Thursday, December 31, 2009

Parasite Eve VS Parasite Eve 2

Back in 1999, I was deeply engrossed in Parasite Eve, a rather awesome horror video game. After you complete the game, you can start over in "EX game" mode ("EX" for "extra" or "excruciating" or "exhausting" or whatever you want to call it), which unlocks the Chrysler Building, a 77-floor dungeon of tedium and terror. Completing the Chrysler Building earns you an alternate ending, plus bragging rights with your gamer friends.

I was up to about floor 40 or 50 of the Chrysler Building when my apartment complex burned down. I lost my PlayStation memory card. I liked Parasite Eve enough to buy a new copy, but I was so heartbroken at losing all of that hard work that I never tackled the Chrysler Building again.

Flash forward to 2009. My nephews are really into Pokémon, and they wanted to collect every Pokémon game ever made, yes, even the really old GameBoy Color ones. So for their birthday and Christmas presents, I hunted many a used game store, tracking down the five games they were missing. It was an extensive fetch quest, but not one I could imagine anyone else in my family tackling. Nerd that I am, I loved every minute of it.

During the course of Pokémon Quest, I came across a copy of Parasite Eve 2, which came out in 2000, but which I'd never actually played. Of course, I bought it. And played it obsessively for a month or so. After tiring of multiple runs through PE2, I decided it was time to revisit PE1. After all, it was the season of Christmas, and the game is set during Christmas 1997, so somehow it seemed appropriate. (Well, as appropriate as horror and monsters can be for the holidays.) I conquered the Chrysler Building yesterday, and finally saw that alternate ending. Yay! I feel that I have achieved closure.

But which game do I like better? I really cannot decide. Despite the same title and same lead character, they are really very different games, and both have strengths and weaknesses. Let's see which one wins . . .

ADVANTAGE: Parasite Eve (the first)

1) The monsters are much, much cooler looking in the first game. The creatures in PE2 consistently look stupid. I mean all of them. It was like the design team decided to go for the opposite of the PE1 aesthetic, which was an unfortunate choice.

2) Aya's costume in the first game is much better. She can be excused for fighting monsters in an evening gown during the first chapter, since she was at the opera when catastrophe struck. After that, her attire consisted of jeans, t-shirt, and a black leather jacket--not only practical, but also quite attractive on her. While she starts PE2 with a similar costume, as soon as she leaves for the desert, she dons a miniskirt and pink cowboy boots, and wears them for the rest of the game. Really? Who wears a miniskirt when hunting monsters? And there is simply no excuse for those boots. None.

3) The first game is much more generous with inventory space. You gain inventory space automatically as you level up, and if that's not enough, you can spend bonus points to add more. In PE2, your inventory space is fixed. So by the end of the game when you've got one of each class of weapon, and at least one type of ammo for each, and all of the special charms and helpful items, you've probably only got about two spaces left for restorative items. It makes the later parts of the game especially difficult, because you are essentially out of space all the time.

4) In the original Parasite Eve, if you follow the plot as it's laid out for you, you get to the ending without incident. You can easily see the optional areas, like the warehouse and the Chrysler Building, so you know that they exist if you choose to pursue them. In PE2, if you follow the plot as it's laid out, you get the bad ending. To get the good ending, you need to save Pierce--twice--even though the game gives you absolutely no hints that he's in any danger, nor even that he's followed you into the desert. And the steps you need to take to save him are completely counterintuitive. I would never, ever have figured it out if not for the walkthroughs on GameFAQs. Heck, I would never have even known he needed saving if I hadn't read it on GameFAQs. After I learned about Pierce, I literally started the game over because I'd already passed the point where I could save him. I was on disc 2 when I realized I needed to start over.

5) The camera angles and screen layouts of the first game are such that you can always see what you're fighting. In the second game, your enemies are often attacking you from off screen and you can't see where you're aiming your weapon. Getting into a position where you can actually see your enemies often takes so long that you've taken several hits in the meantime. This makes some battles very frustrating.

6) The puzzles in PE2 are really, really irritating. Some of them aren't too bad, but the one to get the safe combination is completely ridiculous. (Counting the toilets and mirrors in the hotel? Who thought that would be fun? Do they assume all gamers have OCD?) Thank goodness such pointless, frustrating timewasters are absent from the first game. The most difficult puzzle in PE1 involves pushing some machinery out of the way to expose a giant red button on the wall. Fortunately, there is a giant red arrow painted on the wall, pointing to the machine that needs to be pushed out of the way. There's never much standing between you and some good, old-fashioned monster killing.

ADVANTAGE: Parasite Eve 2

1) Parasite powers are much more versatile and easy to use. In PE1, you learn them in a set order as you level up. In PE2, you buy them with PE points, so you can decide whether you want to sink all of your points into pyro powers or healing or whatever you like. There are several useful and valuable attack powers, unlike PE1, where you have only two offensive powers, both of which use up all of your energy and leave you vulnerable to attack afterward. In PE2, Pyrokinesis is a powerful attack that uses very little energy, giving you a viable alternative to simply shooting everything. Plasma is another great power, giving you a nice little area-effect attack for when you're surrounded by bats or bugs. PE1 never had an area-effect attack (except for shotguns with the "burst" effect), but man, an area-effect parasite attack would have been handy for all those birds in Central Park.

2) Charms, which are completely useless inventory clutter in the first game, are so incredibly valuable in Parasite Eve 2 that you wouldn't dare put them into storage. No matter how tight inventory space is, the Ofuda and its ilk are worth having on you. Just remember to attach them to your armor.

3) You don't really level up in PE2. You get better weapons and armor, and your parasite powers grow stronger, but you yourself are not significantly tougher. That means, when you visit earlier areas that you'd previously cleared, but which are once again full of monsters, said monsters are still challenging. You never reach the point where you're too tough for the enemies, and so the game stays in balance.

4) PE2 has built-in maps. All turned around and not sure which rooms you've cleared? Hit a button and check the map. In PE1, I would have killed for that functionality, especially in convoluted places like Central Park, the sewers, and the Chrysler Building (especially with the Chrysler Building, where the floorplans change every single time you visit). The maps in PE2 not only show you which rooms you've visited, but they even show you which rooms have monsters for you to fight. Gotta love that.

Six of one, half a dozen of the other

In PE1, you get to tune up your weapons and armor, giving you the opportunity to customize up the wazoo and build whatever you like. It's a lot of work, and very time consuming, but it can also be very rewarding. In PE2, the weapons are as they are, what you see is what you get. The only customization you can do is with one particular rifle, which can be fitted with any of five special attachments. If you like tricking out your gear, PE1 wins hands down. If you just want to pick up a weapon and shoot, then PE2 is the game for you.

Ammo is where PE2 customizes things. In PE1, ammo is ammo, with the exceptions of rockets and Maeda's special rounds. Otherwise, standard ammo works in all pistols, rifles, shotguns, machine guns, etc. In PE2, however, not only does each class of weapon have separate ammo, but also there are several different kinds of rounds for each class of weapon. This makes more sense and better mirrors real life. However, if you're carrying a pistol, a shotgun, a rifle, and a grenade launcher, you might have three types of pistol ammo, three types of shotgun shells, mercifully only one type of rifle round, and three types of grenades. Do you think you have any inventory slots left for healing items? But you don't want to leave any of those weapons behind, because different weapons work better for different types of monsters. I may be partial to the shotgun, but I wouldn't want to be down in the depths of the shelter without a rifle, either. And for certain boss fights, if you don't have a grenade launcher, you are quite simply screwed.

Inconsistencies

In PE1, Aya has no problem looting a pharmacy and a gun shop in Soho, yet in PE2, she's scrupulous about leaving cash by the register when she takes medicine from the derelict general store. And later on she bawls Kyle out for stealing drinks from the abandoned bar. When did she have this moral awakening?

In PE2, when Aya tells her boss that she encountered a NMC as big as an elephant, he says that there was nothing like that in New York. Um . . . forget about the T-Rex, did we? What about the centipede that was as big as a subway car? The colossal earthworms in Central Park? Or that giant walking blob of goo that was as tall as the Statue of Liberty? And some of those rats in the upper stories of the Chrysler Building were at least rhino sized. Face it, New York was full of really huge monsters. It wasn't all snakes and crows.

Plot issues

In PE1, it made sense for Aya to be fighting the mitochondrial mutants alone, since any other person who got anywhere near Eve either burst into flames or melted into slime. However, in PE2, the NMCs (Neo-Mitochondrial Creatures) do not cause this effect, and the FBI has a whole unit of ordinary humans devoted to fighting them. So why is Aya always alone, even though she repeatedly calls for backup? The only real reason is to facilitate solo gameplay. However, in this case, gameplay comes at the expense of plot. (To be fair, PE2 is not the only game with this problem. With Resident Evil 4, I always wondered why only one solitary Secret Service agent was sent to rescue the President's kidnapped daughter.)

In some ways, PE2 seems less like the sequel to PE1 and more like the unholy union of Resident Evil and Jurassic Park. (Oh yeah, as soon as Aya set foot in the Ark, the Jurassic Park theme song started playing in my head.) I even started calling it "Parasite Evil," first by accident, and later by intention.

When I saw the movie Parasite Eve, years after playing the first game, I thought that the plot seemed completely unrelated to the game. (Of course, it was based on the novel. Allegedly, so was the game, but much more loosely.) Upon replaying the first game, I've realized that the events in the movie (and thus the novel) are actually described in the first game, when Maeda talks about the incident in Japan. So it's nice to see they really are connected.

And if you watched Episodes I-III of Star Wars and thought George Lucas pulled that whole midichlorian thing out of his butt, might I point out the similarity between the words midichlorian and mitochondria. Mutant mitochondria give people amazing super powers? High midichlorian count determines who is strong with the Force? I think Lucas played Parasite Eve.

Oh, and I'm pretty sure that Daniel (PE1) is secretly Superman. He and Maeda jump from a second-story window in the museum, yet show up mysteriously unharmed later that same evening. (This does not imply that Maeda has any special powers. Clearly, Daniel saved him.) Then later, Daniel leaps from a helicopter, bursts into flames, and then slams into the ocean. Either the fire or the impact should have been sufficient to kill any mortal. And the fact that he ignited proves that he was inside the radius of the enemy's power, where no one could possibly rescue him, except Aya, who was far too busy fighting the Ultimate Being at the time. So even if he survived the fall, he would still have been adrift in the ocean at night with no hope of rescue. And yet . . . when Aya finishes the final battle and returns to shore, there he is, standing on the pier waiting for her, whole and well. His clothes aren't even singed. The only conclusion is that Daniel is an invulnerable superhuman. Too bad he couldn't have given some of that amazing survival power to Pierce (PE2), who seemed to be made of tissue paper.

Conclusion

Well, I ended up with six points in Parasite Eve's favor, compared with only four in Parasite Eve 2's favor, with other factors being toss-ups. I think overall, Parasite Eve is the better game. But really, both games hold up remarkably well for their vintage, and both are grand fun to play.

Now I'm all hyped up for The 3rd Birthday (aka Parasite Eve 3), which is slated for release sometime in 2010. Looking forward to seeing more of Aya, no matter how ludicrous her adventures become.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Snowed In




Still snowed in, of course. The roads that have been plowed are passable, if you can get to them. My alley has not been plowed, and car after car has gotten stuck. This morning, it took one of my neighbors over three and a half hours to dig out his car--back and forth, back and forth, shoveling around the wheels and laying down cardboard for traction.

Right now, there's another car abandoned in the alley, blocking the throughway. Yesterday, there was a different car abandoned at the other end of the alley for most of the afternoon. So even if a plow comes, they won't be able to get through.


The wheel ruts you see are from a huge 4x4 pickup, the only vehicle that has successfully made it through the alley. There's no point in digging out my car until the way is passable. Once I see cars similar to mine moving through without getting trapped, then I'll head out with my new shovel and unbury my car.

I've had to cancel out of Saturday and Sunday holiday gatherings (one of which had been rescheduled from Christmas Eve as it was). Fortunately, however, I'm on vacation, I have plenty of food, and my electricity and heat are operational. As being snowed in goes, the circumstances are nearly ideal for me. I can relax and enjoy my cats.

Hope you all are safe and warm, wherever you are.

Addendum, 6:00 pm: Not long after I posted the photos, a plow did come though the alley, just up to where the car was stuck. So I just got in from two hours of digging out my car. Now I at least have the option of going out tomorrow. Whew!

Friday, December 25, 2009

White Christmas


I'm snowed in. This was the view from the front door of my apartment complex, before I broke through the sea of white with my footprints. The streets had not been plowed, nor were there any tracks. Not even the folks with big SUVs are attempting to go anywhere.

Why go out at all? It's my habit to take out the trash every morning immediately after scooping the litterbox. Plus, I just wanted to experience the snow instead of looking at it from my window. And, since I'm planning on staying home today, I can enjoy the snow, knowing that I don't have to drive in it. I'll dig my car out tomorrow, or whenever the snow stops.

The sidewalk, which had been completely clear with foot-high banks of old snow on either side, had been totally filled in. It was impossible to tell where the old snow ended and the new drifts began. I only had a dozen or so steps to reach the dumpster. I pretty much slid down the stairs to the sidewalk, because I couldn't find any of the steps underneath the snowy slope. On the sidewalk, the snow was almost up to my knees.

As you can see in the picture, it's still coming down pretty thick. (Yes, those white specks in the darkness are snowflakes reflecting the camera's flash.) I bet my deep footprints will be filled in before long. I wonder how much we'll get by the time it's finished. It's rather amazing.

I don't mind staying home for Christmas. I'm not really alone, since I've got my cats, the phone, and the internet. Everyone, stay safe. Merry Christmas and Peace Be With You!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Wood Duck


My dad requested a wood duck for Christmas. I normally sculpt with colored clay (a mix of Fimo, Promat, Sculpy, Granitex, and whatever else I have on hand), but I thought that with a wood duck, by the time I got all those intricate markings done, the duck would end up being rather lumpy and misshapen. So I tried something new. I sculpted the duck entirely out of white, and then colored it with Sharpie markers. I used black paint and a tiny brush to get into the crevices too deep for the thick nub of a Sharpie to reach. (The back of the neck and under the wingtips.) I would have just painted the duck outright, except I don't have the right colors on hand, and I wasn't about to go out.

It is rather difficult to blend Sharpie, but it can be done by going over the same spot with the two colors you want repeatedly, until there are so many layers that they stay slightly damp for a few seconds. Then you can kind of push them around a little.

I was afraid that error correction would be impossible with Sharpie, but then when I made an error, I got desperate. Yes, you can fix it with a knife, by scraping off the ink and a little of the underlying clay. The scratches roughen up the surface of the clay, though, so I only did this where I needed to restore a white area. I let my other errors stand.

His eyes are a little too big, but overall I'm pleased with how he came out.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Thoughts on Purchasing Magazines and Books

Issue by issue, Crossed Genres is disappearing. Disaster has not struck, but by contract, the publisher possesses the rights to the short stories for one calendar year, after which the rights revert to the authors. When my story "Stay" was published in Issue 12, Issue 1 was still available in the store, so I didn't quite realize the full ramifications of the contract. Issue 1 was removed from the Crossed Genres website and from all stores at the end of November. Issue 2 will be removed at the end of December, less than two weeks from now. In just ten months and a couple of weeks, Issue 12, with my story, will vanish from the world until I find some other avenue to get it republished.

The editors of the magazine were very good about publicizing the end of Issue 1 via their blog (and are now doing the same for Issue 2). Read it or buy it now, or lose your chance forever. So I bought a copy of Issue 1 in late November. Issue 1 is gone from the website and from all stores. You can't get it anymore. But I still have my print copy on my bookshelf. There is no way for any publisher or lawyer to revoke it. It is legally mine for as long as I choose to own it (barring theft, fire, or other unforeseen events, of course).

For my Christmas present to myself, I purchased Issues 2-13 in print. So when Issue 2 vanishes at the end of December, I won't have to worry about whether or not I've finished reading it. I have a print copy that will be mine forever. It will never expire. I won't have to worry about the rest of the issues disappearing month by month. I can read them at my leisure, even if they sit on my shelf for ten years before I get to them. (And I do have books that have been waiting ten or more years in my Garden of the Unread. I'm stockpiling for a snowy day, or retirement.)

This brings me to the idea of ownership versus access, a huge topic in the library world.

The University of Anywhere Library subscribes to Database ABC, which includes full-text access to 10,000 journals. It's great for the students who can do their research from home. The library serves them, even if they never once set foot inside the building.

The library's shelves are packed to bursting. There's no money for a building expansion, so something has to go, or they'll be forced to stack books on the floor. The librarians decide that since Database ABC has full-text access to 30 years of back issues, they can weed their print copies of any journals that are among the 10,000 included in the database. That frees up a lot of shelf space, and the students, preferring online access, haven't been using those paper copies anyway. For a while, everyone is happy.

But the library has budget cuts. The cost of serials goes up every year at a rate much, much higher than the rate of inflation, so even if the library has a static budget, that translates to real cuts in journal subscriptions. And Database ABC is expensive, and the price just went up another couple thousand dollars. After several years of static budgets alternating with cuts, the library has already cut everything nonessential, and they're now forced to take a long, hard, painful look at Database ABC, which is so very critical to the collection.

So the library drops their subscription to Database ABC and subscribes to a new service, Database GHI, which is significantly cheaper. Database GHI also has full-text access to 10,000 journals, but only 6,000 of those were included in Database ABC. So the library has gotten 4,000 new journals, but has lost 4,000 old ones. There is no access to back issues for the years they paid for. They're just gone.

Among those 4,000 lost are a couple hundred journals for which the library once had print subscriptions. If the library had kept their paper copies, they would still have access to the back issues, even though they canceled the subscription. But since the library tossed them to make space, they're just gone forever.

See the difference? You buy a print journal or book, and it's yours. You own it. You don't have to worry about licenses or contracts. You paid for the print copy, and you have the right to read it, loan it, give it away, sell it, or keep it until you die and designate its new owner in your will. That is ownership.

With electronic materials, what you're typically buying is access. You might have access for a set period of time, or you might have access for as long as you subscribe to the service. It all depends on the license agreement. You don't own anything. You can't loan it, give it away, sell it, or even keep it. If you cancel the service, your access vanishes.

And access is often proprietary. If you bought 100 books for your Amazon Kindle, and you want to switch over to a Barnes & Noble nook, do you think you can transfer those 100 books to your new device? If you're not sure, the answer is no. Will that change in the future? Maybe. Will it change in time for it to matter? Who knows?

Remember the brouhaha a while ago about George Orwell's works on the Amazon Kindle? There was a licensing issue, and Amazon deleted those editions of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm from the Kindles of everyone who had purchased them. The customers' money was refunded, but that wasn't the point.

If people had purchased print editions of Nineteen Eighty-Four, then no matter what licensing issue came up, neither Amazon nor the publisher would have had the right to go into people's homes and remove the physical books from the shelves.

There was a big outcry from the public, and Amazon basically said, "Sorry. Won't happen again." But there is really nothing to stop them from doing it again. There is actually nothing illegal about what they did. Since copyright law was involved, Amazon probably felt they not only had the right but also the obligation to delete those books from customers' Kindles.

And this is the main reason I prefer to buy print copies of things I want to keep.

Sometimes I'm fine with simple access. If I watch a video on YouTube, I don't necessarily want to own a DVD of it, and I wouldn't particularly care if the video were deleted the next day, never to be accessed by anyone again. Likewise when I read an article in the news or on someone's blog, I rarely have cause to refer back to it later. Access is enough, and if it goes away, I'm not troubled.

Generally, I don't care to own magazines. Crossed Genres is different because each issue is a collection of short stories, which in my mind are less ephemeral than most articles.

For books, when I borrow a book from a friend or a library, I return it when I'm done. I access it via a promise or a library card, but I don't own it. But if I really, really like the book, I'll go out and buy a copy to ensure that my access to it will never vanish when my friend moves away or when the library weeds it from their collection.

Some people say content is the only factor of importance, and the carrier (physical or electronic) is irrelevant. But I say that the carrier fundamentally transforms the way we relate to the content. I'm not saying one is superior to the other, but that they are different. You must think about this when you decide whether you want to own or simply access a particular book or magazine. Do you want to just read it once and be done with it, or do you want to ensure that you always have it whenever you want it? And if you want to loan it, you need to own it.

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to the ownership-versus-access question, but it's important to consider it as you make decisions about how you want your media, whether it be books, magazines, movies, or music.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Faster than a Speeding Bullet . . .


I bought a DVD of the old 1940s Superman cartoon, packaged in a cute metal lunchbox. (Cost me $5. The lunchbox itself is probably worth that.) I'm sure I saw these cartoons as a child, but I don't remember them. I watched the first two tonight. What a hoot!

The first thing that struck me is the difference in Superman's origin story. Yes, he's still the sole survivor of Krypton, which was apparently destroyed by massive earthquakes. However, the narration implied that everyone on Krypton was super, while the Superman canon I grew up with (the Christopher Reeve movies) had it that everyone on Krypton was normal while on Krypton, and they only developed the amazing powers on Earth due to the effects of our yellow sun. (Yeah, that doesn't really make much sense when you think about it. I suppose it's fine to imagine that everyone on Krypton was super. Like Buddy said in The Incredibles, "When everyone's super, no one will be.")

The biggest difference in his origin story, however, was that he grew up in an orphanage. No kindly Ma and Pa Kent to raise their special boy on a spacious farm. The Man of Steel was on his own from the get go.

The next thing that struck me was the character of Lois Lane. I figured, these were made in 1941-1942, so I expected Lois to be, you know, pre-feminist. Not so! She's gutsy, even if she has no self-preservation instinct. ("What is this 'danger' of which you speak? Pardon me, but I have to crawl inside the cargo hold of this giant, marauding robot.") In the first episode on the disc, when she wanted to go somewhere, she hopped into an airplane and flew herself. Yep, Lois was a pilot. Sure, she still got captured and needed Supes to save her, but so has every version of Lois Lane. Ever. I'm actually finding 1940s Lois more independent, more liberated, and generally more awesome than later versions. (So far, anyway. As I've said, I've only watched the first two episodes.)

Anyway, these are good, clean, leave-your-brain-at-the-door fun. I look forward to watching the rest of them.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Tool-Using Octopuses

This is so cool! I knew octopuses were highly intelligent, but I never guessed they used tools. Check out the video of octopuses toting around coconut shells and using them as houses. I especially like the one who pulls two coconut halves together to enclose itself in a sphere.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

My Car is Buried

We got quite a bit of snow yesterday and last night. I love the wind-sculpted drifts.



I think the mix of frost and steam on the laundry room windows is awesome.



However, my car is buried, and I do not own a snow shovel. I'm actually not quite sure what to do.



Normally, I can just stomp down a walkway around my car, but the drifts are a little high for that this time. I considered using a bowl or kitchen pot to dig, but the alley hasn't been plowed yet anyway. Even if I dug out my parking stall, it would get buried again. And the car I saw trying to get through the alley was having quite a lot of trouble. My car would be high centered before I made it three yards. Plus, the temperature right now, with the sun shining bright, is only 5 degrees.

I think I will hitch a ride with one of my coworkers tomorrow morning, then borrow her snow shovel after work. Then I would be able dig my car out tomorrow evening. That sounds like the safest plan.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Undercover Cat

As I went to put my freshly-laundered sheets on my bed, I found Luna sleeping in the middle of the bare mattress. So I put the fitted sheet on right over him, thinking he would run away.


He didn't. He's still there, happy as a furry clam. I can't decide whether to finish making the bed. I think with the extra layers heaped on top, he'd be even more warm and comfy, and he might stay for hours.


"Put that sheet back down, silly human. You're letting all the heat out."

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Turkey Moon

Last year, I wrote "A Vampire's Thanksgiving." I had planned to leave it at that, but this weekend, I was inspired to write a sequel. Be warned: it's ridiculous. Thanks to my friend Katherine for proofreading. So, without further ado, here is . . .


Turkey Moon


by Anj


Still a few hours until her friends arrived to pick her up. They had talked her into going to see New Moon, even though she really didn't want to. She just couldn't get into that series. Real vampires weren't sexy, and they most certainly did not sparkle.

"Gah! Dead again!" The shout came from across the room, and Annie looked up to see her family's pet vampire frustratedly gnawing on the video game controller. "Game over" glowed on the TV screen in ghostly white letters.

He'd moved in last Thanksgiving. Apparently he'd been her mom's childhood friend, so he was in his forties, even though his body was frozen at age twelve. He was pale as a vanilla milkshake, both his skin and his hair. His eyes glowed maraschino cherry red. Several bats clung to his sleeves and hung off the limp bag of his sweatshirt's hood.

It was because of the bats that she'd taken to calling him Belfry. He'd invited the bats to stay with him in the attic, and the family had been forced to move all of their stored junk down to the basement, where it had been ruined in the spring floods. Annie hadn't felt very thankful toward him since then. Of course, she hadn't liked him much before that, either. He was the reason she couldn't invite any of her friends inside the house, and he'd even permanently scared off her boyfriend when he'd used his fangs to cut open the wrapper on a new DVD.

He set the controller down, and the bats seized their chance. They gathered around the controller like it was a feeding dish. On the screen, the "continue" option flashed by, followed by a loading bar.

"Shouldn't you and your friends be out hunting?" She wanted him to go suck on a cow. The bats could scrounge for any bugs that hadn't died in the frost.

He stood, leaving the bats to enjoy their chance at Parasite Eve II, then tucked his gray-freckled hands into the pocket of his hoodie. "Still an hour until sundown. Anyway, I don't need to hunt tonight. Tomorrow's thanksgiving, so before sunrise, I get my share of the turkey."

"It would be nice if you'd pluck it after you suck it." She smiled, hoping to foist her chore off onto him.

"Sure, no problem." He grinned, eyes glazed like he was looking inside her. She'd never get used to that creepy vampire stare.

A blood-curdling gobble rose from the back yard.

"Sounds like someone knows we're talking about her." Belfry licked his lips.

Annie rolled her eyes and went out back alone. The turkey hen threw herself against the chicken wire, bending the walls out of shape. But the cage held. The posts were driven deep into the ground.

Annie pointed at the bird. "Quiet, you. Enjoy your last few hours of life."

"Enjoy yours!" the turkey shot back.

Annie stumbled back into the house and slammed the door. Clutching at her pounding heart, she turned the knobs for both locks, then looked around the mudroom for something heavy to brace the door with.

"What's up?" Belfry asked.

"The bird threatened me! It talked!"

He lifted the heavy cloth curtain to peek outside, then drew back with a hiss. He stared at the dark gray burn on his hand and whimpered.

She slapped the back of his head. "Idiot. You know better."

He helped her make sure every window was closed and every door locked. Then she called her two mothers. "Belfry and I will figure something out. But I don't want the turkey to get you when you come home, so stay away until we call you back!"

From the other room, she heard Belfry cry, "Oh, man!"

She ran after him. "What? What?"

He frowned, pointing at the TV screen. "They got past the trash heap monster!" He shook a fist at the bats. "I tried forty or fifty times!"

"Forget the game! We have a homicidal talking turkey outside!"

"Relax. As soon as the sun goes down, I'll take care of it. It's just a bird."

"She'll peck your eyes out!"

"Even if she does, they'll grow back." He held up his burned hand, which had mostly healed already.

Stupid vampires with their regeneration. Always showing off.

Every few minutes, Annie peeped out through the curtain. The turkey stood stock still, glaring at her with beady black eyes. Her variegated bronze feathers were actually quite beautiful, although the loose, bumpy, blue skin on her head and neck were kind of disgusting.

The sun dipped low to the horizon. Another few minutes, and Belfry could go outside. Annie opened the door a crack and leaned out. "Truce? If we let you go free, will you promise not to hurt us?"

The turkey puffed up her feathers. "Afraid? You should be! I've been caged here all day! I assure you, there will be blood spilled! And it will not be mine!"

Annie closed the door and locked it again. A moment later, she parted the curtain less than a quarter inch, striving to keep her movement imperceptible.

The turkey was gone. Inside the pen was a naked girl about Annie's age, with beautiful bronze skin and thick brown hair streaked with gold. She was gorgeous, downright hot. At that moment, Annie decided she was bisexual after all.

The turkey girl gripped one of the metal posts with both hands and worked it back and forth. The post came free, and the girl stumbled back. She lifted the chicken wire and crawled underneath. She was free. She ran away, toward the cornfield.

Annie opened the door and leaned out. "Wait!"

The girl squawked and flapped her arms. She transformed into the turkey and bolted toward the field, picking up speed quickly.

Annie called, "All talk, huh? You were really scared!"

The turkey turned around and flew low over the ground toward Annie, gobbling loudly.

Annie slammed the door. A loud thump knocked a few bits of plaster off the wall.

Outside, all was silent. The windows darkened. Belfry appeared at Annie's shoulder. "Sundown. Let me at her."

"Just hold your horses."

"I don't have any horses."

Ignoring him, Annie opened the door.

Belfry muttered, "I always wanted a horse."

The turkey lay on the porch, still as death.

Belfry frowned. "Bummer." Then he grinned, baring his fangs. "Oh well, the blood's still warm."

Annie got between him and the bird. "Stop! She's a person!"

His gleaming, hungry eyes remained locked on the floppy blue throat, but he held back.

Annie had no idea how to check a turkey's pulse, but she didn't have to. One wing twitched. One talon scratched across the porch. Annie helped the turkey to her feet. The bird swayed and stumbled, then ruffled her feathers. Then she gobbled loudly and beat Annie with her wings.

Annie screamed, falling off the edge of the porch and landing in the bare branches of the shrubbery. She covered her face with her forearms, but the attack ceased.

She looked up to see Belfry holding the turkey aloft, licking his lips. "Yumilicious! All that adrenaline gives the blood a great flavor!"

The turkey transformed into a girl and punched him square in the mouth. He let go, looking more surprised than hurt. The turkey girl hopped around the porch, waving her bloody hand. "Ow! Ow! Ow!" Apparently, she'd cut her knuckles on his fangs.

Annie crawled out of the bushes. "Okay, truce! Truce!" She held out both hands. "Nobody's eating anybody." She faced the wereturkey. "What's your name?"

"Thomasina."

She introduced herself and Belfry. "Would you like to stay for dinner?"

"Oh, I don't think so!"

"No, not like that. We'll make it vegetarian."

Belfry grumbled.

"I'll bandage your hand, give you some clothes, and cook whatever you want, to apologize for keeping you in that pen."

Thomasina stared toward the field, but her pretty brown eyes were softening.

"What do you like to eat?" Annie prompted.

"Corn."

"Uh, corn it is, then. Come on in!"

Thomasina eyed Belfry warily.

He shrugged. "I don't feed on humans. As a were, you're half-human, so I guess that makes you off limits."

Thomasina sighed. "All right. It's not like I have anywhere to go anyway. This is a dangerous time of year for my kind."

"Well, stay with us. We'll give you a safe haven."

"You have to promise not to eat some other turkey tomorrow."

"Promise." Annie offered her hand.

"Well, all right." Thomasina took it.

Impulsively, Annie lifted Thomasina's hand and kissed it.

Thomasina drew back. "You'd better not be tasting me."

Annie escorted Thomasina inside, with Belfry following dejectedly. After providing their guest with a shirt and pants, she called her moms. "Everything's fine. We have guest. Can you stop at the store and pick up a tofureky? And corn. Lots of corn."

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Since now the FTC requires all bloggers to disclose whether they received any payment or perks of any kind for reviewing products, this is my disclosure/disclaimer to apply to all of my previous reviews on this blog.

No one ever paid me to review anything on this blog. No one ever gave me anything for the explicit purpose of reviewing it. True, I did not buy everything I reviewed--often, I borrowed things from libraries and from friends, none of whom had anything to gain from a positive review of the items. Anything I received as a gift--be it a book, DVD, food, drink, or whatever--came as a gift from a friend or family member, probably for my birthday or for Christmas. They gave it to me because they loved me and wanted me to have it. If I really liked it, I reviewed it on my blog so other people would also see that it was cool. I have never received any "freebees" as bribes for reviewing anything. Yes, even my Jones Soda reviews of the past were done without any kind of compensation whatsoever, other than getting to drink the soda (as much a punishment as a reward with some of those flavors). Those were Christmas gifts from a friend unconnected to Jones in any way.

The only reviews on this blog that I have a truly personal stake in are the ones related to Crossed Genres magazine. They paid me a flat fee of $10 for my short story "Stay," which was published in Issue 12. I received a 25% discount on the print copies I purchased. Since the cost of two print copies, even with a 25% discount, exceeds $10, I have already paid Crossed Genres more money than I have earned from them. Of course, I have the enormous benefit of having my story published. But they did NOT pay or even ask me to post anything to my blog. I genuinely like their publication. And I want everyone to read my story.

I will try to remember to include some kind disclosure every time I review something in the future, but if I miss a post, consider this the default: I review things because I want to. No one bought my review.

If I ever do get any kind of compensation or freebee, I will say so. But I really don't want to get into the business of professional reviews. I did have one offer a few weeks ago--someone offered me a complimentary copy of some software if I would review it. I refused, because I didn't know the person and I had no particular use for that type of software. I never got the software, never did a review, and promptly forgot what it was even called and what it was supposed to do.

So there you have it. I am a fan and not a professional reviewer.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

I'm Published!

My short story "Stay" has been published in Issue 12 of Crossed Genres, which has been released today! The theme of the issue is LGBTQ, but all stories have elements of science fiction or fantasy as well.

I am so excited! This is my first time in print. From what I've read so far, the other stories in the issue are great, too. I can't wait to read the rest of them.

So please, read my story. Read everyone's stories.

Paper copies and electronic copies are available for purchase through the Crossed Genres website or from Amazon. You can also read it for free on the website. But I have a paper copy in hand and it's really nice--squarebound, glossy cover, high quality paper. It'd look great on your shelf when you finish reading it. (No, I don't get paid any extra if it sells a lot of copies. I just think it's a nice magazine. Yes, I'm biased.)

I am floating on air.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Hedgehogs in Clay and Crystal

I found a piece of cactus quartz that reminded me of a hedgehog. So I made a little mate to go with it.


If you're not familiar with cactus quartz, it occurs when smaller crystals grow around a larger crystal. In this case, the tip of the larger crystal was still visible (the hedgehog's head), but the sides were completely covered with smaller crystals.

I saw cactus quartz for the first time a couple of weeks ago, when my mom found a beautiful piece of clear quartz partially covered by smaller citrine crystals, resembling what she described as "a castle on a craggy mountian top."

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

My New Cabinet


Behold the magnificent cabinet my stepdad Dave made for me.

The saga began last summer when I found an 18" x 24", 32-lb. slab of marble propped against the wall in the alley between the twin buildings of my apartment complex. It was near the dumpster, so it was obvious someone was trying to dispose of it, but perhaps found it too heavy to lift up over the edge of the trash bin. So I claimed it, with the vague idea that I would make a table or something.

At first, I shopped around antique stores and flea markets, looking for an appropriately-sized table that needed a new top. I didn't find anything to my liking. Then I shopped the home improvement stores for table legs, with the half-baked idea that I might borrow my stepdad's woodshop and make a table.

Eventually, he said he'd make it for me. And somewhere along the line, the table concept morphed into a cabinet, because I really need some pantry space, and (unlike me) he is skilled enough to make something with moveable shelves and hinged doors.

And then he had his knee injury. He was laid up for quite some time. He's still not fully recovered, but he made a push to finish the cabinet because he has a lot of other projects he wants to work on. He's not the type who can tolerate sitting idle. He is driven to create.

And so, with the help of Paul (my stepsister's husband, general handyman, and strong guy), Mom and Dave delivered the cabinet to my apartment tonight. It is made of solid oak and likely sturdier than any other piece of furniture I have. The ornate molding is gorgeous, and the shelf-pegs are seated into metal-lined holes. The marble top is at a good height for me to work on something while standing up. He did a truly amazing job on this.

And, without actually trying to, he somehow matched the color of my hardwood floor exactly.

I'm very excited. I can't wait to fill it with the kitchen stuff that is presently scattered all around my apartment. Yes, the cabinet is in my living room, but it's a lot closer to my kitchen than any of the closets I have stuff stashed in now.

Murphy approves of his fancy new marble-topped cat perch.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Ebook Piracy

There's an interesting discussion on ebook piracy going on over at The Blood-Red Pencil. Whether or not you want to participate in this discussion, The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog all writers ought to follow. They've always got interesting things to say.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Peaceful Snow

This morning, Omaha woke up to our first snow of the season. It's cold out, but by no means bone chilling. In fact, for a snowy day, it's rather temperate. Big clusters of sticky flakes drift down serenely, with no wind to trouble them. It's a beautiful morning.





There are many bewildered robins hopping around the sidewalks and streets, probably wishing they'd thought to fly south a little earlier this year.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Video + Book = ?

Remember how I was ranting about video ads in print magazines?

Vooks are ebooks with video interspersed through the text. And while there is no print involved with Vooks, some people (like me) don't really like to read long texts on a screen. I prefer online for short texts and print for long ones. And since there are still a lot of people like me who want physical books, anyone who desires to make money will try to get their text into as many formats (i.e. markets) as possible.

With those ultra-thin video screens they're designing for magazines, they could make print editions of these Vooks (minus the social networking aspects, unless some clever person figures out a way to build a wireless connection into a print book). Of course, I hope the next company to get in the game comes up with a better name than "Vook."

Now, I wouldn't want all of my books to have videos. The whole point of reading a novel, for me, is to enjoy the pictures that form in my head. I'd just as soon not have that spoiled by someone else's idea of what the characters and setting look like.

However, for illustrated children's books, how-to manuals, textbooks, and many other types of print material, accompanying videos might be very appealing. But let me tell you, if a video is integral to the text, I'd MUCH rather have it physically embedded in the book than have to stop reading, head over to the computer or dig some electronic device out of my bag, and go online, as you'd have to do if you were something like Anthony E. Zuiker's Level 26: Dark Origins. (I haven't read it, so I have nothing to say for or against the book. I'm just pointing out its existence as a hybrid text, which I wouldn't have even known about if it hadn't been mentioned in the New York Times article.)

At that point, you really cease to have a book. You have something new. That's not necessarily bad, but reading a text in a linear fashion--with no hyperlinks, no video, nothing but you and the printed word--engages the brain in a different way than one typically interacts with an electronic text. I don't know about you, but when I read something online, I tend to follow links, check out less-familiar terms in Wikipedia, shoot off the occasional email, then return to the text. Before I finish an article, I might have ten related browser tabs open. In other words, when I read online, I multitask.

Reading offline, in print, provides the opportunity to monotask. That's not something we do a lot of in the modern world. And I think it's something we need.

So maybe we don't need videos embedded in our books. I'm sure someone will do it anyway. People will always experiment with combining technologies in all kinds of ways. Some will fail, and some will take off and change our society. But I think there will always be a place for the old fashioned print novel alongside all the new forms of storytelling. The new hybrid books will not supersede the original; there's plenty of room for coexistence. We need different formats for different experiences, and I think people like to be able to change pace once in a while.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Joy of Serendipity

Ah, Serendipity!

My nephews loaned me all five books of Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. I'm only a few chapters into The Lightning Thief, but so far, I'm enjoying it.

However, as it happened, I forgot to take the book to work this morning. Then when lunchtime came, I had nothing to read.

Well, I work in a library, so this wasn't really a problem. I checked the catalog to see if we had The Lightning Thief, and we did. So I went out to the shelves to get it, so I could keep reading where I'd left off.

However, it was missing from the shelf. In its place was a misshelved book. I took that book to reshelve it in its proper place, and there I spotted a stray book that fallen into the space between shelves. It likely would have been lost forever if I had not noticed it through the gap between the properly shelved books.

As I pulled it out the fallen book, intending to reshelve it properly, neither its bland blue cover nor its nondescript title Nine Fairy Tales caught my attention, but the author's name certainly did. Čapek. I thought, Now there's a good Czech name. I wonder if this is a Czech book? And indeed it is. It is written by Karel Čapek and illustrated by Josef Čapek (and translated into English by Dagmar Herrmann, which is good, because I can't read Czech).

Karel and Josef Čapek, you may know, are the authors of R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots), the play which gave the word robot to the world.

So I took Nine Fairy Tales to the breakroom to read during my lunch break.

It is wonderful! It is filled with delight and charm, with a fair dose of that excellent Czech dry humor. The first chapter began with a clever old woman and her black cat, a disobedient princess, and an honorable king, then predictably ended with a rich old woman, a happy princess and cat, and a somewhat bemused king. In the second chapter, the cat met the palace dogs. I knew how I expected this chapter to progress, however, I was surprised by the turn of events. The third chapter brought more surprises. I think the predictable first chapter was only to lull the reader into a false sense of security. I am greatly looking forward to the next chapter, because I can't even imagine where this tale will go.

And I would never have even known it existed if not for an unlikely chain of events. It's little coincidences like these, too perfect to be random, that fill the world with mystery.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Wish Me Luck!

Well, I finally did it. I submitted two short stories to a magazine. So either I will get published, or I will get my very first rejection letter. (Or, since I submitted two stories, possibly my first two rejection letters.) Either way, I have taken the next big step toward becoming a "real" writer.

I was very excited a couple of weeks ago, when a friend told me about Crossed Genres having an issue entirely devoted to LGBTQ. Of course, the stories must also have elements of fantasy or science fiction, which the majority of my stories do, so it just seemed like this opportunity was perfect in every way.

I read a few issues of Crossed Genres, to make sure I liked the kind of thing they published. All of the stories I read were good, several were excellent, and a couple were purely amazing. I look forward to reading the rest of the back issues when I have time. Plus, they had an interview with Phil and Kaja Foglio, of whom I've been a fan for years, so that was another point in their favor.

Lastly, there's the fact that they chose LGBTQ as the theme for the final issue of their first year of publication. A science fiction and fantasy magazine that not only welcomes but openly seeks LGBTQ content? How awesome is that?

I am confident that both of my stories are good. They've both been through the gauntlet of my critique group, and I've reread and revised repeatedly. The two stories are very different in tone and style, so I stand a better chance of having one of them fit the magazine's needs. Of course, I don't know how much competition I'm up against. They may have a large pool of superb submissions by now.

Even if I don't get accepted this time, I will probably try to submit other stories to future issues, because I think this is the kind of publication that I would like to be associated with.

Fingers crossed! Wish me luck!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Now This Just Ticks Me Off

Yes, they are now embedding tiny, ultra-thin video screens into print magazines. Why, you ask? In order to inflict noisy, flashy advertisements on us when we're trying to read. (Hat tip to Martyn Daniels' Brave New World blog, where I read about this.)



Imagine you are sitting in the breakroom at lunch, or in a library, or in a hospital waiting room, just flipping through a magazine. And you hit a page with one of these video ads. There are no volume controls. You can't turn it off except by turning the page. What if the one article you're actually interested in reading is on the same page? Now imagine five or six people around the hospital waiting room are all flipping through magazines, and different ads are playing loud enough for you to hear. It would drive everyone batty.

When people choose to watch videos in public places, for the most part they are considerate enough to use headphones. (At least in my experience.) With these ads, that's not an option. They'll just go off whether you want them to or not.

I tell you, nothing makes me get off a web page faster than an ad that has sound and annoying animation. If I really need to view the web page, I mute the volume and hold my hand over the offending ad so I don't have to look at it.

And now ads just like that will be appearing in paper magazines.

I am thoroughly disgusted.

I have nothing against the technology itself. What I object to is the increasingly intrusive advertising. (By the way, if you want a humorous vision of the future where such advertising is embedded in the dust and floats in the air, read The Sheriff of Yrnameer, by Michael Rubens.) Now, if someone were to embed videos into books, for example, to make animated children's books, that would be awesome. But using this technology for disposable ads is just plain awful.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Another Day at the Zoo

Went to the zoo yesterday. Here are a few of the highlights.

There was a sprinkler watering a little flower garden just outside the okapi enclosure. The furthest bursts of spray made it inside the pen. This hornbill was sitting on the fence, washing himself in those intermittent bursts of spray. He turned this way and that, making sure to get every feather wet.



Meerkats and tigers and bears, oh my.







Peacock chicks huddled in their nest, no more than five feet from the sidewalk. Obviously neither they nor their parents were too worried about all the humans going by.



I've always been fond of vultures, and this guy looks particularly cool sunning his wings.



And then there was this weird fungus growing on a tree. It looked almost exactly like baked bread with drops of honey seeping out of it. I hope no one tries to eat it.



And bats, bats, bats! (Short-tailed fruit bats, to be specific.)









Sunday, August 16, 2009

Dinosaurs in the Forest

I went to Fontenelle Forest early this morning for a short walk. Because it was raining, there were very few visitors, which made it very peaceful and soothing. I saw three separate groups of turkeys, since there were no people to scare them away.



The mist was breathtakingly beautiful.



The forest is currently hosting the Dino Quest exhibit. Along the boardwalk trails, they have realistic, life-sized sculptures a dozen different types of dinosaurs. The poses are all very natural, and they are arranged in such a way that when you come across some of the dinosaurs, especially the smaller ones, you are surprised and delighted as if you were encountering a living creature. The species all seemed chosen to highlight the evolutionary connection between dinosaurs and birds.







And so I thought it particularly fitting when I encountered a flock of turkeys by the Parasaurolophus exhibit. Like they were hanging out with their ancestors or something.



All in all, it's a very nice exhibit. If you live in the area, it's worth visiting.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Grotesque with Crucifix

In the Old Market in Omaha, there are a pair of winged lions on the side of one of the buildings. I love these sculptures and have to visit them every time I'm in the area. Well, tonight I noticed something different about them. They were wearing crucifixes. I'm not sure why someone would put gaudy plastic crucifixes (which look like they might glow in the dark) onto these grotesques. Were they exorcising evil spirits? Converting the statues to Christianity? Or just decorating their favorite architectural pets? Regardless of the reason, I think the lions look rather cute with their new bling.


(They're too far apart to photograph together with any respectable amount of detail, so I'm only showing the left one. The right one is a mirror image, except with a little less soot staining its face. Also, the other lion's crucifix has white beads.)

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Doodles

I went to the library at The Kaneko today with my laptop, planning to sit and write. The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926 German silent animated film) was playing on one of the TVs, and I ended up totally engrossed in its awesome beauty. I also ended up not writing a single word, nor even cracking open my laptop. I got out my sketchbook and doodled a page. Enjoy!


My favorite is the latte-bearing Cheshire Cat down in the lower right corner.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Cerberus Wants to Go for Walkies

I made Cerberus for my dad for Father's Day. He (they?) looks so cheerful, waiting for walkies.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Trading Spaces: Feline Edition

At every meal, morning or evening, Murphy walks around my ankles in the kitchen, while Luna waits beneath the table in the other room. I put the first bowl of food down for Murphy, then while he eats, I go to the other room to fetch Luna. Luna won't come to the kitchen of his own accord. He waits for me to pick him up and carry him to his food.

Except for tonight.

I prepared the two bowls of cat food and set one down, and the cat that had been worming around my ankles dove into it. My eyes fell upon the entrance to the kitchen, where Murphy watched in horror.

Yes, it was Luna who had been in the kitchen, rubbing my ankles, and who claimed the first bowl of food, which was in Murphy's spot.

Murphy then ran away and hid under the bed. While I was fumbling in the darkness under the bed looking for him, he slipped away. I found him under the table in the other room, in Luna's spot, waiting. So I picked him up and carried him to the kitchen, and set him down with the second bowl of food in Luna's normal spot.

Crazy kitties, messing with my head.

Units of Measurement

Writers come up with all kinds of strange questions. Would a particular character estimate the size of area in "football fields" or "city blocks"? Trying to decide which would better suit the scene I'm writing, I discovered converter for football fields and city blocks. Wow, you really can find anything imaginable online.

(One city block equals about 0.88 football fields, if you care.)

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Cute Chicks

Some birds built a nest on top of my friends' floodlight, just outside their garage. There are baby birdies! So cute!







Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Dragon? What Dragon?

I told my boss how much I enjoyed Wicked, and she said that her son had been particularly impressed with the dragon. But I didn't see a dragon. I love dragons, so surely I would have noticed if one had been included in the play. I wondered if it was a difference in staging, but she assured me that her son had seen the show at the Orpheum here in Omaha, same as me. She also mentioned that the dragon had been mentioned in the newspaper article about the musical. Later, I checked the Omaha World-Herald, and sure enough, I found a picture. And while the rest of the Orpheum's stage looked familiar, the dragon most certainly did not.

I was mystified. How could I have missed a gigantic dragon whose wings spanned the entire stage? Either the prop had been damaged and had been removed sometime before the performance I attended, or I had simply overlooked it.

How is that possible?

Well, human perception is a strange thing. Watch this video of a perception experiment, then test yourself with a different experiment. (Or better yet, test someone who doesn't know what exactly they're being tested for.)

Change blindness! The human brain can not process all of the visual data the eyes receive, and so it filters based on attention. Whatever you are focusing your attention on is what you see, and you don't notice anything else.

Apparently, I was paying so much attention to the witches and the flying monkeys that I never saw the gargantuan dragon sprawled across the top of the set, even though it would have been roughly eye-level with where I was sitting.

But I felt better after I asked both of the people who attended the show with me, and learned that neither of them saw the dragon either. So that makes a case for the dragon simply not being there anymore. However, to be honest, I just can't be sure.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Reviews of Many Things

Sorry I haven't been blogging much lately. Here's a pile of mini-reviews of things I've watched or read recently.

AWESOME THINGS

Wicked
-- I saw the musical at the Orpheum Theater. If you're not familiar with it, it's the story of The Wizard of Oz retold from the point of view of the Wicked Witch of the West. It was absolutely wonderful. I have read the book by Gregory Maguire, and the book was good, but not amazing. The musical was a heck of a lot of fun, though. They changed the plot quite a bit, especially toward the end. Because, you know, musicals need happy endings. But it worked. It was a hoot!

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay -- This book by Michael Chabon is one of the most engrossing novels I've read in a long time. Young Czech Joe Kavalier escaped from Nazi-occupied Prague and made his way to New York City. There, he and his cousin Sam Clay, created a Nazi-bashing comic book, which lead to fame and fortune . . . and tragedy. The story is so well written, its descriptive passages so rich, that the pictures that formed in my mind were as vivid and clear as if I were looking at the pages of a graphic novel. The book walks the fine line between real life and fantasy. The characters and their relationships feel real, but some of the situations they find themselves in are as wild as the tales they spin in their comics. It's beautifully absurd, and absurdly beautiful. I would recommend this book to . . . well, pretty much anyone.

Star Trek -- Some people don't like the new film because it completely erases the original continuity. But after five or six TV series and ten movies, it was getting hard for Star Trek writers to come up with new plots that didn't contradict something that had already been established. The movie gets around that with time travel, an incident that changes the lives of young Kirk and Spock so that their paths unfold differently. (No ambiguity is left on this count. Uhura even refers directly to "an alternate universe.") So this is a whole new Star Trek, a clean slate. And some of the changes to the universe were HUGE. Certain characters die. A certain planet is destroyed. And certain characters are in a romantic relationship that made me double-take. (Let's just say Uhura kisses someone--not someone I expected--and there was no alien mind control involved.) And it was tremendous fun. It wasn't deep and meaningful, but not everything has to be. It was a thrilling adventure, and I loved every second of it.

Avenue Q -- Another Broadway musical, which I saw at the Orpheum over a month ago. It was a rather raunchy, adult homage to Sesame Street. It was hilarious, but decidedly not for all audiences. I loved the Bad Idea Bears, who always showed up whenever the characters had to a big decision to make, and helped the characters make the worst possible choices. ("I'm broke and unemployed. I don't know how I'm going to pay my rent." "I know what to do! Let's buy beer! Yay!")

LESS-THAN-AWESOME THINGS

The Underneath -- This children's chapter book by Kathi Appelt was a National Book Award finalist, but I wasn't really fond of it. It was an enjoyable melodrama, but the writing style was really irritating, and often rather overblown. Good, but not great.

The Escapist -- This graphic novel is meant to be a representation of the comic written by the characters in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. However, it really didn't do justice to the source material. At all. It was very disappointing, perhaps because the prose descriptions in the novel gave me such vivid images, and this comic didn't measure up to the pictures in my mind.

Strawberry Panic -- I'm familiar with the lesbian-romance-at-an-all-girls-school sub-genre of anime. I enjoyed Maria-sama ga miteru, and I expected Strawberry Panic to be similar. And on the surface it is. However, it is boring--horribly, excruciatingly boring. It ran for five DVDs, with barely enough plot for one, spread very thinly. It had far too many characters; I kept losing track of who was who. And the plot was stupid. Seriously, how does winning what amounts to a popularity contest for best lesbian couple qualify you for student government? Don't bother.

THE JURY IS STILL OUT

The Historian -- I'm about two-thirds of the way through this book by Elizabeth Kostova, but I'm really enjoying it. There are parallel plots in different time periods, as a girl searches for her missing father, and many years ago, her father searches for his missing professor, and many years before that, the professor searches for the real Vlad Tepes, also known as Dracula. Actual vampires stalk the father and the daughter. (It's nice to see sinister Old World vampires as serious villains again.) I can't tell yet how it will end, but it is a very interesting journey, rich and vivid and suspenseful. I'm leaning toward proclaiming it to be awesome, even though I haven't even finished it yet. *

The L Word
-- I've been watching the DVDs with my favorite ex-girlfriend. It's a soap opera, to be sure. At times it borders on porn. Are all those sex scenes really necessary? I don't think so, but it's not bad enough to make me stop watching, because I actually care about some of the characters and want to see what happens to them. But these ladies make some really, really bad life choices at time, and I end up screaming at the TV rather often. I'm at about the middle of season two (out of six). At present, I'm planning to continue buying the DVDs and watching them. Not sure what the final verdict will be. It's witty and interesting, but often very frustrating.

* Addendum 6-4-2009: I finished reading The Historian. It is thoroughly awesome in every respect. It is suspenseful, vivid, and has a nice little twist at the end.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

AmazonEncore

Amazon has redeemed themselves. This has nothing to do with last month's incident, but rather with another issue of importance to me: orphan books. If you're not familiar with the term, an orphan book is one which is out of print and unavailable, but still secured by copyright law. These books are essentially lost.

Well, now Amazon is starting something called AmazonEncore. They plan to take out-of-print books which had good reviews but low sales and republish them, giving them a second chance at life. (Amazon's release didn't use the term "orphan," but some bloggers are.)

Right now, Amazon is starting with a relatively recent self-published book that will likely benefit from Amazon's marketing. However, if Amazon so chooses, they could potentially republish older works as well. Amazon is big enough to afford to buy the rights to these orphan works and put them back into print, and that would mean renewed income for the authors of those books.

This experiment definitely bears watching. I hope it takes off. I'm looking forward to seeing which direction it goes.

If you're interested in orphan books, you should also be keeping an eye on the Google Book Settlement. There's some controversy over that one. It might not be in the authors' best interest.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Lotus Focus: Cat and Moth

This morning I unlocked a new balance game in Wii Fit: Lotus Focus. This is an exercise in sitting perfectly still. The screen is dark except for a single candle burning in the middle. If you move, the candle goes out. The game tries to distract you with various sound effects, which are easy to ignore, and then by having a moth come and flutter around the flame.

It wasn't the moth that got me, but my cat Luna. As soon as that moth fluttered across the screen, he ran up to the TV, absolutely rapt. I've never seen him interested in anything on the TV screen before. He tracked the moth back and forth, pacing as he tried to figure out how to get through the "window" that separated him from his prey. I broke my stillness trying to repress my laugh.

Anyway, I plan to keep at Wii Fit every day. I make myself endure all the yoga exercises, then allow myself to have some fun with the balance and aerobic games. The balance games are all very fun (except for Lotus Focus, which really seems more like yoga). Even though I'm terrible at them, they're cute and they make me laugh, so I enjoy them even as I fail. Under aerobics, I really enjoy the step games. However, I'm apparently incapable of doing the hula hoop ones. I just can't get the movement right, so I've never actually last more than a few seconds. I'm trying to psych myself up to revisit the strength exercises, which are as un-fun as the yoga ones, and twice as painful.

And if you have Wii Fit and you think the strength exercises are all easy and you're wondering what my problem is, have you ever seen Kung-Fu Panda? On his first day of training, he does so poorly that his master declares, "There is now a Level Zero." That's where I am. Level Zero.

But overall, I'm thinking the Wii Fit was a worthwhile acquisition. I haven't noticed any improvement in my fitness yet, but it's only the fifth day.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Wii Fit, Second Wind

Tonight I tried the aerobics and balance exercises on the Wii Fit. Unlike the torturous yoga and strength exercises I did last night, the aerobics and balance exercises are actually rather fun. Mind you, I'm still completely terrible at them, failing every single one. However, they are at least enjoyable. Especially the step exercise, which is sort of like Dance Dance Revolution for people who are not physically capable of playing DDR. Maybe I can work myself up to the point where I might be able to handle actual DDR. Now that would be fun.

And these exercises did make me sweat. My calves are now sore from the workout. I take that as a good sign.

Maybe if I keep at the aerobics and balance exercises long enough, I'll get to the point where I can handle the yoga and strength ones. But for now, I'm glad I found some exercises I enjoy.

I logged 21 minutes. I would have kept going, except I have plans for this evening.