Ethereality News & Weblog

June 29, 2012

GPS and used car

NEWS:
The next run of the Becoming A Better Artist workshop has sold out again, and we’re going to allow five more students to squeeze in before we cut off enrollment, so hurry if you want to make it to the July run of the workshop.

WEBLOG:
Ever since I started using a GPS back around 2005, I couldn’t live without one. I’ve become completely dependent on the GPS–not just for driving direction, but to search for nearby shops, parking, gas station, etc, or even to mark where I parked my car so I could find it later if I forget where I parked.

The previous unit we used was a Magellan RoadMate 860T, and it was nicknamed affectionately as our “Guide Dog.” It wasn’t the best GPS–it had trouble tracking whenever we were in a city with large trees or tall buildings blocking it’s direct line-of-sight to the GPS satellites up in orbit. Now in 2012, the seven year-old 860T has been discontinued, and I can’t even buy an updated map for it, so I decided to upgrade.

After doing much research (reading online reviews, and watching Youtube videos demonstrating/comparing different models), I ended up using my iPhone as an GPS, and I have to say, despite my initial skepticism, the iPhone turned out to be an excellent GPS–much better than the RoadMate 860T we used previously.

The top three GPS apps on the iPhone seems to be Tom Tom:

Navigon (now owned by Garmin):

and Magellan:

All three happen to be the three biggest hardware GPS companies on the market. Garmin has its own GPS app called StreetPilot, but since Garmin bought Navigon, I would have to assume Garmin wasn’t feeling very secure in the quality of their own GPS app.

After trying out all three, I settled on Magellan’s app, because it has the features I preferred, such as the audio signal for when you should be making turns, the fast one-touch menu, and more updated POI (Points-Of-Interest) when I tried searching for restaurants and stores nearby.

I used to rely on the audio direction a lot, but now that I’m also using my iPhone as a jukebox while driving, the constant automatic raising and lowering of the music’s volume whenever audio directions are given, got a bit annoying. After trying the GPS without the voice/audio guidance, I realized I really didn’t need it. The visual cues are more than clear enough, and if I was paying attention while driving like I should, there’s no reason to need to voice/audio guidance.

The Tom Tom app is also very good, although at the time when I tested it, the POI search wasn’t as up-to-date as the Magellan app.

Navigon is actually my favorite in terms of GUI design, but it takes forever to bootup every time, so I won’t even consider it.

The amount of data these GPS apps use while navigating is very little, because they come with the maps already installed, so you don’t have to stream the map like some of the cheaper or free GPS apps do. I think a solid month’s of usage only added up to a couple hundred megabytes of data. The Magellan app also allows you to navigate even if cellular data is turned off, while Tom Tom and Navigon both require that you have cellular data turned on.

I got the iOttie One-Touch Dashboard Car Mount for the iPhone, and it works perfectly.

It even has a gel-type suction cup that works on the textured surface of the dashboard, instead of only on the smooth surface of the glass.

I especially like how all the GPS apps I mentioned have iPod integration, allowing you to control the iPod app right from within the GPS app. This makes it easy to skip and pause the music without having to switch to the iPod app. These apps also have pedestrian mode, so you use them while walking instead of driving. I also really like how I can search a POI and then can just call up the place right from inside the GPS app–very convenient. If someone calls you while you’re using the GPS app, it’ll allow you to accept or decline the call, and you can even keep the GPS app running while talking (of course, using a Bluetooth headset is highly recommend, or at least use the stock earbud with the microphone and volume button built right into the earbud wire).

There’s no way I’m going back to dedicated GPS apps, or the criminally expensive in-dash GPS that comes as options for cars. Spend less, get more, and have a GPS like right in your iOS device. An easy choice if you ask me.

If you’ve ever dealt with used car salesmen, you know just how rare it is to find one that didn’t reek of the sleazy “Hey, TRUST ME, I won’t lie to ya!” aura. Well, I had the pleasure of meeting the very first used car saleman who didn’t give off that vibe (and I’ve met many). In fact, he was such a pleasure to do business with because he was honest, sincere, courteous, and not pushy. It helps that he was quite young–only twenty years-old, and was studying at the university when his family business needed his help.

The kid’s name is Alex, and the fact he didn’t naturally gravitate towards selling cars as a vocation (he tried to avoid it) was probably a factor. He also had his own personal moral code that he brought with him to the used car sales business, and it’s very obvious when you talk to him. I felt like I was talking to an enthusiastic, friendly, and honest college kid instead of a jaded, slick, veteran jackal what was just waiting to empty my wallet. I also had a chat with his uncle while there (it’s a family business), and he seemed like a nice fellow too.

If you are looking for a used car and live in the Sacramento area, I highly recommend you talk to Alex, at Sacramento Auto Sales Center Inc.

Oh, and I ended up buying a 1997 Lexus ES300 from him. It’s going to be our temporary ride until our new home closes ESCROW, and my lender allows me to finance a new car (we’re buying a house in Lincoln, California). I put a new Pioneer CD Receiver in the Lexus (the stock CD changer was broken), and with the auxiliary audio input and my iPhone as the jukebox, I think this 15-year old Lexus is actually a pretty comfortable ride. I might even hold off on getting a new car if the Lexus remains problem-free for a few more years.

I finally finished Mass Effect 3, and overall, it was my least favorite of the trilogy. It was the least satisfying in many ways, and had the most WTF moments where you wanted to reach out and smack the game designers/writers. Along with Dragon Age II, I keep feeling like these two games marked the downward spiral of the Bioware we’ve known and loved. It’s very easy to just point a finger at EA and say it’s their fault, and why shouldn’t we? After all, it was after EA acquired Bioware that these recent problems with Bioware games began.

My main issues with ME3 were:

-The Geth and Quarian dilemma felt contrived, as if the writers forced a situation that didn’t feel logical or natural, just to create some kind of dramatic tension.

-The bad voice acting of Jessica Chobot and the old man after the credits really stuck out among the much better voice acting of the rest of the cast. In fact, that reporter character was completely unnecessary and probably shoved into the game as some kind of marketing gimmick.

– The ending sucked. There are countless discussions and articles about this on the web already, so I’m not going to say more–other than that I agree with the people who were pissed off about the ending.

– The Allusive Man’s entire storyline was predictable from the first moment to the last. Was it ever a mystery to anyone that he was indoctrinated? (No, I’m not going to make a spoiler warning about this–if you have half a brain then you’d already guessed from the very beginning that’s what’s happening with the whole Ceberus situation.)

So did I like anything about ME3? Sure. I thought EDI’s storyline was great, and the budding romance with Joker was cute. I enjoyed the combat, and some of the bantering between characters, like when Garrus and James were having their combat experience pissing contest, or when Garrus got me onto the roof of the Citadel and we had our own sharpshooting pissing contest. There were other storylines that I enjoyed. If only the overall framework of ME3’s narrative didn’t have glaring problems, it would have been a solid conclusion to the trilogy.

BTW, this is what my Shepard looked like this time around:

Quickie movie reviews:

Game of Thrones (season 2) One of my favorite shows on TV currently (along with Madmen, The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, and The Office). I had decided after watching season one that I wasn’t going to read the books and ruin my enjoyment of the TV show. There are tons of other fantasy series I could read that don’t have TV shows or movies being made for them, and I don’t see why I can’t go on enjoying the TV show without any preconceived notions, and read other fantasy series in the meantime.

Season two was just as intriguing as season one, and ended on one hell of a cliffhanger–especially for a huge zombie fan like me.

What I love about Game of Thrones is that you like all the characters, regardless if they are villains or heroes, kind or cruel, smart or stupid. The only character that’s so impossible to like for me is Joffrey–God I want to rip his head off his neck and drop kick it into a pool of lava.

While watching an episode, Elena, who’s been working hard on learning English, suddenly turned to me with a pout and said, “I just want my dragons back.” I was so proud.

Capitalism: A Love Story – There’s nothing in this film you don’t already know if you are educated about modern global economics. If you’ve seen a Michael Moore documentary, then you already know there’s always going to be emotionally manipulative scenes involving one of his predictable, mawkish antics. His messages are never bad–but how he delivers them is what irritates his critics.

Cop Out – This kevin Smith-directed cop buddy comedy had some surprisingly funny scenes, and it’s actually surprising how he finally got a handle on directing after all these years (whereas previously, he was more like a funny writer who did an half-ass job on directing). Red State, the movie he made after Cop Out, also displayed far better directing chops compared to his previous movies.

Baraka – Visually stunning, and there’s a sort of vague visual narrative involving various aspects of our civilization and our relationship with Mother Nature. It’s not the kind of movie you watch for a plot–it’s more like images and sound that form an abstract emotional response that has a defined theme. Definitely not for people who must have explosions in their movies, or don’t have the mental capacity to observe and contemplate on a philosophical level.

Bridesmaids – Hilarious, gross-out bromance movie, but with female characters instead.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher remake) – I have seen the original Swedish version, and thought it was pretty good. although the plot-twist was already spoiled for me, I wanted to see how Fincher would tell the same story. Despite the inconsistent tone of the opening credits that has almost nothing to do with the actual movie stylistically, I enjoyed Fincher’s version. I think Rooney Mara is a better Lisbeth than Noomi Rapace, and I actually enjoyed the fact that Fincher humanized her more in his version, which is more in-tune with the book, whereas in the Swedish version of the movie, Lisbeth was colder and less relatable.

Columbiana – The critics ripped this movie apart, and I didn’t think it was that bad. There are plenty of really idiotic and badly made movies that critics have given higher scores to. Those of you who liked The Professonal/Leon and La Femme Nikita might enjoy this, although it’s not on the same level.

Act of Valor – It’s not a very good movie at all, with wooden acting (by real SEAL operators) and mediocre screenplay, but if you are a fan of special forces and want something that’s realistic and true to how the operators really do their thing in the field, then this is for you.

John Carter – Very disappointing. The story was so compressed, that the characters were switching motivations with lightening speed, instead of actually portraying a credible, logical arc that’s shaped by events and internal struggles. The premise itself is also very dated by today’s standards–sci-fi/fantasy has marched on miles ahead by now, with far more sophistication and inventiveness. The John Carter legacy should have been left in the realm of classic pulp novels. The fact that the literary superstar, Michael Chabon wrote the screenplay, only makes it even more depressing. I honestly expected far more from a Pulitzer and Hugo award winning writer.

Space Battleship Yamato – Another disappointment. It was juvenile, simple-minded, illogical, and stuffed to the brim with insufferable, maudlin melodrama. Compared to the recent reboot and reimaginings by Hollywood, it’s very primitive in every way–be it storytelling, special effects, acting, or directing.

Gantz / Gantz: Perfect Answer – I hate to sound like such a sourpuss, but these were yet another disappointment. Over the years I’ve gotten very disappointed by how shallow and juvenile the whole anime/manga world has become–it’s nothing like the stuff I grew up with. Gantz and its sequel, Perfect Answer, are basically just another situation where a mangaka with no real understanding of storytelling foundations lucks out and makes it big because of the juvenile action and gratuitous nudity he includes in his manga, then the manga is adapted into anime and live-action movies. Like so many other Japanese sci-fi movies, it’s mainly just an exercise in style-over-substance, and whatever little substance it has, is quite simplistic and shallow.

21 Jump Street – Although the comedic take on the famed TV series is a refreshing reimagining, the movie itself was just okay. It’s got a few good laughs but nothing near the level of an “instant classic” like some of better comedies in recent years.

Safe House On its own, it’s a decent action/thriller, although you can’t help but compare it to the Bourne trilogy. As soon as you do that, Safe House becomes just an inferior imitator. The acting is really good though, and that’s to be expected from the caliber of the two leads.

March 21, 2012

Writing relatable Mary Sues with depth

Filed under: Film/TV/Animation,Food,My Life/Musings,Video Games,Writing — Rob Chang @ 9:48 pm

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While researching for the book I’m currently writing, I came across the Kids React videos on Youtube. I really enjoyed all the videos, although I don’t think I gained any new insights into the minds of today’s children. There will always be children who are quite “normal,” and there will always be those who are precociously mature and impressively articulate for their age. The latter are the ones I tend to write about, because they inspire both adults and other children, and I was a precocious kid myself, so that’s what I relate to. Someone like Severn Suzuki would be a prime example of the kind of children I prefer to write about. I like the idea that that children can be so intelligent, noble, wise, and courageous that they make many adults feel ashamed of themselves for not trying harder.

The downside to writing about impressive children is the whole “Mary Sue” problem (or “Gary Stu,” for male characters), so as a writer, I have to be careful and portray realistic people who despite how impressive they might be, are still human beings we can relate to. Personally, I don’t have a problem with the fact that Mary Sue characters tend to be very talented and capable, since I’ve met plenty of people like that. What raises eyebrows when it comes to Mary Sue characters for me, is the fact that they are often portrayed as perfect on the inside too.

So what happens if you have to write someone who is genuinely well-loved, noble, and with so few flaws that we almost can’t relate to how perfect they are? Today’s readers and writers are so savvy and picky that if they catch even a faint whiff of Mary Sue-like characteristics, they’ll jump on the author and proclaim him incompetent. So the question is, how do you write a lovable character who is inspirational and impressive in general, but not a Mary Sue?

I think in most cases, the so-called “perfect” people do most of their struggling on the inside. They have might have selfish and evil thoughts like the rest of us, but they have immense self-control, and they can overcome those dark thoughts and do the right thing. I’m not saying they don’t necessarily have more compassion and nobility than the rest of us, because often they do. What I’m saying is that they tend to have the self-control and tenacity to stick to being kind and compassionate towards others, even when they really don’t feel like it. I do know people in my life who always try to put on a smile, show kindness, and go out of their way to help others, even when they feel exactly the opposite–it’s as if they feel it’s their duty to make this world a better place. For the rest of us, all we see is a lovable, selfless, intelligent, and charismatic person, but we’ll never see the struggle that goes on inside of them–how they triumph over their inner demons.

As a writer, I think the way to make Mary Sues interesting is to write about that inner conflict. Novels have the freedom to explore the inner world of characters in ways that would be very hard or awkward to do in other storytelling mediums, so I feel as novelists, we should take advantage of that freedom. It doesn’t matter if your character acts like a Mary Sue–as long as she doesn’t also think like one, you should be able to write a relatable Mary Sue-like character with depth and complexity.

Living in a city like Fuzhou, it’s extremely hard to find decent cheese anywhere. (People in China generally dislike cheese–many find it disgusting and foul tasting, except maybe on a pizza. Hong Kong and Taiwan are far more accepting, since they are a lot more westernized.) Even the import supermarket we go to have dubious selection that’s inconsistent at best. Recently, We tried ordering imported cheese from taobao.com (the largest online shopping portal in China), and because the weather was still cold enough, the cheese products arrived in good shape.

We got some gouda and gruyere that are excellent, and we also got white truffle salsa, truffle oil, and Foie Gra that were very good:

truffle_and_foie_gras.jpg

To be able to enjoy food like this in our own home, while living in a relatively backwards city like Fuzhou, is really something, but they are so expensive since they are imported. I was excited like a little boy as we sampled each purchase. I guess it’s a good thing luxury food like these are so hard to find in Fuzhou, otherwise I’d stuff myself with them and eat a big chunk out of our savings.

I finished Dead Space 2, and I think in general, I liked it almost as much as the first game (which is one of my all-time favorite games). Some of the freshness and surprise isn’t there anymore, because I’m already familiar with the premise, the gameplay, the general mood, and narrative style, but the new location does provide some interesting levels and enemies, such as the babies and children, the childcare center, the shopping district, the residential areas, and so on. It’s hard to screw up a sequel when the first one already laid down the most important foundation to build upon though.

I’m totally looking forward to the next sequel, and I hope it will have a long life as a franchise like the Resident Evil series.

I finally found the time to play some Skyrim, and it’s been pretty okay so far. There’s no dramatic intensity to speak of, since unlike most RPG’s, the sandbox approach allows you just roam around, and random encounters have no carefully crafted dramatic structure that creates strong emotional resonance. Sandbox games all have this problem, and no matter how the developers try to put a main plot in the game, it doesn’t fix the problem because the game doesn’t force the player to follow the main plot, and when you can’t control the story progression as a writer, is when you lose the ability to craft a dramatic structure/pacing that only a good writer could.

I also started playing Mass Effect 3, and so far the premise feels a a bit like Bioware had jumped the shark regarding the whole Reapers and earth situation. I’m sure I’ll really enjoy the game anyway though–it’s Bioware, after all.

Other than the unlikely premise, I was really put off by this James character, who has no background and apparently is pals with Shepard. Bioware did nothing to tell the player who this James is–I had to find out by searching the internet. Apparently, he appeared in one of the other products related to the Mass Effect franchise. It’s unforgivable that Bioware expects the player to just know who this James is, as if they expect people to buy and experience all of their other Mass Effect related products.

Then there’s that Diana Allers reporter character, played by Jessica Chobot. Seriously, how the hell did that happen? It feels tacked on, like some kind of fan-service for the horny nerds. Chobot is nowhere near the caliber of a good voice actress–the whole thing was a marketing gimmick.

I can’t help but think all of the recent negatives I’ve experienced with Bioware games (including Dragon Age II) is directly related to the fact they are now owned by EA. Before EA, Bioware had a far better track record. Although in interviews, the Bioware guys deny that EA has any influence, but nobody believes it, by the simple fact that Dragon Age II was so rushed and many levels were obviously recycled. The Bioware before EA would never have done such a thing.

Quickie TV and movie reviews:

Girls’ Generation and the Dangerous Boys – This was probably one of the more interesting SNSD reality shows, having the girls mentor five troubled teenage delinquent boys. Since Korean teenagers are in general much more polite and better behaved than western ones, the boys might seem perfectly normal by western standards.

Reality shows are by nature manipulative, and this is no exception. There were some genuine moments of emotions and conflicts, but so much it just felt too contrived (in this regard, Asian countries are far worse than western ones). I would say the show had a positive impact on the boys though, because at the very least, it showed them what it takes to work hard towards a goal, what kind of behavior is favored by society at large, and the dynamic between those behind the camera, in front of the camera, and the audience. If nothing else, it taught them to never trust the media ever again.

The Limey – It’s a little dated looking, and it doesn’t necessarily feel like a Soderbergh film, but it’s a decent thriller.

The Ides of March – An entertaining political thriller, although I think Ryan Gosling is too young for the role. I don’t know if the character was meant to be that young in the original screenplay, or they wrote/rewrote it for Gosling.

Friends with Benefits – Fairly standard Hollywood romantic comedy. If you like the main leads, then watch it I guess.

The Flowers of War (金陵十三釵) – A bit melodramatic, but a film with its heart in the right place. If the writing was more objective and less sensational, then it would’ve been a lot stronger.

Hugo – I was bored by the first half of the movie–it felt like a meandering movie for children without any interesting conflicts, and I didn’t like Chloe Moretz in this film. I have enjoyed seeing her in past movies, but she just seemed like the wrong actress for the role. Also, as she gets older, she enters the awkward phase, where her precious child charm no longer works–in fact, feels contrived–and she’s not quite developed the depth an adult actress needs. The second half of the movie dealing with the real story, is much more interesting, but by then, it was too late. I think it was a bad idea for Scorsese to tread into Spielberg territory, because his sensibility just isn’t built for it, IMO.

Fast Five – Crazy stunts. Attractive people. Fast cars. Pounding music. A bit smarter than typical action movies.

Brothers – Probably the best acting I’ve seen from Toby Maguire to date. The rest of the cast are all very high caliber actors, so in a way, Maguire really had to bring it in order to not look like the odd man out. The ending wasn’t very satisfying, but the dramatic tension up to the ending was quite good.

February 12, 2012

Finding simplicity and accepting challenge

Filed under: Books,Film/TV/Animation,My Life/Musings,Video Games,Writing — Rob Chang @ 9:51 pm

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Ever since I’ve shifted my focus to writing novels in the last couple of years, I’ve found that my life’s gotten less complicated. No more fussing with troublesome high-tech gear, technical glitches, constant updating of software, learning new production techniques, trying out new plugins, following all the latest industry news, and so on.

Now, I just write. My concern is just the stories I’m trying to tell, and the words in which I tell them with. The tools in which I write with are much simpler than the tools I use for creating music or visual art, but the writing itself is actually much harder than composing music, drawing, painting, design, or working on any production of video game or film. Why? Because the story is the heart and soul of everything. Without a good story to tell, we wouldn’t have much to express in our movies, TV shows, video games, or songs.

While everyone who is fluent in a language can write, and everyone who has a half-formed idea can tell a story, it’s actually extremely hard to write a book that achieves these three goals:

-Tell a compelling story that has profound intellectual and emotional resonance, while still very entertaining.

-Have a masterful command of the language that strikes the perfect balance between being functional and having literary merit.

-Despite all the stories that has already been told in books, movies, TV shows, comic books, and video games, your story somehow still matters.

Writing novels is the hardest of all my creative passions, and it’s also the one that I can do on my own, without needing extra funding or relying on a team for manpower, and it’s also the most straightforward—just write and tell the story. No need to boot up Photoshop or Maya, dial in the perfect guitar tone, set up the microphone, wrestle with the DAW, or fuss with lighting equipment.

I finished reading Assassin’s Apprentice (by Robin Hobb) recently. It’s a low-key fantasy that focuses more on the emotional and psychological state of the protagonist, instead of the plot-driven narrative that is more common in genre fiction.

I thought the premise of a prince’s bastard son trained as a royal assassin was interesting, and the prose was enjoyable, but in terms of storytelling and pacing, it was slow-paced and unsatisfying in the conflicts and resolutions. I’m not one of those people who needs to have big epic battles and constant melodrama in a fantasy book in order to be entertained, but I do want some kind of satisfaction—be it the emotional journey of the character, the dramatic progression, or the fulfillment of a theme.

At the end of the book, I didn’t feel any satisfaction, and I can’t say I really cared for the protagonist—someone who I thought was a real drag and whose head I didn’t enjoy being in. If I had to describe the entire book with one word, it would probably be “drab.” The protagonist had no sense of humor whatsoever and was just a miserable and depressing person. As a personal preference, I much rather be around people with a sense of humor, no matter how bleak their lives seem. If a person doesn’t have a sense of humor, he should at least be interesting. Unfortunatly, Fitz, the first-person point-of-view character, just wasn’t interesting as a person, while everyone else around him had more distinct personalities.

I recognize that this is often one of the problems of reading a series—that often you don’t get a satisfying sense of closure because the first book is just setting the stage for what’s to come in the sequels. I don’t think it’s necessarily an inherent characteristic of a series though, because I have read first books of series that I really enjoyed, and today’s exciting television shows prove that every season’s finale can be very satisfying, and don’t have to feel like the writers are withholding the good bits for later seasons.

I read the synopses of the later books, and they seem more interesting than the first book, but right now, I’m more eager to read other books that are on my must-read list.

I really wanted to love Deus Ex: Human Revolution, but after a few hours, I was bored out of my mind. The stealth aspect of the gameplay was boring, and the action aspect wasn’t all that exciting either. To date, I have never finished any of the Deus Ex games, because at some point, they all became too boring and I just couldn’t be bothered to continue. The sad thing is, this franchise has one of the most interesting premises in video games, yet no developer has nailed the execution. If they could just hand this game over to a developer who really kicks ass at addictive gameplay and immersive storytelling (say, Valve or Bioware), then maybe there will be a Deus Ex game I could actually enjoy.

I gave Gears of War 3 a try for a few hours, and I just didn’t feel like there was a point to finishing it, because it was the same damn thing like the previous two games, and the testosterone-drenched dialogues just became too cheesy for me to stomach, especially after having to endure it in the previous two games already. It’s like watching a bunch of cartoon gorilla’s making noises at each other, and I felt like my own IQ was diminishing by the minute as I played the game. I kind of want to finish it just because I’ve finished the previous two and they were fairly enjoyable (despite all the ridiculous macho posturing), but with so many other games fighting for my attention, it’s hard to justify spending more time on a game that didn’t have anything compelling to offer.

On a whim, I gave Shadows of the Damned a try, and it was mildly interesting as a horror game with juvenile, grindhouse humor. But beyond the circus freak show, I didn’t feel compelled to continue after a couple of hours.

After feeling unsatisfied with the above three mentioned games, I decided to go for something that I knew would be amazing. I had watched a friend’s video playthrough of Dead Space 2 a while ago (when I was stuck somewhere without my gaming rig for a couple of weeks, and it looked like a lot of fun. I loved the first game (one of my all-time favorite games of all time), so now that the memory of his playthrough has faded a bit, I’ve decided to go for it.

And yes, Dead Space 2 it’s a far better game than those previously mentioned ones. I’m about three hours in, and I’m kind of dreading it ending, because then I would have to go through more mediocre games until I come across another engrossing game like Dead Space 2.

Quickie TV/Movie reviews:

Homeland (season one) – Excellent drama/thriller. I was on the edge of my seat throughout the whole season. Claire Danes has improved a lot as an actress since I last saw her in a movie. I really wanted the bomb to go off in the finale, but looks like the writers are setting it up for deeper government infiltration.

Downton Abbey (seasons one and two) – I really loved most of season one, but towards the end of the season, I started to notice the cracks in the writing. In season two, the cracks got bigger and bigger, and eventually veered into daytime soap territory in some plotlines. That one scene with Matthew sitting by Lavinia bed–Dan Stevens’s acting was so bad in that scene that I had to wonder if they did so many takes and still couldn’t nail it, and the director just said, “Fuck it,” and used the take that sucked the least.

American Horror Story (pilot) I was disappointed by the pilot. It was too gimmicky and disjointed, and had no suspense building in the pacing at all. I won’t be watching any more of it.

Polar Bears: Spy On the Ice – I Can never get enough of these nature shows/documentaries. The scene where the female polar bear was getting all sexed up for the male had me in stitches. I had no idea polar bears could do centerfold poses like that.

The Sacrifice (Offret) – I looked forward to watching this, since I really loved Solaris, but this final movie by Tarkovsky was a slow, plodding, and a pretentious mess. I couldn’t wait for it to end.

Cowboys and Aliens – Disposable popcorn entertainment. Good fun, but nothing worth recommending to others.

The Square – A slow-burn thriller that gets keeps on escalating until the dramatic conclusion. I would have preferred a more optimistic ending, but I understand why it had to end the way it did. Claire van der Boom is such a cutie, with those soft, doe-like eyes. I actually sought out this movie because I was quite taken with her when I saw her in the new Hawaii Five-O TV series.

Fright Night Superior to the original in every way. I usually don’t care for Colin Farrell because he’s always playing the protagonist while exuding this douchbag aura. As a villain though, he’s great. He should just play villains from now on.

Little Man Tate – Interesting take on the subject of precocious children. It drives home the point that precocious children and child prodigies are still just kids, and sometimes the best thing for them is to allow them to remain children.

December 26, 2011

Odds and ends

SITE NEWS:
New Kitty Cat Diary entries are up:

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I just got these Husky slippers:

I was searching for a pair of bear paws slippers, but came across these Husky slippers, and yelped with delight. I just HAD to get a pair. They are pretty comfy, and don’t impede with my walk that much, except when going up the stairs, they get in the way a little bit–nothing serious though. If a gigantic klutz like me can walk with them on, so can most people.

A couple of photos:

I’ve recently moved to Scrivener for most of my writing needs (although I still use Writer’s Cafe for plotting, since the multiple lane Storylines feature is indispensable during the outlining phase). I’ve customized it to match my needs, and it looks like this:

If you also use Scrivener and wants to use my layout, you can download the .scrvlayout file on this page. If you’re on the Mac, I also provided the customization numbers for the colors on that page, so you can replicate my layout.

I’ve been trying to catch up on some games that I’ve missed out on in the past. Here are some impressions:

The Witcher – I heard a lot of good thing about this game, and now that I finally tried it, I was disappointed. The game just doesn’t feel very polished in terms of storytelling and presentation. I keep reading about how the story is sophisticated and the moral grayness is its strength, but the way the story is presented is so clumsy that I just couldn’t bother to continue after the first few hours. The game expects you to know the books it’s based on and doesn’t bother trying to build a premise for you to be immersed in. The transition from the opening chapter at the Stronghold to the outskirt of Vizima was so sudden that it felt like the game glitched and skipped a cinematic or a transitioning area. The writers also did not do a good job setting up the the relationship between the characters–I just didn’t care about any of them, and felt no bond with them.

The gameplay was also a bore-fest. All you do is click on an enemy and try to chain attacks together by clicking again when the cursor turns into a flame. How is waiting for a cursor to turn into a flame icon and then clicking it interesting? You have a few fighting styles to choose from, but all you do is match them to each enemy, and that’s it–there’s no other strategy beyond that. There are magic abilities, but it’s nothing interesting–more like what Jedi’s do with the Force.

Another thing that I didn’t like about The Witcher is you don’t feel that sense of camaraderie between characters such as with Bioware’s group system, where characters banter and actually feel like living personalities. I don’t mind lone wolf type of adventures, but it has to be compelling, and The Witcher just didn’t compel me.

I tried watching some “Let’s Play” videos on Youtube and realized the story just didn’t interest me. Having plot points and characters and conflicts is not enough–there has to be emotional resonance, and that, is what is missing from The Witcher.

As a writer and a gamer, I think Bioware’s RPG’s are far stronger in emotional resonance, and I’ll gladly replay any Bioware RPG before ever trying The Witcher again, or bother with its sequel.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords – The first KOTOR game is one of my favorite RPG’s of all time, and I have always wanted to play the sequel. I had tried numerous times previously but due to strange technical issues on the PC, I never was able to run that game smoothly–I always got stuck during the tutorial level. Recently, after discovering a patch, I was finally able to run the game, and I’ve started playing it.

I was surprised by how dated it looked, and how clunky the combat and GUI felt. For all the bitching and moaning that PC gamers do about how console games dumb down the gameplay and GUI’s of RPG’s, I actually think it’s a good thing to make gameplay and GUI as streamlined and intuitive as possible. Seriously, was it ever a good thing to have dozens and dozens of commands mapped to a QWERTY keyboard? Customizing and learning the keyboard layout of a new game was always a monumental task and I never enjoyed that aspect of PC gaming. The only time it works well is for mapping individual weapons/powers of twitch-reflex games–that’s when instant access really matters. For RPG’s, I actually prefer console-styled controls more than PC ones.

I haven’t gotten very far yet in the game, so I don’t have anything to say about it yet, although it started a lot slower than the first game, and I don’t particularly like slow beginnings unless it really draws you in, which this particular beginning doesn’t.

The Longest Journey – This is one of my favorite games of all time, and recently I thought I’d play through it again to feel that nostalgic magic again. This time around, I noticed things that I was much more willing to forgive ten years ago when I first played it–for example, how slowly the characters talked. The voice acting is great, but everyone just talked too slow, like they have all the time in the world.

On a whim, I searched for “Let’s Play” videos on Youtube, and sure enough, there they were. So I think I’m just going to watch the rest on Youtube instead, since it’s not the kind of game you play for the gameplay–it’s all about the story. There are no multi-branching endings, so you can just sit back and watch someone else play. I’ve already solved the puzzles tens years ago too, so I don’t really need to do it again. Besides, I always hated puzzle-solving in adventure games, because they often have the most contrived and annoying puzzles out of all the games.

If you have never played The Longest Journey and its sequel Dreamfall, I highly recommend you watch the “Let’s Play” videos for them on Youtube. The writing for these games are excellent (although TLJ can get a little silly at times, while Dreamfall is a lot more mature overall).

Cathrine – I have no interest in playing puzzle platformers, but the story for Catherine seemed interesting, so I just watched the “Let’s Play” for it (skipping all the actual platforming).

Despite a cast of Caucasian characters and based totally in western culture, there’s that Japanese-centric storytelling, dialogues, visual style, and includes even a question about whether the player gets nosebleeds if he is excited/aroused. I wonder if the writers even knew that’s a totally Japanese thing and westerners have never even heard of such a thing except when they see it in anime and manga?

The story really isn’t anything all that interesting, and felt more like a much shorter story being padded to hell to make it last much longer.

The only thing about the game I really liked was the voice of Catherine (voiced by Laura Bailey). Now, that is a really cute and sexy voice. Laura Bailey’s natural voice doesn’t sound anything like that though (there are videos of her doing panels at Comic Con), but I guess that’s why she’s an awesome voice actress.

Syberia/Syberia II – I tried playing Syberia years ago and was bored by it. Now, I’m watching the “Let’s Play” for these two games, and I’m still bored. There’s just no emotional resonance in the storytelling, and some of the voice acting’s just awful. I can’t stand it when they use an adult to voice a child character, and the voice actor sucks at doing children’s voices–it completely destroys the suspension of disbelief.

November 25, 2011

Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi Titanium review

WEBLOG:
I recently added a new sound card (Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi Titanium) and graphics card (Zotac GeForce CTX 550 Ti) to my “General Purpose” desktop computer.

Originally, I did not plan to use any of my current computers for any kind of gaming at all, since I’ve migrated over to consoles (Xbox360, Playstation 3) for all my gaming needs in the last couple of years. But it always bugged me that I just can’t play fast-paced FPS on consoles, because there’s no way to play with the kind of twitch reflex such games require as I could on the PC with keyboard and mouse. To make it worse, games like Unreal Tournament 3 for the console is actually slowed down dramatically from the PC version to accommodate that drawback. So essentially, it’s like a double-dumbed-down version of what it should be.

Ever since I became a gamer, I’ve always felt the need to have at least one twitch-reflex FPS in my gaming line-up at all times; it helps me unwind after a long day of hard work. Currently, nobody makes twitch-reflex FPS games anymore because consoles have taken over gaming (today’s FPS are more about realism than speed/reflex), so I can only go back to games like the Unreal Tournament series or Quake series to get my twitch-fix, and the only proper way to play them is on computers with keyboard and mouse.

I tried running UT3 and UT2004 on my “General Purpose” rig (I always preferred the UT series to the Quake series), but I couldn’t get surround sound due to the whole OpenAL problem in Windows 7. After researching, I chose the Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi Platinum for the Creative Alchemy feature, which restores the surround sound for games using OpenAL. I tossed in a new graphics card too, so I don’t have to run UT3 on anything less than the max settings just to get decent framerate (using the Core-i5 2500K’s built-in GPU, I had to use lower resolution in order to get around 25~30 FPS). With the GeForce GTS 550 Ti, I’m able to max out all settings at highest resolution, and still get 60+ framerate. Although I can max out all UT3 settings on my “Music Production DAW” computer too (it’s a Core 2 Quad Q6600 with a GeForce 9800 GTX graphics card), I really don’t like gaming on my music-production computer (since I only turn it on to work on music, and to turn it on just to play a quick session of gaming becomes inconvenient), and also, the lack of surround sound via OpenAL is still a problem.

So, after abandoning the PC for consoles for a couple of years, I’m starting to game on the PC again, despite the technical troubleshooting that I hate about PC gaming. For twitch-reflex FPS, there’s just no substitute.

Sound Blaster X-Fi Titanium review:
soundblaster_x-fi_titanium.jpg
Overall, the Sound Blaster X-Fi Titanium sounds fine–its specs are no worse than typical pro audio interfaces, and its ASIO driver ran solid when I tested it in Sonar X1. What’s a bit alarming is the noise floor though–it’s noticeably higher than my old Audiotrak Prodigy 7.1 sound card when the volume is turned up high, and I can hear obvious interference along with noise floor that I did not hear with the Prodigy 7.1. But since I’m not using the X-Fi Titanium for any critical audio work (I use the TC Electronic Konnket Live for that), I’m not really concerned. I won’t hear the noise floor at all when fragging enemies in a twitch-reflex FPS.

One of the main selling points of the Creative Sound Blaster products is all the fancy effects, but I never bother with the more gimmicky ones–only typical consumers who don’t know much about audio will use features such as the X-Fi Crystalizer, EAX, or SVM. They don’t know that those gimmicky features do far more harm than good to the quality of the audio, and the only purpose such features serve is to impress people who probably aren’t picky about audio fidelity in the first place.

It’s kind of funny and ironic that Creative likes to tell people their X-Fi Crystalizer makes MP3’s sound better, when in fact it only severely colors the frequency response by giving it that dreaded “Disco Smiley” EQ curve, which any entry level audiophile would have grown out of in his first month of learning about audio fidelity. Creative is banking on the fact that most people have no idea just how transparent MP3’s sound these days with superior encoders like the LAME algoithm. For 99% of the general public, they can’t tell the difference between the original CD and an MP3 encoded at even moderate constant bitrates like 160 kbps or 192 kbps, let alone variable bitrates or max bitrate of 320 kbps. So if someone can’t tell the difference between the original CD and the MP3 in double-blind listening tests, what the hell is there to “restore” with the X-Fi Crystalizer? All it ends up doing is making everything sound grating and exaggerated in the treble and bass.

The CMSS-3D is essentially like Creative’s version of Dolby Pro Logic II and Dolby Headphone, and they work pretty much the same as the Dolby counterpart. I have Dolby Headphone from the JVC/Victor SU-DH1 hardware unit I use for surround sound headphone gaming, and I also have Dolby Pro Logic II from my Logitech Z-5500 surround sound system, and I think the two competing technologies are pretty similar in terms of results.

The Creative Console is so clumsy and slow that I never use it–I just use the shortcuts in the Creative Volume Panel to turn stuff on and off, or the Creative Audio Control Panel, since it has most of the settings of the Creative Console, but without the slow reacting graphical GUI that takes forever to switch between modes. It’s a shame that often the most popular companies out there with the highest market share are the ones who are the most clueless when it comes to designing products that are easy, fast, and intuitive to use.

Although both the sound card and the graphics card are doing what I purchased them to do, the unfortunate side-effect is that UT3 is now crashing all the time. I’ll have figure that out. UT2004 runs flawlessly though, but it’s quite dated graphically, so I don’t enjoy playing it as much as I used to. I prefer to get UT3 sorted out, if I could.

I recently sold my Stax headphone rig (SR-007mk2, SRM-717). It’s a great sounding rig, and the most expensive rig I owned, but I just don’t use it enough to justify keeping it. As some of you know, I don’t trust any headphone out of the box–I always create custom EQ curves to make them more accurate/neutral, and this is true even for expensive four-figure headphones. Once I EQ my headphones, they all end up sounding much more similar than different, which makes it really hard to justify keeping the really expensive ones when the cheaper ones sound so similar. In my case, my Audez’e LCD-2 (Rev.1) sounds close enough to ideal with my custom EQ curve that I really have no need for other headphones anymore (except a pair of closed-back for tracking).

BTW, here’s the latest version of my custom EQ curve for the LCD-2:
lcd-2 custom EQ curve

You can’t just look at it without knowing the context of why it looks that way though, so here’s the measurement for my LCD-2, which provides the proper context:
LCD2 frequency response graph

The thin white slanted line is basically what’s widely considered the ideal upper-mids to treble response from 1KHz to 20KHz (headphones shouldn’t measure flat in that frequency range, since headphones are different from speakers), and I basically EQ’d the LCD-2 to that ideal (while also using test tones like sine wave at regular frequency intervals, pink noise, and comparison to other headphones and speakers). At this point, I would say my LCD-2 sounds about as good as I need a pair of headphones to sound, and beyond that, it’s just unacceptable diminishing returns.

I would sell my Sennheiser HD650 too, but I’m keeping it as a backup, in case one day the LCD-2 dies on me and it takes a while to decide on what to replace it with–I’ll at least have another trustworthy headphone to use in the meantime. The Audio-Technica ATH-M50 will always have a place in my studio since it’s great as a tracking headphone, but I’d never use it for any kind of critical audio work since I just prefer open-back headphones in general.

I finally finished playing Dead Island, and it was much longer than I thought it would be (I think around 59 hours or so for me). I had mentioned previously that the game has some glaring issues, but despite those issues, I had a ton of fun because the gameplay was so immersive–especially once you get into the city. I’m not going to repeat what I already mentioned before, so I’ll just add that the ending was decent, and that final run through the prison was really tense. It’s not the kind of game that would win any awards for storytelling though, that’s for sure.

The technical glitches were unforgivable, such as during the ending cut-scene, the characters had no irises–just the whites of their eyes showed. Throughout the game, the facial animations were some of the very worst I had ever seen in a modern video game, and the voice acting ranged from pretty good to bad. The inventory bugs were less annoying than they could have been since I was careful to work around them.

For such a flawed game, it was a lot more fun than it had the right to be.

Quickie movie/TV reviews:

Breaking Bad (season four) – Again, Breaking Bad proves it’s one of the very best shows on television. Masterful dramatic structure, complex character developments, and very effective pacing. It also has some of the best acting on television too.

True Blood (season four) – Season four was somewhat disappointing, and while the love story was cute, the way the season concluded made me a bit nauseous. What is it with these female writers having such clichéd fantasies of multiple hot males (vampires and werewolves) fighting over the main female lead? Twilight and Vampire Diaries both do this too and it’s just laughably predictable and shallow.

Why can’t we have a female lead where male characters aren’t just tripping all over themselves to fall in love with? And to make it worse, not all of these female leads deserve such adoration. Sookie is perhaps the least deserving compared to the other female leads. Anna Paquin when compared to Nina Dobrev looks absolutely unremarkable and homely, and even compared to Kirsten Stewart, looks bland and common. As a character, Sookie isn’t as sharp or elegant as Elena, or have that brooding allure like Bella. Other than the required kindness and courage that all lead protagonists are expected to have, the only thing unique about her is her stupid faery blood. If it wasn’t for that, she wouldn’t even have the adoring vampires fighting over her.

Alexander Skarsgård was a pleasure to watch though–I’ve been a fan of his ever since Generation Kill. It was especially satisfying to see him play a very different Eric in season four.

African Cats – A sort of sanitized family version of a nature documentary with Samuel L. Jackson narrating the story. I’m not really fond of this style of documentary where we anthropomorphize and idealize animals with sentimental narration. I also don’t care for Jackson as a narrator–he sounds so out of place because I keep expecting him to say something that we’re more accustomed to from a bad mofo like him.

Smart People – These types of indie flicks have such a distinctly similar flavor to them that I find writing about them almost about as predictable as writing about mainstream Hollywood blockbusters. Aren’t indies supposed to represent uniqueness? But why do so many of these indie films featuring socially awkward but smart characters all seem like they were written and directed by the same person?

Super 8 – This was an interesting blend of classic adventure movie storytelling meets modern action film sensibilities. I really enjoyed the young actors, and the scene where Elle Fanning stunned the other kids with her innate acting talent just took my breath away. The last act became a fairly standard Hollywood blockbuster affair, and lacked the kind of heart that it aspired to, such as the classic 80’s Spielberg adventures.

Bad Teacher – The best moments in the movie were already shown in the trailer, and the rest of the movie was just filler. If the entire movie was as irreverent and biting as the trailer, then it would’ve been much more entertaining.

Battle For Terra I got about half way through the movie and then my attention began to wander. I started cleaning up around the studio for the rest of the movie, and it never regained 100% of my attention. The movie was essentially like watching a sterile and boring version of Avatar with low-budget visuals.

The Expendables One more movie that couldn’t hold my attention. The last act lost me, with all the fighting scenes boring me to the point where I stopped caring who was punching who and who was shooting at who. These fights were choreographed to be as entertaining as possible, but they just felt kind of pointless. I tend to favor more realistic fighting scenes such as in the Jason Bourne series, instead of the over-the-top action hero stuff. The realistic fighting scenes feel much more immediate and dangerous to me, where every single move could potentially kill or maim someone. With these testosterone action flicks, you never really feel like the heroes are in any danger, because they take a hundred punches and kicks and just keeps on going. It’s so 1980’s and so outdated, but what do you expect from Sylvester Stallone?

Because of Winn Dixie – I watched a bunch of children’s movies lately, since I usually ignore these types of movies, and I wanted to see what I was missing (thinking of them as research as a storyteller). As it happens, AnnaSophia Rob is in most of the recent ones, so it became a kind of mini AnnaSophia Rob marathon. This Win Dixie flick wasn’t very satisfying, especially the final conflict seemed to have come out of nowhere and had no real sense of gravity in the dramatic structure. AnnaSophia is certainly very cute, and although she may not be as good as Dakota or Elle Fanning was at the same age, she’s good enough for these types of simple movies. I don’t think she’s good enough for much more serious films by auteur type directors though.

Bridge to Terabithia – The story itself only became interesting after the sad plot twist, but by then, the movie was almost over. The fantastical elements almost felt tacked on and didn’t resonate emotionally. I never read the book so I have no idea if that’s how it was in the book as well. During the scenes where the kids are playing make believe, I had to wonder if the young actors thought it was all very silly, because it sure looked that way to me, but it probably didn’t look that way to the target audience.

The Race the Witch Mountain – By this point, I was a bit tired of seeing AnnaSophia’s big, earnest eyes. I also got tired of these children’s films, because they just aren’t very compelling–they’re either too safe, too simple, or too sentimental. I think the problem is that people who make these films don’t ever try to take risks and do something truly unique and remarkable. I much rather see mature movies ABOUT children than movies made FOR children.

The Spiderwick Chronicles – I did not care for Freddie Highmore at all. I think he’s a very minor talent that gets casted because of his good looks. It also doesn’t help that I absolutely hated August Rush with a passion (for a movie about the love for music, it was the greatest unintentional insult to musicians I’ve ever seen in my life). The rest of the cast I actually liked, and they made the movie bearable for me. At this point, I’m done with these children’s movies–they just aren’t very compelling. I consider my research done and I’ll never return to this genre again unless there’s phenomenal critical acclaim enticing me.

Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon – I can’t stand these type of movies, but I force myself to watch them as research–to keep up with what’s happening in the mainstream cinematic landscape.

This latest movie in the franchise was the worst one yet, where the main character has become this immature, obnoxious, and unlikable douchebag. I mean, really? This is what passes for a leading protagonist these days in epic-budgeted mainstream movies?

I really don’t need to rip this movie apart since there are no shortage of scathing reviews out there. I’ll just say one more thing though: “The Ark” is a ridiculous name for an alien ship, because the Autobot’s alien culture has no biblical connection to our world whatsoever, so the parallels are completely wrong in context and illogical.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes – I was pleasantly surprised by this movie. It didn’t pander to the lowest common denominator, and it created emotional resonance without overbearing and simple-minded sentimentality (which is what most mindless Hollywood blockbusters do). It had the kind of sophistication fitting for mainstream movies that I wish was more common.

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