Copyright

All blog posts, unless otherwise noted, are copyrighted to the Author (that's me) and may not be used without written permission.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Prince Caspian

I've talked before about my love of the Narnia books. While it is true that my absolute favorite is LWW, all of them have a special place in my heart for various reasons. As I have commented before, I had trepidation about Walden and Disney making the books into live-action movies, but the first one was a pretty solid success. I have also experienced a rather poor version of the book, which completely missed the point.

Prince Caspian arrived via Zip today, and I watched it. There were many scenes that were very directly from the book, and in these scenes I rejoiced and was quite pleased. For example, the opening scenes were quite good-- the children on a platform, the wind rushing, being pulled into Narnia. Also, the very quick intro of Caspian and his professor and getting Caspian out of Miraz' palace. The scenes where the hag, werewolf, and evil dwarf call Jadis. The one-on-one duel between Miraz and Peter. All incredibly faithful to the book and well-executed film.

However, the problem was that the remaining hour and a half was the Andrew Adamson's idea of how to make the book more action-oriented, spice up (and by that I mean totally fabricate and include) a love story, and concoct entire scenes that don't even exist nor are referenced in the source material.

Once again, the filmmakers have forgotten the most important point of translating source material to the big screen: don't alienate your core audience. This movie, had it not had the title Prince Caspian, very likely would have been a pretty decent hit. It had all the makings. But those of us who know the novels want to see that novel put onto the screen. We accept some changes to make things "more cinematic" but, as the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter have shown us, you CAN stay true to the source while making those changes and gain a win-win with new audience and the core. Because, and here's the important thing that filmmakers always seem to forget, if you lose the core, the film will tank. We are the ones who will give it positive or negative buzz. We are the ones who will take our families, our friends, talk it up at work, blog about it, and, ultimately, get the non-core audience to go.

Andrew Adamson is credited as a writer, a producer, and the director of this film, so its success or failure needs to fall squarely on his shoulders. What was he thinking by adding the entire "Peter forces his troops to attack Miraz in his castle" scene? That was 20 minutes that could have been spent on characterization, on showing the hopelessness of the Narnian's plight, on any number of things. Was it exciting? Yes. Was it action-packed? Definitely. Did it drive the story forward in any way? Nope; had he stayed truer to the book, the same message would have been delivered and probably in less time. Why did he choose to move so many points of the story around? The calling of Jadis happens much later in the film and, while beautifully rendered, doesn't make sense where it happens an the reasons behind it don't hold with the characters.

Once again, the final battle is much more visual, visceral, and larger than described in the book. This is justified and expected. However, some of the scenes felt bloated and forced. The way the Narnian's create a sink hole to help kill some of Miraz's men seemed dumb-- why would they destroy part of the fortress in which they are hiding? The coming of the trees was very reminiscent of LotR's defense of Helm's Deep scene.

Lastly, why is Aslan so absent from the film? He is seen much more in the source material and his presence changes a lot of things. Without him in the film, Adamson had to invent ways for things to happen to provide the salvation that Prince Caspian's troops require. It again felt false.

I have said it again and again (too many times to link to every post in which I've said it): people want to make a film of the source material because of the core audience and because of the source material's enduring success. When you stay true to the source, movie magic happens and the films become huge hits (LotR, Harry Potter, The Dark Knight, Casino Royale, Iron Man, Spider-Man 2, To Kill a Mockingbird, Jurassic Park, Jaws, et al). When you don't, the film is stillborn before you even get it into theaters (The Dark is Rising, Catwoman, Elektra, Dukes of Hazzard, The Omen, et al).

I am hopeful that, now that Voyage of the Dawn Treader has been picked up by Fox, that the new creative crew will learn from the successes of LWW and failures of Prince Caspian, and will hold truer to the original story.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

In a Handbasket

I once heard or read an anecdote about Heaven and Hell:
A man is on the fence about whether he should go to Heaven for his good deeds or to Hell for his bad deeds. St. Michael takes the man on a tour of Hell first: he is taken to a room in which a group of people sit around a huge table laid with the most succulent meal anyone can imagine. There is perfectly done turkey with all the trimmings, incredible desserts, braised hams, neatly grilled steaks, vegetables and fruits -- anything a person could want. The people, however, were acting like a pack of mad dogs. For the man noticed that all of the silverware on the table was of gigantic proportions. Each person struggled mightily to use the knives and forks and spoons to get the food cut and into their hungry mouths. However, the utensils were so big that not one person could succeed.

"How horrible," the man said, turning to St. Michael. "Now show me Heaven."

St. Michael gestured to another window into another room. The man was shocked to see the exact same room, with the same spread of foods and beverages, and containing the same oversized utensils, yet in this one all the people were happy and talking. As he watched, the man noted that whenever someone was hungry or wanted something, some of his companions would pick up utensils, cut it and serve it to the requester with the oversized utensils. In this way, everyone got to eat the food, everyone bonded and became closer, and all the people were satisfied and friendly.

The moral of this parable is, of course, that Heaven and Hell are what you make it.

I read today that a man and wife were, apparently, fired with cause from their respective jobs at Kaiser Permanente in Los Angeles, CA. Rather than risk these harsh economic times, the man and woman decided to kill their five children and then themselves. But first they faxed their intent to KABC TV news and called 911, so they would be found quickly. This seems to me to be a case of making a little bit of Hell on Earth.

One of my favorite sayings is "As long as there is life, there is hope." While I originally thought I had come up with this nifty quote on my own, I have since found it -- almost word for word -- in a variety of books. But, still, it is true: Death ends any possibility for change.

This man and woman may have been days, hours, or even minutes away from, I don't know, winning the lottery, getting a new job offer, having a family member or friend give them a lead on something, their children winning a reward at school... something positive.

No matter if there is a next life or what that next life entails, the man and woman in this article made it impossible for their family to experience anything more in this life. The murder-suicide of this family means that nothing more can occur here for them. In essence, they couldn't figure out to feed each other with the oversized utensils, and were left despondent, angry, and hungry.

These are harsh times. The world-wide economy is in the tank. The American economy is having its biggest struggles since the Great Depression. Many of the lessons of that generation became lost over the intervening time and a new generation is relearning them. However, there is no reason to think that these times will not pass. That, struggle though we may and possibly for a relatively long time, there are better days to come. And, if we learn those lessons we should (about buying with what you have, only using credit for the big ticket items like cars and houses, keeping three or more months rent/food/utilities in the bank at all times, etc.), the economy will once again grow and flourish and incredible advances may come out of it. The American economy, and the world's, will then be a stronger and more vibrant one. We will learn once more to feed each other with the oversized utensils and everyone will be happy, fulfilled, and satisfied.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Ice

We have been going through what the meteorologists on TV have been referring to as a "cold snap." To me, this is insane coldness that is fraught with peril. However, amid the freezing cold and ice, beauty can be found.


Fig. 1: Icicles and frozen gutters make taking the Xmas lights off impossible.


Fig. 2: A row of icicles on the porch glint in the morning sun.


Fig. 3: This spruce has a wintry coat.


Fig. 4: An entire plant frozen in place.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Zip.ca

I love movies. All of my friends and family know this. Movies are a primary gift that I receive, it is a primary form of entertainment for me, and a topic about which I talk at great length.

When I moved here, I had to give up my long-standing Netflix subscription as the company cannot service Canada. After some discussion, my wife and I decided to try "Canada's Netflix" called Zip.ca. The results have been... amusing at best and disappointing at worst.

Zip has fewer titles overall than Netflix, but far more than any of the other online rental options in Canada. Its closest warehouse to Atlantic Canada is in Ottawa, which means that shipping estimates are off by 1-3 days on average, worse when the weather is bad. It modeled much of its site after Netflix, but some of the primary features are lacking (like popups so you don't have to leave your page to view the critical information on a movie you may want to add to your list, as one example).

The most amusing deficiencies are with its queue system and its recommendations list. Rather than partner with or lease the Netflix program for tracking, stocking, and queuing movies, Zip has chosen to create its own. Its public forums show that this is not only a bad idea, but also is one of the two most debated topics. There are even entire forum chats with subscribers suggesting ways for other subscribers to try and get more of the movies they rank in their top 10. For the years I was with Netflix, I never had to worry about that-- the fact the movies I wanted were in a queue and I was moving titles I most wanted to see into the top 10 was enough to ensure that I would usually (not always, but well over 90% of the time) get a movie from the top 10. And I had a list of well over 200 titles in my queue.

Our Zip rental history shows that we are as likely to get movies at the bottom of our queue as the top, and we have only actually received the #1 movie on our list one time. We actually had "Kung Fu Panda" as our #1 movie from its release date until about a week ago, when we borrowed my brother in law's copy and watched it. That means from November 7 through January 10, or 10 weeks, we couldn't get our #1 choice. Now, granted, it is a popular movie. But Netflix knows to order more of the big releases and keep flooding the market until it reaches a happy parity. Obviously that didn't happen at Zip as the green "availability" bar for that movie has not changed size even by a small amount since that movie was released.

At the same time, we put the 1956 James Dean movie "Giant" as our #2. It is still our #2 movie and we have yet to see it. We have received a number of films since then -- only a few from the top 10 at all -- but we can't get a relatively old film amid everyone else's cravings for the newest and hottest? We assume that Zip just has the one copy, and it has been marked as stolen or broken, and the company isn't replacing it.

Another amusing note about the queue list. We sent back a movie a little while ago and I told my wife, "I bet we get one of these three films" and read to her the names of the movies in positions 39, 40, and 41 on our list. Sure enough, we got number 40. When we returned that one, I guessed about the same area of the list. Sure enough, we got the new number 40. Our most recent return prompted Zip to send another movie out -- you guessed it, number 40 is on its way. Is Zip trying to say that none of the wide variety of movies on our list, from comedies to dramas, from new releases to movies made as far back as the 50s, that not ONE of the films from 1-39 is available to send us? I have a hard time believing that.

When my wife was coming to visit me, I would often ask her for specific movies she wanted to see. I would move those movies into the top three of my Netflix list and I would nearly always have them all within a few days and before she arrived. There is no way of doing that with Zip, unless you KNOW you are getting the title in slot 40 on your list. I found a forum post from a person who had the same movie ranked #1 for two years and counting and still hadn't received it. Another person had one in his top slot for close to a year with no luck. These are all very bad signs for the programmers of the Zip queue system and indicative of a lack of understanding of the company's main goal.

The recommendation list is just as bad. On Netflix, as you rate things with higher stars, more similar movies show up on your recommendation list. As you rate things with lower stars (or use the Not Interested option), similar movies leave your recommendation list. You can, of course, always find any movie, even one that is in a category you normally grade down. The Zip recommendation list, called "Rex Recommends" and with a cute puppy as the mascot, doesn't care what you rate something. I say this with vigor because I have rated every single TV show (even ones I like), young children's show/movie (counting, learning to read, etc.), and music-related item (especially operas, ballets, and all things country) as Not Interested. When I go to Rex right now, checking it as I write this blog, the main three things I have recommended for me are: TV shows (House, CSI, BBC miniseries, and what appear to be dubbed Chinese shows), children's programming (fun with animals, learning to draw, how to read), and musical items (Yo Yo Ma in concert, Tchaikovsky, a bunch of bands/musicians I haven't heard of). Why even have a recommendation process if you are not going to pay attention to what I like and dislike/don't want to see?

In looking at the official responses on the forums, I have found that Zip claims its estimated shipping times are based directly on the estimates from Canada Post. If that is true, it would explain why even the simplest of letters seems to take forever to arrive; if the official post office of Canada doesn't know how long it actually takes something to reach Atlantic Canada, then how can we expect businesses that rely on that information to know?

I have a few suggestions for Zip to truly become the "Netflix of Canada:"

1. Partner with Netflix and use its software. It works. Netflix has survived and flourished using it. It is tried and true and Zip shouldn't be wasting time or money reinventing that particular wheel.

2. Add software that captures the actual times/dates of movies shipped and returned and use that information, in addition to the estimates from Canadian Post, to provide estimated arrival dates. This will lead to people in Atlantic Canada knowing it will take 1-3 days longer to receive movies than it currently estimates. I say it this way because the website allows a user to provide them the actual arrival date, but it doesn't seem to use this data in any way, especially not to reevaluate the shipping times.

3. (If they do #1, this becomes moot.) Revise Rex Recommends to actually capture the Not Interested and stars selected and suggest similar movies to the four and five star ratings and not show at all those items similar to the Not Interested and one or two star ratings.

3a. In addition to this, I actually posted on the Zip forums an additional suggestion to add into our profile an area where we could select or deselect movie genres and categories and the Recommendation list would start its sort here. So for example, I would deselect Children, TV shows, and Music, and those would NEVER show up on my Recommends list. In order to see those items, I would have to do a normal search by title or person; the recommends list wouldn't have it. An official Zip representative said the company likes this suggestion and they are working to add this feature.

We will stick with Zip.ca because it is still cheaper than going to our local Blockbuster, even with the amusing difficulties. However, we have given up trying to reorder the list to get movies we want into the top 10. Instead, it will be serendipitous if and when we get something we actually want to see when we want to see it. Until then, Giant is still in our #2 position, we'll watch whatever we get and LIKE IT, and we'll buy or borrow the movies we want to see NOW.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

There Will Be Blood

My wife and I just finished watching There Will Be Blood. This powerful movie had a virtuoso performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, another strong performance by Paul Dano, incredible cinematography, fine direction... yet, ultimately, left us both a bit unsatisfied.

Too much is left unexplained. Why did HW set fire to the cabin? Why didn't Daniel and HW use written notes to communicate after HW's accident? Why did Daniel act drunk at times when he didn't appear to have been drinking? Why didn't Daniel ever pay Eli (or, rather Abel) the $5000 he owed him -- especially when the initial conversation ended with them 'drawing up contracts'? Why didn't Daniel, after hearing about one hold-out and saying he would go see him, never do it (I'm assuming this one has to do with the "drainage" speech, but that is still a tenuous connection)?

I don't think that all aspects of a film need be explained. However, such critical and crucial parts to the story should be. Or, at least, reference enough to them should be made to allow the audience to draw its own conclusion. My wife and I discussed many of these aspects and were always left with a "yes, but" statement that included something that nullified the explanation we came up with.

Daniel Day-Lewis is almost unrecognizable as Daniel Plainview. He is a mean, solitary man who doesn't see any good in people-- any of them. People are a means to an end. Early in his career he is better able to hide this, but in the end he has become a hermit who stays away from everyone. He is a violent, crude, uncaring, self-serving man and he relishes in it. My wife said, "Daniel Day-Lewis was unrecognizable in that role. Heath Ledger was almost as unrecognizable (in The Dark Knight)." I agree (and that puts it in some context for those who may have seen the more widely viewed Dark Knight).

Paul Dano's acting is pretty damn good as well. Without his quieter, lighter, but equally as obsessed preacher to work as a foil for Daniel Day-Lewis, I'm not sure you get the same quality acting job overall. Sometimes it takes quality to make quality.

All in all, I'm glad I watched the film. However, I would not recommend it to just anyone (like, for example, my mom or certain friends) as they would be bored, would not want to put the (concerted) effort in to pay attention and follow the plot, and would not like how it ends.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Sleep Issues

I think one of the hardest things was to prepare my wife for my sleep issues. I tried to be open and honest that I have a hard time sleeping and often go through the night awake, but until you have to live with it, it is hard to understand and cope with.

The night before last, I was up until 3:30 am and didn't fall asleep until between 4 and 4:30 am. Last night I was awake until almost 5 am, when I went to bed and fell asleep (thankfully!) fairly quickly. However, in both instances, this means a typical 6-7 hours of sleep has me waking up around noon. Today it is nearly 1 pm and I'm waking up (8 full hours). Which, of course, means it will be that much harder to sleep tonight.

I can't remember a time in my life where I didn't have issues with sleep. I never napped during nap time in pre-school. My parents gave me bed times as a child which simply meant I had to go to bed; I often would stay up very late reading or drawing, or something because I couldn't sleep and would be hard-pressed to wake up the next day. In High School and College, my ability to go days without sleeping served me well at times, hurt me badly at others.

My buddy Chris, with whom I lived for more than a few years, got used to my odd sleeping patterns and the noises I make when I'm prowling around the house during the wee hours. My hope is that my wife will too.

Update: I can tell you this article (which ironically comes out today) is absolutely dead-on from my perspective.

Update 2: I took a sleeping pill last night at about 10:30pm. It helped me get to sleep by about midnight, and I had a good, long sleep till my wife's alarm went off at a bit after 7am. I am feeling much better, overall, this morning, and the sore throat is much less of an issue.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Movie Round Up 2008

Here is the list of movies I saw in the theater this past year:

Michael Clayton (February 17) was a very good movie, with a good story, and mostly great acting. George Clooney was actually the weakest link in this, while Tilda Swinton and Tom Wilkinson were incredibly engaging and powerful in their respective roles. A-

Definitely, Maybe (March 13) was a good, sweet story. Ryan Reynolds was a pleasant surprise, while Isla Fisher, Elizabeth Banks, and Rachel Weisz were quite good in each of their roles. Breslin was cute. I really enjoyed the story and I especially liked that this "chick-flick" was told from the perspective of the male role; made for an interesting twist. B+

The Bank Job (March 16) was a solid crime drama, with Jason Statham well-cast as the leader of a group of somewhat amateurish thieves who are contracted to rob a bank and all that transpires because of it. It is funny, fun, and exciting. B-

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (April 20) was a great comedy. Jason Segal was a breakout talent shown in this movie, while Kristin Bell was great as the eponymous ex-girlfriend and Mila Kunis was a surprise as the new love interest. Russell Brand was good as the sex-crazed pop singer. I don't often laugh out loud at comedies, but did regularly while watching this one. A-

Iron Man (May 2) was one of the best comic book translations made. Instantly leaped into the top four of all-time best comic adaptations. Robert Downey Jr was the absolute perfect choice for Tony Stark and Gwenyth Paltrow did some of her best work in years as Pepper Potts. I didn't like Terrence Howard as Rhodey and I felt the ending was a little weak, but the overall tone and translation of source to screen was fabulous. A

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (May 23) was half to even two thirds of a pretty decent movie, but the last act blew it out of the water. Aliens don't belong in an Indiana Jones movie. I liked that they made many references to his getting older, but at the same time that's not why we watch Indy. I didn't have the same issues with Shia LaBeouf that others did. It just came across as a bit tired, over done, and trite by the end. The script leaked online about a year ago was far superior to what was actually filmed, which is too bad. C

Incredible Hulk (June 18) was a pretty good action movie. I still puzzle over why it was not better received by audiences. I have a theory that if they had used less CGI and used trick shots using actors people would have liked it more. As it was, it had a very quick recap of how the character became the Hulk, got quickly into the action, and had a lot of great scenes of battle with the Hulk-- all of the "problems" people stated they didn't like with the Eric Bana Hulk movie, yet the audience didn't watch. Edward Norton was great as Banner, Tim Roth was very good as Emil Blonsky, but Liv Tyler seemed out of her league and floundering as Betty Ross. C+/B-

Hellboy II: The Golden Army (July 13) was a good sequel and a pretty good movie. Ron Perlman once again was great as Hellboy and his supporting cast was good. Guillermo del Toro did a very good job with direction and the visualization of the mythic creatures that populate this world. In some ways, like action and plot movement, was better than the first. B

WALL*E (July 17) was one of the best animated films I've seen. It was one of the two best films of the last year. It has a touching story that is accessible to both children and adults, a strong love story, good comedy, and a message. I personally felt the second half was slightly weaker than the first half, and a bit broader in its comedy, but this is only a small fault. A

The Dark Knight (July 20) was the second of the two best films of the last year. It was a tight cop drama, a great action movie, and a damn good character piece. Heath Ledger was incredible as the Joker, while Aaron Eckhart, Christian Bale, and the rest of the ensemble cast were solid. Nolan proved, finally, that you can have a good movie that happens to have a character who dresses as a super-hero. Small complaints are that the movie is too long, the "fourth act" could have been the start to a great third movie instead of the end of this one, and the "bat sonar" scenes felt a little false. None of these complaints are enough to torpedo it. A

Quantum of Solace (November 15) was a great sequel to Casino Royale, but didn't quite live up to that first film's tight story. The secondary story of Camile's revenge nullified and drew attention away from Bond, which isn't what you want from a Bond film. The plot was a bit disjointed and the crime was a little esoteric. However, with the exception of the shaky-cam used on the opening chase scene, all of the action was incredible and the acting by Craig and Dench was great. I particularly like that the writers/director have given Dench a bigger role and more to do; she and Craig have a good chemistry and their scenes together are always good. B+

Punisher: War Zone (December 7) was, well, a Punisher movie. Everything you expect from a Punisher movie is here-- ultra violence, a little humor, more violence, a ton of blood, and then some more violent deaths. It actually had a pretty good story hidden under all the violence. Ray Stevenson was actually very good as Frank Castle. If you want a movie with a ton of action, and way over the top violence, this is a great movie to see. Closest one yet to what you find in the best Punisher stories. C-

Detroit City

Want to read a powerful and well-written article about the death of a city and the hope of its people?

Go here.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Embarrassment of Riches

In SoCal, I had one really good DnD group that I played with since about 1995. We started with just four of us, then added one a couple years later, and then added another shortly after that, and then a last person about five years ago. For awhile, wives and girlfriends played. At one point, we had a regular group of eight. Made it hard on the DM, but was great fun to get together with everyone.

Soon, though, the wives drifted off to other things. Real life events made gaming more difficult and we had difficulty getting together even once a month with the regular group.

Now I've moved and I am DMing one group using DnD 4.0 rules and about to join, at least temporarily, another group playing modified 3.5 rules as a player. I'm really looking forward to playing again, as I'm in the mood to play (not saying I don't want to DM, just saying I really want to play). I'm looking forward to this new game, too, because everyone speaks highly of the DM and his style and I'm playing something of a wild-card that will shake things up with the existing group.

I'd really like to play the 4.0 rules, too. I'm hopeful that, over time, the other DM in that group will feel the urge and will create something that I can play in. I look forward to it.

Right now, I'm basking in the ability to have two groups going at once and playing multiple times a month. And my wife is excited about the thought of me being out of the house a little more; maybe she can get some reading done now.

Weight

I'm getting tired of the extra weight that the Prednisone has contributed to my body. I have an extra chin, my face is round instead of its usual rectangular shape, and my gut is bigger. It is frustrating.

Hopefully the new RA doctor will get me on a new medicine so I can stop taking the Prednisone so often and start to lose the weight. Even the new treadmill isn't making a dent, although it is good to get some exercise in anyway. It is hard to use, though, since my feet are the worst place for pain and that makes walking difficult.

My next meeting with the new RA doctor is in early February. At which time we will discuss medications and go from there. Hopefully a cessation of the Prednisone and the start of something that doesn't stimulate my appetite will get me off this high and I can turn this weight gain around. Less weight should also mean my feet hurt a little less (and less often) too.

Here's hoping.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Pathfinder RPG

I have spoken many times about various aspects of Dungeons & Dragons, including one of my more recent posts on changing to the 4.0 rule set. A new friend recently made me aware that a company called Paizo has a license to use the older 3.5 set and make changes to it, called Pathfinder. Many in the DnD world refer to it as "3.75" or "3.51" due to its close use of the 3.5 rule set but changes for playability.

Paizo is currently offering a free download of the full rule set, so I did. Read through the majority of it today, and I have to say I am impressed. It is a huge leap forward for the 3.5 rule set without being a completely new game (like 4.0 is). One of the biggest issues with 4.0 is that our group is stuck with years of experience using 3.5 and those rules don't always apply or have been changed radically or done away with. The Pathfinder rules, however, are simple additions or alterations to the existing 3.5 rule set, so are much easier for one with all that 3.5 knowledge to grasp and understand without confusion.

Nearly ever class has a subtle or obvious change to make them more playable. For example, one 3.5 complaint from players is that any class without access to spells becomes useless compared to those who can cast spells (or, in essence, minions to those who cast). We saw this in our last group; the wizard, druid, and cleric became god-like in ability due to the spells they could cast, while the others were merely the cannon fodder and front wall to keep enemies off the spell casters. Even the DM got frustrated-- he would set up these interesting situations but the cleric would just ask his god for guidance, the druid would commune with nature and teleport the party to the location, and the wizard would destroy whatever the problem was.

Pathfinder has given classes like the Fighter interesting new abilities to counter that. Now, the Fighter gains weapon and armor bonuses during class advancement. These bonuses are in addition to the normal 3.5 rules for the Fighter. There are new and useful Feats to add to the fighter's capabilities. Certain combat options have been simplified and expanded so they are more useful. Skills have been combined, redefined, and more fully explained. And this is just one class and some examples; every class has had some sort of change or addition to make it more playable throughout the leveling process.

Paizo has managed to make interesting, unique, and worthwhile changes that make the game more fun, easier to understand, and more playable. It is roughly equivalent to the same amount of change from 3.0 to 3.5.

I'm very excited. A new DnD group I'm joining uses, in essence, these same rules, so I will get to put them in play. Hopefully, knowing this rule set won't further impede my ability to DM and learn the 4.0 rule set my other group enjoys!

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Superman

Superman is the Christ figure of comics; the one with absolute power who is NOT corrupted absolutely. The one who could rule the world, but instead believes in everyone's inalienable rights to freedom and happiness. He was the first of a new breed of super-powered archetypes who is always humble and rarely overbearing.

Since his inception as simply a super-strong guy, Superman has evolved with the times and into what we need him to be to maintain his "first-among-equals" status. His greatest threat actually came in the '40s and '50s from Captain Marvel, then a Fawcett character, who, at the time, actually had more powers and abilities than Superman. DC Comics had Superman evolve and the character became "more powerful" than Captain Marvel (and DC Comics sued Fawcett, eventually buying them out and adding its characters to DC's lineup).

To today's jaded market, which has numerous titles, movies, TV shows, and cartoons of a multitude of comics properties to choose from, Superman and his 1950's style of ethics and mores seems outdated. His plethora of powers and their limitless strength hurt our modern sensibilities. It is easy to find on blogs, in chat groups, and in comic book shops, today's audiences arguing that Superman is "too powerful" and that very few threats are legitimate. When you add that he is typically a member of the Justice League, which boasts others in his power level, it makes it increasingly hard for today's audiences to find value and good, sustaining conflict in a Superman story.

Superman needs to remain the first and, arguably, the "best" superhero. However, he needs to have his powers more carefully explained and his power list modified to help add more conflict and 'vulnerability' back into his stories. Once this proliferates through other media (most notably into cartoons, TV shows, and, especially, into movies), the character's appeal will increase.

First and foremost, Superman is the physically strongest character in DC Comic's pantheon of heroes. This should not change. However, it should be better defined. He has, in various incarnations, been able to move planets easily around. He has been able to "supe" himself up to even greater feats of strength by flying into the sun for a supercharge of energy. As a character and as part of his mythology, Superman needs to perform vast, impossible feats of strength. However, hard caps should placed on, at his utmost limits, his ability to shift planetary-sized objects. He could maybe shift the moon and even the Earth slightly, but that would exhaust him utterly and would take days or even weeks to recharge his abilities after doing. His typical, "daily" usage should be in the lifting a luxury cruise liner or tanker ship out of the water scale.

Secondly, Superman is referred to as "invulnerable." This should be subtly but firmly changed to a phrase like "is resistant to high amounts of damage." Invulnerable means that you cannot be harmed and are proof against (any) attack. An invulnerable character is a boring character, as there is nothing that can defeat him. However, a person who is resistant to damage has a finite amount of resistance. Superman's may be incredibly high (and should be the highest of any DC Comics hero), but it needs limits. This allows him to have battles with someone who can overcome those limits and damage him. It will need to be defined carefully, though, so that writers in one story don't limit it one way and the writers in the next story go well past that same level.

Lightning bolts should knock him about, singe him, and harm him, but one strike would not kill him outright. It would take multiple lightning attacks to kill Superman, but it could be done. Small-yield nuclear blasts should be survivable but damaging, possibly giving him concussions, a bloody nose, ears, and/or eyes, headaches, even some of the same signs as a person who survives fallout would face, at least until he can recharge via the sun's light. High-yield, multi-ton bombs should be close-calls, with the largest weaponry hinted at possibly killing him, if not outright being able to. People in his own "weight class" of damage resistance and strength (Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, Darkseid, Doomsday, et al) should be able to bruise and batter him at about the same level as two heavyweight contenders duking it out in a championship match. Broken bones, bruising, concussions, and, if the threat is great enough, death should be achievable.

Third, Superman flies and has super speed. This should not change. However, how fast and how far he can fly or run has varied greatly through the years. He has been known to fly fast enough to reach other planets and star systems, to be fast enough (flying or running) to breach the time barrier, and to be able to match the Flash when that character is running full speed. Superman is the generalist; he has powers and abilities that dip into a variety of areas; however, that does not mean he should be the best at each one of them. Characters who focus on flight and speed should be better at either than Superman, but what makes Superman the best is that he can do those feats AND a host of others. He's the Swiss Army Tool of superheroes; he may not be the best at any one thing, but he is very, very good at a lot of things. Now, audiences want and expect Superman to be "faster than a speeding bullet" so that is what he should be. Let the characters like the Flash be able to beat him in pure speed related feats regularly, if not easily.

What if Superman were able to fly and move at the equivalent of about Mach 5? That is hypersonic, and as fast as the fastest planes on the planet now travel. Within the confines of human perception, it would still allow Superman to perform feats like moving without the human brain comprehending he has moved, catching bullets, and he could still move fast enough to overtake nearly any speeding disaster (falling rocks, planes falling, lava flows, hurricanes, etc.). However, it also allows human beings to build things that go faster than he does, keeping them relevant (so, for example, the two rockets death trap at the end of the 1978 Superman movie would work-- he is fast enough to catch one, but not fast enough to necessarily catch up to the second one in time to save the explosion).

Fourth, Superman has a lot of extraneous powers that need to be looked at hard and determined if they are "core" concepts, can be worked into the mix based on his power source and background, or if they should be done away with.
  • Heat vision. This is a staple power and ties in with his power source, so this should stay. However, the power has varied greatly and needs to be defined; can he really scorch the atmosphere and destroy all life on the Earth? Or is it more of a confined beam of heat in the 3,000 to 4,000 celsius range (enough to melt most metals, and many other objects, but not so powerful as to destroy the planet).
  • X-ray vision. This is now a core concept. It is easily tied into his power source, so worth keeping. Plus, audiences expect this power.
  • Micro/Macro vision. Not needed. Not easily tied into power source. Rarely used. Delete from power list.
  • Super breath. Does Superman really need the ability to breathe frosty cold breath or hurricane-strength winds? He has other powers and abilities that he can use to achieve similar results. Delete.
  • Super hearing. Does Superman really need the ability to hear people on the other side of the planet or into the hypersonic and subsonic ranges? This is, however, considered something of a core power by many fans. Consider deleting or at least toning down so that he is not listening to things from across the planet or from outer space.
  • Eidetic memory and Super intelligence. Totally not needed for the character. While he can be a smart guy, there is no need to have him be a super genius with total recall. Deleting this "power" also allows for the smart people of the world to have a chance of defeating him using their intelligence. It adds conflict.
  • Miscellaneous. Super ventriloquism, Super hypnosis, et al. Gone. No explanations needed-- it is just bad story writing. Superman already has the lotto winner's list of superpowers, there is no need to create new ones whenever the writer writes himself into a corner.
Fifth, Superman's power source needs to be clearly defined. Through the ages, his power has come from:
  • Strictly his Kryptonian heritage (meaning that all Kryptonians have those abilities at roughly equivalent levels)
  • A combination of his heritage and the the Earth's atmosphere and gravity in relation to Krypton's atmosphere and gravity (meaning that Kryptonians were not the least bit powerful on their own planet, but would be on Earth)
  • The Sun and Earth's gravity in combination (Krypton the planet had nothing to do with it)
  • The specific radiation of Earth's yellow Sun.

This is a tough one, but it seems like using his Kryptonian heritage and a sun's radiation allows for the best definition and explanation for his powers: His Kryptonian heritage provides him with a body that acts like a solar cell, constantly absorbing and powering his many incredible powers. Like a battery, if deprived of its power source, it slowly loses its charge. If the 'engine' uses a large amount of the stored energy quickly, it shuts down some or all of its functions and the solar cells must recharge before it can function again.

To take the solar cell concept further, Superman's body should react in a consistent manner to all solar radiation. A red sun, for example, should not totally depower him; instead, he gets a much weaker amount of radiation to work with and his solar cells recharge more slowly. Once he works through his stored yellow sunlight resources, his power levels are about half of what they are with a yellow sun. This also explains why the Kryptonians didn't conquer the universe and why they weren't conquered either (they were still a strong and hearty race, but not enough so to become conquerors). If Superman is placed in a situation with younger, more energized solar radiation, say a white or blue star, then his solar cells recharge much faster, allowing him to run his engine longer without losing, or be refilling the tank, his reserves. This stronger radiation could also be a source of weakness for Superman; like putting alcohol into a standard engine, he could burn out and do some serious harm to his body if he uses it too much (which explains why he doesn't just move to a solar system with a younger sun).

Lastly, Superman's vulnerabilities need to be carefully considered, toned up or down as needed, and clearly defined. Kryptonite and magic are especially troublesome right now, and cause for a great deal of fan speculation. Kryptonite needs to have its effects, radius of effect, and terms of use clearly defined. Like how nuclear radiation affects human beings, Kryptonite should affect Superman from a distance depending on the source of radiation; a tiny piece of Kryptonite should have to be placed right on his skin or ingested in order to affect him, while a baseball-sized rock of it would affect him from, say, fifteen feet away. Also like nuclear radiation to human beings, it should be a slow but steady effect. He feels sick and nauseated almost immediately, as the radiation from the rock interferes with his body's ability to process and use solar radiation. As that radiation continues to impede his body's natural systems, his powers ebb; the most energy intensive powers first (like his vision powers), then the quick-burst energy powers next (flight, speed), and then his invulnerability and strength drain away last. All of this should take a prolonged period of time depending on the strength of the Kryptonite radiation. A large amount in close proximity will disable him very quickly and kill him in a matter of hours. A small amount or a larger distance reduces the speed with which it poisons Superman's systems.

Magic and its effects should be a directly related to his ability to resist damage. If you are using magic to physically attack him, slightly lower amounts of damage will bypass his resistance sooner than non-magical versions of the same sort of attack. For example, a natural lightning bolt will hurt him, singe him, and knock him about. A magical lightning bolt will burn him, bruise him, and knock him out of the sky. If Superman is hit enough times, either lightning will kill him, but a magical one will do so faster/sooner. Under normal circumstances, a non-magical sword blade would do no damage when striking his skin, unless wielded by someone in his heroic "weight-class." Even then, the effects would be lessened. If the blade is magical, however, it should act like a normal blade does to a normal human being; cutting him, possibly able to sever limbs, and even able to kill him.

Once Superman's damage resistance, Kryptonite exposure, and magic allergy is clearly defined, all vulnerabilities come into line pretty quickly with only a limited amount of work. Actually, everything starts to flow much more smoothly once his power source, upper ability limits, and extraneous bits are defined and/or thrown out.

What is left is a character who is still "first among equals," and very powerful, but who has clearly defined limits and levels. This allows the writers to find those limits, use them to tell compelling stories, and reintroduce conflict into a character who has not had it in some time. It allows for a smart human being (ala Lex Luthor from the cartoons, TV show, and movies) to actually create situations where Superman is in jeopardy. It allows DC Comics to reevaluate their stable of heroes and villains and make decisions on who is above, below, or equal to Superman in relation to his powers and abilities. This can even be taken cross-company to Marvel for those times when the companies do crossover events. Superman, in the above example, would start vastly superior to The Hulk in strength, and probably on par with Thor. Given time, the Hulk's ability to get stronger as he gets angrier might eclipse those levels.

The Superman debate is good; it allows fanboys and others to argue over their favorite characters. However, any argument involving Superman has to start with something like, "Okay, which Superman are we talking about? The one from the Golden, Silver, Bronze, or Modern age? Which powers are we allowing?" This is indicative of a problem with the character and a lack of definition. Providing definition to this character, contrary to most creator's initial belief, actually allows for MORE flexibility with the character, greater levels of conflict, and, ultimately, more compelling and interesting stories to be told.

TV Conversion

We are getting close to the conversion from analog to all-digital TV signals in February. While the government, TV stations, and other resources have been trying to get the word out, many millions of people have not taken the steps necessary to continue receiving a TV signal after the conversion date.

Congress ordered the switch to digital signals, effective February 17, 2009, to free up public airwaves for other uses such as for police and fire departments. It will also allow stations and producers to offer cleaner, clearer TV signals and additional content through the digital signal.

Approximately 15% of US TV watchers still watch using analog-only, over-the-air signals. This translates to over 18 million government coupons for a TV converter box have been issued (you can request up to two coupons, so it is hard to say how many actual people/households this represents). You heard that right, 18 million.

Now, here's the real kicker-- there are over a million more requests on a waiting list for these coupons because the program has run out of money and cannot afford to send the chits out to those on the list. And there are estimates that many millions more still need to get converter boxes. The program is going back to Congress to try and get more funding quickly, but they estimate that those million or more people won't receive their chits until the end of March. The conversion occurs on February 17 (with some stations reportedly transitioning as early as February 1).

18 million times $40 per chit equals... $720 million. With at least $40 million more needed for the program (but more likely at least $120 million). The agency is now recommending that people go out and buy them themselves, as the converter boxes "only cost between $40-$90." This during harsh economic times for a conversion to digital that, really, is not needed at all. Not even a little bit. Couldn't the economy use an influx of around $1 billion plus (20 million times $50 per converter box as rough estimate) of forced spending from its people-- why do the chits at all?

Lastly, the one thing I haven't seen yet on the government site or on any government comment on this conversion from analog to digital is the fact that many analog antennas will not receive the digital signal at all. The digital signal is not as good at blanketing areas, especially those between tall mountains, as an analog signal. Many people may need larger, taller antennas or powered antennas in order to receive the new digital signal. So many millions will have their converter boxes and expect to continue watching TV, but their antenna will not get the new signal.

The government mandated a nearly completely superfluous change from analog to digital, failed to properly fund (or, much more likely, account for all of the existing funding) a subsidy program, grossly underestimated the need, and failed to provide all of the information needed to those affected. That's the American Government at work folks!

Monday, January 05, 2009

It's All In How You Watch It

M and I have noticed that quite a few of our channels have cleared up and become easier to watch... but that we're not seeing the entire picture any more. By this I mean that the picture being transmitted is now a digital, Hi-Def picture in wide screen aspect and we're only seeing it in standard aspect, so parts of one side or the other are cut off from our view.

Similar to the problem where the two coasts of America are much more digitally advanced than the entire middle of America when it comes to computing, internet connection, and even hardware owned, the digital revolution is leaving the vast majority of people behind.

The switch to all-digital signal in February hasn't led to the conversion to Hi-Def, LCD TVs quite like the TV manufacturers were hoping. The vast majority of people in middle America have simply gotten their government chits for free converter boxes and plugged those in. Some have needed to upgrade their antennas, too, but there are still vast areas of land that cannot get digital cable and will not pay for digital satellite.

We own a very high-quality, 36" standard TV. We have little to no need to upgrade it to an LCD/Plasma or wide screen aspect TV because of its quality. We have some desire to do so, but no need. And we're on much more of the digital edge than most. If they cannot get people like us to buy new TVs, what hope do they have to get the farmers, trailer living folks, and others that make up the vast majority of middle America to upgrade their TVs? Why do they cater to the 20% minority who have upgraded to those aspect TVs rather than continuing to cater to the vast majority of owners?

I think that the digital conversion in February is going to still catch a bunch of people by surprise, and we'll have angry letters to the editors, emails to distribution companies, and comments on network news by people. This will then lead to people questioning why words on their screen are being cut off one side or the other, why nearly everything has "those black bars" on it, and a variety of other complaints.

While it is true that the simplest, easiest solution is to buy a new TV, the current financial climate isn't really promoting that as a possibility for a lot of people. While spending money is the only way out of a recession, if people don't have it to spend it, they cannot comply. If they do have it, they tend to want to spend it on less frivolous items (like a new TV when the one they have "works") and instead on more need-based items (like food, housing, transportation, and health care).

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Head, Part Deux

Today is Saturday and my headache seems finally under control. My shoulders and neck are still stiff and sore, still having occasional dizziness issues, I've done some additional minor injuries to myself along the way, plus felt sick the last two days on top of everything else. This has not been the best way to open up 2009, but what can you do?

The worst was having a sore throat (from the cold) which made it hurt to swallow-- but the externally painful neck and shoulders also made swallowing hurt. So no matter what I did, swallowing was something I did not want to do. But I was sick, so constantly thirsty and feeling a little dehydrated, so I was swallowing... a lot. *sigh

I did re-do our basement area and it is looking more room-like. I probably shouldn't have, because I wasn't feeling well and was still dizzy. I wound up hurting my right shoulder lifting and moving the treadmill by myself, so that sort of put a nail in that coffin. (M's dad got us a treadmill, which I needed to accommodate and I wanted a lot of floor space for DnD group days.)


Fig. 1. From stairs door into room. Walk, M, walk!

Fig. 2. From far corner opposite stairwell door, toward hallway to rest of basement.

Obviously, the room is still in a touch of disarray after changing things around. But there is my lovely wife using the treadmill (while watching Beverly Hills, 90210, first season... Blech!), which is part of the point of the rearrange. I, too, will be partaking of that device with the hope of countering some of the prednisone-inspired (and lack-of-exercise maintained) weight gain I've had the last few months.

I like the placement of the bookcases, too, because they form the area into a bit more of a "room" feel and you don't come down the stairs, enter the room, and immediately see four stacks of wood on the far side.

You can't really make it out in these pictures, but there is a lot of floor room available, so I should be able to put together the two tables and form the DnD setup easily. We also bought two more metal chairs, so we should be able to seat six around it without having to pull chairs from the dining table or office.

The only bad thing is that the nice coffee table that Stew made for M a while back is now being used for the TV in the basement. Not quite the use for which it was intended, but it is a good stop-gap until we figure something else out. Not sure if we are going to modify the legs and bring it back upstairs or what. But it has been used a lot over the last four years as intended, so hopefully it doesn't mind the repurposing for this.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Slip!

M and I went to a very nice, quiet, small-group New Year's party with close friends. A good time was had by all.

However, on trying to leave, the blizzard-like conditions had started and there was ice on the driveway of the house we were visiting. All my compatriots made it into the truck okay, but as I was walking around the back of the truck to the driver's door, I hit a patch of ice, slipped, and -- no hyperbole here -- fell on the back of my head. Not "I fell and hit my entire back and my head also hit the ground hard" -- I mean my HEAD was the FIRST thing to touch the ground! As Stew, who was sitting in the back seat behind me and looking out the side window, said, "I saw tennis shoes and wondered what happened."

This is my first major issue with ice since being here and it hurt like hell. I have had concussions before, and have had my bell rung a number of times, so I know all the necessary things to look for/self-diagnose. So I'm pretty sure I don't have a concussion this time around; however, I do have and will have a pretty nasty headache tonight and, most likely, into tomorrow.

What amazes me is the fact that I could go from standing upright to literally having the back of my head hit the pavement first in such a short moment. Had I seen me do this from a third person perspective, I'm certain it would have looked cartoonish and rather comical. However, the splitting headache I have now is not so funny. But, in the end, it will make for a funny story sometime down the road.