Tuesday, August 30, 2011

I got into Pottermore!!!

Tuesday morning, I received my highly anticipated early invite to Pottermore. Pottermore, if you haven't heard, is the new Harry Potter website with exclusive content and extra insight into the wizarding world, some of which is written by J. K. Rowling herself. It opens to the public in October, but from July 31 to August 6, fans were given the opportunity to win early access to the Beta. I was lucky enough to register on the second day, but wasn't actually allowed into the site until this morning.

I wasn't really sure what to expect. I knew the site would have extra details on the Harry Potter universe that weren't provided in the books, and that we'd be sorted into one of the Hogwarts houses, but I didn't know how it would be organized, or what there would be to do at the site. I'm still in the early stages and have much to explore, but I have to say I'm pleasantly impressed.

It starts out a bit slow. Pottermore follows the path of the books; it's nicely configured to be a companion to the books as you read through them. Chapter by chapter, it takes you to various key scenes (arrival at Privet Drive, the zoo, meeting Hagrid, etc.), allowing you to click around to explore each scene. If you click the right place, you can unlock some of the exclusive info, and you can also collect various items from the scenes, which I guess will have a purpose at some point. The images are lovely, but there doesn't seem to be that much to do in each scene, and you find yourself mousing around a lot, feeling like you must have missed something somewhere.

But things finally pick up when you get to Diagon Alley. There, you discover that you have a Gringotts vault stocked with Galleons, and you get to go shopping! You collect the supplies that you'll need for your first year of school, and you select a pet to take with you. I agonized over the pet choice, which also becomes your avatar. I knew I didn't want a toad, but choosing between the various varieties of owls and cats was hard. I had to walk away and come back a couple hours later before I was able to make the decision. In the end, I chose a black cat. When I first got there, I felt sure I'd buy an owl, because they're awesome as well as useful. But when I thought about it, the owls sit up in the owlery. If I want a pet to sit on my lap while I study in the dormitory common room, I need a cat.

The last step at Diagon Alley is to buy your wand. After a series of questions, none of which seem related to wands or wand materials, Ollivander declares what kind of wand has chosen you. Mine? Elm with unicorn core, ten and three quarter inches, unyielding. I have to say, I was unimpressed at first. I'm fine with unicorn hair, but elm seems a little uninteresting and I have no idea what I did to merit an unyielding wand. But really, I don't know what kind of wand I thought I should have instead. Oh well.

My first day in Pottermore ended with the Sorting Hat ceremony. I was very nervous, because I've long thought I'd be in Ravenclaw. I even have a sweet Ravenclaw Quidditch t-shirt. Gryffindor would be fine, too, but the others just didn't fit with how I see myself. The Sorting Hat asked a series of questions, but compared to other Sorting Hat quizzes I've seen online, it was much harder to tell how some of the answers would point you towards one house over another. That's a good thing, I think, because it discourages answering questions certain ways just to get into a certain house. After I'd answered a handful of questions, it suddenly declared RAVENCLAW! I was so happy and relieved.

I can't wait to explore more of Pottermore. Now that I have a house, I can try to learn spells and make potions to win points for my house. If you're in Pottermore, let me know your username so we can "friend" each other. Mine is WitchWillow140 (for those who don't know, they give you maybe five usernames to choose from when you register, so you don't get much freedom, though I like my name's association with Buffy the Vampire Slayer). I'm not sure what one does with friends on Pottermore other than track their progress, but seeing as I have none at the moment, I'd really like to find out!

Go Ravenclaw!

Monday, August 29, 2011

Looky! I made a (geeky) PRETTY!!

A few weeks ago, I got bitten by a crafting bug. I was itching to make something. Something geeky and pretty that I could wear. And now I've actually done it.

When I was eleven, I learned how to weave beads. First, I made a small sample for a school project. I then wove myself a Christmas-themed choker (Christmas trees, presents, candles, and a star), which I was quite proud of at the time but now seems a bit rudimentary. After that, I made grand plans for a small wall decoration featuring swimming sea otters, bought the beads required for my pattern, then got distracted with other things before it was ever made. A shame, really.

Anyway, partly inspired by seeing so many cool geeky things on Etsy, I decided I wanted to start weaving beads again. I plotted out a few fun designs in an Excel spreadsheet (there must be better software for this purpose, but it worked well enough). I went to a couple bead stores in Honolulu, spent at least half an hour in each one looking at their seed bead offerings, then went home and bought a bunch of seed beads online. As I eagerly waited for the beads to arrive in the mail, I constructed a makeshift beading loom out of boxes from Costco (beefsteak tomatoes and Häagen-Dazs ice cream bars). The beads arrived over the course of last week. And so, this past weekend I made my first (and hopefully not last) geeky woven bracelet:

It's the Mass Effect N7 emblem that appears on Commander Shepard's armor (the N designates special forces, while the 7 indicates the highest level of proficiency), modeled here with my matching Asari tee.

I made it using glass TOHO size 15 seed beads, with the colors opaque jet (the black background), silver-lined crystal, and silver-lined ruby.

When I made the choker in middle school, I was using the larger size 11 beads, and they were all opaque. The smaller beads give a finer, more delicate design (the image doesn't look as coarse as with size 11), and the design can be more complicated without the bracelet becoming too large. The transparent silver-lined beads pop out and add a bit of sparkle and shine. It came out better than I had expected. Yeah, I'm really quite pleased with myself.

So what else am I planning on making? Given the rectangular nature of the medium, excessively round images don't work very well, and things that look good short and squat fit better on a reasonably thin bracelet (though if I go for a wider cuff look, I could make a taller image). R2-D2 and Yoda are thus high on my list, and maybe the Companion Cube. Bead weaving is particularly well suited for 8-bit images, but I haven't really been inspired by anything yet. Any suggestions?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

What's wrong with giving fans the FemShep they envisioned?

At the beginning of the month, I wrote a post defending both the apparent winner for the new default FemShep appearance (whom I called BlondeShep) as well as the vote for FemShep's appearance itself. If you're unfamiliar with the situation, you can see my summary as well as commentary here.

To summarize my commentary, I liked that they were giving us fans, who already have our own idea of what FemShep should look like, a chance to help decide the new default FemShep look. The original default was disappointing, and I had hoped that they would redesign her now that they were giving her a turn in the spotlight with her own cover art and trailer. I actually tweeted at the time:
In ME1&2, default MaleShep looked much cooler than default FemShep (modeled after an actual model). Hope they'll improve for #3.
13 Jun
Yes, the default male Shepard appearance was designed after a gorgeous male model because, being the Shepard used in all the trailers, covers, and promotional materials, he was the face of Mass Effect. I thought maybe they'd redesign FemShep after a model or actress. When they came out with the six images to vote on, I figured it was too much trouble/time/money to design her after a face model. But also, at this point we've already played as FemShep and designed her as we saw fit. BioWare is making the FemShep trailer and cover art because the fans want it. Why not let the fans give input on how they imagine her?

As it turned out, the vote may not have been decided by the passionate FemShep players but by the majority Mass Effect demographic of young men voting for the Shepard they thought looked the hottest. Disappointing, but what can you do? A lot of people complained about the apparent winner being the blonde, but I argued that the blonde still looks badass--even with loose hair. I did have one complaint about the vote, though: While I wanted FemShep to have brown hair (like me!), I had to agree that the blonde's hairstyle was the most flattering. It wasn't fair. Had they given the blonde a tight bun, and had the longer wispy hair style in black, brown, or red, would the blonde still have won? Did she win because of her coloring, or because of the style? I wondered.

In the week or so after I wrote my post, things seemed to be settling down. The vote was over, and people accepted that the blonde still made a cool FemShep (as illustrated in this Penny Arcade comic). And then came Round 2 of voting.

Apparently I wasn't the only one who liked the blonde's hair style but wished it were a different color. The folks at BioWare noticed these comments and organized Round 2, which took the BlondeShep design but offered it in four different hair colors. Having accepted the blonde already, I was slightly weary of the whole ordeal at the time this second vote came up, but it was, after all, what I'd wished for. I voted for the brunette, then decided I really liked how the hair style and eye color looked with the black hair, and voted for her too. It looks like the redhead is going to win, but I'm fully satisfied at this point. Done.

But the controversy is not done. I'm still reading things that I feel the need to respond to. In her post at The Mary Sue, Becky Chambers criticizes the FemShep redesign and vote. It's clear that she liked the original default FemShep; I didn't, but there's nothing to be done about opinion. Still, she specifically complains about the six FemShep appearances offered in the first round of voting, calling them "foxier", saying that they look too young, and supposing that the type of person who would like them is the type who would obsess over FemShep's lipstick color.

I can address these concerns. "Foxy" is not the first thing that came to my mind when I saw the FemShep designs. Determined, strong, confident, defiant, and--sure--pretty are what I see in them. Becky says she imagines Shepard in her thirties, but one doesn't have to imagine Shepard in her thirties. Shepard was born in 2154; the events of Mass Effect take place in 2183; Mass Effect 2 takes place in 2185. If she is 31, that makes her the same age as...Katee Sackhoff. A year older than Summer Glau. Two years younger than Zoe Saldana. Now, maybe my problem is that I'm bad at determining the apparent age of animated characters, but the FemSheps don't look out of line for 31. She also says she imagines FemShep with the "practical" hair of the original default, in contrast with BlondeShep's loose shoulder-length locks. But if you look at the original's hair style, she has loose chin-length locks. They are just as likely to get in her eyes as shoulder-length hair, if not more, since it's hard to tuck those front hairs behind the ears. And lastly, no, I didn't obsess over FemShep's lipstick color. I chose my FemShep's lip color to look like she wasn't wearing any lipstick. But that doesn't mean I can't like the way she looks with mascara. If Shepard has time to solve random domestic disputes around the citadel, she can put on a little mascara in the morning.

At the end of the post, Becky finally throws up her hands with an "Oh, for fuck's sake" at the idea of the second round of voting. I've already done what I can to defend, justify, and praise the new designs and BioWare's decision to let us vote on them. My defense of the second round of voting is basically the same as that of the first round. Let me put it this way:

I love Mass Effect. This makes my 45th post discussing Mass Effect on my blog (I'm kind of stunned to notice this, but that is over 10% of my total number of posts). I always play as FemShep--I don't even use the term FemShep outside of this specific topic because to me, she is simply Shepard. I gave her the longest hair that the designers offered, with little to no makeup (you can see my ME1 Shepard in the middle of my title banner). I did not like the default Shepard in Mass Effect or Mass Effect 2. I thought her face was bland and unmemorable, even with that scar, far below the standard of the default male Shepard and similar in quality to any bit player NPC. I wanted a new default FemShep. I liked being able to vote on her appearance to make her look how I envisioned her. I liked the long hair style--no, tousled hair does not get in Commander Shepard's way--but wanted to see it in different colors. BioWare delivered. The vote may not have gone as I wanted, but that's what happens when you don't share the most popular opinion. I accept that.

I see FemShep as a feminist icon, a paragon of female video game characters (whether you play her as a paragon or a renegade). I'm thrilled she's getting her own promotional material, and I'm grateful for what BioWare has done making a FemShep to please fans and to stand proudly opposite MaleShep. The vote is fitting, not ridiculous. I am a FemShep fan, and I am happy. What else is there to say?

Big Island Trip: Waikoloa

The last day of our Big Island trip, the Housemate and I went with his brother's family to the Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort. In addition to the beach (which we didn't actually swim at), there is an easy hike to a petroglyph field and a nice walk along ancient fish ponds.

The petroglyphs, while old, aren't ancient by some standards--I think they date back to the 16th Century--but being a legacy of the Hawaiian people pre-European influence, they're a great piece of Hawaiian cultural history. We didn't go too far down the trail because we had the kids with us--and we were really hot on that hike--but we did see a few petroglyphs.

The Housemate snapped this shot.

The Housemate took this photo of a bird looking for lunch in one of the fish ponds.

Then I got a hold of the camera. Here's a view of one of the fish ponds.

View from the beach.

The Housemate's brother and niece found a turtle!

Sleepy turtle.

A tree trunk in a fish pond.

That's it! I hope you enjoyed my photos of the Big Island. If you ever make your way to Hawaii, I highly recommend you check out the Big Island. Much less populated than O'ahu (which has the state capital Honolulu), it's younger, more pristine land, with better diving and, of course, still active volcanoes (we visited Hawaii Volcanoes National Park last year).

Back to Big Island Trip master link page

Monday, August 22, 2011

Big Island Trip: Hanaunau diving

I've already documented the sad tale of the breaking of my camera during our first dive on this trip to the Big Island. The good news is that there's a good probability that the warranty people will replace the camera (maybe even in the beautiful turquoise blue that my original camera was), as they told me they would and had me mail it in and everything. The bad news was that I didn't get photos of my two amazing dives with dolphins and manta rays the next day.

The photos I did take at Hanaunau (as a snorkel/dive spot, sometimes referred to as "Two-Step") before my camera flooded weren't great. The camera broke about 20 minutes into the dive, and we seemed to see a lot less in that time than we'd seen the previous year while snorkeling. Besides, it was a cloudy afternoon; less light to begin with means less light--and less color--underwater. Still, I feel I owe it to my lovely camera to share the photos it so valiantly took on its last expedition.

This is a lower resolution photo because it's actually a still from a video I took. It just gives a nice picture of just how much live coral there is at this spot, and how many textures it has.

That's a moray! The Housemate snapped this photo.

Just because it amuses me, I have to include the Angry Mermaid photo again.

I was trying to tell the Housemate to stop taking photos of me while I was clearing my mask of water. I wasn't THAT angry, but it did scare him, poor guy.

Here's a much friendlier mermaid.

And another photo of fish and coral.

That's it. Soon after that photo was taken, the camera started vibrating in my hands, and the screen started fuzzing out. We swam the camera into shore and handed it off to the Housemate's brother on the beach. Fortunately, the photos that were already taken remained intact.

Last but not least: See photos from Waikoloa, a beach resort that also happens to have a petroglyph field. Seeing as my camera was broken, those photos are all taken with the Housemate's camera.

Back to Big Island Trip master link page

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Big Island Trip: Waipio Valley beach

After the hot, tiring hike down into Waipio Valley, we were relieved to spend an hour or so relaxing on the gorgeous black sand beach.

The weather was pretty perfect that day. The Housemate enjoyed checking out the waves. Farther down the beach, there was a wave suitable for surfing.

The Housemate's brother and niece walk down to a part of the beach that isn't quite so pebbly.

The nephew plays in the waves at the shoreline, as he is wont to do.

The effect of the black sand under the water was rather enchanting.

When I realized that a thin film of water left by a recently receded wave created a mirror over the black sand, I went a little crazy with the camera. I can't decide which photo I like the best, so I'll just throw a bunch at you. Click for larger versions.

The choppy water here is from the river outflow over the beach.

Rock, clouds, approaching wave.

I love the patterns created in the sand by water running around rocks.

Good thing there were lots of fluffy clouds that day.

A bunch of rocks with sand wake patterns.

Sky, cliff, ocean, and black-sand mirror.

Help me out: Which of the "mirror" photos do you like the best?

Edit: OK, here's two more. It's actually the same photo, but cropped differently...


Coming up next: The few diving photos I managed to get before my camera broke.

Back to Big Island Trip master link page

Friday, August 19, 2011

Big Island Trip: Waipio Valley hike

The Housemate's brother had heard about a hike down into Waipio Valley from a friend of his. A steep road descends into a secluded valley on the Big Island's north shore. Most of the valley is private property. At the head of the valley is the tallest waterfall on the island. At the other end, a black sand beach. The hike wasn't supposed to be very long, maybe an hour. Sounded like a good idea at the time.

The hike descends from the ridge into the valley 1000 feet below in the span of a mile. While that's not a long hike, the often 45-degree slope is pretty brutal, especially in the hot sun. Going down into the valley, you have to be careful not to start running down the slope, because you could get out of control and take a tumble. The walk is jarring to the joints. Coming out, it's like hiking up a mile-long staircase. We went down with the whole family. The Housemate's brother had the little girl in a child backpack. The Housemate carried the four-year-old in his arms for part of the way. Going down it was manageable (if somewhat painful for certain people involved), but I don't know how we would have made it out if the Housemate's brother, sister-in-law, niece, and nephew hadn't hitched a ride with the cars driving up out of the valley. Yes, it was a road we were hiking down into the valley, but because of the steepness of the slope, only four-wheel-drive vehicles can drive down. The Housemate and I hiked the whole way, and I was pretty red faced by the end. Now that I've done it once, I'd be happy to rent a Jeep next time. If you want to go with young children, a four-wheel-drive vehicle is a must.

That said, I'm really glad we did the hike, because it was gorgeous! This was the view of the valley and beach from the ridge, where we ate our lunch.

From the hike down into the valley. I'm not sure you can tell just how steep it is from the picture, but it was intense. Back in the valley, you can see some small taro farms.

The opposite ridge, and some nice marshy vegetation.

Before we saw where it was (it wasn't visible from the ridge lookout), we'd planned to go all the way to the waterfall. But that is a long way, and involves a lot of hiking through private property. Once down in the valley, we passed some hikers who described the path their friends were taking to the waterfall: Follow the stream, you'll have to wade waist-deep in the stream for a hundred yards or so, then you'll see where you climb out over the rocks on the other side... Basically, it was totally infeasible with the children, and probably not what we wanted even if it had just been the adults. We enjoyed the view of the waterfall from the valley road.

It's kind of interesting how there's clearly a second waterfall path carved out of the rock. I wondered whether it would sometimes have two waterfalls if there was enough rainfall, or if the second was just an older path and the river had for whatever reason been slightly diverted from it.

Since we couldn't go all the way to the waterfall, at least we could go to the beach! It was a beautiful black sand beach, the nicest one I've been to, with soft sand and very few people (given the remote location, that was to be expected). I think the Housemate took this shot.

I took a LOT of photos on the beach, so I'll make them a separate post.

After the strenuous hike out of the valley, the Housemate and I were rewarded with a beautiful view of the valley, a bit before sunset.

The Housemate took a photo of it with his camera:

Next: Photos from the Waipio black sand beach.

Back to Big Island Trip master link page

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Big Island Trip: Banyans, Kua Bay, and Mauna Kea

The Housemate and I took a week-long summer vacation on the Big Island in July. We stayed with his brother, who lives in Kailua-Kona with his wife and two little children.

Our first day there, the swell was good, so the Housemate took the opportunity to go surfing with his brother. The beach wasn't good for swimming, though, so the rest of us just hung out on the beach under a shady tree.

The Housemate's four-year-old nephew collects rocks and coral bits by the water.

A turtle! Shame it didn't put its head above the water, but I think it's still recognizable.

The second day, we went to a beach that was great for swimming: Kua Bay Beach Park. The sand is soft and light, and the water is the perfect, glittering, crystal-clear green the brochures tell you it's supposed to be.

While the Housemate's nephew liked to stay on the beach, running in and out of the gently crashing waves, his 18-month-old niece LOVED boogie boarding with her father.

She was having a great time there.

That night, we went to the Mauna Kea Observatory Visitor Center. On top of the 14,000-ft (4200-m) volcano sits a collection of powerful telescopes that capture important astronomical images. Those telescopes, though, don't have eyepieces and instead feed directly into computers. So aside from appreciating how large the telescopes are, there isn't much to see at the peak. Furthermore, at 14,000 ft, people acclimated to sea level would likely find themselves impaired by the thin air--not able to see straight, feeling ill, and such. Thus, the visitor center sits down the mountain at a comfortable 9000 ft.

9000 ft (2750 m) is still quite high. While at sea level in Kona the temperature was around 80F (27C), at the Visitor Center it was about 49F (9C). This is REALLY cold by Hawaii standards--in Honolulu, a day that doesn't pass 75F is cold, and a night that dips below 65F is downright freezing. Luckily we'd seen on their website how cold it would be, and I wore the warmest clothes I'd brought: a light sweatshirt and jeans. I would have preferred a fleece jacket. Needless to say, the gift shop there made an absolute killing on Cup O'Noodles and hot chocolate mix.

The presentation someone made (armed with powerful laser pointer) was a bit disappointing, concentrating on pointing out the constellations in the zodiac rather than providing interesting astronomical information (the one exception: an explanation of Omega Centauri). But they had about a dozen telescopes set up and focused on various interesting things in the night sky. I tried to snap a few photos with my camera, but given the difficulty of lining up the shots, and the fact that there were often people waiting in a line behind me, I didn't get that many. Here are a couple:

Guess which planet this is. Through the telescope, we could see maybe four of its moons, but the camera only got the rings. Still recognizable, though.

Moon so bright.

Less exposed, so you can see the detail a bit better.

I'm not sure I'm anxious to go back to the Mauna Kea Observatory, but I'm glad I went. I wish that the staff there were a bit more knowledgeable, but I saw some cool things, and they had interesting videos playing inside the building. It makes a good evening trip.

Coming up next: The best photos from our trip, which came the next day when we hiked into Waipio Valley.

Back to Big Island Trip master link page

My trip to the Big Island, 2011

I've already published a few posts on my trip to the Big Island (aka Hawai'i) last month, and I'm about to do more (with photos!), so this will just be a hub--a table of contents, I suppose--of the posts related to that trip.

Just after arriving:
I'm in Kona!

My Most Amazing Birthday:
Part 1 - Surprise party...with dolphins!
Part 2 - Spectacular dive with manta rays (the highlight of the day, which is really saying something)
Part 3 - Malassadas, and being 1000

Now, for the photos (all taken not on my birthday):
Banyans, Kua Bay Beach Park, and Mauna Kea
Waipio part 1 - the hike
Waipio part 2 - the beach
Hanaunau - before the (camera) flooding
Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort

Sunday, August 14, 2011

NPR's Top 100 Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books

NPR recently published its list of the Top 100 Science-Fiction and Fantasy Books, as nominated by fans, weeded through by experts, then voted on by fans. It's a great list, though I should note that they left off all young adult sci-fi and fantasy (no Harry Potter or Narnia). They promised a separate list for the young adult books in future summers.

I'm sorry to say that I have only read a handful of the books that made the list*. Here are the ones I've read (if I've read at least one complete book in a listed series, I count that), with the brief description from the NPR list and my commentary:

#1 The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien
Tolkien's seminal three-volume epic chronicles the War of the Ring, in which Frodo the hobbit and his companions set out to destroy the evil Ring of Power and restore peace to Middle-earth. The beloved trilogy still casts a long shadow, having established some of the most familiar and enduring tropes in fantasy literature.
I actually didn't read this book/trilogy until shortly before the movies started coming out, and I have only read them through the one time. It's the movies that I have watched over and over; while Tolkien created this marvelous world, Jackson et al. may have had more...narrative finesse. But I still consider myself a huge fan of the books. I can speak a bit of Quenya, after all.

#2 The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
In the first, hilarious volume of Adams' Hitchhiker's series, reluctant galactic traveler Arthur Dent gets swept up in some literally Earth-shattering events involving aliens, sperm whales, a depressed robot, mice who are more than they seem, and some really, really bad poetry.
I finally got around to reading this one in college and found it absolutely delightful. The dolphins, the petunias, the galactic battle fleet swallowed by a small dog. It's a fun, fast read. The movie doesn't do it justice, but it does have some good bits (Alan Rickman is enjoyable, as always). The book is the first in a series, but the NPR list only credits this first one.

#5 A Song of Ice and Fire, George R. R. Martin
Ummm, this description might count as spoilers (though ones you probably expected) if you've only read the first book/seen the first season. I'll let you highlight to read.
As the Seven Kingdoms face a generation-long winter, the royal Stark family confronts the poisonous plots of the rival Lannisters, the emergence of the Neverborn demons, the arrival of barbarian hordes, and other threats.
What is it about having two "R" initials in the middle of your name? (Martin has often been compared to Tolkien.) I read the first book in Martin's epic series, A Game of Thrones, a few years ago. Much darker than the fantasy I was used to, I liked it enough to buy the rest of the books, but at the time wasn't ready to dive into the second book. But this summer's excellent HBO show, Game of Thrones, brought me back to the series, giving me renewed appreciation for the world Martin created and strengthening my affection for his characters. As the first season of Game of Thrones conveniently covered the events of the first book, I'm now perfectly poised to start book 2, A Clash of Kings.

#7 Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
A totalitarian regime has ordered all books to be destroyed, but one of the book burners suddenly realizes their merit, in a chilling novel of a frightening near-future world.
Sadly, that summary is about all I remember of the book, beyond vague images of scenes and feelings I associate with it. I read this one in high school, and while I appreciated it for being a "great" book, I guess it didn't engross me enough to leave a lasting impression.

#9 Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
Huxley's classic prophetic novel describes the socialized horrors of a futuristic utopia devoid of individual freedom.
I read this one in high school as well, but somehow I felt far more engaged with the dystopian world it imagined and the characters who populated it than with Fahrenheit 451. "Ending is better than mending," "I'm so glad I'm a beta," horror at the idea of someone being a mother... I liked this one but it also disturbed me, which I think is why it has stuck with me so well.

#12 Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan

At 13 volumes and counting, this sweeping — some would say sprawling – richly imagined epic chronicles the struggle between servants of the Dark One and those of the champion of light known as the Dragon Reborn.

I've talked about this series on this blog before (I chose one of its heroines as a Character I'd Like To Be), as it's easily the series for which I've read the greatest number of pages (each book is about 1000 pages in paperback form). My mom somewhat randomly gave me the first in the series, Eye of the World, before one of our trips to Hawaii when I was 15. By the end of our trip, I had finished the third book. While I've taken issue with some of the plot points, and I recognize how the series started dragging on...and on (I don't recall anything happening in book 10, except maybe Mat going shopping for silks--seriously), I still adore this series. I've been immersed in its world so long, seen the characters through so much, I can't help but feel attached. And Jordan did create a beautiful, complex story that is brilliant in its own way. Book 11 really picked up again, and now the end is in sight. Though Jordan passed away, he left enough notes for Brandon Sanderson to finish it up. I'll definitely see it through.

#13 Animal Farm, George Orwell

Farm animals overthrow their human owners and set up their own deeply (and familiarly) flawed government. Orwell's mordant satire of totalitarianism is still a mainstay of ninth-grade reading lists.

This is another one I read in high school that I barely remember. It's not that I didn't like it, I just didn't love it enough for it to stick. Sort of sad realizing how much of my education I've lost. I can't even remember which year I read this one...

#15 Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

As former members of a disbanded group of superheroes called the Crimebusters start turning up dead, the remaining members of the group try to discover the identity of the murderer before they, too, are killed. A graphic novel.

I'm a geek, I used to watch loads of cartoons based on comics (Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, X-Men, Fantastic Four), and I love comics-based movies, but I'm not actually a comics reader. One week, my Entertainment Weekly had on its cover a collection of people who were clearly superheroes...but I didn't have a clue who they were. Nerd shame! Well, I quickly ordered Watchmen off Amazon and got caught up. This is the one graphic novel I've read, but it's a really, really great one. The movie doesn't do it justice at all. You just have to read it.

#32 Watership Down, Richard Adams

An allegorical tale of survival about a band of wild rabbits who leave their ancestral home to build a more humane society chronicles their adventures as they search for a safe place to establish a new warren where they can live in peace.

My dad regrets not reading Lord of the Rings to me as he did to my brothers when they were young, but he did at least read me Watership Down as a bedtime story. I was seven at the time, and it was the longest book I'd ever encountered. But I loved it: the rabbits, their world--especially the exciting section about Efrafa. Perhaps foreshadowing my future Quenya studies, I pored over the Lapine glossary at the back of the book--hardly a developed language, but fun nonetheless. It was my love of Watership Down that attracted me to the Redwall books three years later, and these were the books that really sucked me into the fantasy genre. So, even if my dad didn't read me LotR, he guided me in the right direction.

#66 The Riftwar Saga, Raymond E. Feist

Evil entities have opened a rift in the fabric of space-time, plunging the world of Medkemia into peril. As the battle between Order and Chaos threatens to engulf everything, reluctant wizard Pug is the only hope of a thousand worlds.

My sophomore year in high school, one of my older brother's friends (a senior, like him) founded a school club he called the Fantasy Reader's Guild. We didn't actually read anything together, it was just an excuse for students to get together and geek out. After they graduated I became the "president" of the club, and following the suggestion of our club's faculty advisor, everyone in the club read Magician (in two parts: Apprentice and Master). In case anyone out there was doubting whether women ever read fantasy books willingly in their book clubs, I'm living proof the answer is yes.

#67 Sword of Shannara Trilogy, Terry Brooks

Over the course of three novels, several generations of the Ohmsford family find themselves retrieving magical artifacts in the desperate hope to fight evil.

This was the next fantasy series I tackled after Redwall, when Sword of Shannara was on my summer reading list going into 9th grade. Sword (the first book in the trilogy) is a blatant ripoff of Lord of the Rings, but Brooks does manage to one-up Tolkien in one way: Sword of Shannara has even fewer women than Lord of the Rings! That said, at the time I was blissfully unaware of the many, many parallels between LotR and Sword (I hadn't read LotR yet) and didn't care about the lack of women. I was just sucked into this exciting, complex world of magic and battles. The second in the trilogy, Elfstones of Shannara, was much more original and--what'd'ya know--featured several important female characters (one of whom went on my list of Characters I'd Like To Be). I am very fond of that book. The third in the trilogy, Wishsong of Shannara, was also good, and different, but Elfstones remains my favorite in the series.

I'd like to note that I've also read parts of two more books on the list:
#46 The Silmarillion, J. R. R. Tolkien
I wrote a paper in college on the story of Beren and Lúthien.

#47 The Once and Future King, T. H. White
I read The Sword in the Stone in seventh grade.

Looking at the NPR list, I realize how much reading I have to do. The Mists of Avalon (#42, Marion Zimmer Bradley) sits on my bookshelf, as does the rest of the Song of Ice and Fire series. I've wanted to read Neil Gaimon and Terry Prachett for years, now. And some day I'll read all of The Silmarillion, I promise!

If you're looking for something to read, this list is a great reference (at least, if you're looking for something sci-fi or fantasy--if you're not, then I doubt you'll have read down to this point in the post ;). And if there's anything else that I should add to my list, let me know!

* To be fair, while I've only read entire books from 11 of the 100 publications listed, by some counts that would come to 28 books encompassed by the list. Not too shabby.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Angry Birds

At a family dinner party tonight, I had the pleasure of playing Angry Birds for the first time. It began when I saw my 12-year-old second cousin playing on an iPod (or something iPod-like) and asked him what game it was. When he told me it was Angry Birds, I said I'd heard of it but had never played it.

12-year-old cousin upon learning I'd never played Angry Birds:
"Oh, you've never played before? It's so fun, but so addicting. Here, try it--see? This is how it works..."
12-year-old cousin after I totally botch a level and lament my lack of talent:
"It's OK, it's OK, it's just a game. You can do it again--here. I don't like the fail screen, so you can just go here and press that before it comes up and start the level over again that way."

At this point, we've caught the attention of my 21-year-old cousin, so he comes to see what we're doing.

21-year-old cousin upon learning I'd never played Angry Birds:
"What?! How have you never played Angry Birds before?!! You can play it on a computer! Or don't you have a friend with an iPad or iPhone? You must have a friend with an iPad or an iPhone, and if they have it, they must have Angry Birds! *Shakes head* Never played Angry Birds!"
21-year-old cousin after I totally botch a level and lament my lack of talent:
"You're terrible at this! That's shameful. Here, let me do it, it's so easy, see, you just go like this...."

Is it just me, or does something seem a little backwards in attitude and maturity level between my two cousins?

Anyway, now I've been introduced to Angry Birds, and also to some other game that involved feeding candy to a little green monster while collecting stars. I tried to explain the two games to my mom on the car ride back, but as I was describing them it occurred to me that they don't actually make sense: "You slingshot these birds, so they...blow stuff up. The red ones are regular, but the blue ones, if you click again, then they, uh, split into three birds. Yeah." "You have a little green monster and you have to feed him this candy. But you do it by cutting certain strings so it swings the right way, and sometimes you get it caught in a bubble so it starts to float."

Well, they don't have to make sense to be fun. I can see how they might become addicting if I used a handheld device that ran it, but as it is...I'll stick to my RPGs.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Least believable screen couples

The staff at A.V. Club recently offered their answers to this question:
Whenever I would sit on a flight with my family and be forced to watch "King of Queens" for in-flight entertainment, my mom would always comment on how unrealistic it is for Kevin James, an overweight UPS worker, to be married to Leah Remini.* This got me thinking about who would be the least believable couples in movies and television based on attractiveness, career success, etc. (all the superficial things people look at when comparing people in a relationship). Who would you say are the most unrealistic matches? —Jordan
Unrealistic pairings, apparently, are not uncommon, as most of the thirteen A.V. Club writers who responded came up with several different examples each. The glaring pattern one notices reading their responses is that the vast majority of the "unrealistic matches" pair a gorgeous, hot young woman with a less-than-handsome and/or far-too-old man. The rare exceptions to this featured two attractive people who didn't seem to fit together due to either lack of chemistry or clashing character personalities (I saw three such examples on the list: Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman, Amy Poehler and Adam Scott, Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey).

Why are there so many more examples of hot women paired with not-so-hot men than the other way around? There are likely many reasons, but two come to mind at the moment:

1. Wish fulfillment and male predominance. Most TV and movie writers (and producers, and studio execs) are men, so it makes sense for them to write themselves a bit of wish fulfillment and pair an ordinary-looking guy like themselves with a gorgeous actress (a serial example of this is Woody Allen). Most star comedians are also men, so it makes sense for their producers to ensure that even if their star isn't eye candy, their romantic lead is (e.g. "King of Queens"). That point about comedians has a counter example, however, as unlike Kevin James, Jim Belushi, Mark Addy, or Ray Romano, Roseanne was not paired with a hotter mate but with John Goodman (not that I criticize that decision--just pointing out the difference).

If that's not enough, it's a well-known fact that the majority of TV and movies are primarily marketed toward men, who are apparently pickier and less tolerant of media perceived as being "for women" than women are of media perceived as being "for men". This means that it's not just male writers and producers writing their own wish fulfillment, it's show creators creating wish fulfillment for their primary target audience.

2. Overall lower tolerance for unattractive women than unattractive men. Studies have shown (I don't have any sources to cite...this is just what I remember learning in college classes) that in determining how attractive a member of the opposite sex is, men place a higher value on appearance than women do, while women more highly value the ability to provide (i.e. earn money). This may make sense from an evolutionary standpoint (man needs woman who is young and fertile, woman needs man who can protect and provide for her and her children), but it is interesting to see how such a primitive instinct may contribute to what we see on screen. Not only do men have a higher preference for beauty in their mates, but they have a higher preference for beauty in women they see on screen, particularly in the romantic pairings that they see in those media. There is not an obviously intuitive connection between the two. On the flip side, I don't see how women can go about demanding that their actors be better able to provide for their families--would this be demanded of the characters (that's the writer's domain) or the actors themselves (not something evident on screen)? Thus actors are relieved of any corresponding unequal expectations when it comes to casting.

Perhaps this all ties into the generalization that men can make it in show business if they're talented, while women can make it if they're beautiful and talented. I suppose some women find success simply by being beautiful, but eventually people start to catch on (e.g. Megan Fox). There are exceptions to every rule, of course, but it's enough to be a rule...

Anyway, this is getting into deeper, more complicated issues than I intended to with this post. What I really want to know is, since the A.V. Club failed to come up with any, can you think of any examples of unrealistic screen couples in which the man is blatantly younger or more gorgeous than the woman?

The example I can think of is Diane Keaton and Keanu Reeves in Something's Gotta Give; she's 18 years his senior. Of course, (spoiler alert) she ends up with Jack Nicholson in the end, who is 9 years her senior. A much more acceptable pairing, no?

Anyone else?

* It's an interesting example, because I remember seeing an ad for that show based entirely on this point. The promo went something like, "How did THIS guy [shot of Kevin James looking fat and lazy on the couch] score THIS girl [shot of Leah Remini looking hot]? Find out on 'The King of Queens'!"

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Random photos from around the island

I'm still sorting through my photos from the Big Island, but in the meanwhile, here are some random photos from O'ahu.

This was taken at White Plains beach park, west of Honolulu. The beach is very nice, but it was the sky that impressed me that day.

These are a couple views of the Waikiki skyline as seen from our house, during two different sunsets. I love how that one building catches the light when the sun gets low.

The Housemate and I visited a friend of his who was staying at the Ko Olina Resort at the beginning of the summer. We got a nice tour of the area at sunset. While walking on the beach, I also got to meet the tiniest puppy (like six inches long--it could have been kidnapped by a squirrel). It was so cute and fluffy, and it licked my hand with its tiny tongue, but somehow I didn't snap a picture of it, which I still regret. The sunset was beautiful, though.