Wednesday, November 30, 2005

If I had a million dollars...

While I would buy a house, I would also be inclined to buy something like this. Anyone who is looking to spend $8,000 on me this Christmas, please take note. I also see that it comes with free shipping. So there you go.

Army and Navy

I'm confused by this article. Not because it is unclear in any way. I'm just not sure if I should be pleased that my nation's Army cadets can successfully infiltrate a military facility and remove a 170 pound object without being noticed or disappointed because my nation's Naval midshipmen cannot keep their own academy secure from a bunch of Army cadets.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Better late than never

I'm a little slow to getting around to reading this article, and I had meant to read it sooner since some other blog I read (don't remember which now) had linked to it and commented on it as well.

It's an interesting survey of religion and "spirituality" (how I hate that term!) on the internet. It is primarily from a Catholic perspective, but then this is from a Catholic magazine. The first half is an interesting overview of what it is and the latter half is analysis and commentary on that. His conclusions? Not terribly good.
"The world is breaking up,"? the mad poet Robert Bly once intoned, "into small communities of the saved." These communities have resulted in the rise of what is known on the web as "Saint Blog's Parish,"a ring of 758 websites where compatible Catholic bloggers can join forces to establish their own small group. Nearly every blogger links to similar bloggers, who link on to other bloggers, who all link back to the first site, until the circle closes and something emerges that does, in fact, look like a community. And yet, it is a community based on like-mindedness and tied together by remote interaction--which makes for a very strange community, indeed.
Which, I flatter myself, is similar to what I said here. Jonathan Last goes on to note,
Beliefnet's Waldman thinks that this distancing of the self from the religious act can be helpful. "The anonymity of the Internet is what makes it work so well for religion," he says. "It's the flip side of why porn spreads. The same phenomenon that has led to pornography spreading, a variant of that has made religion one of the most popular topics online. It's that you can explore religious matters in the privacy of your own home; ask questions you might be embarrassed to ask; have conversations with people with some anonymity; and do it anytime day or night."This "anonymity combined with intimacy,"Waldman says, makes people "more inclined to open up,"since they aren't revealing themselves totally.

To which one wants to say: Doesn't that metaphor give you pause? Is a technique that has made pornography into the Internet'?s number-one business really a good idea for religion, the Internet's number-two business?
And his rousing conclusion is "Shut off your computer. Take a deep breath. Go to church." Good advice.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Movie

I'm not sure why it was called Century of the Dragon, but it was a half-way decent movie. Or perhaps 2/3. The movie was about an hour and a half and the first hour was actually pretty good. Our hero is an undercover cop who is assigned to get close to a Hong Kong triad leader so that he can be arrested and convicted for his nefarious activities. Unfortunately for the investigation, the triad boss "retires" into legitimate business just about the time the cop is slipped into the triad. The cop is kept in with the expectation that the triad boss will backslide, but now the cop has a dilemma. Should he make an effort to prevent his boss from slipping back into crime or should he just watch and nail him when he does? And then the situation becomes further complicated when a young up-and-comer in the triad makes a play to eliminate the old boss to cement himself at the top of triad. Very well done, and interesting. But then the climactic 3rd reel left many loose ends, and didn't seem very consistent with the earlier portrayals of the characters. So much promise, so little fulfillment.

My Library

I noted a couple days ago that I had run across Library Thing, an online book cataloguing tool. I've now reached the limit of 200 books for a free account. I'm not going to spend for a lifetime membership just yet, but that will probably be soon. For now, you can see a 200 book sample of my collection here.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Books

Finished reading a couple books in the last few days. One was J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator by Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull. It wasn't too bad. I'm not very interested in art criticism, really, so the text wasn't all terribly interesting, but it had about 200 colour and black and white plates of Tolkien's drawings, paintings and sketches, and all of those were most interesting. He really was a good visual artist as well as being talented with the written word. I'd strongly recommend anyone interested in Tolkien to at least find it at their library to see the pictures. There are quite a few very beautiful and interesting pictures that I don't believe one can see anywhere else.

The other book was Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. I finally broke down and read it, and while Mark Twain's remark that any library is a good library even if all it has is a lack of Jane Austen's books is still funny, I don't think it's accurate. It's an interesting novel and she does a nice job of drawing the characters in a very believable way. They are not all carbon copies of one another, nor are they flat and two-dimensional. And Mr Bennet is quite funny. Forget Mr Darcy, Elizabeth and the others, he was my favourite character by a clear margin. Even though it is a novel about relationships and falling in love, it's too well written to simply class it as "chick-lit". I didn't think I'd say this, but I'd recommend it.

It's a Library, uh, Thing.

Mmmm... home-made apple pie. (Eating as I post.)

I found an interesting book-cataloguing tool on the web. Someone had it linked, but I don't remember who it was. (Sorry about that whoever you are!) It is called, as you might have guessed, "Library Thing". What makes this device cool is both the various ways in which one can organise one's collection of books and how easy it makes it to input one's library into the catalogue itself. Most books are quickly found through Amazon, which allows one to have a thumbnail picture of the cover along with the other information. But even if it isn't at Amazon, the search function allows one to find it via a number of university libraries or through the Library of Congress. There are other neat features, but I'll leave it for you to discover them yourself.

When you first visit the page, you can sign up for an account simply by picking a user-name and a password. It is really and truly that simple. The free account doesn't expire, but it does only allow you to enter 200 books into your catalogue. For $10 you can enter unlimited books for a year. (After it expires, your books aren't removed, but you can't add any new books.) Or for $25 you can get a lifetime account.

I've only got a little over 100 books entered, so the widget for displaying a random selection of books from one's catalogue is a bit limited for me. I have a selection of five in the sidebar to the left. I haven't purchased a lifetime account, but I think I will if I have some Christmas money this year.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Book Excerpt

I had intended to blog this while I was actually reading Dreadnought, but I never got around to it. Still, I found it interesting enough that I'm going to put it up now.

In reaching out to Germany, [Joseph] Chamberlain ignored a centuries-old precept of English history: to survive and prosper, England must always ally herself with the weaker power or powers in Europe. Otherwise, allied to the strongest power, England finds herself in a subordinate role, her interests and independence subject to the dictates of the strongest power. Only by rallying the weaker states into a coalition to oppose the strongest power can England prevent Continental hegemony and preserve her own security. This was the lesson taught when England created alliances against Philip II of Spain, Louis XIV of France, and Napoleon Bonaparte.

Cinema

Watched a few movies this weekend. All starred Jackie Chan, but two were good and the other was not. The first movie was the one that wasn't any good. City Hunter is about a private eye who ends up fighting terrorists on a cruise ship after tailing the girl he was supposed to find on board. Sounds like your average action/martial arts film, yes? The difference was that this movie was awful. So awful that let us never speak of it again.

Second was a somewhat early Jackie Chan movie, The Young Master. It wasn't too bad. The fighting was very stylised, like most kung-fu movies of that period and very dissimilar from his later roles. There aren't really any spectacular stunts like he worked into his later movies, but the fighting is impressive and it's obvious that he had a great deal more flexibility and agility at this younger age compared to his more recent outings. (No surprise, he was a mere 26 in this film, compared to 49 when his last American hit, Shanghai Knights, was released.)

Finally, I watched The Legend of Drunken Master, which was, I believe, the second of about four in a series. This was the only one of which I am aware that was released to theaters in the US. It's got some good fights, a few neat stunts and the plot isn't abysmally awful, though there are several moments of preachiness about how China has to defend itself from those evil foreigners who want only to degrade and hold back China. All in all, not a bad Jackie Chan flick.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Words, words, words.

Finished a book yesterday (first new book in a while). Dreadnought by Robert K. Massie, which was a pretty good book. Very informative, but not as much about battleships as one might have thought from the title. In large part the book was about the people and the circumstances that led to the creation of the battleship and how that in turn helped lead to the First World War. (Of course, the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was the spark, but this book talks about how the conditions that provided tinder for the spark.) A great deal of the book dealt with the various people in Germany and England in the years before the war that were influential in their respective governments. I learned a great deal more about people of which I had heard, Bismarck, Tirpitz, Kaiser William, Jacky Fisher, Lloyd George and others, and I learned a great deal about people whose names were new to me, such as von Bulow, Holstein, Eulenberg, Lord Lansdowne, Charles Beresford, and Edward Grey to name a few.

It's a decent-sized book, about 900 pages, but it goes pretty quickly once one is started and away. The author does a good job of bringing the characters to life and making the time period come alive, which is no mean feat for a time both similar and yet so different. The book does feel a bit long when one reads it, mostly, I think, because he covers so many different people in depth. There is a lot of moving back and forth and re-covering points in time from different points of view that much of the book feels a bit redundant. It doesn't stop it all from being interesting, but if one is primarily interested in the politics of the situation instead of the personalities, this book could probably be edited down to 600 pages or less. Still, I'd recommend it to anyone interested in the period or in history in general.

Geometric Puzzle

Neat little puzzle game linked in the Corner today. I think these are called tangrams. (Yes, they are. Thank you, Google.) Score on my first try (because after you've done all the puzzles it would just become how well you can remember and how fast you move the mouse) was 909. EDIT: It seems that it reloads a random set of 7 puzzles each time, not just the same 7 over and over.

Friday, November 18, 2005

World Cup

I'm not a fan of soccer. (Much like Twain's famous remark about idiots and members of Congress, I would say that "Women's Soccer" is a redundancy.) But I do agree with the sentiments expressed here. I'm all for giving the Israelis a fair shake and finding ways to put pressure on the Iranian government. Surely this is something at which even the Europeans wouldn't balk? On the other hand, one should never underestimate the ability of Europeans to be foolishly soft and outrageously anti-Semitic.

Hah!

Seen floating about the internet...

The British are feeling the pinch in relation to recent bombings and have raised their security level from "Miffed" to "Peeved." Soon though, security levels may be raised yet again to "Irritated" or even "A Bit Cross." Londoners have not been "A Bit Cross" since the blitz in 1940 when tea supplies all but ran out. Terrorists have been re-categorised from "Tiresome" to a "Bloody Nuisance." The last time the British issued a "Bloody Nuisance" warning level was during the great fire of 1666.

Also, the French government announced yesterday that it has raised its terror alert level from "Run" to "Hide". The only two higher levels in France are "Surrender" and "Collaborate." The rise was precipitated by a recent fire that destroyed France's white flag factory, effectively paralysing the country's military capability.

It's not only the English and French that are on a heightened level of alert. Italy has increased the alert level from "shout loudly and excitedly" to "elaborate military posturing". Two more levels remain, "ineffective combat operations" and "change sides".

The Germans also increased their alert state from "disdainful arrogance" to "dress in uniform and sing marching songs". They also have two higher levels: "invade a neighbour" and "lose".

Belgians, on the other hand, are all on holiday as usual and the only threat they worry about is NATO pulling out of Brussels.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Continuing our theme....

Next on the list of home-made weapons is... your very own portable flame-thrower! Seriously, I would not recommend actually building this one, but he does include the details on how he did it. Heck, it's probably illegal most places, but the pictures are kinda neat.

As Seen in Half-Life!

Now you can build your own sentry gun that will automatically track and shoot intruders! Not only is the idea cool, and it is even cooler that he details how it was done so you can do it yourself, he includes videos of testing it on his younger brother. That's just awesome.

Monday, November 14, 2005

I feel the need.

The need for speed. That movie was awful, but this movie is awesome. Seen it linked about a bit, but didn't see it myself until this morning, and Steve had the first link I saw. Oh. My. Goodness. That was amazing.

Technology Breakthrough!

Bibliophile that I am, I was entertained by this. Which was the second item in this post.

B.O.O.K.

Introducing the new Bio-Optic Organized Knowledge device—trade-named: BOOK.

BOOK is a revolutionary breakthrough in technology: no wires, no electric circuits, no batteries, nothing to be connected or switched on. It’s so easy to use, even a child can operate it.

Compact and portable, it can be used anywhere—even sitting in an armchair by the fire—yet it is powerful enough to hold as much information as a CD-ROM.

Here’s how it works: BOOK is constructed of sequentially numbered sheets of recyclable paper, each capable of holding thousands of bits of information. The pages are locked together with a custom-fit device called a binder which keeps the sheets in their correct sequence.

Opaque Paper Technology (OPT) allows manufacturers to use both sides of the sheet, doubling the information density and cutting costs. Experts are divided on the prospects for further increases in information density; for now, BOOKs with more information simply use more pages. Each sheet is scanned optically, registering information directly into your brain. A flick of the finger takes you to the next sheet.

BOOK may be taken up at any time and used merely by opening it.

BOOK never crashes or requires rebooting, though, like other devices, it can become damaged if coffee is spilled on it and it becomes unusable if dropped too many times on a hard surface. The “browse” feature allows you to move instantly to any sheet, and move forward or backward as you wish. Many come with an “index” feature, which pin-points the exact location of any selected information for instant retrieval.

An optional “BOOKmark” accessory allows you to open BOOK to the exact place you left it in a previous session—even if the BOOK has been closed. BOOKmarks fit universal design standards; thus, a single BOOKmark can be used in BOOKs by various manufacturers. Conversely, numerous BOOK markers can be used in a single BOOK if the user wants to store numerous views at once. The number is limited only by the number of pages in the BOOK. You can also make personal notes next to BOOK text entries with optional programming tools, Portable Erasable Nib Cryptic Intercommunication Language Styli (PENCILS).

Portable, durable, and affordable, BOOK is being hailed as a precursor of a new entertainment wave. BOOK’s appeal seems so certain that thousands of content creators have committed to the platform and investors are reportedly flocking to invest. Look for a flood of new titles soon.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Cinema

Since I'm talking about movies, this weekend, I got a couple movies from the library which were dramatically different from one another. Both ended up being okay, but I don't think I'd recommend either one really.

First up was The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. This was, without a doubt, one of the weirdest movies I have ever seen in my life. Right up there with Novocaine. What made this movie so weird was that it was, in places, obviously a comedy. In other places, it wasn't obvious. It's not that it just wasn't funny, like all comedies are in places, but that at times it didn't even seem to be trying to be funny. And it didn't seem to go anywhere. The movie was like a treadmill. There was a lot of running, but when it was all over we were exactly where we started. Some parts were great; the interns, Jeff Goldblum and Anjelica Huston, and Willem Dafoe were hilarious. Others were not so great, most notably Owen Wilson and Cate Blanchett and about half of Bill Murray's scenes, which was unfortunate since he was in just about every scene.

The other movie I watched was a Hong Kong police/crime/action/comedy movie, Curry and Pepper. One of the stars was Steven Chow, he of Kung-fu Hustle fame (which I liked). This movie was less a movie than a gigantic mish-mash of cliches put on film. It had everything from the scarred super-villain to the beautiful news reporter to the Odd-Couple-esque detective partners to the Police Chief who threatens our heroes with suspension for their maverick tactics. When an actor (Steven Chow in this case) makes 11 movies in a year, it's probably a safe bet that most of them won't be fantastic.

Wasabi

Luc Besson is an odd duck. This is the man who brought us Leon, (aka The Professional) an excellent film. He is also the man who brought us The Fifth Element, a less than stellar film. Besides directing these, he has been involved with a large number of other films, some good and some that are not so good.

Recently, I watched a film that he produced, Wasabi, which has been called "Quite Possibly The Greatest French-Language, English-Subtitled, Japanese Action-Comedy Of All Time." Seeing as it is the only movie of which I am aware that fits into such a lengthily titled category, I'd be inclined to agree. And it isn't a bad movie. It's certainly not one to take seriously, and if you think about it too hard, the plot comes apart like a Lego™ construction that has been tossed up into a ceiling fan set on high. (Which is fun, but you should never do this when your mother is home.) And, as my wife pointed out, despite the ludicrous premise, the movie itself is rather straightforward with a distinct lack of twists. I'd recommend it.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Fakin' It

An interesting little test which measures one's ability to detect fake smiles. According to the information at the end, most people have difficulty in picking out fake smiles. I managed 15 out of 20, which seems pretty good to me, though they don't have statistics on what the average person manages.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

WOW, or Why I Stopped Blogging for Ten Days.

Blogging has suffered as of late because I've been very taken up with something else that is fairly time-intensive. A friend of mine gave me a ten day trial of World of Warcraft, that MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game) that all the cool kids are playing. I've gotten to know all kinds of leet-speak, excuse me, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leet. I know what it means to "pwn" or why I don't want to be a "n00b". Yes, you should now "ph34r" my "m4d sk1llz".

On a more serious note, WOW is the first MMORPG (they really need a more wieldy acronym) I've played, and maybe they're all this cool, I don't know. But this is, without a doubt, the most enjoyable game I've ever played. I'm not sure what all the reasons for this are. I'll speculate a bit, and maybe I'll figure it out a bit better by writing this down. First of all, the game is both simple and complex. The movement is the classic WASD with which any PC gamer (as opposed to console gamers; not trying to slight you Steve!) is familiar. (For those not in the know, W moves forward, S backward and A and D left and right.) Interacting with the world is done in large part with simple left and right clicking on the mouse, and with a minimum of reading in the manual, one can sort out how to do various other moderately more complex tasks. Complexity enters in when one considers the vast number of things that one can do. Indeed, there are many more things than any one character can do. Not only can you fight and kill monsters, but you can prepare and consume some of the animals you can hunt. You can skin them and use the leather to make objects. You can create various magical items using arcane combinations of items. You can find plants with which to make healing potions or deadly poisons. You can mine metals and minerals and fashion tools and weapons. But you cannot do them all with a single character. So now you have to trade, barter, sell and buy with other players. You can also buy things from computer operated vendors (NPCs, Non-Player Characters), but to get the good stuff, you need to deal with other players.

The characters themselves are amazing too. There are 8 playable "races", with the standard Humans, Dwarves, Elves and Orcs, but also with the Undead, Gnomes and Trolls and the unique Tauren (large, anthropomorphic bovines and yes, it is cooler than that sounds). Within these, one can choose from a number of "classes" Warrior, Shaman, Warlock, Druid, Mage, Priest, Paladin, Rogue and Hunter. Not every race can be every class. Taurens, for example, can only be Druids, Hunters, Shamans, and Warriors. There are 9 Primary Professions, of which each character can learn only 2. These are things like Herbalism, Alchemy, Leatherworking, Mining and Engineering. It is suggested that one choose two complementary professions, Mining and Blacksmithing perhaps, that allow one to both gather raw materials and then use them to manufacture items.

Right. So there's a bunch to do. How easy is it to do it all? Not very. I've been playing like a madman trying to get as much done as I can in the limited time that I have, and I've gotten one character about 18 levels of experience out of a maximum of 60 in a matter of about 6 days. And each level takes longer than the one before. The first 10 levels only took about two days. The next 8 took about 4 days. And the world itself is big. I mean, big. Really, really big. There are two continents with roughly 20 "provinces" on each. And it's taken me days to partially explore two. The variety of monsters is astounding. I'm sure that most places differ in a similar way, and there are probably hundreds of different kinds of monsters to find.

The only bad news is that I don't really have the $15 a month the game costs in my current budget. So, I've only got about 4 more days of playing left. But really, this is the greatest computer game I've ever played.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005