Monday, January 29, 2007

Shiny, Happy Sushi

Because I’m a sucker for anything cute, especially if it’s food, I had to try the new sushi I found at the Hy-Vee deli today. It was a basic California roll, except instead of nori, it was wrapped in bright, colorful sheets of . . . something. Half of the rolls were intensely green, roughly the color of wasabi, and the other half were pink, roughly the color of pickled ginger. Arranged in the box so the colors alternated, they were downright adorable. Resistance was futile.

The store did have a package of the wraps, for people who like to make sushi at home (as I sometimes do), so I read the ingredients list. The wraps are egg and flour based. And, as it turns out, they don’t really have much flavor. I peeled off a strip to try it without the rice, and it only has the faintest egg taste.

Despite being hideously bland by itself, in combination with the rice, crab, avocado, and cucumber, it actually makes for a pretty good snack. However, I probably won’t get it again, since I really do like the taste of nori. (I’ve been known to eat it plain.) But for those of you who like the basic ingredients of a California roll, but can’t stand the salty crackly seaweed around it, this might be a good thing for you.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Lion King

Thanks to a friend who stood in line at 7:00 am on the day tickets went on sale, I saw The Lion King Broadway musical at the Orpheum Theater last night. We had great seats, too--in the middle balcony, toward the center, with a fantastic view of the stage and the aisles (which often had animals coming or going along them). The costumes and sets were amazing. Three-quarters of the fun was in observing the construction of the masks and props.

An adult elephant was operated by four actors, one in each leg. Birds were kites swooping around at the ends of long whip-poles. Giraffes were actors with stilts on both their arms and legs. A friend and I are divided on the cheetah--I thought it was cool, he thought it was goofy--but the back half of the animal was operated like a costume on the actor’s legs, while the front half was operated like a puppet (by the same actor, of course). When it groomed or stretched, it seemed wonderfully catlike, although, as my friend said, “The cheetah’s coming out of his crotch!”

The Scar mask in particular impressed me. Most of the time, it seemed to rest upon the actor’s head like a hat, the same as the other lion masks. But the mask was hinged on a support bar that rose from the actor’s back, and when crouched, the mask would swing forward, beautifully evoking a lunging lion. The Mufasa mask was likewise hinged, but I think the actor who played Scar was more skilled in using the trick. It was neat when Mufasa did it, but shivers-down-the-spine when Scar did.

I never liked the hyena costumes, though. While I was able to see giraffes as giraffes and lions as leonine humans, the hyenas were just so misshapen that I was never able to either get “hyena” or “human-as-hyena” into my brain. Every time I saw them, I got stuck on “monstrosities.” And with Zazu, due to the particular costume worn by the puppeteer, I was never able to get past “minstrel show.” Also, the back half of Pumbaa’s body was a series of concentric bands with gaps between them--probably for weight--but the effect made him seem like a skeleton.

The sets were very dynamic, with some pieces moving through mechanical means and others through costuming. When I first saw actors dressed as patches of grass, I thought it looked silly. But the way they moved in relation to the animal puppets really worked well. The end effect was very cool. And the elephants’ graveyard, with its massive curving tusks and ribcage staircases, was simply awesome. (Well, actually, there was nothing simple about it.) In another scene, the river was a tube of semitransparent, illuminated blue cloth with fish puppets swimming through it--exquisite. Elsewhen, the wildebeest stampede perfectly merged props and actors to convey the most magnificent illusion of a stage many miles deep.

The first act seemed to follow the movie very closely, but the second act, without changing any established plot elements, added to the story. Simba was much more introspective than in the movie, and Nala had more motivation beyond mere hunger for abandoning the other lionesses and leaving Pride Rock. And Rafiki stole any scene she was in. The initial surprise in the gender-change of the character from was quickly erased by the actress’s amazing voice and physical prowess. She captured the essence of her character perfectly.

Several songs have been added. Some, like Zazu’s “Morning Report,” I could gladly have done without. However, the songs by Lebo M, which seemed to be arrangements of his works from the old Rhythm of the Pride Lands album, were wonderful and greatly enriched the show. Gotta love that full African chorus with its heart-shaking vocal power.

Between different voices, different instrumentation, and different visuals, the classic Lion King songs also had very different flavors. In some cases, this worked well--this rendition of “Circle of Life” brought tears to my eyes, it was so beautiful. On the other hand, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” was just disturbing. Perhaps I’m biased, because I never liked that song to begin with, but the background dancers were so surreal and distracting that it reminded me too much of the Mackerras version of Leos Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen (which, I expect, probably only one person reading this blog has seen--hi, Mom).

Overall, this was a visual feast beyond the scale of anything I’d ever seen before. Both thumbs way up.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Book Review: Why Software Sucks

I recently read programmer-turned-consultant David S. Platt's latest book, Why Software Sucks . . . and What You Can Do About It. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Addison-Wesley, 2007.) It's written in the least technical language possible, so it would be easily understood by laypeople (non-geeks). Filled with scathing descriptions of poorly designed software and clunky websites, contrasted with examples of good software and sites, the book is at times very funny, but at times a little obnoxious. It's the kind of book you'll either really have fun with, or decide is a complete waste of time. Although I think it's worth reading just for the tale of the "fork hole," a very geekly experiment he and a friend of his did with dinner forks at a restaurant.

After a brief overview of what types of things are actually difficult to program verses what kinds of things are "simply a boneheaded design decision," he goes on to demonstrate that most of the most frustrating, annoying "features" have no good reason behind them other than the designer's basic assumption that everyone will like what they like. They add features that users don't care about and make the things the user does care about unnecessarily difficult. (I'm thinking of some software I use at work that makes me change my print settings every single time I log in. Why the heck can't retain my settings?) The point Platt stresses is "your user is not you." Where the designer might value a high degree of control, the user would prefer something easier to use. For example, Google (held up as a good example) senses the user's geographic location based on their IP address and automatically supplies the correct language home page. The minority of users who need a different language can then go to the effort of changing it. By contrast, UPS (lambasted and ridiculed as a bad example) gives everyone the same home page and, before they can do anything else, makes them select a country before they can do whatever they came to the site to do. This is only two clicks if you're in the U.S., but it's ludicrous if you're anywhere else.

As one of the judges from Microsoft's 2003 Imagine Cup programming contest, Platt described the kinds of good, bad, and ugly applications that were written by the competitors. Of interest to those of you here in Omaha, the winner of the contest (whose software solution Platt endorsed as an example of something done right, for the right reasons, to solve the right problem) was Tu Nguyen, a young man who designed an order translation system for his father's restaurant. And although Platt does not name the restaurant for which Nguyen developed this technology, I know it because I've eaten there and seen it in action: Saigon on West Center Street. It's pretty nifty. Since bilingual Vietnamese-English waitstaff are rare in these here parts, the staff at Saigon have PDAs into which they enter customers' orders. The orders then go immediately to the kitchen without the staff having to walk back there, and they are translated into Vietnamese, complete with all the various "hold the ___" and "a little extra ___" things the customer may request. No more misunderstood orders. (If you live in Omaha, go to Saigon and check it out. Technology aside, their food is wonderful. Especially the catfish hot pot.)

Back to Platt's book, after teaching the reader how to recognize poor design, he encourages us, among other suggestions, to buy good software (and, by extension, not buy bad software), to tell manufacturers of software you use what you like and don't like about it, and to ridicule the heck out of bad software and websites on "Hall of Shame" sites in order to embarrass them into fixing their suckware. Overall, his book isn't exactly world-shaking, but it is a fun and informative read.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Vincent Valentine Moogle

I’ve spent all evening updating my Geocities site. Because I revamped the entire directory structure, I had to edit every single html file. (What? Individual editing of a whole bunch of static web pages with a plain text editor? What kind of masochist am I?) It took over five hours, but that includes addition of some new content. Take a look:

Yeah, I know. It still looks like . . . well, like a bunch of static web pages thrown together by a total amateur. That’s as good as it gets, so just look at the pretty pictures. I added two new pieces of fan art. Here’s one of them:

Why yes, that is Vincent from Final Fantasy VII as a new Final Fantasy XII-style moogle. Why? Why not? I did the same thing to Cloud.

Well, it’s late, and I’m going to bed. Goodnight, everyone!

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Farewell, Level 99

I found out last night that one of my former girlfriends passed away just after Thanksgiving. I had not been in contact with her for a few years, so I had not known about her aggressive breast cancer. Her lifelong friend, who is handling her estate, found some of my stories on her bookshelf, and from there found my number in the phone book.

There is no grave for me to visit. She had her remains donated to the medical center. Whatever is left when they are done will be cremated and, as per her wishes, shot into space.

And even though we had fallen out of contact, the loss still wounds deeply. Part of me still loves her and always will. And I’m sad to know that now there is no chance to see her again in this life. The “I should haves” and “if onlys” all rise to the surface. The “somedays” and “maybes” crumble to dust.

One thing that anyone who knew her would remember is that she loved video games. She bought every console so she could play every RPG ever released on this continent. And usually by the time she finished a game, all of her characters were level 99 and the clock was maxed out at 99 hours, 59 minutes. Her friend told me that even in her last weeks, she was buying new releases, saying, “As long as I have games to finish, I have to stay alive.”

If only it had worked out that way.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Does it Neigh or Crow?

I’m always on the lookout for new and cool (or rather ancient and cool) mythological beasts, and today I found a doozy. Behold, the hippalektryon!
That’s right, part horse, part ROOSTER, baby! How’s that for strange? And, despite the intimidating number of letters in hippalektryon, I refuse to call it by its English name, “cock-horse.” That just sounds wrong in every way imaginable. (Stop laughing! You'll make the hippalektryon cry!)

I found this odd little critter in the book Horses: History, Myth, Art, by Catherine Johns (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006, ISBN-13: 978-0-674-02323-9). This particular depiction is from a late sixth century B.C. wine cup. Can you imagine what this mighty warrior must be thinking as he rides a giant chicken-horse into battle? Probably something along the lines of, “Why couldn’t I have Pegasus?”

Sunday, January 07, 2007

On Clouds

Windshields of parked cars--
Light and shadow creep across--
Reflections of sky.

(Just a random, unpolished pseudo-haiku that spontaneously generated this morning as I looked out the window into the parking lot. Yes, I know it is grammatically unsound, but I decided to present it exactly as it formed.)

Friday, January 05, 2007

Snakes on a Plane

Last night, a friend and I had dinner and rented Snakes on a Plane. We both expected the movie to be bad, but it turned out to be far worse than I had ever imagined. Gratuitous violence, gratuitous sex, gratuitous stupidity--you name it. The acting wasn’t bad, really--it’s just that the characters were horrible. The actors did quite well for the script they had. The plot was atrocious and riddled with holes. (I suppose the holes were necessary for the snakes to slither in through.) And the snakes were the cheesiest computer generated animals I’ve seen since those awful wolves in The Day After Tomorrow.

But it was good for a few laughs, especially in scenes that should not have been funny.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Happy New Year!

I was supposed to go to Kansas to ring in the New Year with family, however, the weather had something to say about that. So I spent New Year’s Eve home alone with the cats, playing video games.

From my window this morning, I see the western sky--the opposite of the rising sun. Above is clear blue, but thin clouds streak across the horizon, tinted rosy pink, lavender, and periwinkle. White blankets the ground and every rooftop, broken up by the brown of walls and bare-limbed trees. It’s a wonderful beauty to see. The sunlight is just beginning to highlight the highest point on the hill. Watching the sunrise creep toward me will be my New Year’s celebration.