housing, as the residents who lived in "pledge housing" would require less attention than the normal FE. Finally, it would allow staff who were themselves Greek or were particularly comfortable dealing with Greeks to interact with residents they liked.

The other fix is to entirely remove the Freshman Partner program. The goal here is to make some sort of connection between Tech academics and Tech residence life. That's admirable. But somewhere along the line, it turned into "get some yahoo who works in the Global Learning Center to come to the cheesy post-Convocation Caribbean party." Residents don't necessarily care about this initiative, either. The Assistant Dean of Students came to Glenn last month to talk about demographics at Tech, which was actually a reasonably informative talk. The only thing keeping residents in the room? The free Quizno's.

In coming attractions: opinions on who is pretty, and reviews of Iron Man and Mario Kart Wii.

Currently listening: "Summer House", the Lady Sails