Monday, June 30, 2008

The Mole, Week 5

I'd say that tonight was a fairly tame episode of The Mole... except then there was that ending in which Kristen, basically my one and only candidate, was executed! Now I'm back to square one. But let's take things in order.

The first challenge, All For One, was an intriguing setup. This game was more about trust than any that's come before, and it comes deep enough into the game that trust is at an all time low. Basically, I think it was another game in which the Mole didn't have to lift a finger. I would have bet money that there was no way all seven players would escape without someone taking the exemption. And so all the Mole had to do was take the key and walk away when his or her turn came, resting confident that the remaining players would screw each other after you left them.

Except they didn't! So that was my first shock of the evening. And I suspect it came as quite a shock to the Mole as well.

Then there came a long chunk of interpersonal drama. This was much more normal "reality show" fare, and wasn't about the gameplay that The Mole delivers so well. But I can't say I was disappointed by it, because it culminated in that hilarious impromptu song by "Van #2" about being "Paul free." That was just awesome.

Of course, it turned out there was a very good reason so much of the episode was devoted to drama outside of a mission: the last mission ended practically before it began. Everybody banded together and quit, giving Craig the exemption. Color me floored for the second time tonight that not a single one of the players was willing to even attempt the task assigned to them. Everything I said two weeks ago, about how coming on this show means checking your dignity at the door, still applies. I can't understand not even attempting the task, even if you're the Mole.

But again, it means that the Mole didn't have to do anything in this mission -- just go along with the crowd. So to sum up, I think it would be virtually impossible to look at either of these two missions and form suspicions about who the Mole is.

Except that I think I'm now bound to try, because Kristen's gone! So let's face it -- I'd be out of this game now, having completely frakked up last week "taking my quiz" with the assumption it's her, and having had the odds go against me on that on almost every question. (Oh, as a side note, I found it very gratifying to hear not one but two players talk about the strategy of "playing the odds" tonight.) But let's pretend that somehow, I'm still in the game. Time to get me a new candidate.

The strongest evidence I think you could use at this point would be to know that both last week with Victoria's execution and this week with Kristen's, the results came down to a tie. If you knew who either of them thought was the Mole, you could absolutely eliminate that person as a suspect. Of course, the show was edited too carefully to give us that information outright.

It turns out that the Mole is off next week, returning July 14th with a "recap with new footage" and the 6th installment. So I think I'll plan on reviewing "where I went wrong" and coming up with a new theory during the missing week.

Until then, I'd love to hear what you handful of Mole watchers are thinking now.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Wanted Ads

This weekend's big action film, Wanted, is a decent film that's really taken down several notches by its trailers and commercials.

This movie actually does have a pretty good amount of wiz-gang-WOW! to it. The central characters with their superhuman abilities can do crazy car stunts, bend bullets in mid-flight, perceive the passage of time more slowly, and all manner of other cool things that actually are kind of neat despite all us movie-goers having already seen somewhat similar concepts in The Matrix, Dark City, and a few other films.

But the trouble is this: the trailers and commercials give away almost everything that's even slightly fresh. I believe there's a clip from every single action beat of the movie in the trailer that has run ad nauseum before other films for weeks. And the material is not that different enough that it has the kind of novelty to withstand this. Because whatever minor differences the film may bring, it brings a half dozen of the familiar trappings of the genre as well...

A main character plucked from a life of mediocrity to realize his greatness. A training montage to unlock his potential. Reluctance to embrace his destiny. You haven't seen the particular stunts, but you basically have seen this movie before. And if you've seen the trailer, then you've seen the particular stunts too.

It's perhaps not too suprising then, though a bit strange, that the most compelling material of the movie is in the first 20 minutes or so, before all the action starts. The film sets up the normal grind of a life for the main character in a very fun and stylized way. It's full of humor and a bit edgy. It's vaguely evocative of Fight Club, not necessarily in the particulars, but in the same way it's a movie making of meal of the miserable daily existence of a character. I feel like if only some of the humor and wry edge of this chunk of the movie had carried through the whole thing, I would have enjoyed it a lot more.

Ultimately, I give the movie a C+. But I think if I'd never seen a trailer for it and had gone in "blind," I would have rated it a B- instead. So that's my recommendation. If you like action movies and somehow missed the trailers for this, you should give it a shot. Otherwise, take a pass until DVD, if then.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

The End of the Attack of the Killer Tomatoes

The big "Tomato Salmonella Scare" is winding down. Or changing, anyway; apparently the Powers That Be no longer believe tomatoes were entirely (or even partly?) responsible. But in any case, most restaurants are starting to serve tomatoes again.

Which is a shame.

I was really enjoying that two or three week period where I didn't have to tell anyone to leave off the tomatoes on my order.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Calamity in China

One of the newest board games in my collection is In the Year of the Dragon, a game set in feudal China. This is the latest in the "Alea Large Box" series (#12), and designed by Stefan Feld -- the same man who created the previous installment in that actually-rather-unrelated series (Notre Dame).

It's a really diabolical little game with a simple but very clever mechanic at the heart of it. Throughout the game, you recruit workers in different jobs to help you. Most workers come in two varieties: one that provides greater output, and a second that provides you more points on a non-scoring track that determines turn order. Choose workers with greater output, and you'll fall behind on that turn order track. And going last in this game sucks beyond the telling of it.

It's also a diabolical game on another level, in that the subtitle of it well could have been "Everybody Dies." The game lasts twelve turns, and there is a grace period of two turns at the beginning where things are safe. After that, it's pretty much one disaster after another for every turn, a relentless death march that kills off your workers steadily until the end. Even if you manage some of the calamities, others will get you, so it's not really a matter of avoiding the "bad things," but figuring out how you'll pay the penalties for the "bad things" and not give up too much ground.

I've played it three times now and enjoyed it every time, though I have yet to win it. It has all the classic German board game elements... pressure to want to do everything at once when you can do only one thing, subtle interaction with your opponents where you mess them up not outright but by your own actions, and a need to plan several turns in advance.

At this point in time, I'd say I prefer Stefan Feld's earlier game, Notre Dame, over this one, but there's no question in my mind that this is another winner. No one I've played it with so far has had quite the level of enthusiasm for it that I have, but I think only one has been completely turned off by it. I think that means it'll get to stay "in the rotation" for a while.

Hopefully at least long enough for me to win it for once.

In any case, I'd rate it an A-. It's a very satisfying game for people who like their games on the "thinky" end of things, but without getting bogged down in excessive length (it takes only 60-90 minutes to play) or too many wargame-like bits.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Sofa Rash

Couch potatoes beware, because the couches are now fighting back.

My question about this article is in regards to this sentence:

Tracey Hayes developed a rash across her legs, bottom and back last year.

Wait... she got a rash on her "bottom?" Was she sitting on her couch naked?!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Late Night Snack... Review

A few weeks back, I mentioned an alarming observation about purchasing the latest Barenaked Ladies album, Snacktime, but I never got around to actually reviewing it, as my friend Sangediver did.

Actually, my sister also told me her short review of the album too, which bears mentioning here. She said she thought it was an album of mostly bad songs that she thought they tried to get away with being bad by calling it a kids' album. Ouch.

I actually rather liked the album, though. Well, mostly. I agree with Sangediver that there are songs here that capture a level of "fun" that really hasn't been present since the album Gordon. And that's great. I also like this album a whole lot more than their two latest paired efforts, the "BLAM" albums (Barenaked Ladies Are Me and Barenaked Ladies Are Men).

But there are also large chunks of the album I skip when I listen to it. This collection of songs really made me realize something I was only beginning to suspect on the last few albums: while I like Kevin Hearn's instrumental contributions to the band, I don't think much of him as a singer or songwriter. And Snacktime is loaded with his material. Sorry, Kevin.

Another bad point against the album is that the band generally seems to believe that songs for children must be short. There are over 20 tracks on the album, and too many of them come to an abrupt end just as you're starting to get into their groove ("The Ninjas" and "Raisins," among others).

But ultimately, I come back around to what I mentioned earlier -- there's a lot of genuinely fun material on this album. "7 8 9," "I Don't Like," and especially "Crazy A B C s" are more entertaining than probably anything BNL has released since the album Stunt. And "Bad Day" is, though you might not expect it, their most sincere and moving song since "Call and Answer" (not coincidentally, again off the album Stunt).

In my book, an album that has me constantly listening to half of it and skipping over the other half rates about a B, and that's how I'd rank Snacktime. If you're a BNL fan who somehow hasn't picked it up yet, I'd recommend it.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

On George Carlin

As you've all certainly heard by now, comedian George Carlin died this week. This man was truly one of the greats of comedy. Though most notorious for his "Seven Dirty Words," the real genius of that routine was not the casual use of profanity. Lots of incredibly bad comedians load their acts with profanity and aren't in the least bit funny. No, Carlin was ultimately joking about language and societal norms, getting at the real meat underneath those dirty words. All his material was similarly revealing, and this is why so many other respected comedians have commented on his passing.

Rather than offer the classic Seven Dirty Words bit, I'll instead offer this equally hysterical updating of the list:

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Mole, Week 4

I'm not sure that this week's episode provided a lot more ammunition in support of my "Kristen is the Mole" theory, but I'm nevertheless going to stand by it. And here's what I can piece together in support of it.

Kristen really spearheaded the heavy exemption talk among her team during the Andes hike mission, essentially being the one to convince the group to leave extra bricks behind to get up the mountain faster. That kept money out of the pot. Then, just like last week during the Dress Code mission, she was completely silent and without complaint for most of the journey, trying to fade into the background.

It does break down a bit that she didn't fight harder against Clay for the exemption. I think she could not have stubbornly held her ground to keep ALL the money out of the pot, because that sort of stubbornness would be completely against the character she has established in the game to this point. But I am wondering if she at least made the argument that Paul mentioned in his confesssional -- that she carried more gold than any of them. Seems like she could have put up a little more of a fight. What didn't we see in the editing?

In the mission involving the quotes from journals, it was a gimme for her to guess her question correctly, since Nicole's stupid theatrics were clearly going to get that money disqualified anyway.

If I really was playing the game, though, this would be the week I'd really have to lay it all out on the line. I think the time has come in the game where simply playing the odds during the quiz would not be enough to stick around; only seven real players were left, and one had an exemption! You'd have to start answering based on a real suspicion. And it happened this week that virtually every answer you could give that included Kristen as the Mole was flying totally in the face of the odds:

There are now more men than women in the game. Most of the players wore jeans (blue pants) to the mission, but she wore black. She was the only player to have her answer in the Quotes mission disqualified.

Basically, answering questions assuming she's the Mole seemed this week a sure fire way to get executed if you're wrong. Which means, I suppose, there could have been two viable quiz taking strategies.

One, you could go all out answering that it's Kristen. If you survive that round without being executed, then you'd know you had the answer.

Two, you could try and split your answers. Play the odds on about half of your questions (like the "disqualified" question), but go with Kristen on the other half. Maybe splitting would give you just enough correct answers to keep rolling while you collect more intel.

But I think I'd go with number one. Would I still be in the game at this point? I think so... but I guess we'll only know for sure when the final episode arrives.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Only As Smart As Average

I checked out Get Smart this weekend, and my very short review of it would be this: if you're not planning to see it, I'm not going to try to talk you into it; if you're planning to see it, I'm not going to try to talk you out of it.

It's a pretty average affair, and it's really hard to say exactly where it goes "wrong." At the script, I suppose, because it's basically "kinda not funny" throughout. A lot of the best parts were in the preview. There are a few other good laughs scattered far and wide, and maybe two or three genuine great moments. But as I said, they're scattered far and wide. I spent a lot of time fidgeting in my seat, waiting for the funny.

Strangely, the movie actually delivered on action more than comedy. There's a great skydiving sequence that sort of brings to mind the intro to Moonraker, and an excellent final chase sequence that's better than you'll find in most true action movies.

Steve Carell doesn't play as dopey a Maxwell Smart as Don Adams did, but that turns out to be a pretty good thing over all. Anne Hathaway turns out to be a decent enough pairing for him in this movie. But they're saddled with weak material. Somewhere in it all, I sense that the two of them were capable of leading a really funny movie, if only the jokes had been there. But all the good lines in the film seem to have been given to Alan Arkin.

...and the cameos. There are quite a few in the movie, and they're really the best part. Bill Murray and Patrick Warburton in particular shine in their 30 seconds each of screen time.

But again, I've got go back to "overall, not very funny." Or, to rate it on your Steve Carell-o-Meter, any given episode of The Office has twice as many laughs in it as Get Smart -- and lasts only a quarter of the time. I'd rate it a run of the mill C.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

New Format, Old Story

I've reviewed a lot of books written by Terry Brooks here before. At one time, he was my favorite writer, and is still certainly in the top five or ten, even if my tastes have changed a bit. He recently experimented with a new medium for his stories, which meant an experiment for me too: graphic novels.

Dark Wraith of Shannara is a recent 170-ish page black-and-white graphic novel set after the events of The Wishsong of Shannara. This sort of "manga-esque" entertainment usually isn't my cup of tea, but I figured for Terry Brooks, I'd give it a try.

The first thing I should have known is that it's not Terry Brooks, not really, even though his name appears large above the title. He created the story idea, but then handed off to a writer of the field to actual tell the tale and craft the actual dialogue. Arguably, this was a smart thing to do, since he's not a graphic novel writer, but I was looking to read a Terry Brooks story, not something ghost-written.

Worse, the contribution that it seems Terry Brooks actually did make was not a very good one. This story is no good. A few years back, he contibuted a novella called Indomitable to the fantasy collection Legends II. That tale followed Jair Ohmsford, a character from The Wishsong of Shannara, as he had to go back out on one more adventure to vanquish a lingering trace of the evil from the original book. In the novella, his relationship with a character who died in the book is explored, and a strange new facet to his latent magic is unearthed. It was by no means the strongest of Terry Brooks' stories, but the writing itself was very good, and I found it all pretty satisfying for a shorter-than-a-novel form.

This graphic novel is in turn a sequel to Indomitable, referencing events from that novella in the opening pages. But in actuality, it comes across as a virtual carbon copy of Indomitable. Jair once again must destroy one more lingering evil left over from the Wishsong book that hasn't been vanquished, again wonders at the impact on his life by his dead friend, and again tries to understand this strange twist in his magic from the novella. And by the end of it, nothing really new has been added, either. It's truly derivative, and really quite awful.

Oddly, the saving grace here was the aspect I was completely disregarding in buying Dark Wraith of Shannara in the first place -- the art. On those few rare occasions in my life where I've read a comic book or graphic novel, I've almost always found myself ignoring the pictures entirely and just skipping along from word bubble to word bubble to get the story.

Here, the art really made me take notice. It's not like I want to get something enlarged and framed for my wall now or anything, but there were some very compelling images that managed to rip me from the story. Or maybe I was just disliking the story so much that my eyes wandered to the art. Whatever the case, I actually enjoyed this aspect of the book that I expected not to really consider at all.

But was it enough to save what basically amounted to a rerun in my mind? Hardly. I'd rate Dark Wraith of Shannara a D at best, and advise even the Terry Brooks fans out there to skip it. Just go read Indomitable instead, if you haven't, and you'll have everything from these Wishsong of Shannara "post-scripts" that you'll want/need.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Red All Over

It appears it's my week to write about things a couple days early, just before new and interesting information about them comes to light. Two days ago, I reviewed Weezer's new "Red Album", noting it was just slightly above a "passing grade" and really just one for the fans.

Today, the folks at Harmonix announced that next week's Rock Band downloadable content will include three tracks off this new album. This seems to follow a trend that began when Mötley Crüe actually debuted a single off their forthcoming album on Rock Band. In fact, the song was reported to sell five to six times more downloads in Rock Band than it did on iTunes in its first week.

Disturbed had three tracks from their new album the week it released in stores.

This week, The Offspring finally had their first song appear in one of these games -- and it was the single from their brand new album.

The Guitar Hero and Rock Band franchises really gave a shot in the arm to the music industry (and music teachers), and now the folks at Harmonix really seem to be embracing that they've become a platform for bands to plug their newest music. It might be fun to know about some of the economics and horse trading that goes on behind the scenes here. Where's the power in this exchange?

Harmonix approaches band -- "We'll help you promote your new album by releasing songs from it in our game, if you give us a royalty break on these other famous songs from your back catalog down the road." Or band with new album approaches Harmonix -- "You've been after us for a while. Tell you what... do a song from our new album, and we'll sign a deal with you for all our other material too."

Whatever the machinations, it's something of a mixed blessing for the players, in my view. I like the idea of being exposed to new music through the game. But singing is a major part of this game, and the bottom line is, you can't really sing a song you don't know. You want to see the songs you grew up with in there, the ones you sing along to in your car, or wail away on in your shower and such.

And where it particularly pertains to this Weezer album? Well, recall that in my review I mentioned Troublemaker as "pretty catchy." That's one of the tracks that's up for download next week. And then there was The Greatest Man That Ever Lived, a song I called "uber-pretentious" and "self-indulgent." That's one of the other two songs coming to Rock Band. It might be more fun to play than it is to listen to, but I'm not sure I want to test that.

So again, a very mixed blessing.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Personality Conflict

Just two days ago, I was reviewing the game Wii Fit. Tonight, the game threw me a couple curve balls. Nothing to alter my overall opinion of the game, I suppose, but things I definitely would have mentioned before.

First... I should have mentioned that the Wii Balance Board itself is a "character" in the game. He/she/it shows up on screen to preside over your "Body Tests," offer you fitness tips, and generally be a Little Scamp.

Tonight, this character reminded me that my friend's birthday is coming up next Tuesday, and suggested that maybe I should throw him a surprise party. It's pulling the birthday information from the Mii my friend created and played at my place, I know exactly how it's working and all... but it still weirds me out that conceptually, this piece of plastic is telling me to throw surprise birthday parties for my friends.

Secondly... there are also characters in the game of a male and female "personal trainer" to guide you through various exercises. One of the things you can do (after unlocking it) is to challenge your personal trainer to see who can do the most push-ups, jack knifes, or what-not.

So tonight, I pick one of those activities, and the trainer comes on and tells me, "I'm not feeling up to it right now. Come back later, okay?"

Okay, first of all, you're a game, punk! When I say play, you play, dammit! Rock Band doesn't tell me, "you know what, I'm really sick of that song, pick something else." Mario Kart doesn't tell me, "really, that track; wouldn't you rather pick something else?"

And more to the point, this is supposed to be a simulation of a personal trainer. And not that I have any actual experience with a real personal trainer, but I can't imagine one going, "you know what, I'm just not up to it today; come back another time."

Sure, I get it. Make the game cutesy and all by giving it personality. Why these personalities?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Take It As Red

I believe music may be the creative format most subject to individual taste. I may be way off base on this, but I think it has to do with the minimal investment of time one has to make to listen to a piece of music. Sure, if you like a song, you'll listen to it over and over and over again, ultimately logging more time listening to that song than you've probably spent watching your favorite movie multiple times. But to just sample the song takes maybe five minutes. Instant test, instant opinion, instant love or hate.

It's perhaps this utter subjectivity that has made me shy away from regularly reviewing music on this blog in the way I review movies, television, games, and books. But lately, I figured, I blog about pretty much all other entertainment -- why not music? Hell, I even already have the "tag" for it.

Preamble aside, let me dive into a review of the latest self-titled Weezer album, aka "The Red Album." If you were to ask me if I'm a fan of Weezer, I probably would have shrugged off the notion by saying something like, "well, I like them well enough, but I don't know if I'd call myself a fan." But my MP3 player/CD collection would prove me a liar on that count -- I actually have every one of their studio albums, and there really aren't many bands I can say that about.

This newest album has a pretty thorough mix of good and bad, I have to say. Some of the songs return to the sound of "The Blue Album." If you liked that earliest stuff of theirs and haven't enjoyed the later songs (like many), you might find this a pleasant reversion. On the other hand, you could argue that some of these new songs sound too much like old songs.

I was really digging on the big single "Pork and Beans," for example, until one time through I thought to myself, "you know, this really sounds a lot like 'Buddy Holly' to me." And now I can't get that notion out of my head, and my enthusiasm for the song has diminished quite a lot. (Still love the video, though.)

The opening track "Troublemaker" is pretty catchy. And the album has a too-rare-on-CDs likeable "deep cut" in "Automatic," the second-to-last song. But then it also has the uber-pretentious "The Greatest Man That Ever Lived." And it's not the title that makes me say that -- it's the music itself. It's a sweeping 6-minute opus that shifts through about 12 different musical styles in a self-indulgent showcase. Basically, it's Weezer's attempt to create something like Green Day's "Jesus of Suburbia," and it doesn't really work.

The softer track "Heart Songs" is a curious blend of good and bad all in a single track. The sentiment is beautiful, to talk about all the music that was inspirational to the songwriter. The music is a nice, gentle fit. But then the sentiment is undermined by the way the lyrics actually misattribute songs to the wrong artists. The 80s version of "I Think We're Alone Now" was Tiffany, guys, not Debbie Gibson. And it kind of sounds like you're suggesting Will Smith recorded "It Takes Two." Um... not even close. So how much can we really believe that these songs were an inspiration when you don't even know who made them?

Overall, I'd still say this is a better album than Maladroit or Make Believe, the last two Weezer efforts. But in a way, that's not really saying much. I'd call it a C+, only an album for the fans. Which I suppose I have to say I'm one of.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Fit to Be Tried

I casually mentioned in my recent review of Mario Kart Wii that two other Wii games were taking up more of my attention these days. One of them is Wii Fit. I wasn't there on day one to buy mine, but a friend of mine came through and found one for me, sparing me the need to: a) wait months; b) waste any luck I would end up using later at the craps table; or c) pay double for it on e-Bay or something.

I'm glad I didn't post a review of it here right away, because my very initial response on it was, "yeah, it's fun, but a workout routine? Come on."

Let me be clear. Nobody is going to lose 60 pounds doing nothing but Wii Fit. Nor is anyone somehow going to pack on 30 pounds of muscle doing Wii Fit either. (Cue Subway Jared-like internet celebrities who manage(d) to do just that.) But neither is it a trivial effort. Like the Dance Dance Revolution, you have to get up and move, and it is exercise.

Or put another way -- I consider myself to be neither particularly "in" nor "out" of shape, but if I spend 15-30 minutes doing some of the activites the game dubs as "aerobic" or "strength training," I do feel it. If I spend 10 or more minutes doing some of the "yoga" activities, I do feel more relaxed and full of energy. And me not being particularly flexible, a few of those yoga exercises actually hurt a bit, dammit. (Has the first Wii Fit-related lawsuit been filed yet?)

Above all, it's actually pretty fun, especially if you play some of the "balance games" that round out the disc. "Table Tilt" is a fun little game where you're trying to tip a surface back and forth to get marbles to fall down holes, but your body movements control the tipping of the surface. Ski jumping and slaloms are two more fun things to do (though I totally suck at the latter).

And it's that kind of nice, easy fun in very "bite sized increments," if you will, that would keep someone coming back to play every day -- which is I suppose exactly what you'd be looking for if you were looking to use it as a low-intensity "workout" routine. (Or probably better still, a fun little "reward" supplementing a more... call it "legitimate" workout plan.)

Really though, whether you're actually trying to exercise with it or just fooling around, it's a fun little time burner, like Wii Sports, or Brain Age, or other similar games. I'd rate it at probably a B.

That said, I'm not entirely sure it's worth the $90 price tag. (Assuming you can even find one at that price.) Sure, they can totally get away with charging that in an age where people spend $170 for fake guitars and drum sets, or $100-$300 on quality DDR mats. But I'm hoping for more games to come out that make good use of the Balance Board to further justify the purchase. (Yes, I'm aware of We Ski. More than that.)

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Mole, Week 3

Time to catch up with The Mole...

As of last week, I'd dismissed Nicole, Bobby, Craig, and Victoria as suspects. Nothing happened this week to make me reconsider any of that. Tonight, Ali left voluntarily and Bobby was eliminated. That leaves me with five suspects: Kristen (who was after last episode my number one), Clay, Mark, Alex, and Paul.

I'm inclined to dismiss Clay and Mark as suspects because of their refusal to attempt the "Dress Code" challenge. If you're the Mole, you're there to "play" even more than the players themselves are. You want to be in there stirring it up in every single challenge, whether you're actually trying to win one to divert suspicions, or trying to sabotage. To simply quit without trying is simply not a Mole move.

Furthermore, the justification for quitting to "maintain dignity" makes perfect sense from the perspective of a player. The Mole may not know exactly what s/he's in for every step of the way (at least, until the day of), but s/he knows that no matter what, s/he'll be around for the entire duration of the game. Every mission. Every twist. Every turn. In all of those tasks, you can guarantee that you'll have to do something uncomfortable or embarassing. And I would think, having checked dignity at the door before beginning the game, it wouldn't even occur to the Mole to sabotage this kind of game by not playing. S/he'd go for something more subtle.

Let's turn to Alex. Once again, this week he played as hard as he could. Yes, he had the major failure in placing two consecutive apples in the "Fruit of the Luge" challenge, but I think that's Nicole's mistake, not his. (By the way, Nicole's move was so blatantly the act of someone trying to make the players think she's the Mole that there's not a single contestant farther off my list at this point.) But Alex rocked the "Dress Code" challenge. He speaks Spanish (as we knew from last week), and he worked hard to engage every person in sight, pulling together clothes in no time. It's getting harder and harder to look at him as a Mole. His failures in the game seem to always stem from stubbornness, not sabotage.

Then there's Paul. I can imagine that one strategy the Mole could employ would be the stir trouble and chaos and get in everybody's faces. The Mole should lie low, right, so how could it be someone putting himself front and center all the time? But even if you believe that theory, Paul's performances in the missions seems consistently too good for someone who should be causing a little more sabotage. Granted, finding a New Yorker to give him pants was dumb luck, but the Luge event, and the missions of the week's before? No, I say he's a player unwilling to sacrifice ANY money from a pot he expects to win in the end. And because he knows unending successes would take him off the other players' radars, he stirs trouble outside the missions as his way of inviting suspicion.

Which leaves Kristen. She was my number one last week, and remains so now. I point to the Dress Code challenge as new evidence tonight. She basically did not say a word during the entire challenge. As her group walked the city streets, Ali and Victoria were chatting up anyone who would listen, shouting on corners in both English and Spanish, doing anything to find somebody to offer up clothes. Kristen was silent. You could chalk this up to being shy about the situation, wandering the streets of a foreign city in your underwear, but I just don't sense that she's a shy type. I think she was trying to simply vanish into the background. It's a form of passive Mole sabotage, like carrying the wheelbarrow with Bobby last week -- don't actively ruin team efforts to achieve the task, but don't contribute anything either.

How then do I explain the fact that Kristen went 7 for 7 in the Luge challenge, putting $14,000 in the pot? I think it was a situation where the Mole needed a "rock star" moment to divert suspicion. In the previous week, she'd earned an exemption that kept all the money for one challenge out of the pot. Then she worked on a team in the Pigs mission that brought back no pigs to put money in the pot. A "double failure" like that attracts suspicion, so it was time to change that up by being a hero. And it worked out incredibly well, since by mistakes or penalties, none of the other teams actually got 7 out of 7 correct in the Luge mission.

So basically, I'm locked in on Kristen now, until she gets executed and proves me wrong.

But I should also say that if I were a player in the game, it's only now, after tonight, that I'd really start to tailor my answers to her when taking the quiz. I have a "quiz strategy" for the early game that I'd employ if I were on the show. The game starts with 12 players -- 10 other contestants I'm trying to beat.

Put simply, some of those contestants are going to be stupid. They're going to form a suspicion very early on, base all their quiz responses around it, be wrong, and get eliminated. My goal is not to do well at the early quizzes; there's no reward for that. I'm simply out to make sure I do even just one question better than the person who gets eliminated. To achieve that, I'll play the odds.

If the question is "Is the Mole male or female?" then I answer based on however many there are more of left in the game at that point (discounting myself, of course).

"Did the Mole drive a van on the way to the mission?" Hell, no! Only two people in the group did, so even if one of those two is someone I think is the Mole, this early on in the game, I'm going to answer no, no, no.

"During the Dress Code challenge, was the Mole in an all male, all female, or mixed group?" Well, the two all-male groups had only two players each, so the odds say it was an all-female or mixed group; pick one of those.

I figure you can easily survive two eliminations, probably three, and maybe even four, all without ever having to zero on a suspect. Just play the odds on any question that will let you, then play a hunch on any question that won't. ("Who was the Mole's partner in the Luge mission?" or "Who is the Mole?") Keep one guess ahead of the player getting eliminated, and you're fine.

Of course now, with only seven legitimate players left in the game, the time to play the odds has probably passed. But then, I've got my suspect now.

Let's see how that pans out for me next week...

Sunday, June 15, 2008

It Happened One M. Night

This weekend, I caught the newest M. Night Shyamalan film, The Happening. For background here, if you didn't know, you should probably be aware that I'm a big fan of his movies. The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs are all on my top 100 list. I wasn't crazy about The Village the first time around, but upon a subsequent viewing (with, I think, my expectations better set for the type of movie it was), I found a lot to enjoy in it. And I think I'm one of about 100 people on the face of the planet that liked The Lady in the Water. A lot.

So with that background, you can understand that when I tell you I was pretty disappointed in this movie, it may well mean that you'll absolutely frakking hate it.

Obviously, there have been elements of the supernatural at work in all Shyamalan's films. Moveover, the stories have often dealt with issues of faith. This movie does so as well, but this time places as the central character a science teacher. And rather than play around with the fertile narrative ground where science clashes with faith (as, say, most any random episode of Lost tends to do ably), this movie just makes the guy a really lame science teacher, completely bowled over by the elements of faith the writer/director is interested in portraying.

A recurring theme of the film is the notion of the "will of nature," and every time it comes up, it is promptly dismissed as something unknowable, uncomprehendable, and beyond examination. And hey, if you're a writer with a McGuffin in your story you don't want to explain, that's ordinarily your business -- it's the very nature of a McGuffin to drive the story without ever being explained logically. But to have this science teacher, and another science expert on a television interview in the film, just shrug shoulders and go, "yup, force of nature, can't be explained, and that's just fine with me?" Ridiculous, in my view.

I mean, if you had had a science teacher in high school who tasked you with offering an explanation of some mysterious natural event, and in lieu of any theory at all (no matter how weak) you just came back with, "well, it's nature; you can't really understand it," you'd expect an F for the class, wouldn't you? Not this walking voicebox for the writer.

And really, the entire script is a transparent mouthpiece for the writer. I've got no problem with a work of fiction that wants to be didactic, but I expect a certain level of subtlety around the message. This is a methodical hammer blow on the anvil for 90 minutes.

But did I hate the movie? No, because so many of the dramatic skills Shyamalan showed in his earlier films remained in play here. At times, this movie was truly unsettling and creepy. It delivered scares. It delivered real horror -- moments where you cringe and recoil at what is unfolding. It displayed a very knowledgeable hand in manipulating the audience, composing memorable images on the screen, creating vivid minor characters to populate the tale. All great stuff.

Yet each of these great moments was like a piece of candy. You eat it up in the moment, and it's wonderful and enjoyable, and you're ready for another one, and then it's great too, and so on. And then, at the end of the box of candy, you're still hungry because you haven't had anything like a true meal.

This is really a "message movie," which is in a way as new a tale for M. Night Shymalan as "love story" was for The Village, or "fairy tale" was for The Lady in the Water. But it's a very ham-fisted and oftentimes awkward message movie. Allowing for the very effective moments of suspense and horror within it, I rate it a C+, but for an M. Night fan like me, that's basically a pan.

Saturday, June 14, 2008


I found this week's mid-season finale of Battlestar Galactica to be a satisfying mix of the expected and the unexpected.

On the one hand, I had been starting to suspect that the fleet would actually find Earth some time before the actual series finale. The fact that the Final Five have been there before implies a story that needs to be fleshed out there, and I expected that couldn't be saved until the season finale. But did I expect the show would take them to Earth this early in the final season? No way.

Since day one, I've expected that Earth wouldn't be all it was cracked up to be when they final did get there. In exactly what way, I wasn't sure. My "guesses," if pressed to make them, might have ranged from (vaguely serious) Earth a few thousand years B.C. where our characters and their religions could have become the basis for actual historic civilizations, to (not-at-all-serious) finding the crew of the 1978 version of the TV show living together in a high-rise apartment with the Imperious Leader as their butler.

Utter desolation, I was not expecting. And on the one hand, I find that very cool -- it sure made for a hell of a punchy ending to this episode. On the other hand, I'm not sure where this leaves the story to go from here. The crew gets to Earth and finds nothing. Are we to feel particularly invested in what tragedy befell Earth? I wouldn't think so -- the show is about the characters we've watched for four seasons, not about what happened in the past of a planet we've never been to (even if it is ours, the viewers'). How is the show going to find a way to tell ten more hours of interesting stories in a devestated wasteland? I suppose there is a plan.

More than just the punchy ending, though, this episode delivered a lot of great character moments. The title "Revelations" says it all, as the Four were revealed as Cylons to everyone. The impact of this on Admiral Adama (where Tigh was concerned) was some of the most powerful stuff the show has ever presented. And though there wasn't really time yet to explore what this means for Anders and Starbuck, I'm sure we'll see that in episodes to come.

In fact, "not enough time" is really my only complaint about the episode. It felt like a two-hour episode wedged into the standard 42 minutes. The standoff between D'Anna and Our Heroes, with Lee having to act as President in his first real crisis, was actually very compelling material, and could have filled out a whole episode. Instead, it was squeezed into half that space to make room for the revelation of the Four. And all that was awesome too -- just again, shoehorned into too short a space of time. Then, the rather momentous event of having the fleet and the Cylons truly, actually agreeing to work together, without either really planning to screw the other, was completely bowled over in the rush to get to the arrival at Earth.

In short, it's sad that after half of this season's episodes have been (arguably) not all that great, all this spectacular material was squandered at once. It was an embarassment of riches, really. But nice in that it made for, in my opinion, the best episode of the show since season two's Pegasus.

But now we're stuck in limbo. The SciFi Channel hasn't officially announced the return date for the final episodes of the series, but all the expectation seems to be it won't be until January 2009 at the earliest. It's pretty ridiculous, I think, to go off the air for over a year between seasons three and four, only to come back for 10 episodes and then vanish again for another seven months or more. Certainly, it's a major stretch to call all of this a single season -- it's more like we're get a ten-episode season four and a forthcoming season five.

But I guess there's nothing for it but to just sit and wait. And while we're doing that, we can all contemplate D'Anna's almost off-handed comment that only four of the Final Five were among the fleet. Unless there's some peculiar way to parse that statement, it seems to say that the last remaining Cylon isn't actually going to be a major character on the show. Perhaps it could be some past character who hasn't been with the fleet for a while -- someone who died or was abandoned, perhaps? Or maybe it'll just be some bizarre bit of stunt casting, like maybe in the teaser of the next new episode, Dirk Benedict will walk up to the group of them across the scarred Earth landscape and say "hi, I'm the twelfth Cylon."

Ponder that for seven months, folks.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Inappropriate Themes

The truth is that, while I own a digital camera to in theory take all the pictures I'd ever want to for no real cost, I'm not that much of a shutterbug. I took one picture during my entire Las Vegas vacation. My friend holding up his two $1000 chips from craps? No. (So should have, though.) The group of us standing in front of a hotel? No.

I snapped this photo of a game in the arcade at New York New York:

Come on. How inappropriate is this? The sinking Titanic as the theme of a "stop the lights with a button push" carnival game? I mean, can you picture a hundred years from now this same kind of machine with smoking, collapsing World Trade Center towers inside that glass dome?

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Mole, Week 2

I've now had the chance to catch up on this week's episode of The Mole, that ran while I was in Las Vegas.

As FKL wisely pointed in last week's discussion, failure to obtain a bag during the waterfall mission does not necessarily eliminate anyone as a suspect, what with the whims of the currents carrying people away from the mark. So while I agree that no one should be eliminated as a suspect solely based on their performance in that first mission, I still choose to focus my greatest suspicions on the players who performed well there.

As a refresher, that means I was looking at Kristen, Clay, Mark, and Liz this week. I was already well on my way to discounting Liz entirely, and then she went and got executed, closing the door on that. Of the remaining three, I thought it was Kristen who emerged as a stellar Mole candidate this week.

Let me begin with the weakest "evidence" first. It seems unlikely to me that the producers would really give away three exemptions in a single episode of the game. And they do often give explicit instructions to the Mole, such as "make sure when this game comes up, you put yourself in this position." I believe this is what could have happened with the three exemptions of this episode, which were claimed by Kristen, Mark, and Paul. As the Mole, any of the three could have been instructed to take the role that put them in the position to easily claim an exemption (leaving only two true ones to be given away).

Working up from there to the next weakest evidence is Kristen's performance in the Pigs mission. She pushed Bobby around in that wheelbarrow without complaint toward Bobby or Craig (her "teammates" in the challenge), and without complaining to any of the other sub-teams she encountered down in the village. But as soon as she got back to the pig pen and everyone else returned, she started whining long and loud about how she got stuck pushing Bobby.

First of all, what a great way to very publicly make the case that she was working her ass off while someone else was contributing nothing. Absolutely the sort of thing the Mole should do. And secondly, she waited until everyone was there in one place to start the complaining -- so that everyone would hear it all at once. If she'd whined on the way down to the village, whined while roaming the village, and whined back up at the pig pen, that would have been over the top. That would have been exactly the sort of behavior that got Nicole so hated in the first episode. This way, everybody gets to know of her "selfless act" all at one time, without her needing to truly belabor the point. Again, behavior perfectly in line for a Mole.

Finally, I'll move up to what I consider the strongest evidence, the "Uphill Battle" portion of the soccer mission. Like the Waterfall mission, here was an opportunity for the Mole to go all out and not risk putting money in the pot. Now of course, any player would do the same in this situation, with an exemption on the line, so that doesn't tell the whole tale. Not to mention that Mark was also one of my prime suspects from last week. So why focus on her and not him?

Consider this: once she and Mark abandoned the ride and started jogging, Mark started talking about his exhaustion and saying how hard it was to push the bike. Kristen said she'd be happy to push the bike because she wasn't tired, though Mark refused this offer. Then Jon, the host, shows up with the offer to take a taxi the rest of the way, in exchange for $5000 from the pot. Mark immediately refused the offer, but Kristen -- who just said she wasn't tired -- was willing to entertain it. Now granted, she didn't push too hard for it, but Mark was clearly dead set against it, and the Mole can't push too hard when sabotaging, for fear of making it look obvious. But to me, that move made her the number one Mole suspect at this point in the game.

Meanwhile, two other players made moves that made it conclusive in my mind that they aren't the Mole.

In the soccer mission, after the goal had finally been scored and everybody started running off in different directions, bickering and arguing about which way to go, Victoria jumped in and said, "we need to work as a team!" There's no way the Mole would make that move. If the team is falling apart all on its own and sabotaging its own chances to win money, then the Mole's job is to sit back quietly and do nothing. Or, alternately, divert suspicion by coming through in the clutch and making a big move to "save the team." But simply trying to rally everybody like a coach and say, "let's all work together." No way. I say Victoria can't be the Mole.

Then there was Craig's performance in the Pigs mission. Sure, his team sucked it hard in finding the pottery pigs to bring back. But when he returned to the arena, Alex was dominating the show, doing the slingshot thing all wrong, and unwilling to let anybody in to have a try. Again, the Mole could just sit back there and do nothing, watching the team fail without any "help." But Craig, enough of a teddy bear not to raise the hackles of an Alpha Dog like Alex, was able to talk his way into holding one end of the slingshot. And suddenly, where there had been no successful catches before, they caught 26. That's money that Craig is more or less directly responsible for putting in the pot. Sure, as I said, sometimes I could see it making sense for the Mole to jump in and be the hero, but I just don't buy it in this situation. $0 to $26,000 is an awfully big jump in money for the Mole to have contributed.

There you have it, my thoughts on week two. Nicole, Bobby, Craig, and Victoria are now all off my list. Kristen is absolutely number one, with Clay and Mark lagging considerably farther behind. Alex, Ali, and Paul all live somewhere in the no man's land between.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

*results not typical

I've returned from my Las Vegas excursion! A good time was had by all.

For those who've expressed an interest in good poker stories, let me just simply say it was not a pretty picture. Aside from my first night there, nothing seemed to go right for me. Combinations of bad decision making, bad rivers, and poor starting hands made it a really poor four days of poker for me. The poker story that I think sums up my trip in a nutshell: I did get dealt pocket Aces one time on the trip, but I ended up showing down to the river with one other player who had the other two Aces, and we split the pot.

Now, I was having fun regardless. But the trip would have been a financial disaster were it not for craps. Even as I say that now, I have a hard time actually believing it.

It started Tuesday morning. Some people wanted to ride the New York New York roller coaster. We went and looked; closed for wind.

Alright, how does poker for a while at MGM sound? But we go, and there aren't any limit tables in play at the time, which we all wanted.

How about craps? We said we kinda wanted to play craps a little bit at a table that's $5 or less. But like we're gonna find that anywhere on the South Strip. Let's go downtown and do that later.

Fine, wanna try another big poker room like Caesar's or Mirage or something? Fine, but it's 100 degrees out and the wind is blowing like a convection oven; let's take a cab.

So we're walking to the MGM lobby to get that cab, and happen to walk by a completely empty craps table. And amazingly, it has a $5 minimum. Now, I'm not really convinced I want to play craps this trip. I was still bound and determined to make the poker thing work. But I was perfectly happy to stand with them for 15 or 30 minutes or whatever while my two friends did what they wanted to do.

Each of them throws down $60, and starts in with the simple betting: straight pass line, taking odds on the point. Winner! Winner!

Okay, some confidence is building here. Add one come bet, and we'll take odds on that. Winner! Winner! Winner!

Well, okay, it didn't really go that long without a single crap out, but the point of the story is, more good than harm was happening, and very soon, my two friends had their nerve up enough to do what many will tell you is the best approach to craps (short of not playing it): run a pass line bet and two come bets at all times, all with odds, and wait for those to hit.

They're each up in the neighborhood of about $300 when I decide I'm missing out on something cool, so I throw in my three $20 bills, just as they did, and get in on the ride.

By this point, they've built up enough confidence and profit that they're willing to flirt with $10 bets even though it's just a $5 table. Me, I start small and timid, just as they did. But I go on a 35 minute run as shooter, interrupted only when I loft the dice off the table once.

By now, the limit at the table's been raised to $10 while we've been there, but we're grandfathered in at the lower rate. Not that it matters that much, because I'm now up about $150, and each of my friends has got an impressive rack of $25 chips started.

Next up, Sangediver is throwing, and the other friend happens to get "out of step" one bet -- he misses a come bet in a distracted moment, or when his drink arrives, or whatever. So he places his one throw of the dice later, and now his "third bet" on the table is in a different place from the two of ours.

And every single time, we're trailing one bet behind him as Sangediver hits one after the other after the other after the other. The dealer finally "moves me up" and starts paying me in $25 chips, which would be awesome any other craps run, but meanwhile, the third member of our group has earned his first $100 chip.

My brother-in-law calls something like two hours into this insanity. "Oh, we're playing craps at MGM, and we are NOT leaving." He comes to find us and actually join in, but by this point, Sangediver now has more than a couple $100 chips, I'm standing with my own impressive rack of $25s, and the third friend has managed to secure his first $500 chip.

"We're gonna get you one of everything we've got on the table, man!" says a dealer.

Other players come and go, total strangers, each stopping by long enough to... I don't know, make a couple hundred, lose a hundred, I'm so not paying attention. We do keep passing the dice around. It's not like we're never losing. But we're having average runs of about 20-30 minutes as shooters, and the stacks keep going up and up and up and up.

I never quite get the nerve to start throwing around $25 chips like they're candy, but I do earn a $100 chip or two in this chaos.

But meanwhile, the third friend earns his first $1000 chip.

And then his second.

Four hours, about 12 dealer rotations, and 117 "holy shits!" later, each of us has pulled out a certain amount of money we're pledging not to give back to casino. But it's still a total rush. Between bets for the dealers and straight-out tips, I expect there's been something like another $500 we've made as a group that we never even really saw.

I know the dealers are suppose to say things to make you feel good and have a good time, but I swear it felt like this one meant it when he said "I have never seen a run like this." Every time a new dealer comes in, one who had been there points to the stack and says, "they all started with $60 each."

The third friend has now taken those two $1000 chips off the table by this point. I'm not sure if we're all collectively looking for reasons to stay or reasons to leave, but one more dealer rotation around, and the guy we'd been having the most fun with in all of this looks at us and says:

"I'm telling you, the dice don't stay hot like this. You really should leave."

We played out that round, each of our group shooting, and then we did just that.

We all bought in for $60. My brother-in-law, who arrived latest to the party and played most conservatively, roughly doubled that.

I walked away with about $450.

Sangediver had over $1400.

And the leader of our pack was pushing $2200.

For those who don't want to do the math, that last number represents over 35 times his starting stake.

This was the highlight of the trip. Possibly the highlight of any trip I've taken to Vegas. I'd have never predicted it, but there you go.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Monster Parents

I recently read an interesting article about a Monster Parent phenomenon in Japan. Interesting, but not particularly well-written, actually.

It starts off talking about how one Japanese school recently performed "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves," but out of parental concern over the unfairness of just letting one girl play Snow White, there were 25 Snow Whites, and no other characters in the show. What the hell? In a few short paragraphs, the article meanders to parents bullying teachers into signing resignation letters, and I'm not entirely clear how it did that. Hence, the "not well-written" analysis.

But I still found the article kind of interesing on at least two fronts. First, I have some friends who are school teachers, and it got me thinking about the "could this happen in America?" Well, the answer is of course it could -- we've heard of things along the lines of the "25 Snow Whites" self-esteem arguments on occasion before. I really have no idea how widespread this situation is in Japan, though, so I'm sort of lacking a basis of comparison.

Which leads me to the second point in which this interests me: one of my friends is living in Japan right now, teaching. I don't know if he's had any run-ins with a Monster Parent, but it got me thinking.

Anyway, I want to try to be a supporter of letting a parent raise his/her child the way he/she wants to, but 25 Snow Whites? Frakkin' stupid.

Monday, June 09, 2008

About Bloody Time

It seems unbelievable to me, but it's been about three months since I wrote about the latest book I was reading, The Charnel Prince. I haven't been reading a ton since then or anything -- I've been basically stuck in the same book all this time.

So I'll bet you can guess how this review is generally going to go.

Part of my slog through The Blood Knight, book 3 of 4 in The Kingdom of Thorn and Bone, was no fault of the author's. I was reading the book right at the time I was needing to pack and move out of my old apartment. There wasn't as much time to read. But the book was also not interesting enough for me to want to make the time to read it. Of course, that continued even after I was moved and settled in at my new place -- the book just wasn't that interesting for me to want to pick it up again.

But finally I did, and now I'm done. I can at least report that it finally did start to pick up in the back half. But there was a lot of "damage" done in the front half that couldn't really be redeemed.

This book did a lot of treading water in the first half, with characters separated and sort of wandering around just to get to moments of realization that the reader has been suspecting for a while. There's a lot of reiteration of the same major points: "ooo, that guy sure is evil," "ooo, that monster sure is dangerous," and so forth. I suppose when you're reading one book spread out over three months, maybe a little repetition isn't all bad, but it's not exactly a page-turner either.

Finally, in the back half of the novel, things started to pull together. There was at last a couple big showdowns promised for some time, and some significant progress made for a couple of the characters. But I'm feeling there are a couple of ways you could look at the series overall right now, with one book to go, and either way, I think the series is one book too long.

In one sense, there was a whole lot of aimless meandering in books two and three. Perhaps the writer would argue that it was all material pertaining to the "hero's journey," forging our characters into who they must be for the final climax. And I subscribe to that. You have to if you read fantasy, because that's the model most of the time. But I truly don't think it needed to take so long. I think the "good parts," if you will, of books two and three could have been put together with judicious editing, resulting in a tight and exciting single book to sit at the middle of a trilogy.

Or, alternatively, you could look at where things ended up here in the actual book three as written. As I said, there were some pretty big climaxes. It's just that at the end of it all, two major villains both manage to sort of "slip away," each having acquired something that will give them more power with which to challenge the heroes in the final book. Ultimately, neither ending felt quite big enough to have been "the end of the series," but at the same time, it also felt like the way they "just managed to escape" was an unnecessary cheat. Another way you could look at the series would be to say that maybe whatever big things the writer still has in store for the Real Ending, he could have just lifted them to place here, adding maybe another 100 pages or so to this book and building it up for a proper climax.

Either way, this four book series feels like it should have been a three book series.

Am I continuing on, despite the lesson one would hope I got from reading that horrible four book David and Leigh Eddings series? Well, simply, yes. Even though I'd probably be generous to rate this particular book at better than a D, I still feel like the series has the potential for a strong finish.

But I've decided on an interlude, and plan to read one other book next. I hope it will get me more back into the habit of reading regularly. We'll see.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Vegas Redux

It's vacation time again. Do I have any desire to go places other than Las Vegas? Oh yes, definitely. But it's convenient and a hell of a lot of fun. And it wasn't my idea; actually, my brother-in-law pitched the trip, and only then did I think, "you know, I really should take a few days and go somewhere."

So I'll be gone until Wednesday night, relaxing, seeing shows, playing poker... you know.


...this time, the Maneuvers will keep coming in my absence! One of the missing Blogger features that drove Shocho into the arms of another blog service has now been added: scheduled posting. So, I've got a few whatevers set up for the next couple days until I'm back.

Thought that does mean this week's discussion of The Mole will have to wait until I return and can actually watch it.

Let's play some cards!

Saturday, June 07, 2008


A pretty good episode of Battlestar Galactica this week. This time, we followed the more compelling half of the "after the Basestar jumps away" story, finding out how the attack on the hub and recovery of Three went. It was an engaging story punctuated with a great space combat sequence and good drama along the way.

Of course, it wasn't reasonable to expect the writers to give us the identity of the final Cylon as soon as D'Anna returned to the show. Yet it made it no less frustrating that D'Anna returned to the show, but we still don't know who the final Cylon is.

And yet what a brilliant tweak to the people who thought it would be Roslin (sorry, but I gotta say, "folks like Mkae"), to have D'Anna totally pull a gotcha on both Roslin and the audience.

I have to admit, her little prank got me for a second there too. I'd heard the Roslin-as-Cylon theory, and had been silently rooting against it for weeks. I felt the "dying of cancer" storyline was (and will be) much more emotionally and dramatically impactful than any "wow! she's a Cylon!" revelation we could have gotten out of such a twist. And in that moment when D'Anna tells Roslin she's one of the five, I had this crestfallen moment of "well damn, why'd they go and throw all that good material away like that?!" I should have known better. So, well played, writers.

On the other hand, I'm not quite sure the writers sold me on exactly where, when, and how the change came about where Roslin went from wanting to let Baltar bleed out and die to being desperate to save him. Yet I'm not sure it entirely mattered, because Mary McDonnell acted the hell out of it and made me totally accept the moment.

And give her more praise for the final scene of the episode, in which she reunited with Adama. Great work from both actors. Well written too, in that the words seemed perfect, and yet they weren't quite what you'd expect them to say.

Toss in a few other great tidbits to round out the fun: Baltar trying to talk a Centurion into rebellion, one of the Eights very creepily revealing to Helo that she's stolen and copied his Sharon's memories, and a brief return of Elosha in Roslin's visions.

In any case, things look all set up now for some kind of mammoth mid-season cliffhanger to arrive next week and leave us waiting until who-knows-when. Let me tell you, I'm both looking forward to and dreading that.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Want a Ballooooon?

If you've ever read Stephen King's novel It, or better still, seen the mini-series version of it that was made for TV back in the 90s, then you'll understand my reaction to seeing this in the storm drain outside my condo this morning:

I know someone was having a garage sale only 20 feet away. I know they had balloons all over the sides of the garage, and one had obviously blown loose.

And I know this was the creepiest damn thing I'd seen in months.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Ride the Tall Boy

Here's a short little story about a man and his motorized beer cooler. Oh, what a short story to spawn so many questions.

First of all, there's a place selling motorized beer coolers? For when you only want the power of a child's moped, but you need the carrying space of a backpack you don't want to wear?

Secondly, I understand that the main point of a cooler is to carry drinks, but really -- the thing is by very definition a motor vehicle. So somehow this guy thinks he's going to be fine because he's not "drinking and driving?"

On the other hand, the part of me that's very mildly libertarian (can there be such a thing?) says, the odds of him actually hurting anybody else riding around on a cooler while under the influence of alcohol? About zero. Pretty much, he ends up with a hundred feet of road rash (if he lives) when he's dragged under a car he runs into. So let him be a complete idiot.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Let's-a Go!

I've been a fan of the Mario Kart series for a while now. (A highlight of my last couple weeks living in Virginia Beach were these epic networked Mario Kart Double Dash games involving eight players and two big screen TVs jammed into one living room.) I actually bought the newest installment, Mario Kart Wii, on the day it came out. But it's only now, over a month later, that I'm finally getting around to putting down my thoughts on the game.

Why so long? Well, to be frank... I don't quite like it as much. I was playing it a little here and there, but it wasn't really pushing Rock Band off the video gaming throne for me. And then along came two other Wii games that did do a more effective job of making room on said throne, and Mario Kart got a bit lost in the shuffle. (More on those other games another time.)

The first big fault I find with the game is one I can't get too down on it for, because this was also a flaw with every previous installment of Mario Kart -- you have to unlock things in the single player mode. Good ol' Yahtzee Croshaw, in one of his Zero Punctuation reviews (don't ask me which one), commented on this really crap phenomenon in games. Time and time again, games intended to be played multi-player have features you must play solo to unlock. In the process of playing solo, you become better at the game than all your friends who don't own it. So when they come over for the big group game night, you run circles around them, and it isn't very fun for either side.

I had this problem with Mario Kart Double Dash. I played the crap out of it in Virginia, with lots of friends who also owned the game, and were all quite good at it. But then I moved back to Denver, and the people I played it with about once a week didn't own a Gamecube. It took about six months, with me "handicapping" myself the entire time by taking the lamest karts and characters, before they caught up to a level where we could have reasonable races against each other.

I have no desire to repeat this with the Wii version of the game. Now, I still see these friends about once a week. So the process has been, I play a little bit during the week, unlock a new set of tracks, maybe a kart or two, and then don't actually play with any of them. Then when I see my friends on the weekend, we all try the new stuff out for the first time together.

Consequently, it's taken me this long to formulate a full opinion of the game. That opinion is this: you do probably want this game if you own a Wii. It is fun. If you don't own a Wii, but are a fan of Mario Kart, this might well be one more game on the pile to push you into buying one. (I have a friend who did.)

But it's just not as good as Double Dash. The double driver mechanic of that previous game was great, and the way you'd switch them to manage the unique weapons that certain characters could get was fun strategy. All that is stripped away in this Wii incarnation, with no special weapons for any characters.

In its place are bikes and tricks. Neither of these add anything of significance to the game. The difference between karts and bikes is purely cosmetic -- each bike could have just been a kart with different statistics. And the tricks are just one more thing you have to time perfectly for a burst of speed, like drifting already is. It's a redundant mechanic.

There are a few weapon changes in this version of the game. A "bullet" replaces the "Chain Chomp" of Double Dash as a device to auto-pilot you from the back of a pack. It does work more reliably than the Chomp, so I'd call it a net improvement. But there's also this horrifically awful storm cloud "weapon." Really, it's the "goat behind curtain #3" of Mario Kart items. Pick it up, and you've got about five seconds to bump another racer before lightning strikes you. Who the hell thought it would be a good idea to punish players for grabbing item boxes by occasionally sticking you with this piece of crap?

The track selection is a mixed bag. Even Double Dash had tracks I hated along with tracks I loved, so no real disappointment there. Well, at least, there shouldn't have been. See, they tried to do this cool thing by including a bunch of extra tracks lifted from earlier versions of Mario Kart. The trouble is, the ones they picked are almost universally among the worst selections from their respective games.

But now that I've gone all negative for a few paragraphs, let me reiterate: overall, this is a fun game, and pretty good. I think it would be fair to say that all my disappointment in it ultimately stems from comparing it to earlier Mario Karts. And I should mention there's one new mechanic that's a total winner, drafting. In this version of the game, you can drive directly behind another car for a couple seconds to pick up a sudden burst of speed. Very neat concept, and very useful strategically... if you're willing to risk getting a weapon shot at you while you're tucked right behind somebody.

Overall, I think I'd rate the game a B. It's not going to go completely out of the rotation for some time. But I'm also not too upset that I'm only playing it just a little every week, just enough to unlock the next couple things for my friends and I to share.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The Mole Returns

So, as my friend who goes by "the mole" himself noted when commenting on yesterday's post, last night a new season of the reality show The Mole began on ABC. I thought about writing something about this last night, and decided not to. But hey, now there's "popular demand!" Of one, but still....

The thing is, I don't watch that much reality television. A drop in the bucket, really, when you consider how much there is. But I loved The Mole for the short couple seasons it ran. (I'm not counting the Anderson Cooper-less crappy "Celebrity" installments.) The thing is, I love games, and I'm a sucker for game shows. The reality shows that manage to draw me in have a major game show vibe to them.

And none are more gamey than The Mole. (No, I don't mean it smells. Anyway...) A group of contestants compete in cleverly designed challenges to build a pot of money that in the end, only one will win. The prize goes to the player who is able to identify and best observe the actions of one fake player placed in their midst by the producers of the show, assigned the job of sowing distrust among the players, sabotaging efforts to win challenges, and generally being michievous: The Mole.

I'm very pleased to say that right from this first episode last night, I thought the show had returned to form. The new host is a passable replacement for Anderson Cooper, with that right degree of snarky attitude that takes no crap from the contestants. The games were perfectly engineered to engender suspicions among the players. And those players were well chosen with a variety of personalities sure to cause friction and be interesting to watch.

So, who do I think is the Mole? Last time this series ran (again, not counting the lame Celebrity editions), my roommate and I caught a real smoking gun of a clue dropped by the show's producers into the second episode. From it, we deduced the identity of that Mole with something like 10 episodes to go. We never doubted our conclusion, and in the end were proven right.

This time out, there was no "smoking gun" to point the way -- at least, not that I spotted. So instead, I'll go by my theories about how this game might unfold.

If I were the Mole, playing this game, I wouldn't want to get started too early. First impressions burn deep, and can be impossible to reverse. If I do anything too overt too early to sabotage a challenge, one or more players will catch wise to it. They'll identify me, and I may never be able to shake their suspicions. Furthermore, I know the good players will actually try to sabotage missions themselves here and there, to make it look like they're the Mole, and thus ruining other people's abilities to pass the quizzes.

So basically, I'd plan to kick ass at the first mission, if it was within my ability to do so.

Apply that to specifically the first mission of this episode, and the opportunity is even more perfect. There are 11 people tasked to go over the waterfall and grab for a money bag. Yet only 6 of those bags will actually have money. There's around a 45% chance that the bag won't actually even be worth anything. So now, as the Mole, I think: I can go out there, give this task my all, and still possibly not contribute anything to the money pot because of the very significant chance my bag will be empty! That's win-win for the Mole!

So, based off this logic, the six people who successfully grabbed bags from the edge of the waterfall are my first major suspects. That's Kristen, Clay, Bobby, Mark, Liz, and Nicole. (Oh, by the way -- I'm using ABC's web site to help with the names here. I'm not that good.)

From that list of six, I choose to discount Nicole and Bobby. And this is basically from an extension of my above argument. By the second challenge, I as the Mole would be willing to start taking a more active role in sabotaging the group's efforts during a mission. But the important thing above all would still be to act in a manner that doesn't draw too much attention to myself too early.

Nicole came on way too strong with her attitude and her refusal to sleep outside as she was told to do. She arrived at the beach mission with a huge target on her -- everyone there regarded her as the "biggest whiner." Now true, the Mole often gets to know in advance what an upcoming mission will entail. Knowing that the group would be asked to pick "the biggest whiner," she could have behaved the night before in a deliberate way to push the group to want to put her in that position. Then she gets a night away from the other contestants, on her own with the show's producers to plot the next move.

But I don't buy any of that. It's too overt an attitude, too early in the game. Most of the players already distrust or outright hate her, and the Mole wants to be trusted by as many people as possible.

Then there's Bobby, who's in his 20s, but can't walk up and down the beach twice without coming in danger of passing out. If he's faking, it's too obvious a move for the Mole to be making so early. If he's not faking, then the producers would be out of their minds to pick a Mole so physically inept.

I mean, even the "little old lady" Liz managed to snag a bad from the waterfall challenge. She'd make a far better Mole than Bobby.

So at this point, my list is down to four: Kristen, Clay, Mark, and Liz. I have a few inclinations to whittle down that list farther, but I'd say it would be a mistake (were I in the game) to commit to too few options too early. I'd look for more solid leads to zero in just one or two suspects.

So there you have it. For those of you who care about The Mole, this was I hope a deep enough analysis of this first episode to make up for not talking about last night. For those of you who don't care... well sorry. Television drives this blog a fair amount of the time, as you must know by now. Not even in the summer was that likely to dry up entirely.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Floating on Air

When I have company visit town and stay at my place, I usually have to go hit up my parents to borrow this air mattress they have. I sometimes think maybe I should get one of my own, but I only need it like once a year, so it doesn't seem like the best investment.

In any case, the air mattress my parents had had for something like a decade finally gave up the ghost a while back, and they replaced it with this huge beast of a thing:

It sits about two-plus feet off the ground. Thankfully, there's a pump to inflate the thing, because I think you'd die trying to do it on lung power.

As bizarre as the Mattress of Unusual Size is, it gets one step bizarrer in my estimation by its inclusion of instructions on how to use the inflation valve:

How you get that many words out of "pull open and put air in it; then push the tab closed" is beyond me.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Someone's at the Door

In a nice bit of "counter-programming" to the Sex and the City feature film, the new horror movie The Strangers was released this weekend. Almost always willing to give a horror movie a chance, I pulled some fans of the genre together and we checked it out on Saturday. All of walked out with the same opinion: very good, but not great. And the reasons we all felt this way were pretty identical, as well.

In the plus column, this is the most suspenseful horror movie that's been made in years. The director of this film is new on the scene, but man, does he understand how to make a horror movie. Many, many times throughout the movie, my hairs were standing on end. At one point, I realized my neck was actually hurting from holding in all this tension and pulling up in my chair.

Best of all, the scares in this movie are almost never cheap. In the moments when something suddenly jumps out for a surprise, it always seems to come as the punctuation on a longer sequence of suspended tension. You just keep winding up and winding up, and you know something's going to happen, and then BAM!!! You jump anyway, and you can't blame the filmmakers for taking you off-guard for a cheap scare -- you walked right into it.

In short, I applaud the technique of the director.

However, the same man is also the writer, and here he fails on several counts. For a man who seems clearly to have seen plenty of horror movies in his time, he sure has his characters make some dumb decisions. I mean, dumb even by the standards these movies often employ. Everyone I went with had a different logic point or two that bothered them, but we were all bothered by something.

"You've got time to change clothes, but you don't put on shoes?"

"You decide to split up now?"

And so forth.

But more annoyingly, in my opinion, is the opening of the movie. A narrator sets the scene, and in doing so, strongly hints at what the end of the film is going to be. And then the movie actually starts with a flash-forward of the setting at the end of the story. Now you basically know what the end of the movie is going to be. Which I suppose is then even more of a testament to the directing, because the tension the film goes on to create is enormous, despite having given everything away in the first three minutes.

The writing isn't all bad, though. The two main characters have an interesting relationship that's already on shaky ground before the "Strangers" come into their lives. Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman manage to endow these characters with a sense of roundedness that you don't always get from victims lined up for the meat grinder.

Still, bad, bad decision about that opening, and a few too many "you don't really want to survive this situation, do you?" decisions by the characters. Call it absolutely A+ suspense, counterbalanced with maybe C grade plotting. Tipping the balance in favor of all of us having such a fun ride in spite of the flaws, and I'm going to rate this movie a B+.