Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Best and Worst 8 of 2008

As we reach the end of 2008, I'd like to look back and reflect on what I consider the Top 08 Best and Worst Stories of '08. While not personal stories (e.g., the saga of our well water), they are my personal take on what counts as the "Top" stories; that is, they may or may not be that important to the Real World, but they were all notable to me personally. Also, I kind of had some order in my mind as I wrote them, but I didn't really intend for the order they are listed to be important (note: I didn't number them), so don't read too much into it.

The Best

The Election
Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert were at the top of their respective games this fall, with the election providing them with all the material they could have hoped for. Even SNL, with Tina Fey's brilliant Sarah Palin impression, rose to heights it hadn't reached in a long time. Thanks to these folks, the election was hilarious and fun. Though the icing on the cake for me was definitely the Real-World side of it: Barack Obama won. I don't really want to get into a discussion of politics, but whatever your political leanings, it is at least historical that after 42 white people at the head of the country, we finally are starting to show our true colors.

The Dark Knight
This summer, The Dark Knight swept the nation and the world to reap the second highest box office take of all time (disregarding inflation), after Titanic. But not only was it successful, it was also really good. With some brilliant performances, tough moral dilemmas, and overall topnotch storytelling, Dark Knight earned significant critical notice. Heath Ledger is poised to earn an Oscar nomination, perhaps even the award, for his portrayal of the Joker, and who knows, The Dark Knight might become a dark horse and earn some Oscar recognition itself.

LOST is good again!
After a disenchanting second and third season, Lost got back on track in Season 4, bringing mind-bending flash-forwards, touching drama, and new mysteries with each question it answered. And in the season finale, they frickin' moved the Island! I am awaiting Lost's return in its penultimate season most anxiously.

Battlestar Galactica Season 4.0
Speaking of huge cliffhangers, in BSG, they found Earth! It's frakkin' there! And it's... not as we remember it. BSG's last season was split in half by the writers' strike last year, so the final ten episodes will be showing this winter/spring. This show keeps me on the edge of my seat even more than Lost, so I really can't wait for this one to come back.

Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog
Joss Whedon (and his brothers). Neil Patrick Harris, Nathan Fillion, Felicia Day. Singing. About an evil super-villain. The concept is both utterly wacky and perfectly brilliant at the same time. The three-installment movie came out hilarious and touching and catchy, and they put it up online free of charge this past summer. And then they made a DVD with great extras including Commentary: The Musical with more varied, catchy, and insightful songs. Dr. Horrible is further proof that unorthodox business models can be successful. Never before have horses seemed so frightening, nor has taking over the world seemed like such a sweet gesture.

Mass Effect on PC
So I guess Mass Effect first came out in 2007, but it wasn't on PC until 2008, so it didn't enter my radar until this year. And what a great game it is. BioWare knows how to make a good game, and this one had a strong main storyline, interesting side quests, lots of tough and important choices, fun characters, impressive acting--from both the voice actors and the animated characters--good combat, and a brilliantly imagined sci-fi world (well, galaxy). The most smooth and enjoyable game I'd played in a while. I hope the planned movie version won't tarnish its image (unlikely, but we won't have to worry about it for several years at least).

Adorable, innovative, moving, challenging. Pixar, which has consistently delivered great animated films, outdid even itself with this masterpiece. People had questioned whether kids would be able to make it through the long period at the beginning which had practically no dialogue and only a lonely, dirty robot in a world junkyard, but as someone who took three young boys (one of whom has ADD) to see the movie, I can attest to the fact that even the kiddies were riveted throughout the film. A beautiful movie that deserves every award it gets.

Diablo III, SW:TOR MMORPG announced
This summer brought two computer game announcements that made me squirm in my seat with excitement. Blizzard would finally be coming out with a sequel to Diablo II, and BioWare is making a sort of sequel to its Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic game. We've been fed selected footage of Diablo III, and it looks pretty cool. TOR is said to have more story content than all of BioWare's previous games combined (that's a lot!), but it has yet to reach a stage to have much to show. I am excited for these two games, though without a release date for either, I think they will both be a long time coming.

The Worst

Heroes sucks
The characters in Heroes act out of character, the plot contradicts itself, very little makes actual sense within the world they've created, and every week the point of the show's existence becomes less and less clear. Its first season was good, making a superhero TV show water-cooler gossip worthy. The second season was considerably worse, but we were promised that the third season would redeem it. They didn't deliver. Still, there's hope yet, as first season collaborator Bryan Fuller returns now that he's free of other commitments because

Pushing Daisies is canceled
Oh, ABC. I know you tried. Still, I am bitter that you canceled one of the few truly unique shows on network TV. It is whimsical, adorable, bright, clever, funny, and sweet, with a great cast, great creative team, and great production. It is just so tragic that it had to go. I guess we can blame it mostly on

The WGA strike
The writers' strike began in 2007, but it carried over into 2008 enough to really screw things up for TV shows. The spring was full of reality shows and reruns and--actually, I'm not sure what it was full of, since I mostly wasn't watching because I knew there wasn't anything worth watching. Even when the strike was over, most of the networks decided not to bring back their shows until the fall, feeling that coming back for four or five shows in the spring would seem disjointed and not be worth it. CBS, which did bring its shows back for a few spring episodes, got to feel all smug in the fall, when its shows regained their audiences and the other networks' shows didn't. This was the death of Pushing Daisies, which had been a modest success with audiences and a critical darling. Other shows I watch, such as Chuck and Heroes, also took serious hits to their audiences. It is unclear if they will ever regain their pre-strike numbers. And with a SAG strike looming, who knows which shows will be able to survive 2009?

Watchmen litigation
In February 2008, after filming of Warner Bros.' movie adaptation of the famous graphic novel Watchmen was complete and the film was in post-production, 20th Century Fox filed a suit against Warner Bros. alleging that Fox actually had the copyright to the Watchmen movie. On Christmas Eve, a federal judge ruled that Fox indeed had the right to distribute the movie. Worst case scenario is that Fox will prevent the movie from ever being released. Hopefully, they'll settle to take a chunk of the profits from a movie they hadn't shown any interest in making since maybe the early '90s.

The Death of Flagship Studios
I've been sort of silent on this matter, saddened and perhaps embarrassed that I let myself get hooked on a doomed game, but I am a fan of Hellgate: London, and this summer's news that its fledgling producer had folded was unwelcome news indeed. Flagship was started by a handful of the people who had been major players in the development of Diablo II, and Hellgate: London was designed to have all the appeal of the Diablo games with the absorbing action of a first person shooter. Furthermore, while HG:L would function completely as a single-player game offline, users could play multi-player online for free (though a monthly fee would give you considerable bonus content). My brothers and I enjoyed hours of "sibling bonding time" chatting about random stuff while slaying countless demons. The game wasn't perfect, with lots of bugs and scenery that could get a little monotonous, but they were continually fixing bugs and adding new scenes and content. And, in my humble opinion, the action was considerably more entertaining than that of Diablo II. Unfortunately, bad luck and bad business did the company in. The servers will be shut down on January 31, 2009, and my brothers and I, and all the others who have come to love this game, will have to find something else like HG:L. Unfortunately, there is not at present anything quite like it.

Sarah Palin
Sure, we owe her for the memorable and hilarious Tina Fey impression, and it's not cool to beat up on the loser, but please, Sarah Palin, go away. I really don't think we've seen the last of her, and that seriously worries me.

Heath Ledger's death
Lots of people died this year, of course, and you can't really compare tragedies, so singling out one death for my Worst list is somewhat unfair. But I really liked Heath Ledger. The fact that he was one of the most respected actors of my generation made me feel somehow invested in his career, and his death on January 22, 2008 was heartbreaking. By age 28, he had already racked up more varied and notable performances than some stars do in a lifetime, earning an Oscar nod for his performance in Brokeback Mountain and giving another Oscar-worthy performance in The Dark Knight. But his career was just beginning, and in addition to promising more and even better future performances as he matured, he was looking into directing and taking part in other aspects of the creative process. He was adorable and charming, with a beautiful little daughter that he loved. He was a movie star but a serious actor who was not as much of a tabloid topic as he might have been; he managed to avoid a lot of the pitfalls that catch many other young stars. Basically, he was one of the ones who had it together. And boy was he talented. But his shocking accidental death cut it all off. It was devastating and tragic.

The economy
And all the other crap going on in the world--you know, wars and things that really matter. I'd like to think that it can't get any worse, but it could. Hopefully 2009 will make most things better. But either way, we'll have Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert finding ways to make us laugh through--and even about--our troubles. Here's to 2008!

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Fox wins the Watchmen case

Fox won the Watchmen case yesterday (Variety).

Warner Bros. had produced the comic book adaptation thinking they had acquired the rights for the movie, but last February, 20th Century Fox filed a suit claiming they still retained the rights. As the case made its way through court, Warner Bros. went ahead with the Watchmen movie's production and promotion, and even now they have not backed away from the movie's scheduled premiere on March 6. No word has come yet on what Fox is going to do now that they have the power over the movie. In August, Fox representatives claimed that they were not looking to profit from the movie but wanted to prevent its release altogether (my old post). To me that seems awfully spiteful, not to mention very stupid. While they could be taking a huge cut of a potentially blockbuster movie without having put any money, effort, or time into its production, they would instead be opening themselves up to the considerable fury of Watchmen fans. Why would they do that? Well, we'll see what they decide to do. More updates as they come...

"Merry Christmas. Sorry I f&cked you over."

Update 12/30/08:
Warner Bros. has said they do not plan to settle with Fox (IMDb) as U.S. District Court Judge Gary Feess had recommended. Judge Feess will decide on January 20th whether to block the planned March 6 release of the movie.

Update 1/7/09:
Warner Bros. and Fox have decided to forgo a jury trial and will allow Judge Gary Feess to rule whether to grant Fox a permanent injunction (Variety). The hearing will take place on January 20.

Update 1/8/09:
Warner Bros. has requested that Judge Feess rule on whether to allow Fox to block Watchmen's release as early as next Monday, since millions of dollars in marketing will be up in the air until they know for certain whether the movie will be released on March 6. The judge is expected to rule on whether to grant Warner Bros. the earlier hearing on Friday (Variety).

Update 1/9/09:
It looks like Warner Bros. and Fox may settle this dispute after all. The studios have decided to delay the federal court hearing until Monday to allow more time for settlement talks (Variety).
Meanwhile, Watchmen movie producer Lloyd Levin has written an open letter explaining his view of the whole legal dispute. It's an interesting read.

Update 1/11/09:
Warner Bros. and Fox have apparently made some progress toward a settlement, so the movie may be released on schedule after all. They have made no comment on the likely terms, but Fox would probably receive a share of the profits from Watchmen (Variety).

Update 1/15/09:
I feel this deserves its own post.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

New Header!

I have a new header image for my blog! I am very excited about this, since I've been bored with the simple text header for a while. My blog now looks ten times cooler than it did before. I've had the sidebar pictures for several months, but since you have to scroll down to see them, they don't help decorate the page when you first load it. I may make edits to the header picture to make it look better (it's hard to find text colors that will show up well on picture backgrounds), but I'm pretty pleased with what I have.

Since I don't have anything else to say in this post, I thought I'd explain my picture choices for both the sidebar and the header. All of the pictures are taken from RPGs I have played, and all of them are in some way related to my "RPG called Life" theme. The sidebar pictures represent the Seven Ages of Man as described in Jacques' famous "All the world's a stage" monologue in Shakespeare's As You Like It.
All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms;
Taken from the opening montage of Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn, I have a Child of Bhaal infant. It's a pretty creepy baby, but kind of cool.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail

Unwillingly to school...
Representing the school-boy I have Kipp of West Harbor, from the tutorial of the Neverwinter Nights 2 original campaign.
And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad

Made to his mistress' eyebrow...
For the lover, I have Sir Anomen Delryn from Baldur's Gate II. Of all the potential lovers from the RPGs I've played, Anomen had the best cheesy lover kind of look to him.
Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,

Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,

Seeking the bubble reputation

Even in the cannon's mouth...
Chief Ashley Williams from Mass Effect represents the soldier. Her character class is appropriately "Soldier", and I get the sense she's fairly recognizable in that pink and white Phoenix armor. And I got her in a cool pose.
And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lin'd,

With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,

Full of wise saws and modern instances;

And so he plays his part...
I think ideally I might have had Keldorn for the justice, but since I already had two BG2 images, I decided to take Master Vrook from Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. He's old but not so old that he's unfit, and being a Jedi Master he's a fair character to represent justice, if not necessarily Shakespeare's idea of the justice. He is also probably more memorable than the other Jedi Masters in KotOR, since he showed up in the sequel as well and was voiced by Ed Asner.
The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper'd pantaloon,

With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;

His youthful hose, well sav'd, a world too wide

For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,

Turning again toward childish treble, pipes

And whistles in his sound...
Deckard Cain, of course. He was in the original Diablo and will be in Diablo III, but this image is Cain in the Rogue Encampment in Diablo II. We love Cain--he has that handy item identification service, even if we never do bother to stay a while and listen--but he definitely counts as a pantaloon.
Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,

Is second childishness and mere oblivion;

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything."
This "last scene" seems to include both the childish helplessness that may come soon before death and death itself. I chose a picture to represent the "oblivion" part since it was more interesting. Here I have a picture of triple-death from Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer. It is the dead god Myrkul, former God of the Dead. Of course, dead gods float around in this other plane for a while, so to make him even deader than a dead god of the dead, my character has destroyed his spirit. See? Triple dead.

The four pictures that make up my new header image are not linked to each other but each represent the RPG called Life theme in some way themselves. In basically every RPG, characters have a certain number that represents how close they are to death. This number is generally called "health", "life", or "hit points"--I tend to use these terms interchangeably--but they basically all represent the fact that a character is alive. The image of the large red globe in the upper center of the header is the life/health globe from Diablo II; here it is full, meaning the character is fully healthy, but it will empty as the character is injured. The picture on the left of the header banner is my player character in Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer, standing at the glowing ash tree in the Ashenwood drinking a Potion of Heal, thus replenishing her life. The picture on the right is my Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn party at the Tree of Life in Suldanessellar, trying to retrieve the player character's soul from Jon Irenicus, the man in the glowing orb. And lastly, I have a shot of my Commander Shepard from Mass Effect. The screen shot is from the character profile page, which in addition to showing her "Health" statistic at the top right also shows the "Paragon" and "Renegade" bars. As the game is played, each bar will fill up according to the player's choices--Is Shepard a paragon of good and noble behavior, or does she have a rebellious streak, driven to get the job done without regard to the cost? But this shot is from the beginning of the game, before Shepard has made any of these decisions. She's a blank slate. She looks out, questioning What paths will I choose in life?

Well, that's the full disclosure on my pictures. Enjoy!

Edit: This has now been updated. See new post here.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Aliens, Heroes, and Hugh Jackman

A decade from now, we may have an angry mob of aliens at our doorstep. In a stellar publicity stunt, 20th Century Fox is promoting its new re-imagining of alien movie The Day the Earth Stood Still by beaming the movie from a satellite communications network in Cape Canaveral, Florida to Alpha Centauri, our nearest neighbor star system (Variety, IMDb). The question is, will they also send a compendium of movie reviews so the residents of said star system will know not to bother watching it?

If Galaxy Quest and Contact teach us anything, it's that aliens pay attention to the Earth media that makes it out into space. And considering the universally dismal reviews that the new Day the Earth Stood Still is receiving, we can only expect a dismal reception throughout the universe. If the denizens of Alpha Centauri are a warlike race, the offense of having such a horrible movie beamed to them will force them to declare war on us. But even if the Alpha Centaurians are keepers of peace, the movie will prove to them that we humans cannot be trusted to take care of our own culture and they will be forced to intervene... by destroying us. Luckily, it will take over four years for the signal to reach Alpha Centauri, and presuming that Alpha Centauri technology has not developed to the point of faster-than-light travel, it will take another four years or more for their armies to reach the Earth. After that, all bets are off.

Well, that was my favorite bit of recent news. What else has interested me lately?

Spider-Man The Musical continues to sling its way towards the Broadway stage with Julie Taymor at the helm. Evan Rachel Wood, who showed off her singing talent in Taymor's Across the Universe, has officially signed on to play the part of Mary Jane (IMDb). Taymor is still trying to get her other Across the Universe lead, Jim Sturgess, to play Peter Parker. We'll see how that goes.

I have already made it abundantly clear that I am very sad about ABC's cancellation of Pushing Daisies. It is possible, though, that some good may come of it. As distraught as I have been about PD's demise, I have also been distraught (along with countless other fans) over the pathetic decline of Heroes. I have refrained from ranting in this blog each week about my specific gripes with various nonsensical plot developments, but suffice it to say that a show that I once enjoyed and admired has turned into a mishmash of Heroes doing random things for no good reason amidst a world of forced plot devices. Sometimes I feel like they must have new writers each week who have not seen more than two of the previous episodes. Plot twists are great, but they still have to make sense. It's fine not to be able to see a twist coming before it happens, but it's a problem if you still can't see the twist coming after it happens. Hmm, apparently the one sentence did not suffice for my venting, but I'll stop myself there at four. Anyway... Bryan Fuller, who co-executive produced the well-loved first season of Heroes and wrote a couple of its episodes ("Collision" and "Company Man"), has not been working on Heroes for the past two years because he was busy being the creator of Pushing Daisies. Now that PD has been canceled, Fuller has returned to Heroes as a consultant. There are no guarantees that Heroes can or will be saved, but fans at least have a reason not to give up hope (EW Ausiello Files interview).

Lastly, it was announced today that Hugh Jackman will be hosting the Oscars (Variety, IMDb). I hope he will do some singing. He won an Emmy for hosting the Tony Awards the year after he won a Tony for his starring role in Boy from Oz (which I saw--he was great, as was the show), so he has some good qualifications. While not a comedian in the same sense that recent hosts Jon Stewart, Ellen DeGeneres, Chris Rock, Steve Martin and others are, he knows how to work an audience from a stage, is fun and likable, and he is the World's Sexiest Man Alive. I'm looking forward to the Oscars. Hopefully it will happen. We'll see how the strike thing plays out...

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Golden Globe Nominees 2009

*It's the hap-happiest season of all...*

Ah, 'tis the season of giving: Awards Season!

A handful of movie awards have already been handed out, but the nominees for the 2009 66th Annual Golden Globe Awards were announced this morning. Before I discuss the nominees, let me first take a moment to reflect on last year's Golden Globes. Hmm, that's strange, I don't remember them at all. Oh, that's right--last year's Golden Globe ceremony was canceled and replaced with what was essentially a press conference announcing the winners, thanks to the WGA strike. No one really cared about whether the writers were going to be at the ceremony anyway, but since the stars whom people actually do care about weren't interested in crossing picket lines, the Golden Globe extravaganza was tragically called off. And where are we this year? SAG is now on the verge of a strike vote, with ballots to authorize a strike going out to members on January 2. Luckily for the Golden Globes (and broadcaster NBC), the ballots will not be counted until January 23, meaning that the January 11 ceremony is safe. Phew! The Oscars, of course, are not so fortunately free of worries in that regard.

Now as for this year's nominees. (They are listed in their entirety a number of places, such as IMDb, so I won't list them all but merely discuss whatever interests me.) The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Frost/Nixon lead the pack with five nominations including Best Picture - Drama; Doubt also received five nominations, including four acting nods, but no nod for best picture. The five best picture nominees, which in addition to Frost/Nixon and Button were Slumdog Millionaire, The Reader, and Revolutionary Road, got the five nominations for their directors; all but Revolutionary Road also got nominations for their screenwriters (Doubt got the fifth Screenplay nod). Meryl Streep got nominations for both Mamma Mia! and Doubt, and Kate Winslet also got two with Revolutionary Road and The Reader.

Milk, which seemed to be among the front-runners for best picture, surprisingly only received a nod for Sean Penn as best actor in a drama. The Dark Knight only got a nomination for Heath Ledger as best supporting actor. James Franco got a surprise nod for his role in Pineapple Express, though no recognition for his praised role in Milk. Robert Downey Jr. got a deserved supporting actor nomination for his role in Tropic Thunder, but perhaps the funniest surprise of the morning was that Tom Cruise was nominated in the same category for his Tropic Thunder performance. I will be watching the results of that category with great interest.

The list of nominees, though, has made me realize just how little I have seen this year. The only nominees I have actually seen are

Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight, Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture
WALL-E, Best Animated Film
House M.D., Best Television Series - Drama
Hugh Laurie for "House M.D.", Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series - Drama
Neil Patrick Harris for "How I Met Your Mother", Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Series, Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for Television

That's it. House and HIMYM aren't even really "My Shows". I have been watching House this season because it stands between Jeopardy and Fringe on Tuesday nights and one of my housemates is a fan; I enjoy it well enough, but it is mildly annoying, and it never did let me in on the secret that it's actually that good. I have only seen this season and half of Season 1 of HIMYM, though I love what I've seen, especially Neil Patrick Harris' Barney, and if I had the time and DVDs I would happily make it one of "My Shows". Still, since I haven't seen even half of the episodes, I hardly count myself a true follower.

In regards to the TV nominees, I can somewhat fairly grumble about the lack of Pushing Daisies, Lost, Desperate Housewives, Battlestar Galactica, or other possible nominees, though not having cable means that I haven't been able to watch many of the actual nominees and thus can't refute their merit. But in the movie categories, I just haven't been to the theater enough. Beyond WALL-E and Dark Knight, I haven't seen anything that would really deserve a nomination.

Frost/Nixon is probably at the top of my list of movies I'd like to see. Milk and Benjamin Button are also high on the list, and I'd see Doubt if it were at a local theater. I would have seen Rachel Getting Married if it had come to a local theater. But it didn't. And there lies one of the problems. Our local four-screen theater only gets the most mainstream (and usually boring and bad) movies. Current offerings: Bolt, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, Twilight, Quantum of Solace, Four Christmases. Those choices aren't really that bad, considering the dismal offerings throughout the fall. The next closest theater, 25 minutes away, has screens the size of some people's home theaters, and the only additional film it offers is Role Models. I have to drive nearly an hour to get to a theater that has any chance of showing Frost/Nixon. And my chances of finding a friend who wants to drive an hour to see something bleak like Doubt are, well, doubtful. All right, I'll stop complaining. I'll see some of these movies eventually, somehow, I hope.

Well, we'll see how this awards season plays out. Will I make it to the theater to see any of the nominees? Will a strike disrupt the Academy Awards? Will there be any viewers around to notice? Time (and I) will tell.

*It's the most wonderful time of the year!*

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Caprica is greenlit

Sci Fi Channel has now officially greenlit Battlestar Galactica prequel series "Caprica" with a full season order, set to premiere in early 2010 (Variety). Caprica takes place 50 years before the events of BSG at a time when humans were beginning to face the serious moral dilemmas brought by the creation of artificial intelligence. The series focuses on two rival families, the Adamas and the Graystones, on the planet of Caprica, a world not unlike how we might envision our own near future. Esai Morales stars as Joseph Adama, a lawyer and father of future Admiral William Adama. Eric Stoltz stars as Daniel Graystone, a wealthy computer genius who seems destined to make great breakthroughs in artificial intelligence. The two will inevitably clash as Graystone insists on making intelligent robots despite Adama's dire warnings. Expect character-driven drama, tough moral issues with no clear right or wrong, and frightening parallels to events in the real world.

I'd just like to put this little issue out there in the hopes that someone can clear it up for me. My understanding of the timeline is that the Cylon War lasted twelve and a half years and was followed by 40 years of no Cylon contact prior to the massive attack that marked the beginning of the Battlestar Galactica series. By my calculations, this would put Caprica, which is supposed to be 50 years before that attack, around about the third year of the Cylon War. Not exactly the time that I would expect them to be just getting around to inventing artificial intelligence. I guess that at least some of my facts here are incorrect, and all will be made clear when the show actually starts.

Now that's out of the way, I must say that I am very excited for this show. BSG is probably my favorite show on right now, and I will be so sad (though possibly also relieved--as I've said before, it stresses me out!) when it ends this spring. The thought of the story continuing, even if the continuation is in a prequel where we already know to some extent where they're going to end up (i.e. genocide), makes me very happy*. Still, I have some considerable apprehension. The many characters of BSG are a crucial part of its greatness--I love every one of them, in one way or another. There isn't a single "good guy" on the show that I haven't been furious with at some point, because like real people they all sometimes act rashly or selfishly and make mistakes, but this in some ways only makes me love them more. And the villains are equally fascinating and flawed. Caprica may be set in the same universe as BSG, but it will not feature the same characters--in that regard, it starts from scratch. The creators better not mess up their new characters.

Sci Fi Channel hopes that Caprica will be accessible to a general audience by being set not on a space ship but on an Earth-like planet. It seems, though, that they have agreed to a serial story arc rather than an episodic setup, which means it will likely have trouble picking up new viewers once the story gets going. But as long as it delivers as compelling characters, thought-provoking issues, and captivating drama as the Battlestar Galactica series, I will be there.

For your convenience (and mine), the Battlestar Galactica schedule:

January 16, 2009 - Premiere of the second half of the final season of BSG
March 20, 2009 - BSG series finale
Early summer, 2009 - Two-hour movie "Battlestar Galactica: The Plan"
Early 2010 - Premiere of Caprica

* Glancing quickly over this sentence, it looks a bit like I've just said, "genocide makes me very happy." Please do not quote me on that one.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The perfect Christmas gift

This morning, Victoria (one of the two professors that I work for) and I were discussing Christmas gifts that we were planning on buying for various friends and family. Though slightly embarrassed, she hesitantly confided in me the gift that she was planning on getting for some of her extended family, including I think her siblings and her husband's siblings. She is getting them all surge protector power strips.

To her credit, she is getting them cool eco-friendly power strips that automatically cut off power to the whole strip if the plug in the main socket is not drawing power. She explained to me that this was perfect if you have your computer plugged in the main socket and your printer, monitor, external hard drive, etc. plugged in the others so that if the computer is off you won't be draining energy away to all your unused plugged-in items. Furthermore, it can even be tuned to turn off these extra sockets if the main socket is only on low power (like if the computer is asleep). And there are one or two sockets that will always have power, in case there are things you want to keep on.

Now, this is all well and good; the world needs more green-conscious people, and these handy-dandy power strips/surge protectors will, in addition to helping the environment, save her family members money on their energy bills. But it does not help the fact that she is giving people power strips for Christmas.

The ever-insightful Weird Al taught us that the power strip is the supreme nerd gift; i.e., only the most ridiculously hopelessly clueless nerd would give someone a power strip as a gift. I am referring, of course, to his "White & Nerdy" music video. "White & Nerdy" is a flawless parody of Chamillionaire's "Ridin' (Dirty)", which is definitely worth checking out so you can fully appreciate the parody. Weird Al's "White & Nerdy" deftly mirrors the style and patterns of the original (and, as is typical of Weird Al parodies, at times even matches the rhyme schemes) while playing with the irony of setting the ultimate nerd lyrics to such a badass song. What makes the song truly brilliant, and also supremely entertaining to a nerd like me, is how spot-on Weird Al is with his list of all things nerdy. He nails the stereotypical nerd perfectly. The following is a selection of characteristics of the nerd, according to the "White & Nerdy" music video:

The nerd is an adept mathematician, physicist, and computer programmer. The nerd...
-is an MIT valedictorian
-knows an absurd number of digits of pi
-does vector calculus for fun
-is a master programmer in multiple languages
-is a fan of Stephen Hawking books

The nerd's hobbies/interests include...
-Star Trek (a must: fluency in Klingon)
-Star Wars
-AV club
-glee club
-chess team
-trivia games
-Monty Python and the Holy Grail
-Collecting action figures and X-Men comics
-Happy Days theme song
-Renaissance Faires

The nerd wears...
-a pocket protector
-a fanny pack
-underwear with name printed on back

The nerd enjoys...
-Earl Grey tea

The nerd's mode of transportation is...
-Segway (helmet required)

While surely it takes a special brand of nerd to write such a song, one must also be a nerd oneself to fully appreciate the song. My college roommate, whom I succeeded in educating in the ways of Star Wars but who is still totally clueless about Star Trek, did not understand the "fluent in JavaScript as well as Klingon" line (she assumed Klingon was another computer language) or the "Do I like Kirk or do I like Picard" line. I happily filled her in, of course (and explained why Picard is the correct choice in the latter topic).

The video is the perfect complement to the song. Like the song itself, the video is done in a way that reflects the original "Ridin'" video. It depicts all of the things Weird Al is singing about, which really create quite funny pictures, and it adds numerous visual jokes. There are even a couple notable cameos: Seth Green goes by quickly in the action figure scene (Seth Green seems to pop up in funny places, such as the two most recent episodes of Heroes), and Donny Osmond does some amazing dancing. And of course, at approximately 1 min 40 sec, you can't miss the look on the woman's face when she opens her Christmas present and finds... a power strip.

I sent Victoria the link to the video, telling her that it reminded me of her (really, she reminded me of it, but whatever). Luckily I have the kind of relationship with my boss where I can make fun of her like that. A few minutes later, she came out of her office saying, "That's NOT funny!" But oh, it was.

Friday, November 21, 2008

AD movie, Mormon Musical, PD cancellation, Colbert Christmas, and more

Thank goodness it's Friday. I've somehow been very busy this week. I'm starting to panic about grad school applications enough that I've been spending time on them, but not panicked enough to actually be getting anything done. I'm also coming up with new and pathetic ways to waste time while not working on grad school apps. You have no idea how much time I can spend compiling an 18-track mixed CD, and I need a handful of them for my upcoming long car trip home for the holidays. Well anyway, here are my thoughts on recent entertainment events.

Filming in Buckinghamshire, England for the Prince of Persia movie has been disrupted by scorpions on set (IMDb). They apparently caught a ride over when the filming transfered from Morocco. The scorpions in question were PoP: SoT fanatics who had devoted significant time and resources to tracking down the film location and then following the set to England. Most were caught, but some escaped to post their on-set photos online.

South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker are teaming up with Avenue Q co-composer Jeff Marx to write a Broadway musical comedy about the Mormon faith (IMDb). I am not a fan of South Park, but I am a huge fan of Avenue Q. I get nervous when people make fun of religions, but I do think that people who can't put up with challenges to their religion don't have enough faith in it (and thus shouldn't be complaining). I have some friends who are Mormons, but I am not pleased with certain recent contributions of the church to a certain cause. Anyway, I'm not quite sure what to expect from this musical, and I don't know how people are going to react to it, but I do think it's hilarious that someone is writing a Mormon Musical.

Ron Howard has confirmed that an Arrested Development movie is in development (, more confirmation at Variety). I have not seen every episode, and I did not see them even remotely in chronological order, but what I saw I found pretty hilarious. It is so much funnier than most comedies that are on today (How is Two and a Half Men the most popular sitcom? How?). They'll have to be careful about the budget, though, now that Michael Cera is such a hot commodity.

Domino's pizza has made a groundbreaking new deal with TiVo. TiVo owners can now order delivery pizza... on their TiVos (IMDb). "This is the first time in history that the 'on-demand' generation will be able to fully experience couch commerce by ordering pizza directly through their television set," says Domino's marketing executive. Unfortunately, the pizza itself will not be delivered from the TV set (I can't wait for that to happen!), so the customers will still have to stand up and walk to answer the door when the delivery guy shows up. Still, this is a significant step forward towards the ultimate American dream. And can I just reiterate: "couch commerce."

Gossip Girl and OC creator Josh Schwartz has been tapped by Twentieth Century Fox to write, and possibly direct, a new X-Men "First Class" movie, which would focus on various mutant superheroes as teenagers at Xavier's school (Variety). Because Mutant High needs the Gossip Girl treatment. XOXO Rogue. Maybe they're trying to make X-Men appeal to teen and tween girls as well as teen fanboys. Well, as always, we'll see what comes of it.

Twilight is opening this weekend!!! OMG!!!!! A grad student at work (we work within sight of each other) asked me last night if I have read Twilight, since she was trying to get a group together to go see it. She's always having bunches of grad students over to her house for partying and drinking or going out with people to lunch or happy hour, and she has never invited me to anything. Ever. But she asked me if I wanted to go see Twilight. I guess I should be happy she bothered to notice me, but NO, I HAVE NEVER READ TWILIGHT. NO, I DON'T PLAN TO. JUST BECAUSE I'M A TOTAL FANTASY GEEK AND A GIRL DOES NOT MAKE ME A TWILIGHT FAN. Sorry, I don't mean any offense to Twilight fans (well, not to all Twilight fans at least.... The ones who faint when Robert Pattinson makes an appearance could use a little insulting). I just have to shake my head at the fact that I've been labeled as "Total fantasy geek, not fun at parties." Alas. Well anyway, with midnight numbers in, Twilight box office receipts are already astonishing. With a core audience of tween and teen girls, it is not expected to set records for opening weekend. But I wonder if this core audience will be an advantage in the long-term box office, since many will recall the power of the teen girl repeat viewing in Titanic's success.

And now for the tragic news of the day. It looks like Pushing Daisies has been canceled (IMDb). No, I'm not going to make any bad puns about the show's demise. I am too heartbroken. Eli Stone, Sarah Connor Chronicles, and Chuck are also looking shaky. If they all get canceled, I'll suddenly be finding myself with a lot of time on my hands. Still, of all my shows on right now (that means not counting BSG and Lost, which are on hiatus), if I could have saved one, it would have been Pushing Daisies. PD executive producer Bryan Fuller says that he has plans to continue the story in a comic and even in a movie. Comics are all well and good, but I am more interested in this movie option. I can't really picture the characters at this point without the actors in the roles. Chi McBride is hilarious, Kristin Chenoweth is absolutely brilliant, and... okay, fine, I find Lee Pace as Ned to be excruciatingly adorable. Maybe I'm no better than Pattinson's screaming girls (though I don't think I'd squeal if I saw him, and I am able to differentiate between Lee and Ned, thank you very much). Knowing how hard it is to get projects to the big screen, I'm not overly hopeful about the chances of a Pushing Daisies movie. Still, assuming that it does get made, will I be satisfied? What does this remind me of: critically praised but under-viewed show suffers premature cancellation, gets some comics to continue the story, then is made into a feature-length film? Yes, Serenity was a great movie, but it was not a satisfactory consolation prize for the canceled Firefly. I still mourn the too-soon loss of Firefly. But Serenity was certainly better than nothing. We'll see what happens.

Bringing a ray of sunshine, or at least some Christmas cheer, is none other than the amazing Stephen Colbert. His Christmas special, "A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All", airs this Sunday night, November 23, at 10 pm on Comedy Central (Variety blog, NY Times). Be there or be square. I will be square, of course, since I don't get Comedy Central (or any other non-network TV channel), but folks like me can buy the DVD starting November 25. No, I am not advertising on my blog. Okay, maybe a little, but it's Stephen Colbert and friends doing a musical comedy Christmas special. This will be one worth adding to your family Christmas tradition, even if you don't celebrate Christmas!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

BSG auction, Klingon opera, and Batman, Turkey

And now for my thoughts on various recent entertainment news items.

About a week ago, there was a serious shakeup in the powers that control Heroes. Co-executive producers Jesse Alexander and Jeph Loeb were fired (Variety) and creator and executive producer Tim Kring has promised to focus his time on the story and tone of the show, rather than on post-production special effects and such (Variety). Alexander and Loeb were around for the show's first season success, but under their watch the second and third seasons have increasingly lost fan and critic support and audience numbers. Kring plans to heed the fans' complaints and turn the show around in the hopes of returning Heroes to its former glory. It is unclear whether it'll work, but Season 4 of Lost (Heroes' older sibling) helped it earn back a lot of the respect it had lost in Seasons 2 and 3. I've got to say it's about time they turn things around in Heroes. I adored the show in Season 1, up until the season finale. That finale and Season 2 were disappointments, and I was led to believe that Season 3 would be the turn-around. But this season has been full of weak plots, contradictions in mythology, and lots of characters acting out of character (usually being unbelievably stupid). Save the show! My eyes are getting sore from all the eye-rolling.

It's moments like these that prove just how much of a geek I am: I'm sitting in my office reading about an auction--yes, an upcoming live auction--with a buffoonish ear-to-ear grin on my face. It's just so awesome, I can't contain myself. Now that filming has wrapped for Battlestar Galactica, they are auctioning off numerous costumes, props, and set pieces (press release). Boy, wouldn't I love to have Starbuck's flight suit! Or the arrow of Apollo! Or the frakkin' full-sized Blackbird! And I sure wish I could fit into Six's red dress. Given my budget, though, I could probably only afford some little paper prop (with corners cut off, naturally). Unfortunately, the live auction is in Pasadena, California, a long way away. I'll have to see what they put up on eBay. The auction is in January.

An artist by the name of Floris Schönfeld is writing a Klingon opera called " 'u' " (NY Times). Obviously, I have serious doubts about whether this work will turn out well and how it will be received by the general public. Italian is ideally suited for opera-style singing because of its use of round tones and open vowels. Klingon, in contrast, is a harsh-sounding language; its rough consonants would make operatic Klingon singing unpleasing to the ear (well, to the human ear, at least). I just don't know if an opera in such a rough-sounding language will have long-lasting success.

Ridley Scott has signed on to make the movie based on the boardgame Monopoly (IMDb). Apparently, he intends to give the Monopoly film a futuristic edge (what this entails, I do not know). Pamela Pettler (Corpse Bride) will be creating the storyline for the movie. Good luck to her. The Monopoly movie is just one of a series of movies Universal Studios has agreed to make based on Hasbro properties. Battleship and Ouija Board are also being adapted into their own features; the latter has Michael Bay signed on to produce. I remember reading about this Universal - Hasbro deal back when they made it. While I am slightly horrified that these projects are in the works, I am mostly relieved that, since the speculation around the time of the initial deal, I have heard no mention of a Stretch Armstrong movie adaptation.

The greatest news of the day, though, is that the Mayor of Batman, Turkey is suing Christopher Nolan and Warner Bros. for royalties from "The Dark Knight", accusing them of using the city's name without permission (Variety, IMDb). I think it's pretty safe to say that this is a lost cause for Mayor Kalkan, since he is unlikely to convince anyone that Batman (the comic hero) stole his name from the city because 1) "Batman" is a simple compound of English words "bat" and "man", which is fitting for a male superhero who dresses as a bat and 2) well, has any American even heard of Batman, Turkey before? I can understand the Batman citizens' complaints about it being hard for them to be taken seriously abroad, but I personally would think it was awesome to live in a town called Batman. Seriously, how sweet would that be? I'm fairly certain this must be some type of publicity stunt (hey, it's working!). While they're at it, they should sue turkeys for stealing the name of their country (it does make it difficult for English-speaking school children to take the country seriously, I have to admit). Rough month for turkeys.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Mass Effect Movie

This is old news by now, but I didn't hear about it until last week. Really, I had suspected someone might have such a plan in the works but had not realized that the rights had already been bought. So here it is: Avi Arad, of recent Marvel success, has optioned the rights for a Mass Effect movie (Variety blog). I have already discussed at length my feelings about turning video games into movies. History shows that they always turn out horribly (as evinced by the fact that the video game-based movie with the highest IMDb user rating 1) has only a depressing 6.4/10 stars and 2) is Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, which is not even really based on a video game). Still, I have hope that if they (Hollywood producers or others with the power to initiate a project) manage to find a game with a good plot and good characters, they might have a chance at a good movie.

Well, Mass Effect has a good plot and good characters. Heck, it's practically a movie already (though the movie could do without the hours upon hours in front of the lockers in the vehicle bay trading shotguns and assault rifles and frakkin' mods to ensure the best distribution of equipment among party members). But, as I discussed in my previous post was the case with most games I play, part of what makes Mass Effect so great is that the player designs the main character. Shepard is a virtuous war hero, though one scarred by her tragic past; her adherence to the most noble, compassionate path falters only when her rage and desire for vengeance blind her in encounters with slavers. Shepard was raised in a military family, which instead of instilling him with strict morals has made him a renegade (maverick?); he knows how to get the job done, but his tactics are frequently called into question. Who will Shepard be in the movie? Whoever Shepard is, and whatever choices Shepard ends up making, it will all be decided for the audience. People who have played and loved the game will not be satisfied by the story, for it will not be the "real" Mass Effect story.

Or maybe it's just me. I guess I just really clicked with my female Shepard; I could relate to my protagonist more easily than I could relate to a male version of her. Plus I think action and sci-fi could always use some more strong female heroines who aren't totally objectified. Does that make me a feminist (or sexist even)? I don't know. In the case of KotOR, I can make a very strong case for the protagonist being a woman instead of a man (don't get me started), though the "canon" for whatever it's worth totally squashes that, and yeah, I may be a little bitter about that. I can't really make a strong case for Shepard being a woman, though, but nor can I make a case for a male Shepard. And yet I would definitely be bothered by seeing Shepard as a man in the mainstream version (i.e., the major motion picture). I put the chances of a male Shepard at 80% (though I should add that 62.4% of statistics are entirely made up); if it were Joss or J.J. producing, I'd perhaps have more hope of getting my way.

So how will the plot of Mass Effect, a great video game plot, translate into a movie plot? The side quests, another hallmark of a great video game, should all be cut out, lest they become the hallmark of a really tedious 12-hour movie. This leaves the main quest: Eden Prime, the Citadel, Therum, Feros, Noveria, Virmire, Ilos. The movie will have to be careful not to give the feeling of "We've won the Feros level, now let's continue on to the Noveria level". It needs to flow more naturally. Additionally, Mass Effect is a game of choices. One might say that it beat the player to death with choices, always making it clear: You can only choose either A or B (or frequently C), and it will have consequences! In a video game, this is a welcome freedom for the engaged player. The movie will have to highlight the difficult decisions and ramifications but not dwell on them to the point of making it seem forced.

One thing that I'm definitely excited about with a Mass Effect movie is the prospect of seeing an original sci-fi world brought to life in the realm of film with movie-quality special effects. I want to see how they do all the aliens--Turians, Krogan, Hanar, Geth. I want to see the Citadel. Whatever doubts I have about translating Mass Effect to a movie, I have faith that they can do justice in the visuals department.

To the best of my knowledge, this is the first movie adaptation of a video game that allows this much freedom in designing the character and influencing the plot (though really, you can't change the plot all that much). This may give it an advantage by improving its chances of being a good film, but it also means it will probably alienate its fan base. This is not a sentence of doom, though, merely a challenge. I've been surprised before (not in this genre, but still...), so maybe it will be the first video game adaptation to earn over 7 IMDb stars. There's a lot that has to happen before Mass Effect actually becomes a movie. But seeing as it's the first Hollywood treatment of a game I play and love (I am NOT counting Pokemon), I will be doing my best to track its development. As always, we'll see what happens.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Trump's Golf Course in Aberdeen

Well, it's been a busy week. Plenty of things happening on all fronts. I feel no need to report on the obvious, and it will probably just lead to overall glee soon doused by anger at a certain populous west coast state, which inevitably leads to me ranting as anyone who has come in contact with me since Wednesday can attest. I'll just stop myself there before it starts.

Anyway, with so much real news going on, you may have missed the news that, after months of setbacks from such silly things as environmentalists and laws, Donald Trump has won the right to build an enormous golf course and resort on (what was until recently, apparently) environmentally protected land in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. The deal is that Donald Trump got it into his mind that he wanted to build a golf course in Scotland, in tribute to his dear Scottish mother. A designated Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) was soon declared a Site of Special Trump Empire-Building Interest (SSTEBI). That it was a rare shifting sand dune habitat didn't matter; no compromise to his plans would be acceptable. What's great is that back in June, Trump called himself an "environmentalist in the true sense of the word." What kind of messed up dictionary is he using? (California's constitution?--Ooo, sorry, couldn't help it.) Trump claims that building his golf course on the dunes will actually be good for the environment, since it will stabilize the sand dunes. The rare, shifting sand dunes. Right. Come to think about it, those darn waves are making the Great Barrier Reef all kinds of unstable. Why don't we freeze the water to make sure it doesn't go anywhere?

Why do I even hear about this kind of news? It's neither real news nor entertainment news, but I guess it's because Donald Trump has a lousy reality TV show (apologies for the redundancy there), which puts him on the radar for the WENN news I read on IMDb. But unlike most stories concerning people of reality TV fame which I just skip over, this story caught my eye. It is of interest to me not only because I both care about the environment and enjoy laughing at people with too much money who say and do ridiculous things, but also because I happen to know an environmental scientist in Aberdeen. He has been in Scotland for a while but is originally from the Basque country (I'd say he's from Spain, but boy would he hate that); note that Spanish accent + Scottish accent = furrrrious rrrrrolling of rrrrs. Anyway, I have corresponded with him on the issue (I thought I'd ask him for his take, since I know he enjoys a good rant). He can explain the issue better than I can, so I'll share with you his explanation (and take note that he uses parentheticals perhaps more than I do). Here's what he said back in June:

Regarding the Trump "proposal" (well, he is not "proposing" anything - more like "imposing"), where shall I start? A golf course on an official Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), as
an excuse to build a whole heap of luxury houses and a huge luxury hotel (as if we needed yet another golf course in the area). Of course, he won't alter his plans by an inch (must be something to do with saving those dunes from blowing away, as you say), even though just beyond the dunes it is all farmland where he could build anything he wanted. On top of his environmental concerns, he is doing it for the memory of his mother, who was Scottish (from the western isles, just a few hundred miles away but I guess it's near enough for him) and to create jobs (well, someone has to mow the grass and clean the toilets) and bring money into the local economy (not sure who that "local economy" is supposed to be). For a long time, I hadn't met anyone in favour of the proposal (after all, us scientists are a bunch of tree-hugging weirdos) but apparently most of the local population are in favour (I guess they feel part of the "local economy" or fancy cleaning toilets for a living). The local press, chamber of commerce, etc. are all totally biased in favour, and as to the Council ... they have bent every one of their own rules to pass the development (I don't know if you have read the specifics of this but it is a very long and shocking story). They even moved a proposed offshore windfarm planned not to spoil the horizon from the resort, they moved a proposed Aberdeen road bypass so that it is near enough to the resort (you'll be able to go from the airport there without having to come across any locals) but not too near to spoil it, etc. When the Council rejected the plans (thanks to the vote of the Chair of the Infrastructures Committee, who showed some guts when he played by the rules and was sacked and vilified for that), they had no mechanism to reverse the decision so the Scottish Government took the process out of local authority control and will decide instead. They just rejected a huge windfarm in Lewis on environmental grounds so it will be interesting to see what they do but I would be shocked if they rejected this one, even though the official government agency (Scottish Natural Heritage) in charge of the SSSI has objected to the proposal. Anyway, we can just wait and see (funny that Trump said he would not accept any delays but so far he has said nothing about the few months this is taking already). If there are any developments, I'll keep you posted.

Months passed. On Monday, Trump finally won permission to go ahead and build his golf course and resort. On Tuesday, when I heard the news, I emailed my friend in Aberdeen to apologize on behalf of all Americans for the antics of Donald Trump. I apologized because Trump represents the ignorant, self-interested, inconsiderate, bullish person that people around the world think of when they hear the word "American". Well, thought of, at least. I don't expect a reputation to reverse overnight, but it seems we have taken a step in the right direction, away from that negative image. On Wednesday, "American" sounds a lot better. Hopefully, some day soon, I won't need to apologize.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

BSG, Wicked, Iron Man, and Vote Pushing Daisies!

Well, the weather is finally starting to act like fall where I am; I broke out the fleece jacket this morning. The wind and chill only heighten already high tensions, with the roller coaster stock market, impending election, and the World Series delayed by the rain! Really, I couldn't care less about the World Series, but it is in my interest to make sure the folks at FOX are happy rather than worried about how the delayed games could potentially disrupt their schedule, since stressed executives could make rash decisions they'll later regret to ax weak sci-fi performers off their Monday schedules... Anyway, here are my thoughts on a number of entertainment-related news items.

Big news first: We have a date.
10 pm on Friday, January 16, 2009
The second half of the final season of Battlestar Galactica will finally premiere, with the series finale likely falling on March 20 (Ausiello files). They sure know how to make a cliff hanger at BSG, more than basically any other show I know (The island moved? So what?), so I cannot wait for it to come back. Seriously, though, this show kind of stresses me out, so while I love it dearly and will be devastated when it comes to a close, I think in some ways it'll be a relief when the final episode is over. If you're not watching it, you should be (Catch up with the DVDs--you have two and a half months. Go!). It doesn't matter if you hate spaceships on principle (well, it does matter to me... I'm not sure we can be friends... What's wrong with space travel?), since I can personally confirm that there are people who are not sci-fi fans who still love this show. Battlestar Galactica is simply one of the most, if not the most, intense, harrowing, personal, and profound dramas on TV. Yeah, it's that good.

I'd like to give a shout out to Wicked, one of my absolute favorite musicals. Universal recently reported that Wicked's worldwide grosses have reached $1.2 billion, putting it in the ranks of top-grossing feature films, a practically unheard of feat for a stage show (Variety). I was lucky enough to see Wicked on Broadway when Tony winner Idina Menzel was still playing the (not really so) Wicked Witch of the West, though sadly Kristin Chenoweth had already left. (As a side note, Tom Cruise was in the audience with us, and as much as I'd like to think I'm a practical person who understands that famous people are still just humans, I was totally excited, particularly because this was before his summer of couch-jumping and anti-depressant-bashing bad publicity and subsequent popularity drop). Wicked is a great show, with humor, spectacular scenes and scenery, a wonderful score, quirky characters, and a touching story. It lost the best musical Tony, though, to Avenue Q, which really did deserve it just as much. I maintain that if Wicked had only come out the following year, it would have easily trumped Spamalot for the Tony (sorry Monty Python, but Wicked was just better). I wonder if they'll ever try to make a movie version of Wicked (making it perhaps the first movie based on a musical based on a book based on a movie based on a book). I'm not sure it would be a great idea; movie adaptations of stage musicals have had some great successes (Hairspray) but also some notable disappointments (The Producers). But if they are going to do it, they'd better get a move on it, or as Kristin Chenoweth said, she'll be playing Madame Morrible. I mean, original Broadway cast members returning 10 years later to movie roles that they are now really too old for? Idina Menzel's been there, done that (see: Rent). But anyway, Wicked's worldwide success makes me very happy.

The wildly popular Jonas Brothers have signed on to star in a 20th Century Fox feature entitled
"Walter the Farting Dog"
(Variety) Need I say more? Probably not, but I'll keep talking anyway. I don't really understand the appeal of the Jonas Brothers. Maybe if I were ten years younger I would, though it's unlikely, since I never was one to obsess over singers or bands. But still, I thought these guys were successful and wholesome. I would not have expected them to attach themselves to a movie about a farting dog. I wouldn't have expected there to be a movie about a farting dog at all (though the rumor that the Farrelly brothers may direct surprises me less). Maybe this movie will somehow turn out to be a clever, humorous, deep, and heart-warming story for the whole family, but... no, I don't think so. Talk about people being put off by the word "porno" in upcoming Zack and Miri Make a Porno--I am disgusted by the idea that "farting" would be important enough to a storyline to feature it in the title. But maybe I'm just becoming an old fart.

Some exciting new news: Robert Downey Jr. has signed on with Marvel to star in Iron Man 3 as well as Iron Man 2 (for which director Jon Favreau has been confirmed as well), and also in The Avengers (Variety). The Avengers is expected to be released in July 2011 and will feature Thor, Captain America, and the Hulk along with Iron Man. I loved the Iron Man movie, particularly Downey Jr. as Tony Stark. Iron Man was overshadowed by the success of The Dark Knight, but it was very different--brighter, shinier, funnier, and Marveler--and holds its own in the world of superhero movies. I'm looking forward to future Iron Man features, as long as they are careful not to go the way of Spider-Man 3.

And lastly, I'd like to discuss an issue of actual, real-world importance. Very soon, citizens across America will have to make a choice between Obama and... Pushing Daisies! Three of the four major networks--CBS, NBC, and FOX--will be airing a half hour Obama special on Wednesday (10/29) night at 8. ABC, on the other hand, will be airing its regular new episode of Pushing Daisies (Variety). Hopefully this will give my favorite ratings-challenged show a boost as the only major network non-infomercial at that time. So don't watch Obama. You don't need to. Are any of the candidates really going to say anything new at this point? And who hasn't made up their minds already? Seriously. After all, the biggest danger facing our country right now is the very real possibility of Pushing Daisies getting canceled. It doesn't matter who wins the election if Pushing Daisies is gone (*wipes tear of fervor*). So on Wednesday,
Vote Daisies!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Working Tolkien into my college papers - Part 2

Sophomore year, as a Civil and Environmental Engineering major, I was forced to take a course called "The Mechanics of Solids." I know: boring! I was not pleased about being required to take such a dull-sounding class, especially after a fun-filled semester of Merlin and Magic. But much to my surprise, I really loved this course. The big deal in the class was the daunting Term Project, where students pair themselves off and, following the professor's approval of their proposal, conduct a rigorous (well, rigorous for a sophomore) analysis of a structure of their choice and write what becomes an approximately 20-page paper on the structure. Most students end up analyzing things like their loft bed, the bookshelf in their dorm room, an erg machine, or a local bridge. Again, boring! The paper my partner and I wrote was titled

The Bridge of Khazad-dûm:
A structural analysis of a bridge of Dwarven engineering*

I don't know which is more impressive--that an Ivy League professor actually approved the project proposal or that I found someone in the class who was willing to go along with my wacky idea. As I recall, the professor was game from the start. I consulted her at office hours before writing the proposal, since I wanted at least some assurance that the proposal had a hope of being approved, and she was enthusiastic about the idea (my good grades in the class up to that point may have helped convince her that I could pull it off). My friend in the class who had originally agreed to be my partner, and who liked the LotR movies and was initially excited about my idea, backed out before the proposal was due saying, "I want to do this project on something that I can tell an interviewer about down the road--you know?--impress them, saying, 'I analyzed this important structure' or something." When she suggested a traffic light support structure, it was clear our partnering for this project was not going to work out. Luckily, I managed to find another acquaintance in the class who said, yes, she's a big fan of the LotR movies and is still looking for a partner. I owe her a lot, for keeping my dream alive. In reality, she got a good deal; we scored an A+ on the paper. And we had some fun, watched Fellowship of the Ring as "research", and came away with a good story to tell.

So how does one make an engineering term paper out of the Bridge of Khazad-dûm? We started by estimating the dimensions of the bridge. Tolkien, being the thorough author he is, specifically says that the bridge is 50 feet long. However, knowing that we had more to go on overall (curvature, width, depth, material) with the bridge depicted in the movie, we decided to defer to the film and based all our estimates on the bridge's appearance in the movie. The beauty of this project being on an imaginary bridge, of course, was that our estimates only had to be just that--our professor wasn't going to take off points because the Bridge of Khazad-dûm was actually one foot wider than we thought. Anyway, approximating Gandalf's height and shoulder width and using those as units of measurement, we estimated that the bridge was 80 feet long, 3.5 feet wide, and 6 feet thick in the center and 10 feet thick at its supports. With these dimensions, we constructed equations for the top and bottom edge of the bridge, assuming a slight parabolic curvature.
Top edge: y = -0.00125(x - 40)^2 + 12
Bottom edge: y = -0.00375(x - 40)^2 + 6
(x goes from 0 to 80 ft)

Next, we had to make an educated guess of the material used to make the bridge. This involved some awkward questioning. I consulted a geologist and a geological engineer (I still remember the subject of the email I sent to this professor I'd never met: "An odd question...") as well as did a little reading on my own. Given the bridge's location in a mountain mine and considering what types of rock would be appropriate for a stable bridge, I concluded that the bridge was made of a rock with properties similar to quartzite. And thus we used the density and maximum compressive, tensile, and shear stress strength of quartzite for our calculations. With the material and dimensions determined, we provided a delightful analysis of the self-weight of the bridge. I won't bore you with the details, but in summary, the bridge was structurally very sound (the Dwarves obviously knew what they were doing).

Next, we delved into the bridge's critical moment** in the story: Gandalf's confrontation with the Balrog. The first question we had to ask for this was How much does a Balrog weigh? By judging the Balrog to have the approximate proportions of a 30-foot gorilla and the density of basalt, I estimated the weight of the Balrog to be around 185,000 pounds (seven times the weight of the largest elephant on record--it is made of rock, remember). Though the Balrog was clearly very hot, considering that the heat did not harm the fellowship members in close proximity and that the bridge was composed of heat-resistant rock, we judged the thermal effects of the Balrog to be negligible.

Armed with the weight of the Balrog and the self-weight and structural properties of the bridge, we went about solving what exactly it was that Gandalf's spell did to the bridge to make it break under the Balrog's weight. Our calculations showed that the bridge would have been able to hold the weight of the Balrog on its own (it would have been sort of amusing if we had found that the bridge was going to break under the Balrog anyway, without Gandalf casting any spell). So what kind of failure did the bridge experience after Gandalf cast his spell? A stone bridge could easily suffer a tensile failure. Picture a heavy rock on a flimsy shelf: the shelf bends downwards, squeezing the top surface of the shelf (compressive stress) while stretching the bottom surface of the shelf (tensile stress). The same happens when a load is placed on a stone beam, though the bending may not be visible, and while stone can take a lot of compression, it is not strong against tension. However, this type of failure would have been more likely to lead to a total collapse of the bridge and threaten Gandalf's footing as well as the Balrog's. What appeared to happen in the movie was a shear break--a section of rock cleanly breaking and sliding straight down from the adjacent rock. So Gandalf must have wisely chosen to weaken the shear strength of the rock. To make a long story short, we found that Gandalf's spell could have lowered the maximum allowable shear stress of the quartzite directly in front of him to under 65 pounds per square inch, causing a shear collapse under the Balrog when it stepped forward on the bridge. You... shall not... pass!!!

We concluded our paper with an analysis of the cantilevered remains of the broken bridge (it would still stand) and a summary of our findings.

And there you have it--more than you ever wanted to know about the structure of the Bridge of Khazad-dûm. In later years, when I'd become a disillusioned engineering upperclassman bitter about my choice of major (I switched into engineering? What was I thinking?!), I could always look back fondly on this class and this project and remember, Oh yeah, that's why I chose this major. I have no regrets about that class. And to the friend that dumped me as a partner because she wanted a project she could boast about to interviewers: In an interview for the job that lead me to my current career, when the interviewer asked me, "Can you give me an example of something unique and creative you've done, or a problem you've solved in a particularly creative way?" I proudly answered, "In my core engineering class on the Mechanics of Solids, I wrote a paper on the bridge in The Lord of the Rings!"

*The subtitle kind of cracks me up (I think my partner may have come up with it). It's so plain and straightforward and dull, but at the same time totally absurd.
**Sort of an engineering pun!! (and not one I'd originally intended.) Yeah, I'm a total nerd.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Working Tolkien into my college papers - Part 1

I have already described my year-long Lord of the Rings-related high school project in my post on Quenya. In that post, I made reference to a paper I wrote in college on the story of Beren and Lúthien in The Silmarillion but said that it was a story for another day. Well, that day has come.

It is a wonderful thing, working your geeky obsessions into school papers. It makes the project that much more fun, and it is always easier to devote time to produce a good paper when it is fun to work on. It's not that hard to work your fandom into projects in elementary and middle school; I can't remember how many book reports I did on Redwall in grade school, and I actually was introduced to the Shannara series when it was on our suggested reading list one summer. But such opportunities diminish once you get further along in your education and learning becomes more serious. Teachers try very hard to make school fun for kids, but as you approach college, you're on your own--you have to find your own motivation. My Quenya project was a rare opportunity to do something somewhat... frivolous?... for a twelfth-grade project, mainly because the whole "Hero's Journey" project idea was, frankly, a little frivolous for a twelfth-grade curriculum. But what happens when you go off to a highly esteemed Ivy League school (or any respected institution of higher learning), where your parents aren't paying $40,000+ a year for you to learn to speak Elvish? The fun and games are over. That is, unless you find the right classes, or are creative, possibly devious, and always unapologetic of your geekiness.

I wrote papers based on the world of J.R.R. Tolkien in two of my classes in college. One of these classes was innately conducive to Tolkien papers--hence my enrollment in said class--while the other was a class where my Tolkien-related project was a little far from the beaten path. That paper deserves its own post, so I'm breaking this into two parts--one for each of the classes I just described.

Heart of the City comic by Mark Tatulli, 4-5-03

Freshman seminars are great. Professors like them because they allow them to teach a small class on whatever narrow subject they dream up, and students like them because the professors can be very good at dreaming up cool subjects and are likely to be nice to a class of freshmen who want to take a course on their favorite topic. I remember as an upperclassman being totally jealous of freshmen for their freshman seminars, but it's not like I had my time. I was lucky enough to take a freshman seminar, taught by an English professor who actually specialized in Beowulf, entitled "Merlin and Magic." When I saw The Hobbit on the sample reading list, I just had to apply. The required reading included a good bit of Sir Thomas Mallory, some Tennyson, versions of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Sir Orfeo translated by Tolkien himself, as well as The Once and Future King, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court and, yes, The Hobbit. Not a bad reading list, indeed.

For one of the papers in the course, we were directed to write a comparative paper. One of the stories for the comparison had to be a work we had read for class, while the other could be of our own choosing. As I mentioned above, the class had read Sir Orfeo, the cheerier medieval adaptation of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice (Orfeo only has to confront the Faerie King, not Hades himself, and there's a happy ending). I noticed that the story had strong similarities to the story of Beren and Lúthien--Tolkien's story was likely influenced by the famous myth--and so marched myself over to the bookstore to buy a copy of The Silmarillion and got to writing my paper.

The crucial similarity between the two tales is this: Orfeo is the most gifted harpist in all the lands; everyone upon hearing his music believed that "to joy of Paradise [they] had strayed." When his love is stolen away by the Faerie King, he travels to the Faerie Kingdom to confront him. When the Faerie King, furious at Orfeo's uninvited appearance, angrily asks him why he has invaded his halls, Orfeo says he is "but a wandering minstrel poor" come to offer his minstrelsy, and he begins playing on his harp. The music is so beautiful, the Faerie King offers Orfeo anything he wishes. Naturally, he wishes for his wife. She is returned to him, and they leave the Faerie Kingdom and live happily ever after. In The Silmarillion, Lúthien is the most beautiful singer in all the lands; "Keen, heart-piercing was her song.... The song of Lúthien released the bonds of winter, and the frozen waters spoke, and flowers sprang from the cold earth where her feet had passed." When her love Beren is taken prisoner by Sauron, she and Beren use song to find each other. But in more a striking similarity to Orfeo's story, when Lúthien confronts Morgoth to retrieve one of the Silmarils, she offers "her service to sing before him, after the manner of a minstrel." She is able to charm Morgoth with the hypnotizing power of her song, providing her with the opportunity to escape with one of the Silmarils. Both Orfeo and Lúthien, when confronting a threatening and powerful ruler holding something they wanted, offered their service as a minstrel and through the power of their music were able to obtain that which they desired.

Looking back at my paper, entitled "Music as Magic", I think I got a little carried away with my interpretation of the use of music as magic in literature as a reflection of our perceptions of music in the real world. I suppose my writing seminar freshman year had taught me to be ambitious with any paper and to reach beyond the apparent confines of a simple assignment (such as "comparison paper"). But the professor gave me an A on "Music as Magic", so it's all good.

As part of the final exam for the class, I wrote an essay on Tolkien's "On Fairy Stories" essay, in which he criticizes those who dislike and discredit Fantasy for its "arresting strangeness." In my short essay, I take up Tolkien's fight, expanding on some of his arguments (and providing examples from the texts we read) in an attempt to defend the literary value of the Fantasy genre from those who compare it to dreams or delusions and say it is only appropriate for children because its unreal material does not affect our real lives and thus does not matter. Essentially, what I argue is that Fantasy should not be disparaged by likening it to mere dreams or delusions because of two critical differences. First, while the rules of Fantasy may not correspond to the rules of the real world (or as Tolkien calls it, the "Primary World"), worlds of Fantasy do operate according to rules that make sense within the boundaries of the Fantasy worlds. In contrast, because of their lack of rules and control, dreams may appear to make sense at the time but will not make sense upon waking, and delusions may never have made any sense at all. Second, the suspension of disbelief required when reading Fantasy literature is both conscious and willing, unlike with dreams or delusions, and therefore the meaning found in Fantasy does not dissolve when one steps away from it back to the Primary World.

Yeah, so it wasn't really the greatest paper, but did I mention that it was timed? (I probably had an hour and a half for this part of the exam.) Anyway, I think I got an A on the exam, so again, it sufficed. The best part is that I took this exam in the engineering library, and as I paused to look around at all the other engineering students working away, I thought smugly, I'm writing about Fantasy and Tolkien--what are you working on right now?

Well, that's the scoop on the Tolkien papers I wrote for my Merlin and Magic freshman seminar. Not bad for school work, huh? In my next post on Wednesday, I will describe in detail my term paper for a class called The Mechanics of Solids. Can't wait, can you?

Friday, October 17, 2008

Iron Man 2, Bourne 4, and Homer in Space!

First I'd like to share a personal update. My job is essentially a dead-end job. It is great experience and a strong resume-builder, but the only way to move up in the field is to go to grad school. So the whole past year, when people have asked me what my long-term plans are, I've responded that I'm considering going to grad school next year, i.e. fall 2009. Just a couple weeks ago now, it finally dawned on me that, if I actually do want to apply to grad school for next year, now is the time to apply. Panic! This reality check has sent me into a flurry of stressful school- (as well as soul-) searching, trying to figure out what to study, where to study, and with whom to study next year. And then there's the GRE that I'm signed up to take at the end of the month which I'm trying my darnedest to motivate myself to study for (a difficult task, indeed). So I haven't been posting as frequently as I was before I realized I have to apply to grad school. So yeah, there's my excuse. And on another note, the well that supplies my building is still testing positive for coliforms, so now it's over two weeks without full use of the water. I have no words of poetry left for the situation.

Anyway, on to the entertainment news that has caught my eye this past week.

Don Cheadle is set to replace Terrence Howard as Jim Rhodes in Iron Man 2 (Variety, IMDb). After saying "Next time, baby" to the extra suit in the first movie, it turns out Howard won't be around next time when the character gets to don the suit as War Machine. I can't really imagine what would make Howard want to back out of the sequel (IMDb blames it on a salary dispute, but the media always blames it on salary, so I always take such reports with a grain of salt). The first movie was thoroughly entertaining and, well, pretty awesome, and in a summer dominated by The Dark Knight, it managed to hold its own (it did, of course, come out before Dark Knight). Anyway, I'm expecting great things from the sequel, and I am slightly saddened that the entire cast will not remain intact. That said, Cheadle is great, if very different from Howard, and as long as it's Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr., the rest don't matter so much. So what's in store for Cheadle's Rhodes? Variety suggests "the sequel will see him become War Machine, Iron Man's nemesis." Hmm. I can see a plot where Stark would have to do battle with War Machine, but putting "Iron Man's nemesis" as an appositive for "War Machine" seems to suggest that War Machine is a permanent villain. I'm no Iron Man expert, but what I know of Iron Man tells me that's wrong. Hopefully it's just a misleading, uninformed turn of phrase. The sequel is scheduled to be out in 2010. Looking forward to it.

> Update 10/20/08: Terrence Howard claims that reports he turned down the Rhodes role in the Iron Man sequel over a salary dispute are totally fabricated (IMDb). He insists instead that he was snubbed mid-negotiations in spite of an existing contract. Ah, the intrigue! What will happen next?
> Update 10/31/08: Apparently, the story is that Howard, the highest paid actor on the first Iron Man film (!), was offered a dramatic pay cut for the sequel when the writers found he wasn't going to have a very large role. His agents were not pleased. It wasn't clear who walked away first, but Marvel quickly secured Cheadle for the role (EW).
> Update 2/6/09: The confusion continues. Though last year on NPR, Howard had called it the "surprise of a lifetime" when he found out that Cheadle had taken the role of Rhodes, and expressed his disappointment at the broken contract, he recently told Ebony magazine that he walked away from the role following the advice of Will Smith (IMDb). Will we ever know what really transpired?

Universal has found a writer, George Nolfi, for the fourth Bourne film (Variety). Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass are already signed up for the fourth installment. They'd originally only planned on the trilogy, but who can resist all that potential money? The Bourne trilogy was pretty rare in that none of the three movies were stinkers. In fact, they were all pretty great. Hopefully, they'll be able to keep it up with the fourth. After last year's Summer of the Threequel, let's see if we can get a Summer of the Fourquel in a couple years. Shrek and Spider-Man are already gearing up for their respective number fours, though the release dates are not likely to be close. They should work on that. Frankly, though, I'm much more excited about Bourne 4 than the other two.

Brad Pitt has signed on for Warner Bros. project "The Odyssey" (Variety). Pitt will probably star in it, and George Miller who is also attached to the project will probably direct (it's all the early stages here, so little is certain). If this sounds like a sequel to 2004's Troy (which would be a bad idea, and besides, Brad Pitt's Achilles--spoiler!--died at the end), think again. Variety reports that they plan on creating a futuristic version of Homer's epic, with the tale set in outer space. Yes. A literal space odyssey. I'm not sure how Odysseus will prove his identity by stringing a laser gun (or if he actually deserves his faithful wife Penelope after all he does on his journey, without ancient standards of morality). I've been surprised before, and heaven knows I like sci-fi, even sometimes when it's bad, but this just seems like a misguided concept. Homer... IN SPACE!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Alas! When will our well again be well?

Come gather 'round, if ye be brave of heart,
A tale of dreadful woe have I to tell:
On Thursday morn my tragic tale did start,
When coliforms were found inside our well.
They may have been there months, admittedly--
What that entails I feel no need to spell.
But so they stopped our well immediately
Bacteria from the water to expel.
Yet Tuesday, and again on Friday morn
We heard that still our water was unwell.
A three-fold plague have we, so I must warn
That drought can cause a people to rebel.
Oh fie, oh spite! There will be hell to pay
Unless that cursed well gets well, I say.

There are very few things that have ever inspired me to write a sonnet, since I have no talent as a poet and thus generally the world is better off if I don't attempt such a feat (my last sonnet was for a dumb AP U.S. History project where we had to write a Valentine to an American historical figure of our choosing; a sonnet was certainly not required, but once the line Shall I compare thee to Calhoun or Clay? drifted into my little brain, I had to see it through and write an entire love sonnet to Daniel Webster). Anyway, the building that I live in has been without full use of water for over a week now since testing positive for coliform bacteria last Thursday (not fecal coliform, for those who know the difference; for those who don't, fecal coliform bacteria are generally from human waste and accompanied by other fecal stuff that's gross and makes you sick, whereas non-fecal coliform bacteria are just, well, bacteria, a fact which is supposed to be reassuring). They've chlorinated the well three times now, and hopefully we'll find over the weekend that the third time's the charm. The second time the well tested positive for the bacteria, I sent an email to the other residents of the building with a mere Oh fie, oh spite, oh hell! Is it too much/ To ask that our poor well again be well? But the third time the test came back positive, I felt an entire sonnet was in order to express my full frustration. Hence the sorry excuse for a sonnet you see above.

The water situation is a little case of "You don't know what you got 'til it's gone." I mean, I already knew that I use water a lot, but washing dishes and my face with bottled water is getting really old, as is trekking to another building to take a shower. We were told we couldn't even flush toilets during the 24-hour chlorination process so as not to disturb the system. This third chlorination had better work. I've already written a sonnet; I don't know where to go from there if we get a fourth positive coliform reading. Epic poetry?

> Update 10/24/08:
Rejoice, dear friends, rejoice! Go forth and tell
The news that once again our well is well.
> Update 11/4/08: Our well has tested positive for bacteria, yet again. They may need to dig a new well or something serious. All I have left to say is
> Update 11/18/08:
Well, the well has tested negative again. And this time it's going to work. Really.