Ethereality News & Weblog

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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