Sunday, March 29, 2009

Earth Hour

Last night I participated in "Earth Hour" and turned off all electrical devices in my apartment except for my refrigerator from 8:30-9:30 PM. I had candles ready, but my apartment complex didn't turn off the parking lot security lights, so I went to my window seat and read by their faint light for an hour.

It was the longest hour of my life.

I actually do a pretty good job of conserving energy: I put my computer into hibernate mode when I'm not using it, turn lights off whenever possible, use compact fluorescent light bulbs, keep enough air in my tires, keep the thermostat reasonable in the winter, open all my windows instead of using air conditioning, etc. But thank God electricity is there when I need it!

If Earth Hour taught me anything last night, it's that life isn't worth living without electricity. (How our ancestors managed to survive all those eons without it, I'll never know.) I'm all for improving efficiency and reducing pollution, but not at the expense of modern convenience. Environmentalism can only be taken so far before it starts to suck the joy out of life, and when that happens we lose a little bit of what it means to be human. (Not to mention starting a culture war that neither side can win.) Human beings are messy creatures - physically and otherwise - so as long as we're on this planet, the planet is going to have to put up with some of our mess. We can do better, but we can't eliminate all impact of our presence: as long as I keep breathing out carbon dioxide, I'm going to have a "carbon footprint." (Not to mention all of my other "emissions"...) There has to be a happy medium here somewhere: steps that people like me can take to leave the world a better place for their children - and for themselves.

In that regard, I'm glad we had Earth Hour - although I'm not sure the whole stunt actually helped significantly in a direct way. I've heard news agencies report on the number of kilowatt hours and tons of carbon dioxide that were saved, but the fact of the matter is that while these numbers sound big and impressive, in relative terms they are only a drop in the bucket. In addition, some of this "savings" will actually be made up by people who only delayed turning on the dryer until after Earth Hour was over.

But my six year old son loved it: he went around taking the batteries out of things and stocking up supplies like he was gearing up for a siege, and then had fun playing a board game with his mom by candlelight. And it gave me an opportunity to talk to him about conservation, and about being a good shepherd for the planet's resources. Suddenly the "turn the lights off when you're done in the bathroom" speech held more significance, and I could see a little light bulb going on over his head. Or rather off.

Mostly, though, it was nice seeing the world participate in something together. It may have only been symbolic, but it was a nice way of saying: "Yes, we're all in this together."

And now that it's over, I'll never take my iPod or TV or car or the Internet for granted again. And that's the main reason I'll try not to waste the precious energy that powers them!

P.S. - Just as I got ready to post this entry, the power went out. Point and match.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Star Wars: Chopped & Ranked

Regarding my recent Star Wars movie reviews, "madscientist" asks:

The question everyone wants to know is what order would you put all three of them in. Or maybe, if you broke each of the movies in two (since most are easily broken in two), how would you rank them. For example, would Return of the Jedi be above or below Revenge of the Sith? Obviously, The Empire Strikes Back would be number one. A New Hope would be number two. The first part of Return of the Jedi would be number three, but the last part might be near the bottom (just above any scene with Jar Jar). Anyways, you get the point.

He is absolutely right, of course: no matter how you do it, Empire ends up #1 and A New Hope #2. If I have to rank the movies as a whole, I would put them in this order:

  1. Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (1980) *****
  2. Episode IV - A New Hope (1977) *****
  3. Episode VI - Return Of The Jedi (1983) ****
  4. Episode III - Revenge Of The Sith (2005) ****
  5. Episode II - Attack Of The Clones (2002) ***
  6. Episode I - The Phantom Menace (1999) **
If I get the flexibility to split them up, then I would keep the bulk of Episode VI where it is, as madscientist suggests, but the teddy bear parts would drop way down the list:
  1. Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back: second half ("Luke, I am your father" and "I love you!" "I know.")
  2. Episode IV - A New Hope: first half ("You are part of the rebel alliance and a traitor" and "It's too big to be a space station")
  3. Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back: first half ("I'd rather kiss a wookiee." and "Never quote me the odds!")
  4. Episode IV - A New Hope: second half ("Luke, we're gonna have company!" and "The Force is strong with this one")

    [big gap]
  5. Episode VI - Return Of The Jedi: the first half ("Boba Fett - where?!") and the assault on the Death Star from the second half ("Now witness the power of this fully armed and operational battle station!")

    [bigger gap]
  6. Episode III - Revenge Of The Sith: first half ("I've been trained in your Jedi arts by Count Dooku" and "So this is how liberty dies: with thunderous applause")
  7. Episode III - Revenge Of The Sith: second half ("Twisted by the dark side, young Skywalker has become" and "Anakin, you're breaking my heart!")
  8. Episode II - Attack Of The Clones: first half ("I hate it when he does that" and "They're like animals, and I slaughtered them like animals!")
  9. Episode II - Attack Of The Clones: second half ("I call it aggressive negotiations" and "The war has begun...")
  10. Episode I - The Phantom Menace: second half ("Always two there are: no more, no less" and "Promise me you will train the boy")
  11. Episode VI - Return Of The Jedi: any scene with Ewoks ("It's against my programming to impersonate a deity")
  12. Episode I - The Phantom Menace: first half ("Me-sa your humble servant" and "there's always a bigger fish")
Speaking of quotes, by the way, my son pointed out that everyone in Star Wars says: "I've got a bad feeling about this."

Friday, March 27, 2009

This is Sith

OK, I'm pretty sick of Star Wars at this point, but I reviewed Episodes I and II, and I have now watched III, so I feel compelled to finish my trilogy of useless reviews. Here, then, is my assessment of Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge Of The Sith (2005).

Rating: **** four stars ("recommended" - but not for small children: there are some kind of grisly moments at the end when Darth Vader gets maimed and burned)

Pros...
  • Yet again, the special effects are top-notch.
  • The opening battle and rescue mission are well done: this entire sequence is very cool, and captures some of the magic of the original trilogy that was so missing from Episodes I and II. I especially love Obi-Wan Kenobi's flying leap out of his crash-landing ship.
  • General Grievous is a very, very, very cool villain. The cough threw me, because I thought he was a droid, but I guess he's some kind of cyborg...? Anyway, whatever he is, he rocks, and every scene he is in is good because of him.
  • Wookiees! I love wookiees, and finally we get to see their home world Kashyyyk (honestly, I think George Lucas has a vowel problem...) and see them in action. This was George Lucas' original vision for Return Of The Jedi, before he sold his soul to the merchandising gods and went with teddy bears instead. This proves how evil that decision was. (Although, why is Chewbacca one of the wookiees fighting? Shouldn't he have been a baby wookiee at this time?)
  • Anakin's scar and longer hair are a nice touch: he looks like he's seen battle and grown a bit since we last saw him. And his final conversion to the "dark side" of the Force is well done too. It may be a little forced, but it is believable. (Less so, however, if you take the CGI Clone Wars TV series into account; from what I've seen of it, that version of Anakin does not appear to be on a path to the dark side.)
  • The final battle between Vader and Obi-Wan is epic, and Vader's disfigurement is nicely done. The lava planet seems completely implausible, but it's cool, so I'm willing to look past that. The dialogue is a little shaky, but not as bad as between Vader and Padme. And there's just something about Ewan McGregor's delivery: he's a good actor. (Question, though: why didn't Obi-Wan finish off Vader when he had the chance?)
  • Seeing Vader's new body come together is very cool, even though it seems like Vader should have some kind of intermediate stage, like the Sith baddie in this video, instead of going straight to a look that wouldn't change for 20 years. But still, hearing him talk in James Earl Jones' voice is priceless.
Note...
  • The original (hand-drawn) Clone Wars series on Cartoon Network works well as a bridge between Episodes II and III, but the new CGI series on the same network seems to have a lot of inconsistencies. Plus, while the clones, aliens and droids look pretty cool, the stories are boring. But the kids just love those clones...
Cons...
  • The Emperor's final rise to power seems somewhat contrived and unrealistic. The plot seems forced at this point. Oh, and the dialogue is bad too. Seriously, George, if you were going to make it unrealistic, did you have to bore us with the details for three movies? Couldn't you have come up with something more exciting?
  • Padme's death is hard to explain and seems like a cheat. Although after the final scene between her and Anakin/Vader (painfully bad dialogue), I'm glad she's dead. (Not you, Natalie, just your character. Call me.)
  • The final battle between Yoda and the Emperor is kind of silly. It tries to be epic, but it just doesn't quite work. The special effects are cool and Yoda is well animated, but seeing him fight is just kind of ridiculous.
  • The Emperor is kind of lame. He cackles like a drunken old man. He was much better when he stayed mysterious.
  • Again, "Wipe the protocol droid's memory" is a cheat, and it doesn't address all the continuity problems that including R2D2 and C3PO in these episodes created. They were wasted in these movies, and should never have been in them.
So here is my movie review quote (for the back of the Blu-ray packaging): "top-notch... well done... very, very, very cool... believable... epic... priceless."

And here is the Crazy People quote: "Captures some of the magic of the original trilogy... some kind of cyborg? ... I love wookiees... the Emperor is kind of lame... continuity problems."

P.S. - Want a second opinion? Click here for an in-depth, two hour long rant from Red Letter Media. (Fair warning: some of it is a little disturbing.)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Attack of the Yoda

Last time I reviewed the "first episode" (fourth movie) of the Star Wars saga. Here, then, is my assessment of Star Wars: Episode II - Attack Of The Clones (2002).

Rating: *** three stars ("worthwhile")

Pros...

  • Again, the CGI special effects are well done. In particular, I liked the scene where Obi-Wan and Anakin chase the bounty hunter through Coruscant, the completely urbanized planet that serves as the seat of the galactic government. (Although it is worth pointing out that by chasing the bounty hunter both Jedi abandon the senator they're supposed to be protecting.)
  • Mention had been made of the Clone Wars in the the original trilogy of films, so to finally see those clones is pretty cool. It is a great concept, and the realization that this army will eventually become the evil stormtroopers is eye-opening. (And, boy, do six year olds ever love clone troopers!)
  • I like our first glimpse of the evil within Anakin after he confronts the sand people: "They're like animals - and I slaughtered them like animals! I hate them!" This is one of the few moments where I found the dialogue compelling. If we have to listen to Hayden Christensen talk, please give him lines like these. At its core, Star Wars is an over-the-top ridiculous experience, and most of George Lucas' dialogue is too clumsy and ponderous for the medium. The actors need to be chewing through the scenery like this to make it work.
  • Natalie Portman looks hot in her tight, white outfit. Bare midriff? Yes, thank you! (George Lucas, what were you thinking putting her in that awful clown queen makeup in the first episode?!)
Cons...
  • There isn't much memorable in this movie. Going into it this time, I had a real hard time remembering what the plot was. The action scenes are pretty good, but there aren't very many of them. And there is no major bad guy or key sequence to latch onto your memory.
  • Again, the dialogue leaves something to be desired. The scenes between Christensen and Portman are almost painful to watch. It is neither believable that they are falling in love, nor that their love is forbidden. Put me in a scene with Portman and there will be no doubt - I will go Tracy Morgan on that ass.
  • Jar-Jar Binks isn't used as much in this movie as in Episode I, but he is still annoying.
  • The use of C3PO (and to an extent R2D2) as comic relief does not work as well in this movie as it did in the original trilogy. (Yet another reason why they just don't belong in this trilogy.) The comedy is forced rather than subtle, and it makes the movie clunky.
What the...?!
  • Yoda fights Count Dooku in a lightsaber duel. He limps up, throws his little cane to the side, and starts doing flips all over the place. I half expected him to shout, "¡Ándale! ¡Arriba!" I'm on the fence on this one: ultimately, it's ridiculous, but it's also entertaining.
So here is my movie review quote (for the back of the Blu-ray packaging): "Well done... a great concept... I found the dialogue compelling... Natalie Portman looks hot... ¡Ándale! ¡Arriba!"

And here is the Crazy People quote: "Six year olds love clone troopers... dialogue is too clumsy and ponderous... there isn't much memorable... ultimately, it's ridiculous."

P.S. - Want a second opinion? Click here for an in-depth, 90-minute rant from Red Letter Media. (Fair warning: some of it is a little disturbing.)

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Dennis the Phantom Menace

I have had a request to do some more movie reviews, so OK here goes...

I recently started watching the Star Wars saga again with my six year old. Last time we watched these movies, we watched them in the order they were made: IV-VI, then I-III. That's important, folks. Part of the fun of The Empire Strikes Back is the shocking reveal at the end. ("Luke, Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father...") That's pretty much ruined if you've already seen the prequel trilogy. (I also showed my son the original versions the first time around, not George Lucas' digital updates with added scenes and special effects.)

This time through, we're watching them in numerical order instead of chronological order. Thus, I give you my review of Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (1999).

SPOILER ALERT (although, really, if you haven't seen this movie already, you probably don't need to worry about it)

Rating: ** two stars ("tolerable") for adults (regular or fanboy), plus two additional stars ("recommended") if you're a six year old boy, but only one star ("Run, Luke, run!") if you're not a fan of the original trilogy.

Pros...
  • The CGI special effects and sets are spectacular. The pod race, in particular, is well done. (I am speaking only of the special effects here: as a plot device, the pod race is awful.)
  • Ewan McGregor is well-cast as a young Obi-Wan Kenobi. As horrible as the dialogue is in this movie, McGregor somehow manages to come close to pulling it off. (Even Liam Neeson and Samuel L. Jackson can't claim that.)
  • Darth Maul is an amazing bad guy: one of the best of the series, and it is a shame we get to see so little of him. (Actually, given the quality of the dialogue in this movie, his lack of screen time and spoken lines is probably what saves him.) The lightsaber duel between him and Qui-Gon Jinn / Obi-Wan Kenobi is very exciting. I especially love the way Obi-Wan has to wait for the shields to shut off before he can attack after Maul kills Qui-Gon.
  • That's it; I tried but couldn't come up with anything else.
Cons...
  • The plot is stupid, inconsistent and has tremendous holes in it. That wouldn't be so bad if it were non-stop action and excitement, but - surprise! - it's not.
  • The way the gungans talk is ridiculous. Exotic is one thing, but stupid is another. (Never mind the way they look, though: that's part of the sci-fi territory, and ultimately forgivable.) Jar-Jar Binks is rightfully the most hated character in the series. George Lucas went for the cheap laugh here, and it is painful to watch. It's the sci-fi equivalent of a fart joke.
  • How does a a young teenage girl get elected "queen" of the democratic planet of Naboo? Is "queen" a purely ceremonial title, perhaps the equivalent of "Miss Universe"? Because nothing else makes sense to me. This seems like the most unnecessary bit of plot shenanigans Lucas pulls in the entire movie (and that's saying a lot). He could have introduced Amidala in any of a hundred other ways that wouldn't have involved such a huge leap. Oh, and speaking of which, at one point the fake Queen Amidala commands the real Amidala (who is posing as her handmaiden) to perform some manual labor and clean R2D2. Which the real Amidala then goes and does! Totally unrealistic. (Unless... wait, does this explain Bush / Cheney?!)
  • This is a minor plot point, but it goes to the whole "my right hand doesn't know what my left hand is doing" nature of the plot. At one point while the heroes are underwater, their ship loses all power. They then restore power just in time to escape. Then, when they get to the surface, we learn that the ship had no windows, just force fields keeping the water out. Force fields which presumably would have lost power with the rest of the ship, resulting in instant death for the two Jedis and their bumbling gungan servant.
  • The presence of R2D2 and C3PO raises serious continuity issues, no matter how Lucas and company try to explain it away. (Darth Vader built C3PO? Puh-leeeez.)
  • Why did Anakin have to be so young? He could have been 13 instead of nine, and it wouldn't have made any less sense. And then we wouldn't have had to watch a nine year old try to convincingly deliver George Lucas dialogue. Macaulay Culkin was nine when he made Home Alone, but at least that was a light-hearted comedy where all he had to do was be cute. And I'm sorry but you, Jake Lloyd, are no Macaulay Culkin!
  • Speaking of the dialogue, it is painfully bad all around, even when not being delivered by a nine year old. Ugh.
  • Wait - Jedi get their powers from some microbes in their blood? Huh?! I thought the Force was "an energy field that binds all living things; it surrounds us, it penetrates us..." This needs some explaining... No, strike that, it's just stupid. And what's with those microbes causing Anakin's immaculate conception? The Christ complex is a bit over the top...
  • For slaves, Anakin and his mother seem to have comfortable lives and an awful lot of free time. I'm surprised there wasn't some dialogue added to explain the slave pension plan...
  • The battle droids look pretty cool, but how could anyone expect to win a war with such incompetent machines? All of the droids completely shut down when their "control ship" is destroyed. Wha-?! It's hard to believe there wouldn't be a back-up plan of some kind in place. Has no one in the Star Wars universe ever heard of secondary protocol? At no other point in the Star Wars movies do the droids seem to need a "control ship." Grrr.
So here is my movie review quote (for the back of the Blu-ray packaging): "Special effects and sets are spectacular... well-cast... one of the best of the series... non-stop action and excitement."

And here is the Crazy People quote: "The sci-fi equivalent of a fart joke... Jake Lloyd [is] no Macaulay Culkin... ever heard of secondary protocol?"

P.S. - Want a second opinion? Click here for an in-depth, 70-minute rant from Red Letter Media. (Fair warning: some of it is a little disturbing.)

Saturday, March 14, 2009

"The hills are alive..." sounds ominous to me

Just finished The Sound Of Music (1965) today: watched the last 10 minutes while folding laundry. I've been watching it off and on in 10 minute chunks since ABC aired it almost three months ago. I think I had seen bits of it before, but I had never seen it all. Here are my observations:
  • Overall rating: *** three stars (worthwhile). In some ways it is a must see (once), but...
  • Honestly, who has the attention span for a four hour movie? I thought we were done 1/2 way through, and would have been just as happy if we had been. I gave this three stars, but if I had to sit through it all at once, I would have gone mad. The way I watched this one, in 10 minute chunks, is the way to do it. Instead of showing it all in one night, ABC should have serialized it as a 1/2 hour show on Sunday nights.
  • The songs in this movie were either spectacularly good (the title sequence, "How Do You Spell A Problem Like Maria," etc.) or complete duds. Luckily, mostly the former. (So that's where "So long / farewell / auf Wiedersehen / goodbye" comes from!)
  • I really like Julie Andrews. I've only seen this and Mary Poppins so far, but she has been dynamite in both. I guess I need to keep my eyes open for S.O.B.
  • This probably goes without saying, but man do the Nazis ever know how to suck all the joy out of a room.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

In the bag

Every school night, after I put my son to bed, I pack a snack for him to take the next day in a brown paper bag. But before I do so, I draw a picture on the bag.

My ex started this ritual, but somehow it has become my thing. It started out as just a Superman logo: every day, his name on one side and a big "S" emblazoned on the other. Then it became the Batman symbol for a while. Then he asked me to draw Batman. Then other superheroes: Superman, Spiderman, Hulk, Green Lantern, Iron Man. Lots of Iron Man.

We went through dinsoaurs for a while, and bionicles (I'm still not really sure what those are supposed to be), and Pokemon characters. And Star Wars. We did a few Jedi, but mostly Clone Troopers. Man, do the kids ever love Clone Troopers.

Lately, it has been something called "Ben 10" - that's a cartoon show about a boy who turns himself into different aliens. That kept me busy for a while. It was around that time that I bought some new Sharpies and the drawings went from black-and-white to full-color.

Now we're back to Batman and his friends. Tonight was someone called the Blue Beetle. I don't think he was a superhero back in my day, but I found him on the Internets. His arms looked a little goofy when I drew him, but that's OK.

Once in a while I slip in something really goofy. Mostly that's when I mess up whatever I was trying to draw, but sometimes I just feel like drawing silly faces. I did that a lot when I was young. I think that's a big part of the joy of being a father: rediscovering the fun things you "grew out of."

After a while, I guess I realized this ritual of mine is really more about me than about him: if I didn't enjoy it, I wouldn't do it. I wonder sometimes what he'll remember about elementary school when he's old like me; what will make the cut as a good memory? Maybe the lunch bags will, maybe they won't. But it really doesn't matter: for now, it makes us both happy.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Can't wait for Watchmen 2

Well, I finally saw Watchmen last night.

Rating: *** three stars ("worthwhile") if you're a normal people, plus one bonus star ("recommended") if you're a fanboy/fangirl. However, only one star ("avoid!") if you're my mom.

Comments...
  1. The original Watchmen "graphic novel" (i.e., comic book) has been called "unfilmable." This is a fair assessment. However, Zack Snyder and company come close to making a successful film adaptation. It's not quite the same as, or as deep as the original story, but they took a large chunk of the original story and worked it into a decent film. Bravo.
  2. That being said - and I can't believe I'm about to say this next part - I don't think Zack Snyder made enough changes to the graphic novel when making this movie. This was, after all, an incredibly dense 12-part series condensed down to one 2-1/2 hour movie. Movies have to be made for the general movie-going audience, and while I'm not in favor of hack-jobs like The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen (that horrible movie resembled the clever source material in name only), clearly some consideration should be given to the fact that most of the audience is seeing this material for the first and only time. Also, it was surprisingly boring in places; there were many places where I felt the movie got bogged down by being too faithful to the subject matter when a shortcut might have sufficed.
  3. The changes Snyder did make, however, were great. Sorry fanboys, but the "squid" at the end never would have worked. (And if you know what I'm talking about, that means you.) The ending they opted for makes sense, remains faithful to the spirit of the movie, and keeps the general audience from having a fatal knee-jerk reaction. Ditto to a lot of the supporting material that was cut, like the "Tales From The Black Freighter" story-within-a-story. (However, I am looking forward to seeing the extras inserted in the director's cut, which - yes - I will be forced to watch because of my inability to stop myself.)
  4. Oh - and yes, visually it was pretty impressive. Many scenes were faithful reproductions of the graphic novel, which was nice for those of us that appreciated the exquisite detail of Dave Gibbons' original artwork. In addition, the special effects were well done, there were some well-choreographed action scenes, and there were only a few places where I thought the slo-mo was gratuitous.
  5. This movie is not for kids: it is a hard R rating. There is lots of graphic and bloody violence, complex and disturbing adult themes, and nudity (mostly of the "glowing blue penis" kind), plus a sprinkling of foul language. More than that, though, this is a movie that takes every superhero convention and turns it on its head. Most superheroes start with the question, "What would good people do if they had the ability to fight evil?" Watchmen starts with the question, "In the real world, what kind of people would dress up like superheroes?" That takes you to a vastly different place: one filled with sociopaths with latex fetishes, and an omnipotent superman who is as concerned about human beings as we are about insects.
  6. The movie, like Alan Moore's original story, paints an overly cynical picture of human nature. That might not have been so clear in 1986 during the height of the cold war, but it has become increasingly obvious over time. If normal superhero stories are too optimistic, this one is too pessimistic. That makes it hard to identify with the characters.
  7. Despite that, Rorschach is a well-acted and very cool character (disturbing, but cool) and has some of the best scenes of the movie. He also has one line that is worth the price of admission all by itself.
  8. This movie is a little out there, and it does not surprise me that it is struggling to meet expectations at the box office. It is very enticing in some ways, but very weird and off-putting in others. That's probably a good thing; this story is one-of-a-kind and we don't need the studios to be tempted to make Watchmen 2. But I am happy that this movie got made. Years from now, I think we'll look back on it as a cult favorite.
  9. I hate to do this, but I have to return to the big, flaccid blue penis. There is so much of it in this movie that it is at times distracting. (Although my dad pointed out that there seemed to be some additional anatomy missing in that area, if you catch my drift.) And it perhaps goes to show just how subversive this movie is that there is nothing sexy about the nudity in it. Even when we get a real (i.e., non-blue penis) sex scene, it is just awkward and sad.
So here is my movie review quote (for the back of the Blu-ray packaging): "Bravo... visually impressive... one-of-a-kind... I am happy this movie got made... make Watchmen 2."

And here is the Crazy People quote: "Decent film... not for kids... struggling to meet expectations... flaccid blue penis."

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Narcissism = bragging about things you shouldn't be proud of

We all know the Internet is a vast reservoir of information, but when you need to answer some piece of trivia quickly (as opposed to accurately or thoroughly), sometimes Google just isn't good enough. In these cases, it would be overkill to ask Google to cross-reference a billion web pages and sort them all by relevance and popularity. Why make the poor folks at Google go through all that trouble, when all you really want to do is sound like you know what you're talking about?

No, if it's a quick hit of information you're looking for, you only need one of two websites: Wikipedia (if your question is somewhat normal and respectable) or Urban Dictionary (if it's not).

Wikipedia is filled with information that comes from normal people just like you. Well, not quite like you. Like you if you spent every waking moment thinking about the Latvian badminton championships. (Kārlis Vidass was totally robbed in the 2006 men's singles!) Like any public forum, every once in a while someone pisses in the pool, but for the most part the information at least seems plausible enough.

With Urban Dictionary, on the other hand, there are no wrong answers, just a lot of deviant behavior and juvenile humor. But sometimes that's all you need. Did everyone at the table laugh when you asked the waitress to toss your salad? (For the love of God, don't follow that link!) Well, now you know why... you sick bastard.

Anyway, I am ashamed to admit it (not really, or I wouldn't), but I occasionally contribute to Urban Dictionary. And a couple of days ago, they accepted the following definition from me:

alien robot zombies
definition: Something that loses its credibility and/or enjoyment because of over-embellishment.
examples: (1) He had everyone believing he was the President's brother, but the more he talked the more alien robot zombies his story got. (2) The first book in the series had great a storyline, but now it's just alien robot zombies.

So now the title of this blog has cultural relevance. Soak it in. Yes, it is that good.

I will end today with another one of my Urban Dictionary entries and one of my favorite all time sayings:

until the trust fund runs out
definition: As long as I am able.
example: I don't have Internet access of my own, but I'm gonna keep stealing wi-fi from my neighbor until the trust fund runs out.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Dropping (political) science

In case you haven't heard, the Illinois state senate unanimously passed a resolution declaring Pluto to be a planet. Pluto, as you may know, has always been something of a puzzle for astronomers, because it did not behave like the other planets. With more powerful telescopes, we've been able to discover many new exoplanets and planetoids, which have further expanded scientists' knowledge of the universe. As a result, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) has taken steps in recent years to establish definitions for the different astrological bodies. In doing so, they downgraded Pluto from "planet" to a new designation, "dwarf planet," in 2006.

But wait, Pluto was discovered by someone from Illinois. So the IAU probably just did that to dis the state, don't you think? But this is the state that gave us Rod Blagojevich, Tony Rezko, George Ryan, Otto Kerner, Al Capone... need I go on? This is a state that has no ability to control its base urges, and no patience for rules or facts.

So Illinois has said (unanimously remember), "F. you, science. We say Pluto is a planet."

I don't know what you were thinking, IAU, but it's on now. Illinois has stepped to you, and you had better step back. Hard. You wanna know how you do it? Here's how: they pull a knife, you pull a gun. Illinois sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of Illinois' to the morgue. That's the Chicago way! Now do you want to do that? Are you ready to do that?!

You had better cowboy up, IAU. I want to see a resolution placing Peoria in the Kuiper Belt by Monday. Because if Kansas declares beef a vegetable next week, it's on your hands.

P.S. - Hey, Illinois... your mom is a planet!

Friday, March 6, 2009

One step forward, 23 steps back

This Sunday we set our clocks ahead one hour for Daylight Savings Time, effectively robbing us of one hour of sleep. While I'm generally all for more daylight in the evenings, I already don't get enough sleep to function like a half-way normal human being each day. A recent study concluded that there was a decreased risk of heart attacks for one day after moving the clocks back one hour in the fall, but that sleep deprivation resulted in an increased risk of heart attacks for three days after the clocks are moved forward in the spring.

My stance has always been that there isn't enough daylight to get excited about in the winter anyway, so we should just keep Daylight Savings Time all year round and eliminate the strain on our systems. But for some reason we as a society can't seem to shake the habit. So I have a new proposal that I think you will all agree makes perfect sense.

Since moving the clock back yields more sleep and health benefits, while moving it forward yields less sleep and health risks, we should agree right off the bat that the former course is sensible and the latter is insanity.

So, if we want to "set the clocks ahead" an hour for Daylight Savings Time, what we actually need to do is set them back an hour each day, adding one hour for 23 days until we end up where we want to be.

I know what some of you are thinking, and yes, it's true that we will end up going to work and school for a few days in what we currently think of as "the middle of the night." But hear me out on this one.

First of all, we would do it in February. That's a pretty useless month already, so no one will miss it. (We'll move Black History Month to January in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday, as I think that now holds a little more relevance than the birthday of Frederick Douglass.)

We can even cut February down to 23 days to make it fit perfectly. We'll take the remaining four days (do the math) and give them to April, June, September and November. Now they all have 31 except for February, which has 23 days of 25 hours each. We could add an extra day to February for leap year, but it would have to be a normal 24 hour day. That would probably be too confusing, so it might be easier to just tether some giant solar sails to the Earth until we speed it up exactly 0.24 days in its revolution around the sun. Problem solved.

OK, now for the benefits:

1) February goes from being the suckiest month of the year to the month you get to sleep in every day.

2) Heart attack rates plummet. And I bet there's a whole host of other health benefits we don't even know about yet. Thank you, science!

3) If we can assume that America is once again on the cutting edge and no other countries are cool enough to follow along (oh, not at first, but they'll come around), then we will get to make a unique global journey. On February 5, New York will be in the same time zone as Hawaii (although Hawaii will be waking up with Japan). We'll be in China's time zone six days later. By Valentine's Day, we will share a work day with Kazakhstan before watching the sunrise together over a romantic dinner. (Um, together with our special someones, that is - not with Kazakhstan.) On the 19th, the London and New York stock exchanges will be in lockstep. And finally, on the last day of February (the 23rd, if you're counting), we will settle into Nova Scotia time where we always spend our summers.

We will be well rested, healthy, on the verge of spring, and possessed of a greater understanding of our world. So who's with me?

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Average vs. very average

A friend of mine won tickets to see a sneak preview of the new Watchmen movie on Monday and said it was "very good." That reassured me a little bit, but still... there is a lot of wiggle room within "very good" and the skeptic in me demands proof. And that got me thinking about how I will describe it after I have seen the movie. What criteria will I use to rate it?

To me, rating things on a scale - whether it's 5, 10 or 100 points - is meaningless unless I have some frame of reference. I like my choices clearly labeled. Does your five-point scale mean "very good - good - fair - poor - awful"? Or is it a more forgiving "excellent - very good - good - fair - poor"? I saw one survey last year that was tilted towards the negative ("satisfied - somewhat satisfied - somewhat not satisfied - not satisfied - extremely unsatisfied"), which to me is a cry for help.

On my iPod, for example, I tend to have only songs I like, so my five-star scale is tilted towards the good. If something is awful, there's no sense parsing it. ("Hmm... is this a 2 or a 3 on a scale of 10,000?") Also, there isn't much of a market for truly horrendous things, so everything should come in with a little bit of the benefit of the doubt. (Yes, even you, Robbie Williams.) It's kind of like grades in school: anything less than 60% is a fail, but most kids manage to at least muddle through.

When I think about how movies or music or etc. stack up, this is how I define my five-star scale:

***** essential (outstanding, best of genre)
**** recommended (standout, very good)
*** worthwhile (solid, good)
** tolerable (fair, does not merit special attention)
* poor (annoying, mostly alien robot zombies)

For example, I give this blog entry two stars.


P.S. - Half-stars are for people with no backbone. Commit!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

His kingdom covers 70% of the Earth

So I blogged yesterday about the new Watchmen movie, and that got me thinking: what superhero would I like to see get his own movie? And the answer, of course, is Aquaman. I know this was a long-running gag on Entourage, and yes only his ability to talk to fish separated him from Wendy and Marvin in the Saturday morning cartoon. But I am serious here. From what I understand, the idea has been kicked around Hollywood more than once, and I think now is the time for this movie to finally get made.

Of course, keeping what I just said yesterday in mind, it can't be a movie about Aquaman per se. An origin story or a coming-of-age-with-super-powers story would blow. (No thanks, CW.) It has to be a movie with a solid back-story that will conveniently allow "Aquaman" to be worked into it. (Actually, Aquaman's B-list name might be his biggest problem. How about "Prince Of Atlantis" for a movie title?) We can view a lot of sci-fi as pure escapism, but superheroes are supposed to live among us, so we need to feel they are a part of our world. We need to relate.

For Aquaman, the most obvious angle might be to do a back-story about climate change. He might actually be the best superhero to tackle that one - although I would gag on it if was done too heavy-handed. (Maybe Aquaman's secret undersea civilization needs to be part of the problem, and Aquaman would be caught in the middle: no one is clearly right or wrong, and all are affected.)

The real underwater world is as exotic as any extraterrestrial landscape and would lend itself to some dynamic creatures and perils. And hey, somebody is going to need to save humanity from those ancient Cthulu-like monsters that will be freed from the melting polar ice caps. The CGI special effects could be outstanding. If the story comes first, this could be a good movie.

OK, so I'm totally biased because my son loves Aquaman. This phase he's in probably only has about a two week window, so get on it, Hollywood!

P.S. - Please, DC Comics, do this before Marvel does.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Who watches the Watchmen? For better or worse, me.

On Friday, a new superhero movie will come out, and there are two things I can guarantee: (1) I will go see it, and (2) I will be disappointed.

The main reason is that the movie in question is Watchmen, based on the most riveting “comic book” ever made. When you have a story that (1) has been named to a slew of “Best Novels Ever” lists (right in there with Moby Dick, et al.); (2) pretty much changed the way people view comic books (they’re now called “graphic novels” and discussed as a serious artistic medium); and (3) has been described by many, including its own author (the brilliant but incredibly pissy Alan Moore), as “unfilmable” – well, chances are something will be lacking in the translation to the big screen.

But there is a deeper reason as well: I just can’t be satisfied with science fiction movies. I want to, I really try to, and I keep going back again and again. But every movie has its alien robot zombie moment that makes me say, “Nope, sorry, you just lost me.” (Speaking of which, to the writers of Lost: more “Others” and intrigue and less time travel before I go all Hurly. I’ve invested too much into this show for you to go all Rambaldi-prophecy-of-the-week on me now, J.J. Abrams!)

Even The Dark Knight failed on this account, although I will admit that Heath Ledger gave one of the creepiest, most psychotic performances I’ve ever seen and damn well deserved that Oscar. But when the Batpod shot out of the Batmobile, even while I was hearing people around me whisper “Cool!” I was thinking: “James Bond has machine guns in his skis.” It was cheesy and I didn’t buy it. (I’m coming around; I was able to stifle my mental gag reflex and enjoy it more the second time. Ditto all the scenes with Two-Face and the terrible "I must be the villain to be the hero" ending that made no sense.)

The best superhero movie so far was last year’s Iron Man, mostly because of Robert Downey, Jr., who managed to be funny/charismatic and vulnerable at the same time. But it also had a lot to do with Jon Favreau keeping the movie very grounded: it was not about a superhero, it was about circumstances that all of us could identify with (war, terrorism, the it’s-a-curse-and-a-blessing dichotomy of new technology). The fantasy elements were layered over the top of what was already a very strong story with strong acting.

Other superhero movies have also succeeded where they have avoided super-narcissism: the newest round Batman movies are really crime movies, and what drives the story is the conflict caused by the vigilante's need to act outside of the law in order to uphold the law, providing the opportunity for a complex and moving story. Similarly, X-Men and X2 were set against a backdrop of social prejudice and people trying to cope with being different. Those story lines grounded the movies, made us identify with the characters, and gave us greater allowance to suspend disbelief during the actions scenes. (X3 was just mutant alien robot zombies, though.)

So, if Watchmen can deliver the same, it will succeed. The original story certainly did, but that was the unfilmable “graphic novel.” We will see Friday whether Zack Snyder was able to keep the humanity, or whether it was lost in a series of pretty-but-vapid slo-mo special effects.

Oh, and Dear Lord, please let me forget everything I know about the book, so that I can maybe just maybe enjoy myself during this movie.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

How to pick Presidents for your fantasy league...

Last month, C-SPAN released the results of its second "Historians Survey of Presidential Leadership," in which 65 presidential historians ranked the 42 former occupants of the White House on ten attributes of leadership. (The full list and a comparison with similar previous polls can be found here.)

The C-SPAN rankings: 1) Lincoln, 2) Washington, 3) FDR, 4) T. Roosevelt, 5) Truman, 6) Kennedy, 7) Jefferson, 8) Eisenhower, 9) Wilson, 10) Reagan, 11) LBJ, 12) Polk, 13) Jackson, 14) Monroe, 15) Clinton, 16) McKinley, 17) J. Adams, 18) G.H.W. Bush, 19) J.Q. Adams, 20) Madison, 21) Cleveland, 22) Ford, 23) Grant, 24) Taft, 25) Carter, 26) Coolidge, 27) Nixon, 28) Garfield, 29) Taylor, 30) B. Harrison, 31) Van Buren, 32) Arthur, 33) Hayes, 34) Hoover, 35) Tyler, 36) G.W. Bush, 37) Filmore, 38) Harding, 39) W.H. Harrison, 40) Pierce, 41) Andrew Johnson, 42) Buchanan.

Some thoughts...

1) Neither Garfield nor W.H. Harrison should be on this list: they died so soon in office that they really can't be judged. That leaves exactly 40, making it very convenient to divide the list into quartiles: 1-10, 11-20, 21-31 (exclude #28 Garfield), 32-42 (exclude #39 Harrison).2) I don't think Kennedy belongs in the top 10, and an unscientific scan of the blogosphere revealed almost unanimous agreement. He had great potential, but wasn't in office long enough to achieve it, so he's a second quartile President. Lyndon Johnson is next on the C-SPAN list, but he made some serious gaffes (anyone remember Vietnam?), so I would deny him passage into the Promised Land and just to be different I will leapfrog the underrated James K. Polk over him to round out my top 10.

3) I would like to make a case for Van Buren to be higher on the list, strictly on the basis of the fact that he rocked the mad sideburns. Ditto Arthur and J.Q. Adams to a lesser degree, but no President can touch Van Buren when it comes to badass facial hair. (No wonder he has a street gang named after him!)

4) If you look at the bottom quartile on this list, 7 of the 10 served from 1841-1885. Only Lincoln and Polk were standouts during this stretch, and Lincoln was bookended by the two worst. Those sound like dark days for America.

5) After the 45-years-of-darkness period in the 19th Century, only three Presidents rank in the bottom quartile: Harding in the years leading up to the Great Depression, Hoover during the Great Depression, and... oh. Oops. Well, that wound is still fresh. Clinton's legacy seems to be on the rise now. We'll have to wait and see how history treats W. (And Obama for that matter, who wasn't part of the poll. Hey, he's now been in office longer than William Henry Harrison - quick, do another poll, C-SPAN!)

I am an alien robot zombie skeptic.

 
Although the title of this blog post may be somewhat ambiguous (and OK, I admit that's by design), let me just state for the record that I am not a skeptic who also happens to be an alien robot zombie. Rather, I am skeptical that alien robot zombies exist. I will grant some degree of probability to the existence of alien robots, alien zombies and/or robot zombies, but I simply have to draw the line somewhere.

For those of you who follow my other blog, please note that this one will be completely different. "Three Perfect Minutes" covers my true passion (music), it is straight-forward and I try to add something to it on a fairly regular basis. By contrast, "Alien Robot Zombies" is meant to haphazardly collect all of my other random thoughts on topics far and wide. All told, of course, from the alien robot zombie skeptic perspective.

Although they will appear to follow no set pattern, hidden within each posting will be a secret message, which once decoded will provide specific instructions for defeating our future alien robot zombie overlords.