Thursday, December 30, 2010

[Movie Review] Tron Legacy

This will be my relatively spoiler-free review. I plan to post a more detailed, spoiler-full analysis, probably next week. This review is at the express request of my mother.

It's no secret that I was a HUGE fan of the original Tron. I remember when it came out, playing just down the street from me at the Kalet's Genesee Theater. Those were back in the days when individual movie houses still showed first-run films. I saw it a dozen times at least. I was already quite a regular at that theater, to the point where they often didn't charge me admission. They somehow ended up with a cardboard standee from Smucker's, which was a free-standing, near-lifesize carboard TRON holding a box of promotional magazines. The magazines had little puzzles, tidbits about the film, and a fold-out poster of Tron. They apparently didn't feel they needed it (after all, why promote a movie that everyone who walked in the building was already there to see, I suppose), so they gave it to me. Sadly, I didn't keep the whole thing, but I still have one of the magazines around somewhere. I gave them away at my 11th birthday party, which was just after the film came out.

It was a totally Tron-themed party. Everybody got a free magazine. My mom made an awesome electric-blue cake of Tron. I got toy lightcycles and action figures. I'd read the novelization and explained the nuances of the film to anyone who'd listen. I really, really, loved it.

So I was very nervous about the sequel - could they really pull off the magic that the original managed to evoke, even with its sometimes ham-fisted story? Could they be true to the characters I adored, to the digital world so amazingly, tantalizingly unveiled twenty years before it would become a reality (at least in terms of online gaming). Now that computer technology had gone from futuristic to commonplace, would they be skillful enough to make it seem exciting somehow?

I'm pleased to say that the answer is mostly yes. They missed on the last point, I think - in somehow making the computer world seem magical and unfathomable. That would, I think, have simply been asking too much. It's just too interwoven into our society now to make it seem exotic in the same way that it was back when I was the only geek in a five-mile radius with a computer. Some of the wonder of the original - with the floating, binary "bit" and the tanks and seeing a recognizer for the first time, or the little things, like the small bugs that pop up out of the ground and amble away like digital spiders - just couldn't be (or wasn't, at least) recaptured in the sequel.

But if anything, the story is actually richer, fuller than the first time. Instead of being the tale of a young computer hacker seeking proof that he'd been ripped off (which was certainly understandable, but not necessarily all that noble), this is the story of that same hacker trying to create a new, perfect world within the computer network. It's a story of betrayal and of a son seeking his lost, loving father. And it's the story of a villain who, unlike in the first film, doesn't know he's a villain. Doesn't believe he's the bad guy, but thinks he's doing the right thing - doing what he was meant to do.

As a special treat, Tron: Legacy is chock-full from start to finish with references to the original. When the son walks into his father's old arcade and turns on the power, for example, Journey is cranking through the jukebox. Journey, of course, did one of the main tracks on the original soundtrack. There are little lines and visual homages to the first film everywhere, and I believe they are truly meant to speak to the fans like me.

But that's not why you should see this movie. It's genuinely entertaining. It's not Shakespeare, but then neither was Star Wars (by a longshot). But it's visually incredible to watch, including an almost Wizard-of-Oz-like transition from the 2-D world of reality to the 3-D of the Game Grid. It's got some outstanding fight-scenes (though I wished a few times that there were more of them) and some stunning digital vistas. It's got some interesting characters, most of whom don't deal quite as much as they should with their inner demons, but the Kevin Flynn character, played again by Jeff Bridges, certainly does, which is the key to the film.

One other special effect that's worth noting is that Bridges plays a triple-role in the film. He plays his Kevin Flynn character as both a young man of the post-Tron 1980s and as a much older man of 2010. But he also plays Clu, his digital doppelganger and nemesis, who looks exactly like Flynn did back in the 1980s. Yes, through the magic of technology the face of a young Bridges returns to play those roles, and it's nearly seamless (though the lips didn't seem to precisely match the sound on a couple occasions). Bridges was quoted as saying (and I'm paraphrasing out of pure laziness) that he welcomed the new technology as he wouldn't need to act anymore, he could just license his face to the filmmakers).

So you've got a story with enough depth to keep you interested to the end, some character growth as Flynn comes to understand and, ultimately, embrace both his enemy and his mistakes, some more character growth as the flighty son steps up and acts his age at last, and through it all some absolutely amazing 3D graphics that really do make you feel like you're watching a videogame from the inside.

I don't think Tron: Legacy will get the same sort of "revolutionary" historical footnotes that the original did (except possibly for the "young flynn" visual effect), but it kept me entertained for two hours that seemed like less than ninety minutes and it engaged me in a way that pulled me right back to the original, as it was meant to. It's not the perfect film (I think they could have done as well or better by leveraging the story of the Tron 2.0 video game, or parts of it, anyway), but it was pretty damn good, which is all I can ask for. I rate Tron: Legacy a strong A-, approaching an A, and I recommend it to anybody who liked the original or just wants to live on the game grid for a short time.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Speaking the Language

I'm a horrible linguist. I'm pretty good at English, though not to the extent that I can quote many of the more obscure rules verbatim. I'm more of a "I know it when I see it" master of the language. I used to be better at it when I was an English teacher, but that was fifteen years ago and, honestly, spending ten of those years among businessmen (and women) who abuse the language at every opportunity pretty well squeezed from me much of my devotion to the nuances of grammar. It was that or run screaming mad. Which I more or less ended up doing anyway, so there you go.

So I'm down with English, but beyond that I'm hopeless and helpless. I took something approaching five years of French in high school, followed by another year in college, and I can neither speak, write, nor read French at even a basic level. I know a few words each in Spanish, Italian, German and Japanese, but far from enough to really communicate in any of those languages.

But with my oldest kid heading closer to middle school, I've started thinking about language. In my parents' lifetime, English was the dominant language to such an extent that unless you wanted to go visit a foreign country, you just didn't have to worry about languages. Any business or transaction you wanted to conduct from the good ol' U-S of A would be conducted in English. That's changing pretty quickly, however.

We're not a bilingual country like Canada, yet everything is increasingly going bilingual, with Spanish included on labels, coupons, phone menus, and signs. What does this say to me? Well, it suggests that a mastery of Spanish might have some real value as a citizen of the U.S. in years to come. The more Spanish is accepted and catered-to, the less incentive there is for native speakers of Spanish to learn English, and the greater the chance that an English-speaker will encounter a situation where they wish they knew Spanish. So that's a point in favor of learning Spanish.

But I'm also wary of China. Much like the US prior to World War II, I see China as the "sleeping dragon," with a bright future as THE big global powerhouse ahead of them. It's painful to admit, because America has been that global powerhouse for the last sixty years and I'd prefer not to see that end, but it's just not plausible to compete with a country that controls such a huge landmass (and corresponding wealth of natural resources, including some precious metals necessary for modern technology and available nowhere else) and such an enormous population. They're growing exponentially in power and influence, and that growth is going to overwhelm us at some point. There are likely economic scientists who could nail down exactly when that point is going to be, but I figure it's no more than 15-20 years away, and that may be grossly conservative. It might be 5-10 years away.

Look, for instance, at this article. It points out that pretty soon, there will be more web-pages in Chinese than there will be in English. And then there will be many more. And then the Internet will be in Chinese, with a small portion set aside for English and other languages. Wow. That hits pretty hard. I mean, nobody's going to force English-language websites to convert to Chinese. All things being equal, it doesn't matter whether the Internet, as a whole, is 10% Chinese and 80% English (with the remaining 10% being other languages) or if it's 10% English and 80% Chinese. We could all surf happily along in our own "language zones" and all would be hunky-dory. But all things aren't equal, and many of the pages on the Internet are put there for money. If you can make much, much more money by communicating in Chinese, you will. You might ALSO communicate the same info in English as long as it's not too big a hassle and as long as it also brings in money, but after a while you might decide it's not worth the effort to bother, because you're making 98% of your revenue off Chinese-speaking traffic.

So as a global citizen, chalk up a point for Chinese as a pretty worthwhile language to know. It's not likely that you'll need Chinese to buy groceries in my kids' lifetimes, but if you want to get ahead in business, politics, academics or a wealth of other careers, you might be very well-served to know Chinese. Because the dragons are waking up.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Guitaring It Up for 2011

In June 2011, my son and I will enter our third year as guitarists-in-training. It seems to me that it's time we at least tried to sound like we'd been playing week-in and week-out, usually five days a week, for two years. We're certainly armed with the right equipment now.

This Christmas, I picked up the two cheapest electric guitars I could find (at Aldi's, of all places), and matched them with two used practice amps that I bought for around $30 each. We've also got our original acoustics, and we got some new guitar stands so they're all, uh, standing. I'm not sure I even fully understand the value of guitar stands, but they seemed like a good idea so there you go.

On top of the hardware, my wife bought me a book of Bon Jovi music, which gives me something interesting to practice. I mean, who can hear "Wanted: Dead or Alive" and NOT want to play that awesome riff? I wish the book had Blaze of Glory in it, but even so there are several songs in it that I like and look forward to trying to play.

Speaking of stuff I'm trying to play, I've got a handful of challenging tunes in the work that I'm attempting. These are above and beyond the exercises we're doing in our lessons: Don't Fear the Reaper by Blue Oyster Cult and More than a Feeling by Boston. I've decided to try to learn:

One, by Metallica. Not because it's my favorite Metallica song (there are so many to choose from and One is high on the list, but not quite my favorite) but because it felt like I actually had a shot at being able to play the lead parts on it. Kirk Hammet is a madman, though, and trying to master hammer-ons and pull-offs and such is pushing me to my limits.

Storybook Love, by Mark Knopfler. This is the main tune from The Princess Bride. I found an awesome cover of it on YouTube, by a young lady who affixed a camera to the end of her guitar with a rubber-band so I can sort of see what her fingers are doing. A good thing, too, because the guitar tabs I downloaded sounded NOTHING like the song I'm familiar with.

I was very seriously thinking about picking up the music for O Holy Night that was on sale for the holidays at Guitar Guru, but I misread the end-date for the sale and missed it, more's the pity. Guitar Guru is pretty cool - you not only get the music to print, but on your computer screen you can actually see (and hear) a graphical representation of the notes being played on a guitar. I'd like to try it out with a whole song, but they're priced from $6 to $7.25 each which is just more than I want to play, no matter how cool it all is.

The last month or so, I've been a little off my game guitar-wise. Part of the problem is that I'm just not happy with my skill-level, which falls far short both of where I'd like it to be and where I feel like it ought to be after about eighteen months. A bigger issue, though, was actually the fact that we had an electric guitar. My son and I were both super-jazzed to have it to play, but we couldn't both play it at the same time. I'd let him have it for the morning guitar practice, but that meant that I often didn't practice at all. Which, of course, didn't help much with the former problem of my not playing as well as I'd like to. Ah, well, in the grand scheme of things slacking off for a couple of weeks isn't the end of the world. I'm committed to getting back to business starting this week.

Interestingly, my daughter has again expressed an interest in learning the guitar. My daughter already plays the piano, trumpet, recorder, and tin whistle, but only when I force her to. Which is to say, she does the minimum amount of practice required, and never, ever, touches her instruments for pleasure. As such, I'm not super-motivated to invest a great deal of time trying to teach her a new instrument. Instead, I've offered to hand her the basic chord sheets from when I started, plus the exercises in learning the individual notes. Since she already reads music, I thought that would be pretty handy. If she works hard at those two types of lesson for an extended period - say, a couple of months, and still shows an interest, then I'll try to teach her more. I'm not going to hold my breath, but if she sticks with it that would be really neat and I'll help her however I can.

For my part, I just want to be able to play without feeling like I'm the underdog in a prize-fight. I want my fingers to hit the strings nice and square, without muting the strings nearby. I want to be able to play barre chords properly. I want to hit the strings because I know where they are and what they're supposed to sound like, not because I had to stop and think about it intensely. If I can manage that this year - or better, in the next several months - I'll be extremely happy.

Monday, December 27, 2010

2010 Holiday Steam Sale

Long-time readers will recall that last year I purchased quite a few games during the Steam holiday year-end sale. Those games literally lasted me all year - in conjunction with re-playing some old favorites (like Civilization IV and its expansion packs) and buying only a couple of new games at deeply-discounted prices (including Deus Ex: Invisible War, which turned out to be way better than I'd been told to expect). In fact, I just finally started to play Bioshock this month and I'm not done with it yet, and it bought it almost exactly a year ago.

So as 2010 wound to a close, I made sure to check and see what Steam had to offer in this year's holiday sale. Once again, I think I was able to pick up enough to keep me busy for a while.

Assassin's Creed II - the original game was part of the pack I bought last Christmas, and it's one of the most-enjoyable games I've ever played. So when I saw the sequel on sale, it was a no-brainer to pick it up. In fact, the only annoyance for me is that the newest game in the series, Assassins' Creed: Brotherhood, appears to be a console-only title, with no PC version available. Which truly sucks. Cost: $14.00

Prince of Persia - I got the whole collection of games, sequels and expansion packs for a pittance. The road to this game is actually kind of amusing. As I mentioned above, I really, really liked Assassin's Creed. My wife though the Prince of Persia movie looked pretty good, so we got that from Netflix and watched it. And the combat scenes were apparently true to the game, as they made me sit up and say, "Hey, this movie looks a LOT like Assassin's Creed." Sure enough, Assassin's Creed was built on the Prince of Persia game engine, and they do behave similarly from what I could tell in my research. So the game plus the movie lead to me buying this other game. Fascinating! Total cost: $19.95

The Witcher: Enhanced Edition - I know next to nothing about this game, but it was five bucks so what the hell. From the description, it sounds a bit like an Elder Scrolls-type of RPG adventure game, and I've been enjoying those for almost thirty years, I figure I'll get some kicks out of this one, too. Cost: $4.99

Grand total: $38.94

That doesn't look like much of a list. And, to be sure, I was very tempted to pick up some other games at greatly discounted prices. But they weren't low, low enough for me. Nope - I'll wait until next year, when I can expect those same games, some of which are still pretty new, to be available for a song. Besides, what that list doesn't show is that there are something like five different games included in the Prince of Persia pack I bought, which bulks up the amount of gaming I've got to look forward to by quite a lot. I can't find my receipts from last year so I'm not sure how much I ended up spending in 2009, but I think I'm in the ballpark. And none of those were duds, even if Judge Dredd was a little bit craptastic. I still enjoyed playing it.

I won't know whether these games are all they're cracked up to be for several months at least, but that's always a challenge when you're buying a game. Usually for forty bucks (or easily more), you get one game and one chance to find some satisfying entertainment. With the Steam sale, I get a half-dozen chances or more to find a decent game. And in my experience, I end up with a half-dozen or more decent games, which is huge.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Merry Christmas!

I'm having a blast this Christmas season. I'm not really sure what's different, or if anything's different. I always enjoy Christmas. But from Christmas carols to Lights on the Lake to my annual foray as Kris Kringle, himself, it's just been a great season so far. And there's still more to come, of course - it's only the 22nd, after all!

I'm very much looking forward to Christmas Eve. My wife has the day off from work, so she'll be home all day. We'll be furiously cooking and cleaning, I'm sure, as we've got company coming that evening. We always do Christmas Eve for the family at our house, and since my parents head to Florida for the winter and my brother lives on the West Coast, we end up entertaining my in-laws, who are a great bunch. And as much as I'm trying to watch my weight, all bets are off for Christmas Eve and Christmas day. For instance, on Christmas Eve, we're having:

A pastry-wrapped brie w/ crackers
Garlic toast
Meatballs in sauce (courtesy of my sister-in-law Diane)
Lasagna marinara
Chicken Alfredo broccoli lasagna (courtesy of my brother-in-law's "future ex-wife" (as he calls her) Heidi)
Green bean casserole

And probably some other stuff I'm forgetting. I can't describe how much I'm looking forward to the Alfredo lasagna - from the first time I heard it mentioned, it just sounded delicious. And, somewhat oddly, I'm looking forward to the green bean casserole for no reason I can express other than it just sounds really festive and good.

For Christmas, I'm planning to have:
A ham
My home-made whipped potatoes
Frozen corn

Hmm, we're going to need some more stuff for Christmas. I wonder what? I'll have to talk to the wife about it.

Yeah, I don't think I'll bother to count calories on Friday or Saturday. I'm just going to enjoy the celebration and the spirit of the season.

I hope you do, as well! Have a very merry Christmas, and check back here for another article on Monday of next week.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

My Glorious New TiVo

All is right with the world

My old TiVo actually worked just fine, as long as you plugged it into an analog cable service. Once I went digital, well, it was still better than the piece-of-crap DVR Verizon offered, but not by much. We didn't really have extra money laying around to buy the new TiVo with, but when TV is your primary source of news and entertainment, being hamstrung really hurts. The final straw was the old box's tendency to switch the FIOS controller box to the wrong channel, which then caused the FIOS box to shut off. We could easily miss a whole night of TV shows from just one such mistake, and it happened at least once a week.

The new box is awesome. A FIOS guy came to help hook it up, bringing with him the all-important CableCard. Luckily I'm pretty savvy, as he'd never hooked up a TiVo like this before. The last FIOS guy hadn't either. But it wasn't really too hard - the only challenge was crawling around behind the heavy wooden entertainment center.

Once it was in and hooked up, SCORE! I now have dual tuners again, which means I can record something different from what I'm watching, or the TiVo can (and often does) record two different things at the same time. That rocks, and it's functionality I really missed when we switched from analog to digital.

The other nice feature that's new with this box is the ability to watch Netflix right through the TiVo. Actually, you can access lots of stuff, from Amazon to Blockbuster, it's just that Netflix is the one we're most interested in. We had the ability to watch Netflix before, but we had to switch over to the Wii to use it, which was slow and cumbersome (though I liked the interface better).

Unlike our first TiVo experience, this new box isn't "holy crap wow look at that" technology, mostly because we had 85% of the capabilities in our old box before we switched to digital. But it's 75% better than what we had from the old box once we did switch, which felt like a gigantic step backward from what we were used to.

Now we're plugged in, turned on and all is right with the world.

Monday, December 20, 2010

My Kingdom for a Simple Keyboard & Mouse

When I bought my DELL last year, it was a special deal, sort of a package. I was able to make some customizations, but not everything was negotiable. One place where they stood firm was on the keyboard and mouse. I really just wanted a plain old DELL keyboard and a wired USB mouse. Nope - not an option. All of the choices included wireless keyboards and mice. I have had good enough luck with wireless keyboards. In fact, I'm typing this on a wireless Logitech keyboard right now. The mouse sitting here beside me is wireless, too. But these are legacy devices. As they say, "they don't make 'em like this any more." In fact, I had to special-buy these antique devices from a company that refurbs them because they're no longer made.

My experience with newer-made devices hasn't been nearly as good. I find they're unresponsive and laggy, have poor battery life, and the "bluetooth" mice go all wonky whenever somebody runs the microwave. But, I was out of luck - I could take the wireless accessories that came with the package, or I could pay for more expensive but equally wireless models, and those were my only choices. Grrr.

I did try them. I can't remember why I disliked the wireless keyboard, but I didn't care for it at all. I think it was just too slow. I'm a fast typist, and I rely on the text appearing on the screen as soon as I hit the key, otherwise it really messes me up. So I went out and bought just about the cheapest wired keyboard I could find to replace it. Sadly, I didn't realize until I got it home that it was a "compact" keyboard, which put some of the keys in different places and generally put them all closer together. Now I haven't mentioned yet that this isn't my primary "fun" computer that I'm talking about - this is my work PC. The one that I use for nothing except writing, writing and more writing. And for the last year, I've fought with this keyboard, constantly hitting the wrong keys and all the while tenaciously refusing to spend another dime on a new keyboard. "I'll get used to it eventually," I'd tell myself. Well, I never did.

I also used the wireless mouse for the last year. It was almost good enough. Its only issue was that sometimes it just wouldn't do quite what I told it to. It would take a second to "wake up" and go where I told it. It wouldn't track smoothly when I was trying to do detailed work like selecting a single character or dragging across multiple lines of text. I eventually decided that it might be that the mouse was having trouble tracking on the plain black plastic mouse platform attached to my keyboard tray. I put an old mousepad, back from the days when I used mouse pads about ten years ago, on top of the platform, and it almost seemed to help. For about a week. Now I'm not sure whether it really helped at all or I just imagined it, but in either case it didn't last. I tried changing the batteries and other remedies, but nothing could fix the fact that it was a crappy wireless mouse when what I really, really wanted was a nice, reliable wired USB mouse.

So last week I broke down and replaced them both. It cost me about $35 to get a new wired keyboard and mouse, and boy do I wish I'd just spent that money a year ago. The hours, days or even weeks that I've taken off my life with stress and frustration dealing with unrelenting typos from that wee little keyboard and fighting with the recalcitrant mouse pointer that wouldn't quite point where I wanted it to is worth $35 many times over. It took me a couple minutes to tear out the old stuff and plug in the new, and then everything was just suddenly... better. All better. No worries, no complains, no swearing, no frustration. I could finally, for the first time, really focus on my work without the input devices being a distraction. The lessons here are several:

1. Sometimes package deals aren't all they're cracked up to be.
2. Newer and more expensive isn't always better.
3. Sometimes you do need to double-down and just spend the damn money now, rather than waiting a year.

As I get older, perhaps I'll get wiser and these lessons will truly sink in. I can hope, anyway.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

[Novel Update] Taking it From the Top

It's been over a month since I posted one of these updates. My hope at that time was that by now I'd be getting ready to start writing entirely new chapters, but I haven't made it that far. I've had a ton of distractions - holidays, snow days, appointments, etc., etc., - all conspiring to limit my writing time. And I just have a hard time sitting down and banging away at the keyboard every possible minute that's available to me. My attention seems to wander easily, partly because I need to step away and let my creative voice catch up to my typing speed.

Still, I've made some good progress in that time, of a sort. I've gone back to the beginning of the novel. I wrote a prologue that I'm really happy with, which does a solid job of introducing some characters and information that becomes crucial to the book around a dozen chapters in. Then I attacked chapters one, two, and three, making revisions and changes, and editing them based on the feedback I'd received from my writer's group. One of the changes included tacking what used to be chapter four onto the end of chapter three. That in turn made room for chapter 6b, which previously had no home. It's the new chapter 4, which I'm editing and revising right now. It's a fun chapter starring a really fun bad guy who I've found I love to write.

Getting chapter 6b (now chapter 4 - try to keep up) in place is key for a couple of reasons. The first is that I couldn't very well number two of my chapters 6b and 6c, so that was a real problem. But it really bothered me that the early part of my book was broken and unreadable by anyone  I might want to share it with. When I'm caught back up to chapter 16 (the last fully-written chapter at this point), those chapters will all be in their more-or-less final state unless I make changes later that need to be applied to the early part of the book retroactively.

I can really see the improvements, though, which is huge. I can see that I'm a better writer now than when I started. I can see my own mistakes early on and correct them. It gives me hope that when I write new material, I can avoid many of those mistakes the first time. Mostly, though, I'm really happy with the overall direction of the novel and the story I'm telling in it. I think it's going to be awesome when it's done. Whenever that ends up being.

Frickin Snow

This is one of those "when the kids are reading this years from now" entries. We've had a buttload of frickin' snow already this year. Last week, it started snowing on Saturday and didn't stop until Thursday. We got over 30 inches of snow. So far this week, it's been all talk from the weathermen (though it's been cold as hell), until tonight. Today we got dumped on - around a foot or darn close to it, and it's still falling. They're saying as much as another foot fell overnight.That brings the total for the last two weeks to 5+ feet.

Last Thursday, our teacher and good friend Sensei Pastore had his right index finger ripped off in a snowblower, so the casualties have begun to mount. Hopefully that will be the last, and we're really hoping he gets the use of his finger back.

Right now, I'm just wondering if the kids will have school today or not. I really need the time to write and I'm sure there's stuff they're supposed to be learning.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

I am the Heretic of Dune

I'm about to blaspheme. I hated most of the original Dune books. Actually, I didn't so much hate them, as find them so tedious and incomprehensible that I just couldn't finish them. I've read the original Dune novel several times and it's a work of art. The good kind of art that's fun and memorable, not the crummy kind of art that doesn't make sense and makes you suspect that the art snobs are playing a joke on you. I've tried to read the sequels several times, though, but I don't think I've ever finished more than the second book in the series. And I didn't particularly enjoy it.

Part of the problem is that the end of Dune sets up an intergalactic jihad in which Paul Muad'Dib's Fremen warriors are about to spread throughout the imperium conquering all known worlds. And then... they do. Off-stage. We never get to see or experience any of it - it's just over. That was a HUGE letdown for me, and started the rest of the series off on a sour note that I never recovered from. Plus, it just felt boring.

So for many years, I was left with no satisfying window into the Dune universe. Then Frank Herbert's son Brian came along and, along with Kevin J. Anderson, took up the gauntlet and began to tell stories of Dune once again. They're widely-criticized despite being bestsellers, but I don't care. I've enjoyed them very much.

The first series I read went back in time just a short way, to tell the story of three key houses of the Landsraad (the equivalent of a House of Lords, sort of) in the time of Paul Atradies' father's youth. We got to see the rise of Duke Leto Atraides and his comrades, we got to experience the evils of House Harkonnen and their victims, and we got to watch the machinations of House Corrino, and the emperor. Woven through it all were the Bene Gesserit sisterhood with their objective of genetically manipulating the great families to create their own uber-mensch, the Kwisatz Haderach. The vile Tleilaxu also played their roles, with their chemical and biological modifications and experiments, so reminiscent of Joseph Mengele. But best of all, the stories were both entertaining and very true to the original Dune book in theme and in style.

The next series I read went much farther back in time, to tell the story of the fall of mankind's civilization at the hands of the thinking computers. They explained much about the origins of key houses, the reasons for the Bene Gesserit, the Mentats, and the prohibition against thinking machines, and even explained the origins of technologies such as shields, lasguns, and the ability to fold space for instantaneous travel. Again, I found them much more entertaining than the later books in the original series, and worthy successors to the legacy Herbert created in the original Dune.

Most recently, I read their series covering the time just after the end of the first Dune book. At last, the story of the Great Jihad was being told. It was excellent and again did a terrific job of pulling me back into all the parts of the original Dune book that I loved so much.

If you loved the entire original Dune series, I can't really predict how you'll feel about these newer books. Some people who liked Frank Herbert's books seem to find these new novels blasphemous. If you're just looking for a good, entertaining read that takes place in the Dune universe, then you could do a lot worse than to pick up these novels. I'm very glad that I did.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Less of Me to Love

After 15+ years of weight-gain and generally being significantly overweight, 2010 was the year that I finally started moving in the other direction. It's been going on since April or so, so I figure it's past the point of being a fluke or a temporary thing. I really am on my way down at long last. I figured it was time for a little retrospective analysis.

As a kid, I was as skinny as they came. I remember my pediatrician telling me, "eat something!" I never thought much about food, really. I was a somewhat picky eater, but nothing compared to my own kids. I ate all sorts of pasta, burgers, hot dogs, meats, cheeses, soups, even a few vegetables. As long as it was reasonably American, I ate it. I just didn't gain weight.

Until I hit puberty. Then I slowed down and bulked out. I didn't play outside nearly as much, preferring instead to hang out in my basement eating Pringles and reading comic books. I started to put on weight to the point of being chunky if not outright fat. I started to suffer some self-esteem issues, but I didn't really know what to do about them and I apparently wasn't sufficiently motivated to figure it out.

By the time I started college, I'd decided I'd really like to try one of those "girlfriends" I'd been hearing so much about. And to my credit, by the time I was 20 I'd gotten myself into pretty good shape. It took me about a year of weightlifting, ab workouts, pushups, and regular cardio on a Nordictrack, but I definitely pulled it off. I got my weight under control and put on a fair amount of muscle. It worked, too - I met my one-day wife when I was about 21. She was pretty fit, we even started running together as she trained for her nidan (second-degree black belt) in Goju-Ryu karate. One of our favorite workouts was to put on the gloves and spar together, which we did for several years. I was also practicing Aikido at the time. Aikido classes don't have much of the "aerobics-style" activity of many karate schools, but the practice itself is so intense that it's a pretty awesome workout, anyway.

Sadly, I didn't stick with any of it. I got married, started a career, and moved into apartments where the sort of workout I was used to wasn't practical. I was just plain busier than I had been as a college student. And, let's face it, I was no longer missing the female companionship that had been a major motivator for me. It was all a recipe for sloth, and slothful I was. Starting around 1994, I gained quite a bit of weight, climbing from a "fit-peak" of about 170 to a high of 225 over the next ten years, and then staying there until early in 2010.

I did make a few abortive attempts to get my weight under control between 2004 and 2010. I bought a treadmill at one point, and used it religiously, 20-30 minutes a day for a couple of months. I literally didn't lose a pound. Haven't touched it since. There's $1,000 down the drain, but then spending money always was easier than working out. I tried prescription Meridia, too, but it didn't do squat for me. It's supposed to be an appetite suppressant, but I found that I'd lose 5 lbs of water-weight and then that was it. Again, I didn't lose another pound, and once I quit taking the Meridia, it came right back. The stuff wasn't covered by my insurance anyway, so I bagged the whole idea of better weight-control through pharmaceuticals. I tried calorie-counting a couple of years ago, but it didn't really help, either. I probably did eat less, but without some exercise it wasn't enough less to make any difference.

And that was it until 2010. In April, my whole family started to practice the martial arts together. I was getting high-energy workouts 2-3 times a week. I also started trying to "eat healthy," which didn't necessarily reduce my calories or intake by much, but at least substituted nutritious foods for the junk I'd been eating before. Finally, I started counting calories again and this time it made a big difference for me. I wasn't just counting them this time, I was using the process for portion-control. The karate alone moved me from 225 to 215 lbs between April and September. Since then, I've used calorie-counting and portion control to drop below 210 for the first time in about ten years. Apparently I've found the combination I really needed to be successful - the regular, intense exercise several times a week combined with controlling my diet. The holiday season is going to be really tough (freaking fudge has 135 calories in each little stinking piece!!), but I'm finally moving in the right direction after so many years. There will no doubt be challenges and I may very well level off a lot sooner than I'd like. It would be intensely frustrating, for example, to hit 195 and then get stuck there no matter what I did. My supposedly "optimal" weight is something like 150, which is laughable. I'd look like a hospice patient if I weighed 150 lbs. I think if I were a healthy, reasonably-muscular 170 that would be absolutely awesome, so that's my tentative goal. I'll see how I look and feel when I get down around 175 or 180 and reassess then.

Regardless of my "final" weight, which will of course fluctuate somewhat for the rest of my life, I'm sure, the upshot is that the results of my bloodwork at my last regular check-up in September were amazing. Easily the best they've been in the last ten years - cholesterol, triglycerides - you name it - all were right where they're supposed to be in a perfectly healthy person. THAT's the sort of thing that will help ensure I'm around to play with my grandkids some day. I'm looking forward to 2011 and the continued improvement in my health and weight. There will be less of me to love, and I love it.

(Note: that picture of me was artificially fattened by the latest computer technology.)

Monday, December 13, 2010

Technology Predictions 2010

Every December the cast of Point 'n' Click reunites at the Central New York PC Users Group meeting. The audio of this year's is available here if you've got some time to kill and you absolutely cannot think of something, anything, better to do. As part of our off-the-cuff presentation, we usually make some predictions about the future of technology. Most of the time they're spot-on. Granted, they're also fairly obvious to anyone paying attention to the tech world. Still, here's what I predicted we'll see in the relatively-near future in terms of technology:

1. The iPad was last December's big thing (it was released in Q1 2010, so it was very, very close at this time last year). This year, I see the rise of the knock-off. And by knock-off, I really mean a lot of products that are just as good as, if not better than, the original iPad. The iPad was revolutionary in no small part because Apple managed to take mostly-existing technologies and market them in a way that made them appealing to people. That was really new, even if much of the underlying technology was not and even if the device was gimped in a few critical ways.

Let me digress here for a minute or two. I've enjoyed watching portable computing technology advance over the last ten years. I remember getting my Toshiba 7200 laptop back in 1999 or 2000 and it was awesome. It was a pre-tablet tablet, by which I mean that the "guts" of the laptop could be detached from a special lightweight chassis that held some cooling fans and the auxiliary drives (optical and floppy). If you wanted, you could walk off with just the keyboard/mouse, monitor, and a couple of ports. It was highly portable - slim and sleek. What it lacked was connectivity while detached.

A few years later, I got my hands on a Toshiba Tablet PC. This was one of the true swivel-form tablets - a full-featured, very lightweight laptop with a swiveling screen that could lay down on top of the keyboard to let you operate the device with a stylus. It had full Wi-Fi connectivity, and once I plugged in a Verizon cellular aircard it became a true go-anywhere device. I loved that tablet and I took it everywhere. As a corporate executive, it absolutely improved my productivity, allowing me to work during the "wasted time" I'd spent waiting for meetings to start (our Purchasing Manager made a point of being late to certain key meetings, for instance) or when cooling my heals in an airport.

Still, the tablet form-factor, even at its height of technical capability, never caught on with the masses, even within the business world (where I'm living proof that it was a truly useful device), much less for consumers. They were still burdened with all-purpose functionality in the form of generic operating systems (mostly Windows) and all of the usage issues, patches, crashes and other challenges that go along with an O/S that's built to do it all in every type of computer. The iPad, though, isn't a computer - it's a device, and there's a subtle difference.

Technically, at its heart, and iPad is, of course, a computer. It has a microprocessor, RAM, some sort of non-volatile storage, and a mainboard that connects everything together. But so do lots of things that we don't think of as computers, from MP3 players to TiVos. No, an iPad is a device, because it's purpose-built, locked-down, and very limited in what its user can make it do. It may not feel like it to an iPad owner, because there are so many things it CAN do, but, for example, let's see you make a cell-phone call on your iPad. See? It's a device, because the manufacturer artificially limits what you can do with it in ways that true computers - PCs, Macs, and comparable devices - don't.

And to get back on the original topic, that's where I see the changes in 2011 and beyond. The iPad is selling like crazy, but it's expensive and it's deliberately crippled. Apple wants to control what goes onto the device for various reasons. They want to maintain a "wholesome" environment, free of things like pornography (that's right, a pornography-free Internet device. Seems like a contradiction to me, too). They want to maintain security, so everything that goes onto the device must go through Apple's agents first. And they want you to please also buy an iPhone, so they limit the iPad's ability to serve as an iPhone replacement. Lots of other manufacturers, however, have no such compunctions. In 2011, expect to see lots of other companies making iPad-like devices that let you install whatever you want, hook up whatever devices you want, print where you want, and make phone calls. Which brings me to trend #2:

2. Convergence has been a trend for some time - I expect to see it continue and accelerate. The Smartphone is a prime example of convergence. If you've got a full-featured phone like an Android or an iPhone, you also have a camera, an MP3 player, an email device, a gaming device, and something to watch movies on. Oh yeah, an it can make phone calls and send text messages, I guess.

We've seen our technology getting smaller, lighter and more powerful for decades. It's almost surprising that it's taken us this long to get where we are. Honestly, I believe that ancillary technologies have been the holdup. It's not the processor that's been lacking, it's the miniaturization of batteries, transmitter/receivers, and usable touchscreens that held things up. They're all where they need to be, now, so hold on for a crazy ride. See, we've got a few more tricks still to come - like organic LED screens, or OLEDs. They're paper-thin and paper-flexible, meaning they can do things like scroll up inside the device when not in use. Add one of those, and it's an iPAD that collapses down to a smartphone when that's all you need (or when you want to wear it on your belt). I don't know quite when the forearm-bracer computer will catch on, but I'm feeling like wearable computing is finally on the cusp. Probably not in 2011, but by 2015? I think there's a good chance. The key is going to be that all of these devices will converge, and people will no longer talk about their phones or their GPS devices or their MP3 players. You'll have one multi-function device that will do it all. That's where we're headed.

3. Cloud computing is the final piece of this puzzle. Let's hop back into that time-machine I like to call "Mike's memory" for a few minutes. I remember back in the early 90s when Larry Ellison predicted the death of the PC and the inevitable rise of "Network Computing." Now, Larry had a couple of ulterior motives for this prediction. One was that his company, Oracle, made some of the key technologies to enable Network Computing, and being a pioneer there would have been extremely lucrative. Also, Larry absolutely hates Microsoft with a passion to this day, and as they were the leaders in computing technology then (and now), he would have liked nothing better than to see their ouster.

Sorry, Larry, but you were about 15 years off in your prediction. The Network Computing concept was a lot like the mainframe computing concept, really. You built a really powerful data-processing system and then hooked a bunch of dumb terminals for it that people used to hook into that system. In the 70s and 80s, that system was the Mainframe computer. In the 90s, Ellison thought it was going to be a backend network of servers and non-mainframe Unix boxes. I remember when I worked at the Turning Stone, the crazy, evil network manager bought into this whole concept with his heart and black soul. He wanted to replace all the desktop computers with these low-end "thin client" devices. Our CIO insisted that as the advocate for the end-users, I, as desktop manager, test out one of these thin clients. It was utter crap - borderline unusable. The network simply wasn't ready. The back-end devices couldn't compute fast enough and the cabling couldn't deliver the results fast enough to eliminate a delayed-response known as lag. We're used to typing something in or clicking the mouse and getting immediate gratification. Network Computing couldn't provide that.

At least, it couldn't back then. Today's another matter. Processors have doubled in capacity about six times in the last eight to ten years, and wireless communications operate at speeds that rival what we used to expect from premise wiring. What used to be called Network Computing is now known as Cloud Computing, and it's finally ready (or nearly ready) for prime-time.

Netbooks, Smartphones and a wide array of apps for tablet devices like the iPad all rely on having a more-or-less persistent connection to a back-end network (usually the Internet itself). They pull down all sorts of data, in real time, just when you need it. The data might be a movie you're watching through Netflix or it might be your daily newspaper. Either way, it's coming from the Cloud. Likewise, your data and even much of your processing may not be stored or occurring right there on the device in your hand. Instead, it's handled behind the scenes in a datacenter somewhere and just sent down as you need it. This eliminates the need for high-end processors and big hard drives on your devices. And the more ubiquitous Cloud Computing becomes, the more those hand-held devices can accomplish with less of their own power. Size, shape and weight matter a lot less when you don't need to cram hefty processing power, memory and data storage (and the cooling that goes along with them) into a tiny form-factor.

The Cloud works for non-handheld devices as well. I've been saying for a while now that the days of the DVD library are numbered. I'm buying fewer and fewer DVDs - and I've avoided the Blue-Ray specification entirely - because I believe they're going to be obsolete pretty soon. The "Cloud" can also deliver movies right to my TV (or handheld, really) on-demand from services like Netflix and even Amazon. I'll pay a monthly subscription and have the benefit of watching thousands upon thousands of movies whenever I want to as often as I want to.

And that's the future as I see it. I suppose we'll have to check back in a year or two and see how close I am.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

[TV] The Walking Dead Season 1

Today's article will have to serve for Wednesday and Thursday this week. Two days of school delays followed by a full snowday have apparently just worn me out or something.

So Season 1 of AMC's The Walking Dead has wrapped up. It started on Halloween and ran for a mere six episodes. Originally, it had been planned to be a miniseries, which would have made it even shorter, but it was so clearly a winner from the get-go that they upped it to a very short season. Better still, there's a second season already heading into production, and it'll be a full(er) 13 episodes. Personally, I like real 22-episode seasons, but series on cable - The Shield, Psych, Eureka, Warehouse 13, Doctor Who, etc. - all seem to go with just thirteen. More's the pity.

A pity indeed, because the first season was awesome! If you haven't watched it yet, beware - I'm going to spoil the hell out of the first season.

The series begins with local sheriff Rick Grimes and his partner Shane heading off to intercept some fleeing criminals. Rick gets shot in the process and ends up in a coma. He's briefly lucid enough to see Shane come to visit, but when he finally wakes up for real, the world has changed. Grimes was apparently in a coma for several months, during which time we later learn some sort of unknown infection spread around the globe. The disease causes great pain, a very high fever, and then death. And anywhere from a few minutes to eight hours later, the victim's body self-animates and rises up looking for the flesh of the living. The dead walk once again.

Over the next several days, Rick struggles to understand what's happened to the world. Luckily, he meets a man named Morgan and his son Duane who, after clobbering him over the head by mistake, explain to him the basics of surviving the zombie apocalypse. Rick checks out his home and determines that his wife and son were able to get out. They're out there somewhere, and he's going to find them.

First, though, Rick manages to get himself trapped inside a tank surrounded by a few hundred walking dead. He's rescued by some folks who've come to town for supplies. It takes some work to get everyone safely out of town and back to their camp, but in a stunning display of good luck, the scavengers are from the same camp as Rick's wife and son. They're reunited, and he's even back together with his old friend Shane. Who's, ahem, been keeping Rick's wife "company" in his absence. After all, they did believe Rick had been dead for a couple of months.

It's a short-lived reunion, however. You see, one of the scavengers was a racist, redneck jerk and Rick left him handcuffed to a rooftop. He also left behind his bag 'o guns and the radio he needed to warn Morgan not to go into Atlanta. So back downtown he goes. The redneck has escaped on his own (by sawing off his own hand. That's hard-core!), but when they try to grab the bag of guns, some guys instead grab one of the band and drive off with him.

It turns out, a group of Latinos have taken over the old-folks home where their elder relatives live and fortified it against the zombies. They saw the bag of guns and they want it really badly. They're willing to trade Glenn the kidnapped pizza-guy for the weapons. Rick's having none of it, until he learns about all the old-timers who are relying on the vatos to keep them safe. He ends up splitting the guns with them before heading back to camp and his family.

They arrive just in time to help stop a massive attack by the walking dead. The survivors are almost out of food and their camp isn't safe. It's time to go. But where to? Fort Benning is in one direction, and the Centers for Disease Control is back in Atlanta. Neither's a sure bet, but since one of the survivors is infected with the zombie plague, the CDC seems like a good place to try.

Sadly, everybody abandoned the CDC - all the scientists either ran away or killed themselves. All but one guy. He's the husband of the woman who was in charge of the place, and he made a promise to her to keep searching for a cure as long as possible. In a lab accident, he destroys the samples he'd need to do his work, however, and by the time the survivors show up he's nearly out of fuel. He's also a little crazy, so he doesn't mention to them that when the CDC's generators run dry, they automatically set off an explosion to completely destroy the building and all of the infectious samples stored inside. In the final scene of the season, the group barely manages to escape the building before it erupts in a massive explosion. They're back where they started - no food, another couple of members lost, and no clear ideas about where to go. And they're in a city overrun by the walking dead.

This is the first series to seriously take on the concept of zombies. I'm not sure I entirely agree with their core approach, which is that "It's not a show about zombies. It's a show about people." I mean, on the one hand, DUH. Of course it's about people. But there are already LOTS and LOTS of shows about people. And some of the people in this show were either stock characters (the redneck, the wife-beater, etc.) or were so poorly fleshed out that we just didn't know anything about them or care. I hope that next season they find a better balance between good, strong characters and zombie-killing, post-apocalyptic action.

Still, it was a hell of a show. It was the kind of show that regularly - at least once per episode - pulled me literally to the edge of my seat in concern at what was happening. That's rare and precious in TV these days, and it made this show a must-watch for me. It also had some very interesting and likable characters when it took the time to develop them. The redneck's brother, Darryl (also a redneck) ended up being one of my absolute favorites, and I even warmed up to Dale, the old fella, once I got to know him.

Best of all, the show frequently looked like a movie. Whether the producers were flipping an old car over and over like in the first episode, or showing the characters cruising down empty Atlanta streets accompanied only by the walking dead, the show definitely had a grand feel to it. There were several scenes in the show where military positions had been overrun, with equipment still sitting idle, littered with the bodies of those who had been shot down in the attack.The explosion of the CDC building in the finale was terrific and really left you with a sense that a) the government isn't going to be much help and b) the characters were utterly without a safe haven.

I'm a huge, huge fan of The Walking Dead. I think it did far more right than wrong, and as easy as it would be to nitpick the show to death (Wait, the guy was in a coma for MONTHS and then got up and ran around??), I'd be concerned that it would rise right back up and come after me. The season combined stellar action (the attack on the survivors' camp was worth re-watching multiple times) with some tenderhearted emotion (like Morgan trying - and failing - to shoot his zombie wife and lay her to rest, or like Andrea holding her slain sister Amy all night in her arms until she comes back to life, just so Andrea could say goodbye before putting a bullet through her zombie brain. That's seriously good stuff, there.) and ended up with a show that's much better than most of what else is on television. The ratings suggest that most people agree - it was the most-watched series premier in cable history (or something like that) and continued to pull in huge numbers throughout the short season. It's available to watch through, and it's due out on DVD very soon. If you haven't seen it, rest assured that the spoilers above can't really dampen the visual and emotional impact of the show. I rate The Walking Dead an A and strongly recommend it.

This Page Intentionally Left Blank

Well, not intentionally, exactly, but I'm definitely drawing a blank on what I'd meant to write about today. Absolutely nothing's coming to mind. Right now I'm stewing about school being closed today due to snow - hell, it's no worse today than it has been the last two days. Grrr. My daughter had a band concert tonight, too. So much for that, or for getting any real work done today. Apparently I can't think when I'm fuming. Granted, I knew that. Check back later - I'm sure I'll come up with something to write about once my blood pressure is back to normal.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

[Novel Review] The Strain

A novel by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan

I'm not really into the CSI-style television shows, but this novel, for me, read very much like I'd imagine such a show would read if turned into a novel. Which, for all I know, they have been. In any event, The Strain, the first novel in the eponymous series, combines Quincy-style forensics with good, old-world-style vampire action. And by the end of the first novel, I was hooked.

The novel centers around Eph, a doctor at the Centers for Disease Control who's trying to juggle his job, his affection for his young son, his divorce (and related custody battle) and a romantic involvement with his partner (that's never really more than a footnote). Suddenly, he finds himself called away from a weekend of baseball with his boy to a mysterious jetliner that landed at JFK airport with no signs that anybody on board was alive.

The first third of the novel, with only an occasional exception, revolves around Eph, his partner Nora, and their investigation of the planeload of dead people. We also meet the enigmatic Professor Setrakian, and learn a little about his youth as a prisoner in the Nazi death camp of Treblinka. Mostly, though, it's all about Eph and his attempts to unravel the mysteries of an international flight where everybody seems to be just fine, except that they're nearly all dead, peacefully sitting in their seats with no indication as to their cause of death.

It was clear pretty quickly what the authors were trying to do with the first 125 to 150 pages of the novel - they needed to set up all of the biological factors involved in the "disease" of vampirism, as it was clearly their intent to approach it as a type of plague rather than a mystical curse or other paranormal phenomena as is typical with most other vampire stories. They went to great lengths to show proper CDC procedures and technically there was a ton of information there. The problem for me was that I almost ended up like one of those passengers on the plane: bored to death, inexplicably found in my chair, the novel clutched in my cadaverous hands. It took considerable will - and faith - to force myself to keep reading when I got to page 100 and nothing had really happened. I was sorely tempted to simply set the book aside and read something else.

Ultimately I'm glad I chose to keep reading, because the latter half of the novel was really quite good. Once the vampire part really came into play, it became much more of an action-adventure, with the bulk of the technical detail cast aside in favor of good, old-fashioned man versus vampire battle. The climactic final quarter of the book, in fact, dragged me along so swiftly that I found myself unable to put the novel down, and stayed up late to finish it - something I confess I haven't been motivated to do in some time.

Ultimately I liked The Strain. I liked how they handled vampires from both a historical and scientific perspective. I liked the characters well enough, and I definitely liked both the rise of the vampires and the heroic battle to fight them off. It came off as extraordinarily well-researched when it came to technical details about anything from the New York subway system to CDC protocols. My big criticism remains with that first 125+ pages - there's just no excuse for the authors not making them more interesting. They showed they were capable of writing to that level later on, the needed to do it sooner. I get that they were building the foundation for a multi-novel series, and that there was a big payoff for the slow start. I do. But it's just sloppy, in my opinion, to bank on your readers slogging through to find that payoff without something helping them along - some action, some real dramatic tension, anything that gives them hope that the story's really going somewhere.

If they'd done that. I'd probably be rating The Strain somewhere in the A to A+ range. As it stands, I think B+ is as high as I can go. Still, if you're the sort who'd enjoy a story of vampires running amok in Manhattan and threatening all of mankind, grit your teeth, push through the early third, and enjoy the rest.

Monday, December 6, 2010

[Movie Review] The Warrior's Way

What do you get when you cross an old Saturday afternoon kung-fu movie and the Magnificent Seven with a video game and then paint it on top of the old David Carradine Kung Fu series? You get the new action movie The Warrior's Way!

It seems like I usually know about movies like this months, sometimes years in advance, but this one snuck up on me. I saw the first preview for it only a month or so ago and immediately though, "That looks cool!" I got to see it on Friday and you know what? It WAS cool!

The story isn't overly complex - the greatest swordsman in Asia manages to wipe out every member of a rival clan, cutting down the last of their warriors and their patriarch. The only remaining member of their clan is an infant. When the warrior can't bring himself to destroy the child, he becomes an outcast from his own clan of assassins (the Sad Flutes) and must flee. Naturally, he and the baby sail to the new world to look up an old warrior friend of his in a dusty little Texas town. The bulk of the residents are members of a wanna-be circus and an old drunk guy.

Of course, the town has a disease - a band of outlaws who ride through from time to time, raping and pillaging at a whim. And the swordsman's old clan haven't forgotten about him or the baby. As the warrior tries to blend into his new home in the old west, stormclouds loom on the horizon.

The middle was a tad slow, but the very beginning and the last half-hour were absolutely awesome. It's a sillier movie than I expected it to be, but even the corny, cheesy parts were genuinely funny and entertaining. But this movie's really all about two things - luscious visuals and action.

The visuals included some really terrific, if heavily stylized, camerawork and lighting. There were lots of shots of key characters against beautifully-painted skies and similar backgrounds. Both those scenes and much of the combat had a not-quite-real quality to them that was deliberate and not generally distracting. They very much had the feel of the cinematic cutscenes in video and computer games.

The Warrior's Way featured Kate Bosworth, Goeffrey Rush (Barbossa from Pirates of the Caribbean) and Danny Huston in predictably good performances, but U.S. newcomer Dong-gun Jang was also quite good in the lead role (not that it demanded a particularly strong acting range). How first-time writer/director Sngmoo Lee was able to score such a killer cast and proceed to make such a polished movie I have no idea, but I found The Warrior's Way to be genuinely entertaining. I rate it a high B+, bordering on an A-. It's a fun way to spend a couple hours of your day.

Friday, December 3, 2010

[Karate] Purple Belts!

When my family started training at Fivestar Martial Arts, they allowed us to wear the orange belts that we'd just earned the week before at LaVallee's. So the first thing we needed to do was learn all the things that an orange belt was expected to know at Fivestar, but which wasn't part of the LaVallee's curriculum. This included the Fivestar version of 1-6 count kicking (which we only ever did once at LaVallee's). It included First Series, which is a set of blocks and strikes meant to be done with a partner - sort of a very simple form of bunkai. It also included Basic Combinations, a formalized series of punches and kicks. And we had to re-learn every self-defense technique, because they were all different at Fivestar. Once that was all done, we had to continue on to learn the new content that an orange belt was expected to master to progress. It's taken almost four months for our family to catch up to the standard of what we needed to know and then proceed on to the material for our next belt, but last night we finally made it!

We got an awesome workout, demonstrated what we'd learned, and at the end of the night we got to remove our orange belts, bow over them, and then tie on our brand-new, crisp purple belts. Yeah!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Practice Makes Perfect

I'm proud of my kids. I'm proud of them in general, but in particular I love to see them taking pride in their instruments. They practice every weekday for thirty minutes per instrument (15 minutes on days when they have their lessons in school). I won't pretend that they don't complain about it sometimes - they're not the self-motivated types that will just go and play their instruments for hours for the sheer beauty of being able to make music. I suppose that may come someday - baby steps. But my older son no longer cries about having to play the guitar and my daughter, after two long years, has finally stopped begging to quit the trumpet (which I could tell she really enjoyed playing - it was practicing she didn't like). They've just embraced their daily practice as a part of their routine and they do it.

But what's more, they've come to appreciate the value of practice. They love to come and tell me how much more they've mastered than the other kids they take lessons with. Their teacher often gives them extra pieces to work on that she doesn't give to the other students because they're so far along. And they just LOVE to report back to me about how the other kids openly admit that they never practice and can't play their assigned music. I try to discourage the bragging and the "I'm better than so-and-so" attitude, but seeing them embrace the value of practice is indescribably gratifying. They can clearly see their progress and they understand that it's the time investment that's made the difference. I can only hope that that translates to other aspects of their lives.

About a month ago, we added weekday karate practice to their afternoon routine. It's just 10 minutes a day, but that's plenty of time for them to go through their katas, their self-defense techniques, their First Series and their Basic Combinations. There's much grumbling about it while it's still new, but there was an almost immediate improvement in their skill level once they started daily practice.

My sincere hope is that all of this practicing and the corresponding improvements will become ingrained in them as kids, so that it follows them into adulthood. Someday, I'd like them to just settle in and practice a new skill because that's just how they've always done it. It'll yield them benefits for the rest of their lives if they do. In the meantime, it's just so much fun to watch them excel at the things they put time and effort into.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

[Karate] Karate Confusion

The Martial Arts world is like most other avocations - there's a lot to learn, a lot of information to sift through, and a fair amount of misinformation floating around making it hard to know what's what. There's a lot out there that assumes you already know more than you do, and plenty of conflicting info as well. I'm sure it's no different with stamp-collecting or professional sports. Instead of teams and player statistics and coaches, we've got styles and katas and grand-masters to keep track of.

Because of my interest in the Martial Arts, I'd like to learn more about the styles I'm learning. Actually, I'd love to really understand a wide array of different styles - their similarities, their differences, their histories, etc. Heck, even things like uniforms differ from style to style and even school to school. It appears, for instance, that practitioners of Iaido, the Japanese art of drawing the Samurai sword, cutting with it, shaking off the blood and resheathing the blade in a very smooth and precise fashion, may wear a dogi that includes pants, a pleated pair of wide leggings called a hakama, a gi top, and an undertunic which is similar to the gi-top but with shorter sleeves. How do I know that? Well, I kind of don't - I inferred it from looking at Iaido uniforms for sale on one martial arts supplier's website.

But, if we assume it's true, it's a very different gi than that worn in most karate styles. The hakama is rarely seen in karate, and the gi is typically a light-weight or medium-weight cotton with leggings and a gi-top. More traditional dojos tend to use plain white with a logo or patch on the seam, breast or shoulder, while Americanized dojos may use uniforms of any weight, color or material, and they may even have tunic-style tops rather than the traditional wrap-around style. In Aikido, the gi is usually heavyweight, white, and reinforced on top. The hakama is common for women of all ranks, and for men who have attained the rank of shodan (black belt) or above. But some Aikido schools allow the wearing of the hakama at any rank. Among those styles that wear the hakama, blue and black are most common, though there's also white and red available. I have no idea who wears those, but it's worth noting that the Samurai were the original wearers of the hakama, I believe, and they wore a wide array of different colors, patterns and styles. So, technically, pretty much anything ought to be fair game if you want to get really historical. On the other hand, dressing as a true Samurai, in addition to being presumptuous in the extreme, is probably akin to dressing for the Renaissance Faire. It's technically still clothing, but it's hundreds of years out of fashion.

And anyway, all that's JUST the clothing worn by a handful of different styles to keep track of.

Now imagine trying to understand the lineage of teachers of those styles, where they came from, when they borrowed from each other, what's traditionally "real" and what was recently "made up" (which is funny in that it implies that the older techniques weren't, at one time or another, brand new and "made up" as well). It's all so much!

Still, some styles are clearer than others. Aikido, for instance, is less than a hundred years old. There are living people who trained under the founder of the style. There are still questions and disagreements, of course, particularly because the founder changed certain aspects of the style as he got older - either reflecting his belief system, the limitations of his aging body, or both. Likewise, Goju-Ryu karate has a very clear lineage that only goes back two or three generations, making it relatively easy to identify what its founder intended and actually taught. You'd think American Kenpo Karate would be as easy, having seemingly been created in the 1960s and 1970s, but you'd be wrong.

I'm currently practicing Kenpo, so I'd like to start by getting a handle on my chosen style. I know, for instance, who my Senseis trained under, and I know from his bio who their chief instructor, Kyoshi Steve LaVallee, trained under, but I can't find anything significant about Master Lee Thompson, who was Kyoshi's original teacher. Do I practice the Ed Parker style of Kenpo? Hawaiian Kenpo? Okinawan or Japanese Kenpo? Chinese Kenpo? Hell if I know.

I mean, I can infer some of it. For example, by searching Youtube videos of some of our katas, I can see practitioners of other Kenpo styles doing katas with similar names that also look very similar to ours. Most of those seem to be Ed Parker practitioners, which leads me to believe that what I'm learning is probably descended from him. I could try perhaps to contact Kyoshi LaVallee directly and see what he has to say on the topic, and I very well may, but just trying to even define what constitutes Ed Parker Kenpo seems to generate a considerable amount of debate on the old Internet.

I recently happened across the Kenpo Talk Forums, and I've decided to delve into what they have to offer in terms of knowledge and historical information about the style. If it's helpful, I'll post what I learn here.