Ethereality News & Weblog

March 18, 2013

Another Taiwan trip + Worst bedside manner ever

Kitty cat Diary’s been updated to August 2012:

A few months ago, Elena and I went to Taiwan for a few days. I always enjoy my time in Taiwan, because it’s a cozy mix of quaint hospitality and modernity. The quality of service across all industries in Taiwan is incredible, and beats even Japan. While Japan is extremely polite, that politeness comes off as artificial, while Taiwan feels more down-to-earth.

This time, I finally went to the famous 101 shopping mall:

It was a very posh mall, but it seemed to lack the kind of cozy warmth that some malls have, and when I searched Google Images, I realized that we probably went during slow season when none of the cool decorations were up. There are much better photos of the 101 shopping mall on the web that show how nice it can look during the busy holiday seasons.

On this trip, we didn’t really try to go out of our way for good food. For some reason, we no longer find food in Taiwan all that enticing; once the novelty wore off (this was our fourth visit in the last few years), it’s really just like any other place, where you’d have to hunt down the really great food, and the common food you find in most places is just that–common. The days of being excited by going to the famous night markets are gone. Elena enjoyed the tofu pudding desert though, and of course, ice cream is always going to put a smile on my face:

As for proper meals, none were particularly notable. It’s been a while since we had Indian food, so I was happy to see it in the food court of the 101 shopping mall:

I think our loss of interest in chasing after great food isn’t limited to Taiwan, but in general. We both share this feeling that when you’ve lived long enough and tried enough different food from various cultures, nothing is really that exotic or exciting anymore, because you have gotten familiar with all the different types of ingredients and spices, and know what they can do in various combinations. So unless it’s something very unique, we’re no longer easily impressed–which kinda sucks for us, but is a good thing for our health, because we’re now able to eat healthier and not crave unhealthy foods as much. Or, we’d just have to get even more adventurous and search out the really unique restaurants out there. But the truth is, we really couldn’t be bothered any more–there are so many other things in life we’d rather spend energy on.

But I have to say, I was pretty damn excited to find truffle salsa/paste at the 101’s supermarket. They even had the same one that got me hooked on the stuff years ago:

To me, a good truffle salsa/paste is the most amazing thing to spread on crackers and bread. Nothing else even comes close.

I went to the dentist while in Taiwan to take care of what the dentists in China couldn’t take care of properly when they pulled out my wisdom tooth. The skill, service, bedside manner, technology was like night and day between Taiwan and China. To give you an idea of how dramatic the differences are, let me briefly describe what I experienced in both countries.

In China, I went to a local dentist that came highly recommended, and I had been going to him for years, despite him being mediocre at his job compared to all the dentists I’ve been to in my lifetime (though he was probably the best in the city of Fuzhou). He didn’t even bother taking X-Rays of my wisdom tooth, and just starting working on pulling it out. I told him he probably should take X-Rays to make sure nothing unexpected is happening under the gum line, and he said he could tell just by looking that it’s a very normal tooth, and it’ll be a straightforward process. It’s only until an hour later when he was totally stuck, did he admit something’s wrong, and we had to take a taxi to a nearby hospital to get X-Rays because his machine was broken (that’s probably why he didn’t want to take an X-Ray in the first place–he was too cheap to fix his X-Ray machine).

When we got to the nearby hospital, they were in the middle of remodeling–there were construction debris everywhere right inside the hospital, even in the rooms–saw dust, plaster dust, paint cans–you name it. The hospital continued to operate as if it was just another normal day; I couldn’t believe my eyes. But then again, all the hospitals I’ve ever been to in China did not have any kind of air filtration system in place at all–they just kept all the windows open, and the only time they closed them was when it was crazy hot outside–that’s when they run the air conditioning. Imagine all the contaminants in the air, because they wanted to save money on electricity instead of running the HVAC system.

After getting one X-Ray, we took the taxi back to the local dentist’s office, and he then proceeded to spend another five hours trying to get my wisdom tooth out. Turned out the root was way too big to fit through the opening, so it had to be broken into pieces. If the damn dentist had taken a X-Ray first, he’d have known this right away and planned for it. To make things worse, he completely tore up the corner of my mouth by applying so much pressure with his instruments. The corner of my mouth was bleeding the whole time, because he had nothing in his office that could protect my mouth from getting ripped up. Seriously? I’m pretty sure modern dentists have tools they can use to protect the corner of their patient’s mouth from being torn up by their instruments. Hell, even improvised solutions could work.

I seemed to be okay after going home (the painkillers helped), but a few days later, I was in pain, and I went to another hospital to see the head dentist there.

This guy ended up insulting me to my face.

I basically told him what the situation was with my wisdom tooth extraction, and he preceded to rough-handle me. When I told him I was concerned there’s bone exposed on the side of the extraction site and asked whether we need to file it down or just leave it, he asked in a demeaning tone, “Does the exposed bone cause you emotional anguish? Does it hurt your feelings?”

I couldn’t believe my ears.

When I asked him about the common procedures for treating exposed bones I’d read about on dentistry websites, he scoffed and told me to stay off the internet. He then starts quizzing me on advanced medical knowledge in a hostile tone, and sneered at me when I didn’t know the answers. “Didn’t you say you did research online? Looks like you don’t know diddly squat.”

I wanted to slap that smug and spiteful look off of his face.

Yep, that is how doctors in China often behave–by far the worst bedside manner I’ve ever seen in my life. I have witnessed this kind of condescending and antagonistic behavior many times during the years I lived in China. The doctors treat the patients the way they would treat farm animals–man-handle them and talk down to them as if they were uneducated imbeciles.

The level of God-complex these doctors have is astounding, and to make it worse, they are bribed left and right by the patients, for these patients fear that if they don’t bribe the doctors, they’ll end up paying for it with their health or even their lives. You know who get bribed the most at the hospital in China? Anesthesiologists. It is one of the most common bribes, and has become customary at this point. If you don’t bribe them, there’s no telling what might happen to you. If you think I’m exaggerating, then just google “anesthesiologists bribed in China.” Hell, google “hospital bribery in China” and read the hits you get.

Aren’t you glad you’re only reading about this stuff instead of having to live through it? I sure am glad I got the hell out of China and have zero interest in ever going back.

I got to spend time with some family members (step-mom and half-siblings on that side) while in Taiwan, including my birth father, who I haven’t seen since 1984 (I was eleven when I left Taiwan). Part of me wishes that I lived in Taiwan so I can spend more time with them, since I missed out on many years of quality time.

It’s a little better now with social media, but nothing beats the physical presence of being near someone. I think social media is great for keeping in touch with people you already know well, but trying to get to know people you don’t know well in real life via social media always feels like there’s a layer between you–that lack of verity and precious memories of time spent together.

If real estate wasn’t so expensive there, it might be a possibility, but Elena prefers the quieter life in the States, so even if we lived in Taiwan, we’d have to pick the more rural areas (city life in most of Asia is insanely crowded and busy), and that sort of defeats the purpose, since most people we know in Taiwan all live in Taipei.

I finished reading Ender’s Game and The Great Gatsby a few months ago. Both were good books I enjoyed.

As much as I enjoyed Ender’s Game for it depiction of military strategy and the psychological toll of a child being manipulated into being an effective killer, the one thing that I couldn’t get over was the children being portrayed as far too advanced emotionally and intellectually for their ages. I was a precocious child myself, and I know there are some very intelligent and talented children out there–child prodigies and geniuses–but what Orson Scott Card wrote was too unrealistic, stretching far beyond the limits of suspension of disbelief. To have children secretly write political columns that influence the entire human race is just ludicrous. No matter how high the I.Q of a child may be, it is not the same thing as intellectual maturity. Children simply cannot formulate the kind of complex intellectual gymnastics required for political debates at the highest level, no matter how smart they are, for they lack the experience necessary to be convincing in their arguments.

***SPOILER AHEAD*** (Skip the next paragraph if you haven’t read the book and plan to.)

Another issue I had with the book was Ender’s sudden empathy for the buggers after the war had been won. His feelings about the aliens was never adequately explored in the book, and at the end, his distress for having annihilated the enemy just came out of nowhere. It’s not as if he didn’t know all along the plan was to wipe out the enemy, and all the training he went through was for that singular purpose. There should have been at least some mention of his empathy for the enemy, and how he felt about xenocide as a possible outcome of the war. While Ender was always depicted as a sensitive child that didn’t want to harm others, that doesn’t automatically mean he extended the same level of empathy towards insect-like aliens that wanted to destroy the human race.


Other than those two issues, I enjoyed Ender’s Game, and I can see why it won the awards it did (Nebula and Hugo), or why is on the required reading list for many military organizations.

The Great Gatsby is a book I should have read in high school, except the required reading list was probably flexible, and my English teacher chose a lineup that didn’t have The Great Gatsby (our reading list included books like The Stranger, The Catcher In the Rye, a couple of Salinger’s short stories, Les Misérables, a handful of Shakespeare, and probably others I can’t remember). I’m not sure what I would’ve thought of the book if I had read it as a teenager. Perhaps it would’ve only deepened my strong dislike of mindless materialism and the blind pursuit for money and social status.

As a writer, I admire the prose styling of Fitzgerald. I read the book via Kindle, and there were passages I highlighted because of how well-written they were. The creative use of syntax was particularly impressive.

The story itself was fairly simplistic, and the overall theme was clear and easy to grasp. For a book that’s often named the best American novel ever written, it’s a bit light in terms of plot, conflict, and theme, but perhaps it’s because of the simplicity that it has endured as a classic.

Quickie movie/TV reviews:

Sons of Anarchy (season five) I was starting to lose interest a bit last season, but this season had a lot of major plot progressions that altered the dynamics of the relationship and power balance between the characters, and Juice’s storyline was very intriguing. I can’t imagine this series continuing for more than another season though, since we’ve now reached the point of no return. I suspect season six will be the final season that ties up all the loose ends.

Dexter (season six) – I’m starting to get tired of Dexter at this point. The plot progression feels too sluggish, and the stakes not interesting enough. The main antagonist this time around was kind of a bore, and the plot twist didn’t have the impact it should have had. The odd incest plot twist also felt almost like jumping the shark. They need to wrap up this series with a bang next season, because at this point, the premise is all played out, and there isn’t much to do but to tie up the loose ends.

Community (season 1-3) – This is now my favorite comedy TV show (previously, it was The Office, but ever since Steve Carrel left, it just hasn’t been the same). I love the characters, the meta humor, and the pop culture references (I usually hate them, but the writers on this show managed to make them integral to the narrative as opposed to being merely gimmicks). The three youngsters (Annie, Abed, and Troy) are definitely my favorites by far.

When I realized I had fallen in love with this show (after about three episodes in), I asked myself why this show and not other shows with similar kinds of wacky humor–say, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. The reason is simple–I prefer shows that have a heart, and the characters have redeemable qualities. The characters in The Community all have lovable qualities in their own ways, while the characters in IASIP are a bunch of petty sociopaths without any redeeming qualities, and even with the unrelenting pace of jokes, it leaves me cold.

Homeland (season two) – Just as enjoyable as the first season, and takes the stakes up a notch. By the end of the season, you’re left breathless and wondering how season three is going to play out. Carrie and Brody’s relationship strains the suspension of disbelief at times, just because it’s hard to accept the really bad judgement from someone who should know better. But I’m okay with how it turned out.

The Artist – It’s an enjoyable film that’s charming the way classic silent films are, and mostly because it followed the same formula in both tone and execution. The uniqueness afforded of its hindsight on the progression of the film medium in history, and how it is weaved into the execution of the film, was probably the reason why the film critics all went gaga over the film. I thought it was clever, but it didn’t add anything more to the emotional resonance, and at times bordered on being a little bit gimmicky.

Brave – Formulaic and lacking the kind of inventiveness that we’ve come to expect from Pixar. There was a time when Pixar could do no wrong, and perhaps those days are behind us.

[Rec] 3 – Very disappointing. The first two were pretty good, but this third one totally jumped the shark in the overall tone and style, having chosen a campy approach.

The Kids Are All Right – An enjoyable indie fare that looks at the dynamics of family from a slightly skewed angle.

Looper – It had some nice moments, but it’s hard not to overlook the flawed logic that the entire movie is based on. But then again, how much do we really know about the universe and time travel? The ending felt a little forced, but overall it was an entertaining movie.

Bourne Legacy – I don’t know why they bothered making this one. It’s just rehashing the same ingredients and brings nothing new to the table, and it’s not as enjoyable as the Jason Bourne trilogy.

God Bless America – The trailer had me jumping up and down with excitement, as it expressed the same pent up rage I feel about the shallow end of our civilization, and while I knew the movie was just preaching to the choir, at least it would be a cathartic experience to see the protagonist do all those things we wished we could do. Unfortunately, the best bits in the movie were all used up in the trailer–the rest of movie was meandering and pointless. I was very disappointed.

Prometheus – From all the hateful reviews of this movie out there, you’d think it’s probably one of the worst films ever made in the history of mankind, but alas, it’s only the immature and skewed hyperbole of the internet trolls. It’s no masterpiece, but it is certainly better than majority of the sci-fi movies out there, which puts it at above average at the very least.

I follow Ridley Scott’s career and watch everything he directs, and for those of you who do the same, we know we can expect a skillfully made film that looks gorgeous. The story may leave some scratching their heads, and it doesn’t quite have the same impact as I had hoped, it’s nonetheless very entertaining. I have a feeling that this is only an introduction to something much bigger to come, and the sequel is what will blow our minds.

The Assault – It can’t be easy to take an exciting premise such as a terrorist hijacking and turn it into a boring film, but that’s what the French crew behind this movie managed to do. For all the criticism that people sling towards Hollywood, at least it knows how to make exciting and entertaining movies when called to do so.

Wrath of the Titans – Another mindless special-effects movie, and this one’s worse than the previous one.

Snow White and the Huntsman – I have no idea why this movie’s got mostly positive reviews. It’s really just another pointless reimagining that has no compelling reason for existing in the first place.

Conan the Barbarian – So forgettable that I can’t remember what the hell the story was about.

Underworld: Awakening – I’ll take this series over that Twilight crap any day. While none of the entries in the Underworld series can be considered great movies, they have a kind of slickness and ultra-cool vibe that you’ll never get from any of the teenage vampire romance franchises.

The Cabin in the Woods – It’s co-written by Joss Whedon, and if you are a fan like me, you’ll watch anything he worked on. It’s got a very clever premise that turns the slasher genre on its ear, but I had hoped for a bit more background story that explained the lore better.

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


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 (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:


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 28, 2011

Another Taiwan trip, Apple devices, Uncharted 2, and Mass Effect 2

Latest batch of Kitty Cat Diary entries are up:

It’s hard to believe that the Kitty Cat Diary is about to reach ten years. We always thought we’d stop after ten years, when she reached age forty. Now that she’s finally turned forty, we can’t really think of any reason why we’d have to stop. So, maybe we’ll just keep going until we’re REALLY too old to be doing this sort of thing.

Elena and I recently made another trip to Taiwan, and we spent Chinese New Years there with my mom. We got to see more family this time, which was awesome. My baby sisters were just adorable. It’s really funny to find myself thinking that, since they’re in their 20’s and 30’s now–not exactly kids anymore, but maybe because I’m heading straight for middle-age myself, even fully grown women seem really young to me. Or maybe it’s just because they’re my baby sisters. My brother Michael’s still coughing his lungs out but refuses to stop smoking. I can’t understand how anyone could stand so many years of perpetual torture like that. If I catch a cold and cough for a month, it just completely drains me, but he’s willing to put up with nonstop coughing fits for decades, just so he could have his cigarettes, and in fact, he stated he’s willing to die for it. There’s really nothing you can say to that–he’s made his choice.

Taiwan is famous for its food, and while there are some pretty tasty stuff to be found in Taiwan, we discovered on this trip that it can be really inconsistent. More than a few times during this trip, we had food that looked to be really delicious in concept and in appearance, but tasted quite bland. Another problem is that even though foreign cuisine is more authentic in Taiwan than in China, Taiwan still has the tendency to alter foreign cuisine to fit the taste of the local population. For example, desserts in Taiwan tend to be a lot less sweet than in the States, and if you order a donut in Taiwan, you’ll think that someone forgot to add sugar to it. It’s the same with cake, ice cream, pastries, and sometimes even beverages. For example, these green tea flavored desserts seems to be quite tasty…:

…but they were quite bland. We were very disappointed.

Of course, whenever you are in Taiwan, you must go to the night markets since they’re one of the most interesting things about Taiwan:

This particular market had a Buddhist temple right next to it:

There are a lot of pet shops near these night markets. I don’t get the logic. Perhaps they think cute cuddly pets go very well with tasty food and large crowds? Or maybe they’re just after the foot traffic.

Hard not to gush a little when you see something that cute and cuddly.

While Taiwanese food vendors are very creative, always coming up with interesting new inventions, combining different cuisines and trying bold new experiments, the results are not always good. We tried some stuff that in theory seemed to be great combos, but due to the unsatisfactory execution (often the taste is not strong enogh), we were often disappointed. What’s frustrating is that we don’t like to waste food, so we try to finish what we order, but then you feel like you’ve wasted all that room in your stomach on food that wasn’t even tasty–especially when there are still dozens of other vendors waiting for you to try, yet you’re already full. I think during this trip, the only thing that Elena really liked enough to eat twice was this duck blood and stinky tofu dish:

In contrast, when we stopped in Hong Kong for a few days, the food was overall more consistently tasty, and foreign cuisines were also a lot more authentic. Hong Kong is truly an international city after all, while Taipei isn’t. I can walk around Hong Kong and see a lot more foreigners, and I can pretty much go to most stores and speak English without problems. There’s no way you could do that in Taiwan.

In terms of the overall vibe, Hong Kong is also a lot more modern in general. Even just visually, Hong Kong is more hi-tech looking than Taipei in its overall architectural designs, street layout, and so on. The problem with Taipei is that it’s quite crowded, with lots of very narrow alleys in residential areas, and most of the houses are old and gray multi-story apartments with security iron bars for the balconies. Many of these don’t even have elevators, with dark and narrow staircases. But because Taipei is the most thriving city in Taiwan, even these dingy old apartments cost a fortune. Today’s young people could never afford one, and they are almost always passed down from grandparents or parents. Once you get away from Taipei, you’ll find much more modern and posh gated apartment communities that cost a lot less, but are far more comfortable and trendy.

The night markets might be the most famous in Taiwan, that doesn’t mean there aren’t very modern and posh looking shopping districts, such as this one:

It was Chinese New Years, so lots of red lanterns everywhere.

While walking around the shopping district, we saw a lot of street performers, but what caught our eye was a crowd of people and a group of dogs:

Elena and I love dogs, so of course we got closer to see what the deal was. What we witnesses was really surprising. The dogs all were extremely well-behaved. They were so gentle, trusting, and affectionate, and the crowd was just delighted by the group of dogs:

The extent of their gentle and affectionate behavior was just so unusual, so we just had to ask what was going on. It turned out that they were all rescued dogs, and this guy who rescued them would train them to behave like perfect gentle dogs, and then take them out to shopping districts and interact with the crowd. The goal is to show the world just how gentle and well-behaved dogs can be, and ideally, these lovely dogs will then find a new home because people in the crowd would fall in love with them, as well as donate money to the whole project so it could keep going. I have to say, it is just a brilliant and admirable thing that this guy is doing, because he’s not waiting for people to come and adopt–he’s going out of his way to bring these dogs to potential owners, while promoting his cause. To bad our current lifestyle isn’t suitable for keeping any pets (our cats Prowler and Muriel are now with a different owner because of that), or else we’d totally have pets running around at home.

Here’s a Border Collie giving Elena sudden and unexpected kisses:

This cutie is with the caricature portrait artist:

I personally don’t like doggie clothes, unless it’s so cold out that their furs don’t quite do the job of keeping them warm. It really wasn’t cold that day, so this is just the owner forcing human vanity onto the poor dog.

While in Taiwan, we went to look at a few real estate deals, and this one developing project on the outskirts of Taipei looked pretty nice. This is their model home:

There are a lot of vertically grown plants in Taiwan’s public places, and I like how it’s a creative way of utilizing vertical spaces:

During the trip, I kept trying to go see Tangled, but nobody really wanted to go see it because they wanted to see “real movies” instead of some cartoon. When I finally convinced Elena to go see it with me in Hong Kong, it was only available in dubbed Cantonese. I hate dubs in general (unless it’s really good English dub of anime, since anime has terrible lip-syncing anyway), and the Cantonese dialect just grates on my nerves, so I decided to just wait for the DVD.

There’s a possibility that I might finally cave in and buy my first Apple product (likely an iPod Touch, so I can compose music with one of the fully-featured MIDI/audio sequencing apps when I’m out and about, instead of wasting my time waiting in lines, for a flight, or on the train), but it is with very mixed feelings. I’ve been resisting the onslaught of Apple products for something like 14 years now, and to date, I have yet to purchase a single Apple product (except the times when I was forced to buy something from the iTunes store because that was the only option). I have fundamental issues with how Apple operates as a company, and very often I find glaring problems with their designs and features, but on a macro level, I can’t deny that they really understand what the masses want. The problem is, they cater to the masses, and not to people who have unique individuality and likes to do things their own way. It’s that arrogance that annoys me, where they think they know better than you what you really want. Maybe that’s true for the sheeple out there, but not the rest of us.

Some examples that’s really turned me off of Apple products would be:

-How slow Quicktime responds.

-How annoying Quicktime and iTunes update naggings are.

-You were forced to download iTunes when you only need Quicktime (but apparently that’s changed by now).

-The iPod has no onboard custom EQ setting capability, and the only way to get custom EQ settings is to set them in iTunes on your computer, and then apply them to the songs you want to affect, and then upload the songs with the custom EQ setting to the iPod. How ridiculous is that? That is why I’ve always stuck with Creative Labs‘ products because they are much more flexible and ergonomically designed.

-There is no way to quickly jump multiple levels between directory branches, and you must move one directory at a time through the directory tree(s), which takes forever. With Creative Zen products, I can map a custom key that will take me to any page or feature I designate, at the press of a button.

-Apple refuses to play well with the world and stubbornly sticks to proprietary formats for a ton of stuff when it’s not always necessary, especially when some conventions are perfectly fine–such as chargers, connectors, cables, and so on.

-The DRM fiasco.

-The damn click wheel that Apple is so proud of–it’s totally overrated. It is only really good for fast scrolling, and that’s it. Outside of scrolling, it is imprecise and overshoots way too easily. I would much more prefer simple directional buttons with pressure sensitivity–light pressure for single movements, and increasing harder pressure for faster scrolling.

-No cut & paste or multitasking on Apple devices (supposedly this is changing).

-Macs are only customizable up to a certain point, and are not nearly as flexible as PC’s. Once again, they have the arrogance to think there aren’t people out there who want to customize the workspace in their computers to their own liking, or want to customize their computer hardware exactly as they want.

-The snobby attitude that serious creative people all use Macs. That is such a steamy pile of horseshit. I know that’s an attitude from the older days, but so many people still regurgitate that mindless mantra even now.

Those are just the ones off the top of my head.

The one thing I actually like about Apple products is the aesthetics of their visual design. Unfortunately, their visual design sense is often not married with a good sense of ergonomics, so it’s often just good looks but not a whole lot of flexibility or depth.

With all that said, I’ve been seriously considering an iPod Touch. It all started when my small hand-held recorder broke. I always carry it around so that when I have ideas for melodies or drum patterns, I will hum or beatbox into the recorder so I won’t forget it (or use it to record voice memos, since these days I almost never go out and don’t need a cellphone). The one thing I wish my hand-held recorder could do was to record multitrack, so for example I could beatbox the drum pattern, then hum the melody and accompaniment onto other tracks. That got me thinking maybe I should get a small portable multi-track recorder, such as the Zoom H4n and Boss Micro BR–both looks to be perfect for what I needed.

The problem with that idea is that while out and about and in public (such as waiting for a flight or standing in a long line at the bank or grocery), I’ll disturb others if I started humming and beatboxing into a device, not to mention it’ll be embarrassing as hell. So that got me thinking, what about iPhone and iPad apps for musicians? I knew there were apps like sequencers, synths, drum machines, samplers, guitar/bass amp/effects…etc, but I had no idea just how much could really be done with them. After a lot of research, I found three apps that I would love to use on a small hand-held device:

NanoStudio – Full featured sequencer with synths, drum machine, effects, multitrack, MIDI editing, and so on.

Music Studio – Similar to NanoStudio, but with a much wider range of sound modules, covering orchestral, pop/rock, ethnic, and so on, not just syths and drum machine.

BeatMaker 2 – Similar to Music Studio.

With any of these three apps, I’ll basically have a full-blown compositional and arrangement tool in the palm of my hands, and I could be working on a composition anywhere. The MIDI data could be exported to my desktop DAW where I could replace all the instruments and effects with real instruments or high-end sample libraries and effects, as well as continue editing all the MIDI data to perfection.

I tried to avoid the Apple route by researching into Android alternatives, and unfortunately, the Android platform has some inherent issues with real-time audio and MIDI, and there are no comparable alternatives to the three apps I mentioned above. At the same time, the Android devices like the ones from HTC or Samsung are actually more expensive than the Apple devices, which really surprised me. So however I slice it, it’s looking like there will be an Apple device in my possession in the near future. Definitely the iPod Touch though, since the iPad is not quite portable for traveling and standing around waiting in lines.

I finally finished playing Uncharted 2: Among Thieves and Mass Effect 2.

First, let’s talk about Uncharted 2. I’m not quite sure if Uncharted 2 is significantly better than the previous game in every way, but in most ways, especially in terms of gameplay I think it was an improvement, with less repetition and more interesting A.I. behavior. The visuals were more varied this time around instead of so much of the same jungle and ruins combo. The story is pretty much the same run-of-the-mill type of Indiana Jones wannabe narrative, and it felt pretty lazy to me because there are so many ways to make a treasure-hunting narrative far more interesting, yet they stuck to the already done-to-death premise/plot structure we’ve seen far too many times already.

The tone feels the same as the first game, except with a bit more back-stabbing happening in-between the witty banters. I wish video games would STOP it with the silly one-liners from enemy goons though. I can’t stand it when there are countless henchmen–hundreds of them employed by the “enemy boss”–yet all these faceless goons know you by name and taunt you with dumbtastic one-liners like “You are DEAD, Drake!” “I’m going to GET you, Drake!” as if there’s a long history of blood feud between each of them and you. Video game writing may have advanced a lot in the last decade, but this is one aspect that’s still as stupid as ever. Who the hell makes these decisions? The writer? The game designer? The creative director? The producer? Is there no one fighting against this idiocy?

On normal difficulty, there were some spots where I died over and over before I could get past them, and a couple of times I was ready to put down the controller and not touch the game for a month. The ending was okay, and the game didn’t overstay its welcome. Emotionally, it really wasn’t anything special at all, but it’s not as if I expected it to have the kind of emotional resonance that great RPG’s have–it’s really just a popcorn game at the end of the day, totally disposable and in good fun.

Now, Mass Effect 2.

While Bioware games are in general always enjoyable, Mass Effect 2 felt a bit formulaic to me. The story structure and progression didn’t feel as organic, and I think a lot of it has to do with the whole “recruit people on this list” approach. When a game is written that way, the writer loses a lot of control over the pacing and flow, as well as the opportunity to tie these characters on the list firmly into the main story arc.

Because the game was designed so that you could go and recruit any of the people on the list in any order you want, they have to be completely self-contained standalone stories within the main story arc, and that makes them feel detaches and uninvolved, not to mention it’s hard to have a real sense of how the relationship between these characters develop. The game tried to inject that into scenes that happen on the Normandy, such as the rift between Miranda and Jack, but they tend to feel too contrived. I would have preferred if you had to recruit the people on the list in a specific order, which would allow the writers to control the pacing tightly for more satisfying dramatic developments.

The fact that you could only take two members with you to any mission also feels really limiting. It used to be that games had to be that way because of resource limitations, but now in the 21st Century, it seems almost arbitrary. There were missions that were obviously more dangerous than others, and you would need to bring more help with you, but two is always the hard limit. Even in the last mission where everyone was involved, they had to contrive a way for you to only have two other characters that you can command. In some ways I understand this way involves a lot less complications for the developer, but at the same time, it just doesn’t feel quite right.

Another thing that bugged me a little was how on the Normandy, there were two crew members in a room alone, sitting at a table and talking. They had different things to say at first, but once they ran out of recorded dialogues, they just sat there staring at each other, and it was really creepy. While this is how RPG’s have always been, in this particular case, it really stuck out because they were completely isolated in a room, and they were just staring at each other like mindless zombies. In other areas of the ship it felt less creepy because you have crew members everywhere, so there’s no sense of a magnifying glass on any one of them. I really wish that developers will record at least twice or three times as much random banter of NPC’s so the whole universe feels a lot more real and alive.

In a past blog entry I had mentioned that I wanted to see really unexpected things happen on the Normandy, like it getting invaded, and I almost laughed when it really happened in ME2. But I was disappointed in how it was handled, since it felt more like an interactive movie than any kind of a real challenge or problem you had to resolve.

One last thing I want to mention is that the more I play RPG’s, the more frustrated I get at how dead-ends are sometimes reached in dialogue trees. Sometimes you choose a response and it just completely kills all possible future dialogue with that character, and even though I understand that RPG’s can’t be like real life where you can continue to try and talk some sense into somebody, it’s still really annoying.

In terms of gameplay and combat, I thought ME2 was tightened up nicely over the first game, although the simplification of the more hardcore RPG elements made it a bit less immersive. Also, the planet scanning mini-game was just painfully boring and time-consuming. I cannot for the life of me understand how the people in charge at Bioware could allow that mini game to not only be included, but be a necessary part of the game where you must endure literally hours of boredom just so you can upgrade your arsenal. Whoever came up with that shitty idea needs to get fired.

Overall, I enjoyed ME2, but I disagree with the general consensus that it’s better than the first game. Emotionally, I was a lot more attached to the first game, and the moral dilemmas I had to face were also more thought-provoking in the first game.

Quickie movie review:

Anvil! The Story of Anvil – For someone like me who’s inching towards middle-age and still have unfulfilled dreams, while feeling like life is just slipping past, this documentary hit me really hard, especially that music is the highest on my list of unfulfilled dreams (along with film and writing). Watching the emotional scenes of them wondering if all the years of sacrifice was worth it, and vowing that they will give it one more shot before they finally call it quits, I just couldn’t hold my tears back.

While I may not like their brand of metal, I couldn’t help but want to root for these guys and see them finally succeed. That show in Japan towards the end–the moment they walked out onto the stage–wow. I wonder how many struggling musicians got choked up watching that scene.

An Education – Carey Mulligan was absolutely radiant in this film, and her character was just like the kind of girl I used to have crushes on when I was at that age–the precocious, witty type with a youthful and cute face, but obviously older and wiser than her age. I even had a very close friend that I was in love with who was very similar.

I enjoyed the film a lot, even although I felt that overall, the film was perhaps handled just a tad too understated and could have have used a little bit more intensity in certain key scenes.

9 (Nine) – Being that this was originally an animated short film, it’s a bit obviously that the writing was stretched too thin to extend the running time to feature length. The story was too vague and the whole thing felt like an extended action sequence as opposed a proper story. But nevertheless, it was entertaining and some of the action scenes were very exciting. The visual quality of the film can’t compete against the much bigger productions from Pixar or Dreamworks but it wasn’t an eyesore and had its own unique charm.

The A-Team – This movie was so over-the-top that it bordered on being cartoony, but every time you think they’re about to push things too far, they always kept the reigns tight enough that the whole thing didn’t just go off the cliff and into cringe-worthy crassness.

Outlander – A very simple, predictable, and formulaic sci-fi/fantasy flick, done with a modest budget, and of good enough quality that you can make it all the way through without much cringing, while finding some bits of it quite enjoyable.

Mad Max – All these years, I never got around to this classic. I had seen Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdome when I was a kid though, since it ran on HBO all the time. It wasn’t exactly the kind of film that resonated with me, so I never bothered to investigate further. Now that I have seen the first movie, I can see why it’s considered influential and a classic. The violence and the action scenes are certainly edgy for its time, and surprisingly still holds up. In fact, they often feel more visceral that all the CG special effects or stunts that are too tightly choreographed. The story itself is about as simple as it gets–the classic tale of revenge, and it doesn’t even bother with a proper ending–just kill the last villain and bam, there’s the ending credits. There’s no sense of closure whatsoever, or any concern with the aftermath. Movies back then could get away with this, but if this kind of ending was used today, the audience would probably be pissed.

I tend to not like watching older films since they often feel dated and all the things that were raved about them back then seem like old hat today. There’s no way I could fully appreciate how the audiences back then felt about these films, because my understanding of cinema and its progress is totally different from theirs, and often the only thing left is historical curiosity, which is often not satisfying enough. Mad Max actually holds up pretty well and doesn’t feel nearly as dated as most films from that era, and I think it’s because how far the film pushed the action and violence that kept it from feeling dated.

Let Me In – Finally I got to see the American remake of one of my favorite recent films, the Swedish Let the Right One In, which was based on a Swedish novel. I have to say, I loved the American remake, and in some ways it improved on things that I felt were a little awkward about the original.

I always felt that Kåre Hedebrant, the boy that played Oskar in the original film, was a bit stiff in his acting. Even though the director did his best to make it seem like the stiffness was due to him being a bullied lonely kid who’s a bit odd and creepy, I think the awkward acting still showed. Lina Leandersson, who played Eli, was much better, which in contrast just made Kåre seem even worse as an actor. Kodi Smit-McPhee is a far superior actor in every single way compared to Kåre Hedebrant, and I don’t think that’s a subjective preference, but a fact. The expressiveness, the natural ease, the ability to convey drama and emotional resonance–there’s just no comparison.

I loved Chloe Moretz in Kickass, and at this point I’d watch anything she’s in, and she was certainly good in the remake, but I think physically she’s a bit too apple pie for the role. She didn’t seem like someone who’s been cut off from society for a very long time, and her smiles are just a bit too dazzling for such a tragic character. Lina isn’t as attractive as Chloe, but Lina was more suited to portray a tragic and awkward character who’s not quite comfortable in her own skin, and that mixture of an old soul and aching need for friendship and love felt more real on Lina’s face. When Eli looked uncomfortable or shy, it felt very real, whereas with Chloe, it looked like acting. You can tell that Chloe the person, is far more confident and spunky than Abby the tragic vampire, and we’re not supposed to be able to see or feel that. I don’t think having seen her in other roles was the reason, but that she’s just not the type to play someone that awkward.

There are numerous little things about the remake that I liked better than the original, such as focusing more on the two leads instead of the inconsequential neighbors who waste their lives away at the local pub, the clumsy scene with the enraged cats, or the father and son relationship that felt too much like an unnecessary detour from the main plot. In all honesty, when I read the original novel, I had very mixed feeling about it because while it contained moments of brilliance, it contained even more unnecessary detours and unwanted uglification of characters you’re supposed to like. Because the novel had lots of detours from the main plot, the entire story became murky and lacking the kind of clarity where you don’t have to single out what you loved from a bunch of other elements you just couldn’t care less about. For me, the only aspect of the book that made it great was the relationship between the two young leads, while the rest were absolutely irrelevant to the essence of the story. Let the Right One In already trimmed much of the fat, but retained some of it perhaps out of respect for the book, since cutting all of it out would be declaring that the author had a meandering creative vision and needed much editing (apart from the limited running time of a feature film). With the American remake, the trimming of the fat was even bolder and and I think it was a smart decision to focus on just the two leads, as it made for a much tighter narrative.

Some of the other changes/improvements I particularly enjoyed were:

-Showing a photo booth strip that hinted that the “father” was just a boy when he first met Abby, and Owen’s reaction to seeing the photo added a whole new dimension to the entire relationship–there was both jealousy and fear that he’ll one day become the “father” to her. This was something that was never really touched upon in the Swedish version of the film, and in the original novel, the “father’s” real identity was so creepy and loathsome that it was deemed better to be left out of the movie version.

-While the Swedish film does reveal Eli’s sexual identity, the American version dodged the whole topic, and I think whether you agree with that decision depends on personal taste. I think that whole plot twist in the book makes the relationship between the two leads unnecessarily convoluted because her sexual identity really isn’t much of a factor in the story, and it was never really explored in a meaningful way in the book anyway, which then makes it feel like just a gimmick.

-The remake shows the origin of the bully’s rage–that he’s bullied by his much worse older brother, and as we all know, victims of bullies often transfer their abuse to the next victim in order to regain some self-esteem and vent the anger and shame of being helpless.

-The “father” in the remake was less of a shell and had thoughts and feelings regarding his relationship with Abby and also his stance on his duty as the hunter/killer. He also expressed clearly some form of jealousy or felt threatened by her blossoming relationship with Owen. Abby’s feelings towards him was also more evident through a scene where she touches his scruffy face tenderly in a way that was a lot more emotional and touching than in the Swedish version.

In general, I think good remakes tend to be a bit more slick and focused, while the originals were a bit more raw but lacking a bit of finesse. Good remakes also often fill in some details that were lacking in the original, while intensifying the elements that made the original so good. When a remake does the opposite, they usually fail miserably.

One thing that did surprise me was how closely Matt Reeves followed the original in the direction, and many shots looked nearly identical (Quarantine, the American remake of [REC] was like that too), and I wish he’d have done more of his own thing, but perhaps he thinks of it as being respectful of the original, and it’s unnecessary to try to reinvent the wheel just to be different, especially when the original did it so well.

Anyway, I think it’s definitely an excellent remake, and good enough to split opinions on which version is better. I’d probably rank them about the same.

Restrepo – It’s always hard to review documentaries, since you’re always aware of the fact that there’s only so much shaping you can do with real life footages, and you just can’t judge them the same way you judge fictional works. All I can say is that a film like Restrepo is like most other war documentaries, and the main message is always that war is bad, soldiers endure hardship and they bond in the process, and their lives are forever scarred by the insanity of war.

Danny the Dog – I have never been a fan of Jet Li or Jackie Chan, and in fact, I’m not a fan of any of the martial artists-turned-actors. It’s quite simple really–I have yet to see any that can really act on the same level that that I expect of good actors. I typically wouldn’t choose to watch a film with these type of “movie stars,” but I have heard good things about how Danny the Dog had an unconventional take on the martial arts action film–specifically that it had a lot of heart. The fact that Massive Attack scored the film also made it unique, since I’m a MA fan. I also figured that since Morgan Freeman is in it, it can’t possibly be that bad. I was not disappointed. Although I still don’t think much of Jet Li as an actor, the story was kind of refreshing for an action flick. The main lead was basically like a scared child, except when he’s beating the living daylights out of someone. I actually thought the film was more commercial than I had expected–since I originally thought it would be really artsy in that indie arthouse style, but it was shot more or less like a conventional action flick, except with a less conventional premise.

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