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December 21, 2007

Merry Christmas


Squiggle & Santa, 2007

Merry Christmas to you and yours from me and mine and his and hers and theirs. Thanks for reading my dumb and poorly proofread blog for yet another year.

2007 Holiday Christmas Survival Guide for Slackers Cultural Warriors

The Holiday Christmas Survival Guide for Slackers Cultural Warriors, my annual round-up of the stupidest items available for purchase on Teh Neterwebs, is here.

December 20, 2007

God Bless Ye Merry Syngamy ...

If life begins at conception as so many evangelicals insist, shouldn't we be celebrating Christmas around April Fool's Day, when the Big Guy first knocked Mary up?

Update: Apparently it's called Annunciation and falls on March 25th. Man, those Christians think of everything! For the whole day celebrants mark the occasion by writing sentences without periods

December 18, 2007

The Scene You Hate

A friend, having read my last post, asked if The Queen really objects to botanical inaccuracies in movies. Oh yes, yes indeed. And not just in motion pictures, either. If I'd known, in advance, that the TV show LOST would feature a bunch of people on a tropical island populated with temperate foliage, I never would have put it in my Netflix queue.

Of course, I'm just as bad when something I'm passionate about is misrepresented on film. Like games, for instance. I still break into hives whenever I think of the scene in Freaks and Geeks where the parents play the card game Pit, just the two of them.

But my all-time least favorite scene--one that appears in about every third film, seemingly--has to be this one:

The hero and the antagonist are playing chess, a game in which both are virtual grandmasters. It's a close fought match, and they banter while they play. Slowly, their moves--and their conversation--become more aggressive. Eventually they are openly hostile to one another, both on the board and off.

Then, victory. Smirking, the villain says something irrefutable to the hero, moves a bishop, and announces check.

For a long moment the two men lock eyes. Suddenly, the hero utters a devastating riposte, breaks eye contact just long enough to capture the bishop with his queen, and, with the slightest hint of a smile, declares checkmate. He rises from his chair and walks briskly away, leaving the loser to gawps at the board in amazement.

Yes, I understand that one grandmaster saying "I'm going to checkmate you in seven moves" followed by 23 straight minutes of the opponent staring at the board before replying, "ah, you are right--good game" lacks some of the "pizzazz" of the Hollywood version. But I still would rather sit through both episodes of Viva Laughlin, back-to-back, than endure this scene again.

What's the scene you hate?

December 17, 2007

Apples and Oranges

Being married to a professional botanist has its ups and downs. It's nice on day hikes, for instance, having someone around who can instantly identify every plant we see. On the other hand, I don't need to be notified of every ecological incongruence in the films we watch. The Queen spent much of the Lord of the Rings trilogy leaning over to me in the theater and whispering, "pfff, I can see why they call this a fantasy--they have polystichum munitum growing in a tropical upland climatic zone."

Last night we went to a wreath-making party last night. Our host provided us with wire frames, fir boughs, holly, and pine cones; before dinner, while I read stories to Squiggle and put him to bed, everyone else got all elfy in the garage.

At the end of the evening we collected our wreath. Ours, while beautiful, was the least ornate of the bunch, consisting only of boughs. As we carried a sleeping Squiggle out to the car, I asked The Queen about this.

Me: Why didn't you put holly in our wreath?

Queen: Because holly berries are poisonous, and when Squiggle saw them he pointed excitedly and yelled "cherries!"

M: Ah, good call. But what about the pine cones? You could have put a few of those on there.

Q: No I couldn't. They were the wrong kind.

M: What do you mean?

Q: The boughs were from one species of tree and the pine cones were from another. It would look weird to have them on the same wreath.

M: What, seriously? Nobody would know but you.

Q: Yes, it would look weird to me. That's what I'm saying.

M: Oh, come on. What's the big deal?

Q: Let me put this into terms you can understand: imagine if you went to a Star Trek convention and saw a bunch of people dressed as Jedi.

M: Oh, god. Right. Gotcha.

December 14, 2007

Movies: I Am Legend

I Am Legend--the new film with Will Smith and the first I've seen in a theater for maybe a year--starts out as pure Hollywood blockbuster schlock, with Smith barreling around the empty streets of New York in a sports car. He flushes herds of deer out from the jumble of abandoned automobiles, drives alongside the fleeing beasts at, like, 80 miles per hour (these being, apparently, post-apocalyptic turbo-charged deer), and takes potshots at them out the window with a high powered rifle, presumably in an effort to rustle up some grub. Like much of the movie, it is exciting, and cool, and scary ... so long as you don't accidentally think about the situation. Then you are, like, "why doesn't he just park the car, walk a block, and shoot one of the many deer that are just standing around Time's Square?" The inescapable conclusion is that Smith doesn't do so because it wouldn't take $85 million dollars to film such a scene, and the producers of Legend seem intent of squeezing as much cash into this film as they can (though another thirty bucks toward making the CGI look smoother woulda been nice).

So I set my phasers to "dumb" and settle in for some mindless entertainment--just as the film becomes surprisingly ponderous. Alternating between footage of Smith and his faithful dog battling monsters and loneliness in the present, and flashbacks showing how the world came to be depopulated, the second act of Legend is a philosophical, big-budget amalgamation of 28 Days Later, Resident Evil, and Children of Men. Which is to say that there is little new here, plot-wise (even though the source material, Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend, predates all the aforementioned movies about half a century), it is at least well done. And, of course, Smith is a fine actor, able to hold his own even when his only co-stars are German Shepherds, mannequins, and mutants.

But then, about two-thirds of the way through the film, there is what appears to be a three minute commercial for Shrek, a scene involving the animated DVD that just goes on and on. I assumed this was just another product placement (such as the Apple products that Smith routinely depends on), albeit a particularly long, blatantly, and egregious one. A little Googling after I got home from the movie found no evidence of this, though: the two films were made by different studios, and there were no reports of money changing hands so that Shrek would get plugged in Smith's new film. But, really, that makes the scene even more unforgivable. And least product placement, evil though it might be, justified such a bizarre and jarring detour.

And the film never really recovers after that. Having lost its stride, it just sort of stumbles on for the remaining 30 minutes before collapsing over the finish line. Here again, as in the opening, the movie's worst enemy is thought on the part of the audience, a moment of which reveals that Legend's finale doesn't make a whit of sense. Too bad. Taken with the many other films that have told this same story recently, and you're left with a film that would have been more aptly titled I Am Forgettable.

Warning: I discuss the end of the film in the comments.

Sound Focus

I'm on the local NPR program Sound Focus riiiiiiiiiiiiight ... NOW! 94.9 FM, if you're in the Seattle area. And you'll soon be able to listen to it online (I think).

Three of the games I talk about--Quirkle, Can't Stop, & Mr. Jack--are covered in my 2007 Good Gift Games Guide; Twilight Struggle I review here.

December 11, 2007

Annual Call of Slacker Guide Items

I'm working on my annual Holiday Survival Guide For Slackers and I'm looking for suggestions. So if you know of some stupid crap available for purchase on the intarweb, please mention it here or drop me an email. Thanks!

December 10, 2007

Challenge Court

Today I played racquetball on court #1; or, as I like to call it, the Challenge Court. You don't play by any special rules, or against especially difficult opponents, but, as with most racquetball courts, the back wall of court #1 is glass, and it--alone of all the courts at my gym--abuts the lobby. In other words: as you play, a continual stream of attractive and fit women (and men, if that's your thing) are constantly walking by. And as anyone who has worn sunglasses to the beach knows, there is something about having a piece of glass between your eyebones and a good looking member of the opposite (or same!) sex that suppresses your natural inhibitions about gawping.

The whole thing is akin to trying to play chess in the front row of a cinema showing Halloween. If the ball goes to the back of the court, it's safer to simply position yourself facing forward and wait for the it to re-enter your field of vision, rather than turn around and run the risk of catching the eye of some passing beauty just long enough for the ball to ricochet into your groin.

Tales From the Gym

Last week Mother Nature dumped six billion gallons of water onto Seattle in a 24 hour period, thereby calling an official end to ride-your-bike-to-work season.

Since then I have returned to my gym. And I had forgotten what an endless supply of anecdotes the gym provides its patrons. (Some previous ones here & here & here & here & here). I think I will devote this week to relating more of them.

[ link | dy]

December 07, 2007

Bulimics Press Their Own Coin Return

I think vending machines are a race of parasitic, interstellar robots that has adapted to Earth by evolving a digestive system capable of metabolizing coins and excreting 2.5 oz. bags of Cheez-Its.

The Bad Review Revue

Fred Claus: "There is more plot in the average Geico commercial." Kyle Smith, New York Post

August Rush: "Plays more to the gag reflex than to the heart." -- Desson Thomson, WASHINGTON POST

Hitman: "One of the best movies ever made from a video game ... which doesn't provide you with very much information. That's like declaring the best meal you've eaten at a strip club, or the best love ballad by Kenny Loggins." -- Peter Hartlaub, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

Awake: "Has more holes in it than a tea bag." -- Bruce Demara, Toronto Star

Southland Tales: "After I saw the first cut of Kelly's Southland Tales at Cannes 2005, I was dazed, confused, bewildered, bored, affronted and deafened by the boos all around me... now here is the director's cut, which is 20 minutes shorter, lops off a couple of characters and a few of the infinite subplots, and is even more of a mess. I recommend that Kelly keep right on cutting until he whittles it down to a ukulele pick." -- Roger Ebert, CHICAGO SUN-TIMES

December 06, 2007

Large-Group Games

Mail call!

Hey Matthew,

I'm a looong time reader of your blog, since before anyone but web nerds even knew what a "blog" was. I've never been much of a gamer, but I just started a programming job back in the summer, working with a group of guys that likes to play games at lunch. We're getting burned out on our current game assortment, and I'd like to donate a game or two to the stash for Christmas. The size of our group varies from day to day, anywhere from 4-10 people. We need to stick to games that we can fit within the lunch hour. The quicker the setup, the better. Complexity isn't a big concern, half of the fun is arguing about the rules.

Now then, do you have any recommendations? They would be much appreciated!


Seth Kelly

Hiya, Seth. Large-player games (which I would define as game that accommodate 7 or more people at a time) are largely plagued by three problems: (a) excessive downtime (i.e., sitting around and waiting for your turn to roll around), (b) long playing times (i.e., games that go. on. for. ever.), and (c) chaos (i.e., so many other people are doing so many things it becomes nigh impossible to formulate a strategy).

One way that many successful large-player games address all three issues is with simultaneous action: that is, allowing all the players to do things at the same time. Take the classic large-group favorite Pit, for example. Because players are franticly trading cards with one another in real time, everyone remains engaged at all times.

Many such games are mentioned in my Great Two-Minute Card Games list. Specifically, Slide 5 (3-10 players), Incan Gold (3-8), The Great Dalmuti (5-7), and Apples to Apples (3-10) are great with for seven or more.

Here are some others that work well in the large-group setting.

Bohnanza (3-7): A longtime favorite of mine for four and five players, I was totally amazed the first time I played this game with seven and discovered that it not only worked, but worked well. Players are farmers, working to raise and sell 10 types of beans (yes, you heard me). Because trading with opponents is an essential element of gameplay, everyone is involved all the time. And though the playing time creeps up with six or seven people, you should still be able to complete a game in an hour or so.

Formula De (2-10): A car racing game with a very clever gimmick: every time you upshift into a higher gear, you roll a bigger die to determine movement. That's great for the straightaway, but may cause you grief when you go into the turns and find yourself unable to decelerate enough to handle the curves.

Werewolf, a.k.a. "Mafia" (7+ players): No purchase required for this one--all you need are the rules and something to secretly assign identities to the players (a regular deck of cards works fine). Two players are werewolves; the rest are villagers, and have no idea who the werewolves are. The game is played over alternating night and day phases. At night, the two werewolves conspire to slaughter one of the villagers; in the morning, the villagers awake to find a corpse, and then must decide who to lynch in retaliation. The game ends when both werewolves are killed, or when the population of true villagers drops too low. Short, simple, and amazingly fun, Werewolf is as much psychological experiment as it is game. Works best with really large groups--like, nine or more people.

Bang (4-7 players): Built on the Werewolf template, Bang cast the fighters as gunslingers in the old west. One player is the sheriff, two are outlaws, two are deputies, and no one knows who anyone else is--at least until the bullets start flying. Bang maxes out at seven players, but is best with that number.

Take It Easy (2-8, but any number, really): Like a cross between bingo and jigsaw puzzle, it would take less time for you to go here and play a few games than for me to explain how it works. Currently out of print, I believe, but the game's sequel, Take It To The Limit, was just released last month.

Ricochet Robot (2-10 or more): Every round is a spatial puzzle, and players race to solve it. It's a love-it-or-hate-it kind of game, so go here and play a few rounds of the java implementation to see which category you fall into. I'm a "love it" guy--at least until the headache kicks in.

Shadows Over Camelot (4-7): It might miss the "quick setup" criterion, but hits every other one: works for seven, typically plays around an hour, and has plenty of rules to quibble over. See me full review here.

Finally, there are no shortage of good party games that were specifically designed with large groups in mind. Wits & Wagers works with seven (read my review), I've long been a fan of 25 Words or Less, and Time's Up might be just about perfect for your group.

December 05, 2007

Presidents, Politics, and Predictions

It's not often that our President makes me rotfl these days, but occasionally he gets off a good one.

Monday, as you may have heard, a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran was released (PDF), that stated with "high confidence" that Iran halted its quest for nuclear weapons in 2003. You'd think that would leave those who were warning us about World War III as recently as a month ago with egg on their face, but Bush was quick to assure us otherwise. "I believed before the NIE that Iran was dangerous," he said, "and I believe after the NIE that Iran is dangerous."

Ha! Yes, don't you worry your pretty little self, America--this administration will continue to forge ahead on whatever course of action they are currently on, even in the face of facts.

I love they way Bush seems to genuinely believe we are less concerned about whether whether a sworn enemy of the United States has Teh Newk, and more about whether he has ever in his life changed his mind about anything ever forever. Like, if he and and family were out at T.G.I.Friday's and he told Laura he was going to get the Parmesan-Crusted Sicilian Quesadilla, but then when the waiter came he actually ordered a Jack Daniel's Cheesy Bacon Burger, the stock market would crash and two-thirds of the US population would immediately become furries.

So, for those of you seized by anxiety right now, let me reiterate:

Of course, notice how he craftily fails to mention what he believed at the exact moment the NIE was released. He's always got a out, that guy.

Anyway, it amused me that Bush exhaled the carbon dioxide necessary to say that he wasn't going to change his policy. My goodness, M. Night Shyamalan himself couldn't have written a more surprising twist.

So, let's see. What else is political news right now. Ummm .. oh yeah!


This guy is going to be our next president:

Yes, I'm calling it. You heard it here first.

More people are paying attention as we approach the primaries, which is translating into more people with Grave Misgivings about another Clinton term. Obama, meanwhile, is picking up steam.

I say he wins by a significant (if not sizable) margin in Iowa, and people start thinking that he's the one with "electablity." Wins NH by a significant (if not sizable) margin as well, and then it's snowball city.

I'm still banking on Giuliani for the GOP, despite the scandals--after all, he's got FOX in his corner. The contrast between he and Obama is startling in the debates, like the choice between a cupcake and a Brussels sprout. Rudy's scandals continue to dog him up to the general election, and many social conservatives refuse to pull the lever for him (plus, the urgency to do so is gone, since his loss won't result in That Woman winding up in the White House).

Obama takes it in November 2008 ... oh, let's say 292 to 246.

My record of success on these kind of predictions is approximately 0 for Every Prediction I've Ever Made, but that won't stop me from being totally 100% right this time, just you wait.

Note: If Obama actually wins 292 to 246, everyone who comments on this post wins a beer.
December 04, 2007

Memo: For Services Rendered

Memo:  For sServices Rendered

December 03, 2007

Catch-22: Analysis

Warning: spoilers and politics.

When describing the prose and plot of Catch-22, it's nearly impossible to avoid the word "circular." Circular writing, circular reasoning, circular logic. Things are because they are because they are.

At first I though Heller was just using this style for humorous effect, much as my grandfather's letter did. But, reading on, it became clear that recursion was more than just a gimmick, it was the central theme of the novel.

And so the titular Catch-22, which states that you can only get discharge from the military if you are insane, but the mere act of asking for a discharge proves your sanity (after all, what sane man wouldn't want to get out of war?). And so Colonel Cathcart, a terrible leader because he spends so much of his time angling to get mentioned in The Saturday Evening Post as a great leader. And so Milo, who runs a syndicate, in which "everyone has a share," that mostly consists of his using the money of the syndicate's members to buy foodstuffs and then selling them to the members at a profit. Parts of the novel reminded me of nothing so much as that party trick, where a dozen people stand in a circle and then everyone simultaneously sits on the knees of the person behind them. Everyone is propped up by everyone else, just the events in Catch-22 all lent support to each other even though none would be able to stand on it's own.

At a deeper level, all this highlights the cyclic nature of war. Once a nation marches down the path to conflict, it almost inevitably finds itself locked into a positive feedback loop, with every event--good or bad--only amplifying the case for further aggression. Retaliation begets retaliation begets retaliation; a stronger power oppresses a weaker one for so long that they dare not stop, knowing that the aggrieved, given the chance, would rise up in (justifiable) anger.

To see war's perverse ability to self-perpetuate, you need look no further than the Israel / Palestine conflict. Or this Tom Toles cartoon.

Driving home from work today, I heard an NPR piece on an upcoming supreme court case about Guantanamo Bay. Honestly, this story could have been written by Heller himself. David Rivkin, a lawyer who worked for the first President Bush, described the prison as "a gigantic al-Qaida training cell." In other words, even those who who were wrongly detained, and originally harbored no ill-will toward the US, might join the terrorists when released. Second, as detainee lawyer David Remes puts it, "one of the cruel ironies of the whole Guantanamo situation [is that] we bring them to Guantanamo, we call them dangerous terrorists, we call them the worst of the worst, and then we expect their home countries to take them back." Were we to throw open the gates, these guys would have nowhere to do. And so, the very problems that Guantanamo are logically cited as reasons to keep it running. And justifiably so, as they are perfectly logical--just as it would is perfectly logical for those who were mistakenly put into Guantanamo to now hate the nation that put them there. Round and round we go.

* * *

At first I wasn't sure what to make of the ending. Yossarian is given the opportunity to go home, provided that he "like" his superior officers. It's the chance he's been waiting the whole book for. And yet, in the end, he declines, and instead deserts, heading off to Sweden. What's the point? It's dereliction of duty either way--why wouldn't he take the route that wouldn't get him in trouble?

But it's the very illogic of his decision that makes it significant. Like Alexander slicing the Gordian Knot, it's as if Yossarian realized that the only solution to the problem of Catch-22 was to sidestep it entirely. To accept Colonel Korn & Cathcart's bargain would is to remain in the feedback loop; the only escape is to gather enough momentum to get flung free of the cycle entirely. And so he--of all the soldiers in the novel--opts to abandon rationality and free himself from the hamster wheel of war.

* * *

Good book. I enjoyed it, but will strive to complete the novel in two weeks or less in the future if I ever opt for a reread. I'm a little unsure as it's status as one of the "Great Novels"--I'd recommend it, to be sure, but don't know if I'd rate it up there with, say, 1984. I've certainly read some contemporary books that I thought were superior, such as The Hours (just to pluck one out of the hat). And I wouldn't have complained if Heller had excised 100 pages out of there, somewhere--seems like it could have been done without too much difficulty.