Ethereality News & Weblog

June 26, 2006

Lost and found

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If you’re a fan of Joss Whedon’s Firefly, you must sign up for this:

I’m a huge fan of Firefly, and a fan of Joss Whedon in general. He could get a bit campy at times, but when he flexes his muscles for dramatic storytelling and character relationships, he is every bit the portrait of a talented genius. I personally feel that the Firefly TV series is his strongest work to date–surpassing Buffy, Angel, his feature film screenplays..etc. The Serenity movie didn’t quite capture the magic of the TV series though, which was a slight disappointment. Although I did like the movie, the execution felt a bit contrived–missing the casual smoothness of the TV series.

Our shipment arrived recently–it left Fuzhou, China, arrived in Los Angeles, then made its final stop in Oakland. To our dismay, two items were stolen, and two more were initial missing, but turned up later damaged. My Xbox and Takamine EAN-10C Electric/Acoustic guitar were stolen out of their protective packaging:

The two missing furnitures that turned up later were both severely damaged (legs broken off, dents and scratches..etc). We’re fairly sure the theft must’ve happened in China, as American shipping companies all have lots of security cameras covering their entire warehouse operations, and also because the moving companies in China are famous for stealing. We’ll probably never recover the Xbox and the guitar, but the damaged furnitures might be salvageable if we do a bit of repair work on them.

The heat has gotten unbearable here in the Bay Area in the last couple of days. It’s been a hundred plus degrees during the day, but once the sun starts to set, the temperature cools down significantly. At least it’s not humid in California, or else we’d be even more miserable. Since Northern Cal doesn’t really get that hot usually, just about all the homes don’t have air conditioning–only heaters for the winter. We were so tempted to go out and stay in a shopping mall all day and wait for the sun to set, but just the idea of leaving the house admidst the killer heat and getting into that oven-baked car. . .. My solution was to drench my t-shirt in cold water and let the evoporating moisture cool me off (I got tired of splashing water on my face/neck/arms because they dried off too quickly in the heat). Maybe it’s not healthy to do that–I’m sure someone somewhere will point out the dangers of cooling off that way, but at least it got me through the day.

A few nights ago while dinning at a nice Thai restaurant (Thai Pepper on De Anza in Sunnyvale), the front bumper of my Acura Legend got ripped out completely (it got caught on that raised concrete strip at the end of parking spaces). I’m certain its original owner must’ve damaged it prior, because a bumper shouldn’t come off that easily. We managed to kick it back into place and hoped it wouldn’t fall off on the way home. Next day, we gave our best shot to fix it ourselves, because we’re budget conscious at the moment (until I find a new job). All the places where it was secured to the car’s frame was ripped apart, so our solution was to drill new holes in the bumper and then use thick aluminum wires to tie it to the frame:

Here’s the handy Kitty Cat trying to tie the front license plate back onto the car with wires:

Our quest for the right GPS (we gave up on the notion of the perfect GPS) ended with the Magellan Roadmate 860T, which is one model above the 800 we returned last time. It isn’t perfect–no unit on the market is–but it fits our needs the most. The Text-To-Speech is not quite as good as the TomTom 910, but much better than the Garmin Nuvi 350 (at least to my ears). The Garmin Nuvi 350’s voices are all synthesized, while other companies only have the street names synthesized, while common voice directions are pre-recorded and much clearer. The mount for the 860T is different from the 800–there’s no adhesive disc for non-window suction mounting (it’s illegal to mount onto the window in California), but the articulation for the mount’s arms are much better than the one for the 800, using tightening knobs instead of that lame bending rod. The lack of the adhesive disc is annoying though–what a ridiculous oversight. I haven’t used the free traffic kit yet (which comes with 15 months free service, alerting you of the latest traffic updates)–that’ll wait until I find a new job. Using it now would just be a waste since we don’t really go out that much, and we’re certainly not doing anything on a schedule these days. So far, we don’t have any real big complaints about the 860T, except that the Tools software for it is far too primitive (it also stopped detecting the unit after a day of use–just like the 800 did), and the audio output jack of the unit is so low that they should be ashamed of of themselves for not putting a preamp in the unit. If you’re going to have ten gigabytes of storage space for mp3’s and also an mp3 player installed in the unit, you better make sure the audio output doesn’t suck.

Here’s how it looks mounted to the front windshield (I’ll probably need to buy an adhesive disc so I don’t get a ticket for mounting it to the window):

The photo was taken while we were driving through Hillsborough. I wanted to show Elena the city of Burlingame, with all those beautiful giant trees lining the streets, and of course, we just had to drive through Hillsborough in that area to look at the beautiful houses we could never afford. Whenever we drive through rich neighborhoods, I always joke and say “Poor folks coming through! Hide your dogs and your kids! Lock your doors and windows!”

Wouldn’t it be funny if one day we end up owning one of those multi-million dollar homes ourselves? Never say never, right? 😉

When one of your favorite musical artists does a cover version of another favorite musical artist’s song–that’s like life’s precious little gifts that puts a huge grin on your face. It just happened for me the other day–discovering that my favorite Korean singer, Lee Soo Young, did a cover version of one of Tamaki Koji’s (leader of Anzen Chitai) song. You can listen to it here (it’s also a photo slide show of a recent photoshoot she did).

Lee Soo Young is my favorite Korean singer because she’s an awesome vocalist, is very down to earth, funny as hell (she’s got a goofy sense of humor and is not afraid to act dorky or appear on comedy shows), and never bothered to glam up for the cameras. She’s certainly not bad looking by any stretch of the imagination, but she’s always avoided getting dolled up for her photoshoots or music videos–in fact, she’s not even in most of her music videos–they’re usually short films acted out by other actors, telling heartbreaking stories. In the recent years, she’s been paying more attention to how she looks though–I guess when you get that popular, the record company will put pressure on you to do that. I’m not complaining though, as she looks quite delicious dolled up:
Lee Soo YoungLee Soo Young 3Lee Soo Young 2

Tamaki Koji is my favorite Japanese male singer/songwriter because he’s got an awesome range of expressive styles–ranging from heartbreaking ballads to rough and gruff rocking out growling screams. His songs are often covered by the Chinese singers, but this is the first time I’ve heard a Korean artist covering one of his songs–and what’s refreshing is that it was covered by a female singer.

I’ve always been interested in action figures, garage kits, and fashion dolls, but having collected them for a while, I decided they just take up too much room and cost too much money. I ended up selling most of my collection (although I still have a couple grand’s worth of them left in storage, but I plan to sell them all off eventually). My buddy, Em, deals in Obitsu dolls, and he’s always wanted me to try my hand at painting custom action figures and dolls. I did one repaint for him about six years ago, and started doing another one recently, but I guess my interest in the whole painstaking craft just isn’t there anymore, so I ended up not finishing it. Here’s how far I got on the Obitsu head before I lost interest and patience:

Unfotunately, she’ll have to join a pirate ship and wear an eyepatch from now on, because the chance of me finishing her face is very slim.

Elena’s driving lessons are going slowly, because like I mentioned before, she’s a total klutz with very slow reflexes, due to being too sheltered as a child and lack of interest in physical activities as an adult (and she doesn’t play video games). Just asking her to put the car in reverse puts her into a state of panic. I have no idea how she’s going to survive on the road down the line.

Here’s the kind of torture I put her through during her driving lessons:

We always do her driving lessons around supper time, because she hates getting baked under the hot sun, and as all photographers know, sunrise and sunset are two of the best times during a day to take photos. Here are a couple I took during her lesson breaks:

While practicing yesterday, an Indian couple apparently had the same idea to practice driving in that huge empty Macy’s parking lot. It was also a husband teaching his wife, and needless to say, the two learning drivers made each other a lot more nervous.

I sometimes have problem sleeping, so instead of spending hours tossing and turning, I prefer to just get up and go about my business. The other day, I woke up just when the sun peered its face from behind the horizon line. I grabbed my camera and went out for a little walk. Here’s a photo I took during the walk:

Elena loves going for a walk after dinner, as long as the weather doesn’t suck, and she always drag me alone with her. I oblige because 1) I need the exercise 2) She’s giddy like a school girl whenever we go for a walk, and I like seeing her happy. I sometimes bring a camera along, depending on the lighting condition. Here are a few taken with the Fuji F10:

We’re planning on selling the Fuji F10 because the F30 has been released and is supposed to have the features we felt were missing with the F10. The new intelligent flash linking with the ISO setting is the main reason for the upgrade, as we hate washed out flash photography, and there’s no way to set the flash exposure compensation in the F10. The F30 at least will vary flash output depending on your ISO setting–it should make a big difference in how natural flash photography turns out. I’m still disappointed in the dynamic range of most point & shoot compacts, since it’s inevitable to get completely blown skies, skin highlights, or total loss of shadow detail, but we really do need to have at least one point & shoot camera between the two of us for occassions where a humongous professional camera is overkill or inconvenient. I’ll also be selling off the Olympus C3030Z as well, along with all the accesories I’ve gotten for it.

June 14, 2006

Kitty Cat on wheels

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Kitty Cat Diary updated:
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While searching for a good office chair so I can sit on my ass comfortably for 14+ hours in front of the computer when I need to (of course, I try to get up once an hour and stretch), I came across this funny little diatribe against the famous Aeron chairs. Watch the demo video clips, and if you have people in your office that use Aeron chairs, make sure you get them to watch the videos with you. There’s some cussing in good fun, but if your office culture sucks, then you might want to just watch them when you get home.

As you can tell from the latest Kitty Cat Diary entries, I’ve been teaching Elena how to drive. I may suck at a lot of things, but teaching isn’t one of them. Teaching seems to come naturally to me–I somehow just instinctively know how to impart information in such a way that’s easy to understand even for total beginners. The upcoming workshop for CGOverdrive 2006 will be my first time teaching to a crowd of 1,500+ students–it should be a lot of fun.

There’s a huge parking lot in front of a Macy’s where we live, and it’s about 90% empty all of the time because of nearby renovation of another building. I would put shopping carts in some of the parking spaces and then have Elena practice parking. She’s particularly slow at eye-hand coordination feats, as she grew up very sheltered–no playing physical games with other kids, no sports, no dancing, and not even video games. Without those experiences in her early years, she is drastically slower in reflex and physically uncoordinated (this woman trips even when the ground is perfectly flat, wearing flat-heeled shoes). When I taught her how to jump rope, she twisted her ankle. When I taught her how to play badminton, she cracked her foot. I was relieved that when I taught her how to swim, nothing bad happened.

I finally got my paws on Dreamfall. However, about ten minutes into playing it, I just had to stop–my GeForce FX5200 video card just couldn’t cut it anymore, and this is the kind of game I really want to play on the highest setting possible for full immersion. So, off to shopping for a new video card I went. Unfortunately, my motherboard is still an AGP one, so my choices were severely limited by the current PCI Express trend. I decided to spend no more than $200 (I ended up ordering a Diamond Viper X1600 Pro from newegg.com), as I only want a card that will tie me over until my next full upgrade to a PCI Express motherboard (probably in a couple of years). I just want to be able to play current-gen games on reasonable settings instead of watching what’s essentially a damn slide show like I was with the FX5200. The next upgrade will be the big one–probably a full-blown mega-highend DAW (Digital Audio Workstation), while my current machines will take on extra processing and sample hosting duties. My current main workstation isn’t all that shabby though–it’s a P4 2.8, 2 GB RAM, and almost a terabyte of internal and external hard drives.

Recently while writing a custom module for Neverwinter Nights, I realized that although I love writing and being a storyteller, I really don’t enjoy writing for RPG’s. The amount of multi-dialogue path management one needs to do is just torturous. The more freedom you give the player, the less fun you have as a writer, because you are limited to providing a fulfilling experience for the player no matter what gender, race, class, alignment..etc the player chooses. When the main character can’t be locked down like that, writing becomes more of a chore than enjoyment. I would much prefer to write for adventure games, where the choices provided for the player are less limiting for the writer.

Inspiration #2:
Love and Rockets (the underground comic book, not the band, which took its name from the comic book) – I discovered the Hernadez Brothers’ Love and Rockets from reading an interview in the early 90’s with Adam Hughes, a famous comic book artist. He cited Jaime Hernandez as an influence because Jaime is excellent at drawing natural looking figures, and is a master of spotting black (using lots of flat black shapes instead of lots of unnecessary detail). I gave Love and Rockets a shot because I thought Jaime’s artwork was great, but in the end, I got hooked because of the excellent writing (What’s not to love about mexican lebsian punk rockers?). I prefer Jaime’s writing more, because it’s not as dark and hopeless as Gibert’s writing, while still containing a lot of drama in that “slice of life” style (Gilbert’s art is also hard to look at for me–it’s very raw and to be honest, quite unattractive). The visual style of Jaime’s work definitely became a main influence in my own comic book work–anyone who’s seen my Enchanted series knows that. Of course there are other influences, but I’ll talk about them another time.

Our little quest for the perfect automobile GPS has lead to a disappointing conclusion–none of the current models on the market fit all of our requirements. I returned that Magellan Roadmate 800 after owning it for two days, and I’ve been looking for another AIO (All-In-On) unit, but after much research and trying out the units at a few retail stores, I realized I might have to either wait for promising upcoming models to be released, or compromise and settle for something less than what we really want.

The current models that are strong contenders are the TomTom Go 910, and the Magellan Roadmate 860T (an updated version of the 800 we owned). The Garmin Nuvi 350 gets a lot of favorable reviews, but it falls flat on its face when it comes to sound quality.

The TomTom 910’s map doesn’t show all the names of streets around you, which is important to me because it gives me a good idea of my surroundings. I also wish it wasn’t so deep with the protruding back end (never thought I’d ever say that. Oh wait, we’re not talking about chicks. . ..)–you can’t put it in your pocket. Otherwise, I think its UI (User Interface), features, audio speakers, voices for text-to-speech, number of different voices..etc are all far superior to the Nuvi 350.

The Nuvi’s the most portable one without becoming too small to feel limiting, but I really didn’t like its UI, the way you input information, and the text-to-speech is just horrible–everytime it spoke, I felt like I was listening to Charlie Brown’s teacher. The audio speaker is just as bad–distortion at high volume and bad sound quality. I’ve heard cellphone speakers that sounded much better. The travel companion stuff is great, but I really have no need for it–at least not now.

The Roadmate 800 for the most part was quite nice–I almost didn’t want to return it. Although it’s bigger than the other two, it’s actually easier to slip into your coat pocket because it’s flatter than the TomTom 910. I think the features are great and has the best UI of the three, with nifty implementations of little things like smart spelling input, which makes it much faster to input information. The map also displays all the surrounding street names–great for those days when you just want to roam around. I liked it enough to almost want to just go ahead and get the 860T for the text-to-speech, but the two things holding me back are 1) I wish the battery could last longer (it only runs for roughly two hours), and 2) I wish the unit’s a bit smaller so it can go into a shirt pocket instead of a coat pocket. I also have no idea how the text-to-speech sounds on the Roadmates, since all the stores I went to didn’t have a single working model on display.

So at the moment we still haven’t found a perfect unit yet. I’m thinking maybe we should wait for the Magellan Roadmate 6000T to be released–but I have no idea if it’ll come with it’s own set of shortcomings.

Anyway, our current list of requirements to meet are:

01) Natural sounding Text-to-Speech that’s intelligible
02) Quality audio speaker(s) that won’t distort at high volume
03) Fast auto-rerouting if we take a wrong turn
04) Smart Detour with alternate routes to choose from (ideally more than one)
05) Easy to search POI (Points of Interest) that’s fairly updated and informative.
06) Portable size (fits in shirt pocket)
07) Long batter life
08) Detailed maps that show surrounding street names
09) Powerful receiver, or with option for external receiver on roof
10) Easy to read screen in all conditions

June 8, 2006

Mozart wouldn’t have rocked out anyway

Filed under: Audio & Music,Computers & Gadgets,My Life/Musings — Rob Chang @ 3:04 pm

Weblog:
I’ve decided to start writing about random memories of all the things that’s inspired or moved me in my life thus far. In a way it’s me making up for being so negative recently, and it’s also for the hope that maybe others will find inspiration in them as well. I’ll just write whatever comes to mind when I think back on all the things that’s influenced me as a creative person. This will be an ongoing thing, and I have no idea how many there will be, or how long I can keep it going. I’ll try not to repeat what’s already in the Favorite Stuff section–or if I do, I’ll at least discuss in more detail. The entries will be numbered as I add more, and the numbers are for the sake of keeping track, not order of importance.

Inspiration #1
The first time I heard music in the style of French Impressionism – I was about thirteen or fourteen-years old (1987), and it was the score for Macross: Do You Remember Love?, a Japanese animated feature film about a love triangle between a fighter pilot, a popstar, and a Navy communications officer, amidst mankind’s final survival in space againt a race of aliens that’s determined to wipe us out. The piece for the score was untitled (simply Track 26, on disc three of the Perfect Complete collection CD set, which contains all the music from the original animated TV series and the animated feature film). The music was used during a dimly lit scene where the popstar (named Minmay) was in her bedroom watching tabloid gossip on TV about herself and the fighter pilot (named Hikaru). Being tired of the hounding media, she switched off the hologram TV with a flick of her wrist, activating the motion sensor remote, then the next shot had the camera above her circular pink bed as she slumped down in it, brushing her hair away from her forehead with her forearm, looking melancholic and helpless.

The first time I heard that piece was when I watched the film for the first time (it was a blurry VHS copy of a copy of a copy from a friend), and within the first three seconds I was already riveted. I had never heard anything like it at that point in my life–it was as if the notes were suddenly unshackled from the burden of gravity, became weightless, free, and were carried through the air like feathers by a light breeze. I sensed instinctively that the way it was composed had to be different from all the music I’ve known up till then–it was obvious as day those ethereal notes were following a different set of musical guidelines.

Later on in my early and mid-twenties, I had heard some of Sakamoto Ryuichi’s pieces that were similar in melodic progression, and I realized it must be a known style that has a name. I remembered in an interview where Sakamoto mentioned that he loves French Impressionism, and I made an educated guess those pieces of his must be influenced by it, because by then I was well-versed in art movements, and it made perfect sense that the musical equivalent of impressionism would sound that way. At the time I had no idea all those pieces I loved were essentially direct descendents of the Debussy/Ravel school of French Impressionism, and it wasn’t until my late twenties that I heard Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, Satie’s Gymnopedie No.1, and Ravel’s Daphne et Chloe and went “Aha! That’s it!”

Unfortunately, me being self-taught and not classically trained, I wonder if I’ll ever be able to compose anything in that style–as it requires very advanced knowledge of music theory and a highly developed ear for melodic structure, complex harmonies..etc.

I often hear people say that if Mozart was born in our time, he would more likely be a rockstar instead of some stuffy classical guy. While that is definitely a possibility, I wonder if Mozart would really rock out. If he wasn’t born into a classical music family and hung out with a bunch of stoners in school, then his chances of rocking out is certainly high. But if he was born into a classical music family, who’s to say he wouldn’t have taken the classical route anyway? Also, a lot of rockers in their maturing period turn to classical/orchestral–for example, Danny Elfman of Oingo Boingo, Jaz Coleman of Killing Joke, or Clint Mansell of Pop Will Eat Itself. My haunch is that if Mozart was born in our time, he probably wouldn’t have rocked out anyway–at least not for long.

Elena and I picked up a Magellan RoadMate 800 GPS navigator from Costco–it was on sale for $499.99 (retail price is $799.99). We put it through its paces yesterday, and while it does perform all the functions as advertised, it certainly isn’t perfect. Sometimes it’d have us make more turns than necessary, and it can’t possibly keep up with the ever opening and closing of restaurants, stores..etc, so navigating by points of interest is a mixed bag–often listed places are no longer in business. I was initially worried about getting a model without text-to-speech, but the voice directions given without reading out the street names were good enough that I don’t think I’ll miss the text-to-speech. The onboard MP3 players/picture viewer is really unnecessary and a strange call on the part of Magellan, but I guess some people would actually find uses for it. The output of the phone jack is really low, so when I plugged it into my car’s system, I’d have to jack up the volume almost all the way, and the sound quality isn’t anywhere near my Nomad 3 Jukebox. I wouldn’t have picked the 800 model except that it was on sale for the same price as the lower models–so why not get more bang for the same bucks? I’ve run into problems already though–the software that’s used to connect the PC to the unit was working fine for an afternoon, but then all of a sudden it stopped detecting the unit from the USB connection. I did all kinds of toubleshooting–reinstalling drivers, rebooting, uninstalling/reinstalling, checking the USB port..etc–nothing worked. Magellan’s tech-support wasn’t any help either, asking me to do excessive things like going into msconfig and disable every single one of my startups and services except for the Microsoft ones (and it didn’t work anywy). If a product requires me to cripple my computer from running the normal stuff I use it for just to function properly, then what that tells me is they need to fire their programmer.

To give you an idea how primitive their PC interface software is–you can’t even move files between created folders on the unit’s hard drive. And if you want to make a playlist of all the MP3’s you’ve put on the unit? You can only do it through the small screen on the unit, and you’d have to scroll through all the songs with the unit’s scroller (which is a nightmare for file management, as it’s very slow and designed for simple menu navigation while driving). Filling a playlist requires you to have to select each song and add it to the playlist, and with roughly 5 GB of user space on the unit’s hard drive to fill MP3’s with, you’ll be moving songs into a playlist until the cows come home, mate, give birth, have the calves reared, get slaughtered, and processed into veal products. With that said, it’s almost a moot point because the sound output of the unit’s so substandard you really shouldn’t be listening to music on it anyway. Tomorrow I’ll try again to toubleshoot the unit, and if I still get nowhere, I can either A) pretend the unit never had a PC interface software in the first place, and forego the ability to update the firmware in the future, or B) return the unit and get my money back–then go buy a competitor’s product (Garmin, TomTom..etc).

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