Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Books: Dust of Dreams

Yesterday evening I finished reading Dust of Dreams, the latest book in the Malazan Book of the Fallen series by Steven Erikson. The Malazan books have been some of my favorites over the last few years, while I read through years of the previously released books in the series eventually catching up to current last year with Toll the Hounds.

The books and series are somewhat uneven. The settings and characters change frequently often to things that seem completely unrelated and irrelevant until eventually things come back together. Sometimes that 'coming back together' doesn't even happen in the same book, which can be frustrating. But when you look at the series at a whole, and some of the individual books, there is a lot to reward your patience.

Unfortunately, despite being the 9th book in a 10 book series, Dust of Dreams fell into the 'random people and no sensible backstory' trap and ended up being quite disappointing. It took much longer to read then other books have because I found it confusing and fairly boring overall. It also leaned much more heavily on symbolism then previous books and that only added to the feeling like I didn't know what the hell was going on. Which was crazy since I had read Toll the Hounds fairly recently and immediately before this book had re-read books one and two in the series (and greatly enjoyed the re-read), so I was familiar with what had happened up to that point.

I suppose part of the problem was that after Toll the Hounds my expectations were pretty high for Dust of Dreams, even though I knew that it went back to a group of characters that are not my favorites.

Now, the good thing was that the book ended strong, very strong, with a cliffhanger leading into the final book. My hope is that Erikson can resist the urge to add new characters and plot lines in the last book, focus on the characters that we've had close to ten thousand pages to grow to love, and wrap things up. Or, he might decide to write about 7 new characters wandering through the desert slowly starving to death while reciting poetry. Cause, you know, that worked so well in Dust of Dreams.


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Sunday, March 28, 2010

Movies

I was looking back at past posts today and realized it has been a while since I collected up random movie reviews into a post. The weather has been nicer lately, so there aren't quite as many to touch on for March as there were back in February.

Angels & Demons: I thought this was entertaining if predictable. I haven't read any of Dan Brown's books, but I did watch The Davinci Code when it came out for rental. Not having read the books, as far as I can tell, is actually a plus since a mystery where you already know the ending is somewhat less fun. It also allows me to not get hung up on things like Angels & Demons being a prequel, or the major plot changes that adaption to a movie brings.

Flight of the Conchords: Season 2: I enjoyed season 1, even if it was somewhat uneven in how funny it was. Season 2 was even more uneven and that made me not enjoy it very much. There were a few episodes that were good but there were also many that just didn't do it for me. I watched this while exercising and that may have increased my frustration with the slow-paced shows.

Up in the Air: Linzy and I watched this a few weekends ago and I mentioned it here. It was pretty good, if a bit depressing. I was interested in how it handled business travel, glamorizing it to some extent but also touching on some of the bigger ways that it sucks. I can definitely relate to the desire for miles, if not for the miles themselves, for the upgrades that come with them.

Whiteout: Linzy and I watched this a couple weeks back and both found it interesting. The setting in Antarctica added some excitement to an otherwise fairly normal murder mystery. There were a few parts when you wanted to yell at the characters for being so stupid, but it was OK overall.

Anvil: The Story of Anvil: I watched this while exercising and enjoyed it quite a bit. I had never heard of Anvil, but I had seen a trailer for the movie back when it was originally in limited release. The documentary of the like of an 'almost made it' rock band, the relationship of the two founding members still trying to do what they love, the struggles of putting a tour together with no money, etc made for interesting viewing. I thought that the director did a good job of respectfully showing their lives and dreams. It would have been easy to do a Spinal Tap treatment and make a mockery of two guys trying to live their dream while also not covering up the fact that most of the time they were playing to empty bars.

Fullmetal Alchemist: The movie: I enjoyed the original Fullmetal Alchemist TV series, but it has been a many, many years since I watched it. That made the movie (which follows along after the TV series) pretty confusing at first. I couldn't remember who some of the characters were, who had turned out to be evil, etc. Eventually it all came back and I thought the movie was OK. Not nearly as good as the TV shows, however.

We Are Marshall: I watched this while exercising this weekend and it was terrific. The blurb on the back cover calls it an inspiring drama, and that's about as accurate a summary as you can possibly get. I didn't know anything about the Marshall football team's plane crash, but the movie was gripping, well-paced, and featured terrific acting. You couldn't help but cheer for the players, coaches and team as they tried to put the football program, and town, back together after having 75 people die in a plane crash. You don't have to like football movies to enjoy We are Marshall. Although that doesn't hurt.


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Thursday, March 25, 2010

I Need You to Trust Me

The last week or so I've been re-watching 24: Season 1 while I exercise. I've owned the DVDs for a long time (Linzy got them for me at Christmas a while back) but I've never gone back and actually watched them. But now that there's no Netflix streaming in the exercise area delays in DVD shipping mean I'm watching more discs that we have around the house.

Anyways, watching season 1 again years later is an interesting experience, as I remembered some of what happened but not all of the specifics. It is also interesting to compare the show with how it has changed over the years and also not changed over the years. Watching episode 7, where Jack appears to kill Nina and the episode ends with you finding out she is still alive, is a perfect example of how good the writing on that show could be. I distinctly remembered watching that the first time and thinking "wow, this show is awesome". It was pretty cool the second time too, except for wanting to shout "She's evil, don't trust her" at the TV.

Of course I also remember how crazy the show generally gets by the end of the season, and how I am usually tired of it by the time they've 'solved' the first conspiracy only to find out there is an even crazier one behind it. On the other hand, season 1 ends with the most completely unexpected twist of all, when Teri is offed with just minutes left in the 'day'.

I haven't watched the show for a while (not since Season 6), after they refused to let Netflix have 24: Redemption. But I might just have to start watching it again.

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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Compromise

It's been well documented here how much trouble Linzy and I generally have trying to agree on new furniture to buy. Lately with the new house there were several rooms that needed additional furniture, so we've been doing an awful lot of furniture shopping. We still haven't gotten much better at buying new furniture but when it comes to used Craigslist furniture we're like crazy impulse shoppers. In the past month or so we've bought three tables and a sleigh bed.

For some reason we've been having a much easier time agreeing on used furniture then we do for new furniture. In the case of the sleigh bed we had to rent a truck to pick it up, which effectively amounted to us buying it sight-unseen. Which is completely not the way that normal furniture purchases go.

I suppose the main difference is the pricing, as we aren't buying the high-end multi-thousand dollar furniture that people are always trying to hawk, but rather modestly priced items in good condition. But at the same time, I don't think the pricing is the whole story. Perhaps it is a desire to quickly fill any mostly empty rooms, or pent-up demand for furniture that we would never have been able to fit into our old house, or my pleasure in seeing Linzy excited about finding deals on nice furniture.

But whatever the reason, I've found it interesting how much different it's been.

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Monday, March 22, 2010

Accurate Recommendations

The other day I was on Netflix updating our queue and I noticed a recommended "Instant" show: Everest: Beyond the Limit. The show was recommended with 4 stars, which is pretty rare and so I added it to the queue. Linzy and I watched the six-episode first season over the past week or so and were completely hooked.

The show followed a bunch of random people who were trying to climb Mount Everest with Russell Brice's climbing company. It covered the six weeks spent on the mountain acclimatizing, and then the several day stretch when the teams actually tried for the summit.

It was really interesting seeing all the challenges of trying to get to the summit, the totally unexpected way things could go wrong, and the struggles people went through. Probably the most amazing climber was Mark Inglis, who was a double-amputee and the first double amputee to reach the summit of Everest. The show was a little drawn out, but it was still exciting to see who was going to make it to the top and all of the drama that happened along the way.

I'm sure we'll also be watching season 2, but I highly recommend Everest: Beyond the Limit Season 1.

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Sunday, March 21, 2010

Minimum Standards

Yesterday I spent some time browsing the local hardware stores for shelving/organizational products for the still-messy garage. The main goal was to get something for hanging the shovels and rakes on the wall rather then having them in a pile leaning against the wall.

Since this is a garage, the main criteria was 'cheap'. After looking at Home Depot, I decided that I didn't really want to spend $20 on each three foot section of hanger mounts, so I went across the street to Menards. There I discovered something that I didn't think existed: a minimum standard for just how cheap a product I am willing to put into my garage.

Everything Menards had was cheaper then Home Depot, which was the point of going there, but it was also nearly all crap. There was a Rubbermaid system that looked nice, but it was even more expensive then what I had already rejected at Home Depot. The rest of the stuff was really cheap looking, such as a tin-foil thickness metal hanger with bendable tabs for hanging things.

I ended up going back to Home Depot and buying one of their more moderately priced hangers. If you had asked me before I went out looking, I would honestly have said I was just going to buy whatever the cheapest one was, since it was for hanging rakes on after all. Unfortunately I am now embarrassed to admit that I am a shovel-hanger snob.


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Thursday, March 18, 2010

No Parking

The other morning I was running late after having late conference calls the night before and so I got to my bus stop at a different time then normal. I was expecting to be in-between buses, but when I got there a bus was sitting at the normal spot ready to go. There was also another bus behind it, but there was no driver so I didn't think anything of it and got onto the first bus.

A few minutes later while I was settled in and not paying attention all of the sudden there was all kinds of commotion and a second driver yelling at the bus driver. Then one person slowly stood up and looked around very confused, and got off the bus. Other people slowly started tickling out, looking around at each other with expressions like "What's happening? Why are we getting off?".

It turned out that the first bus was actually supposed to be a later bus, but had arrived early. And rather then parking back off to the side like normal, he had pulled up to the front as if it was his turn to pick up passengers. The other bus driver had gotten there later, been confused for a bit but eventually got on the first bus to 'inform' (that is yell at) that driver to kick everyone off and go back to his waiting area.

Let me tell you, when you are half asleep and used to just getting on the bus and being driven downtown, it was all very confusing.

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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Discount

On the day we moved into the new house, we put up some temporary paper blinds on the windows in the master bedroom and bathroom. The blinds were something my boss recommended, you can buy them at Home Depot for a couple bucks, cut them to size, and then stick them to the window frame. They didn't look too bad, considering, and worked well for the past 6 weeks. The fact that they worked well slowed down the process of getting real blinds because, well, those are expensive and the paper ones were fine.

On Monday we finally had our regular blinds (Hunter Douglas) installed, and they of course look much nicer then the temporary ones. The interesting thing about the blinds was the pricing schemes. As far as I can tell, everyone offers discount blinds. The actual discount varies, but as far as I can tell it is not actually possible to buy full-priced blinds.

But even among discounted places the prices vary widely. We had a 'budget' blind place come out and give an estimate that was pretty outrageous. After doing some research on the different products we switched things to a lower level (but still nice) blind and cut the price by about 30%. From there we compared with AmericanBlinds.com, and found that the exact same blinds were another 20% cheaper.

Now normally I'd be inclined to give the business to the guy who came out and spent time with us. But when you are talking an entire house full of blinds, 20% is real money. Then on a whim I searched on the Internet for a coupon for American Blinds and found a 15% off the whole order coupon in the first 30 seconds.

That brought the price for everything (including measuring and professional installation through the website) to less then half the original estimate and less then a third of list price. I was pretty happy with the whole process as the blinds look great and even though we bought fancier blinds then I was originally planning on, the price came in almost right on budget. That's a rare, rare thing around Chez Eck these days.

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Monday, March 15, 2010

Home Sweet Mud Pit

DSC_5084We're still several months from having grass at the new house, and the melting snow over the past few weeks has reminded us of just how muddy those months are going to be.

I never really considered what a difference grass made in separating a yard from something you would take a monster truck through. Right now our 'yard' consists of about 6 inches of super sloppy mud. Linzy walked around the house with a guy doing gutter estimates and was sinking into the ground up to her calves.

This wouldn't necessarily be so bad, except that Pippen still has to go outside many times a day, and as far as I can tell has mastered the art of sizing up the yard in a single glance so as to take the most mud-filled path from the door to the sidewalk possible. We still have a long road ahead at this point, as the irrigation system can't be installed until sometime in mid-to-late-May and there's landscaping to lay out, all before the grass can be put in.

Hopefully by late June these muddy months will be a distant memory.


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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Quick Weekend

This weekend just seemed to fly by. Friday we had an emergency at work that ended up taking until early morning Saturday, and then took up most of Saturday as well. Linzy and I did find time to watch Up in the Air, which was pretty good. Saturday night was an early one since I had not gotten much sleep on Friday night.

Today there was more fallout at work but we did find time to get outside and enjoy the weather a bit, as well as buy a new sleigh bed frame off Craigslist. Then we went over to my parent's house to celebrate my Dad's birthday with some tasty steaks and a cake with homemade frosting that Linzy made.

And just like that the weekend was over, as if it never was. I must admit, even with all of the unexpected time working this weekend, the nice weather outside certainly makes it hard to be grumpy. Hopefully we're out of winter mode and into spring permanently.

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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Up in Arms

The big topic of discussion around our neighborhood is the news that our builder replaced their entire selection of houses for this area with new ones that cost about 25% less then the going rate. Which is, of course, about 25% less then what the unfortunate souls who bought at the peak paid.

Since the neighborhood is only half developed in the current phase and there is another phase that will be entirely the new style houses, the style of house everyone has today will be vastly outnumbered by the new type. It is pretty amazing how passionate people are about this topic, when they basically have no control over what happens.

Ostensibly the concern is because the new houses have significantly less fancy exteriors and so won't 'fit in'. In reality, of course, everyone is worried about the further drag on prices since the new houses are still reasonably close in square footage, but will be driving down the all important average price/sq ft metric that real estate comparables are all about.

With the expiration of the tax credit looming, the builder is also speccing the shit out of the neighborhood, as they race to build homes ahead of this spring's expected buying frenzy. As of right now there are three specs fully completed (old style), one being framed, one being dug, and four staked out for digging.

I guess on the good side we won't even remotely be the 'new neighbors' in a few months, and those real estate taxes should go down along with our valuations. Got to look on the bright side, right?


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Monday, March 08, 2010

Exacting Patience

When I was a kid, I loved the concept of the game Mouse Trap. I didn't actually like the game, because it was a bit boring, the contraption never quite worked right, and in general it wasn't as cool in practice as I imagined it to be. Despite the disappointment of Mouse Trap (a game that we didn't own BTW), I still appreciate a good Rube-Goldberg machine. At least in part because I know I would never, ever have the patience to setup something that elaborate over and over again until everything worked flawlessly.

Thus I was extremely impressed tonight by the video for "This Too Shall Pass" by Ok Go. I can't imagine trying to set something like that up and then make all of the timing work perfectly with the song. It just blows my mind, but if you haven't seen the video it is well worth watching:



I also enjoyed the Wired article on how they built it, with some additional behind-the-scenes type videos.

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Sunday, March 07, 2010

Linear

Like the huge Final Fantasy fanboy that I am, I've been keeping an eye on the reviews of the new Final Fantasy XIII that comes out on Tuesday. In general they have been positive, in the 80-90% range, but there's been much talk about the 'linear' nature of the gameplay. Particularly, the first 20 hours or so which have been repeatedly called out for the lack of decision-making allowed to the player.

The thing that I can't figure out is how this is thought to be any different from basically every Final Fantasy game ever made. Oh, to be sure, there's been varying degrees of how much control you had, but especially early in the game you have to expect being lead around by the nose collecting characters in predetermined groupings until somewhere halfway through or so you are finally allowed to construct your own parties and go where you want.

Sometimes you're even given the illusion of freedom, but until you get the airship, whatever mode of travel you have is likely carefully limited only to places you are 'supposed to go'. And the towns you can visit usually don't offer side quests until the end game.

So, given that, I'm thoroughly confused at how every review makes such a big issue over the linear gameplay. Either they're waxing nostalgic about what other games were really like, or they feel that today's gamer demands more.

In my case, one of the things that I like about JRPGs is the focused storyline and clear direction for experiencing a balanced adventure. So negative reviews, admitted lack of time to actually play a game of this scope, and the graphics quality issues of the XBox 360 version will likely not stop me from picking it up soon. Although I did make a half-hearted attempt to get Linzy to let me buy a Blu-Ray player (Playstation 3). She didn't go for it, so low-resolution 360 version it is.


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Thursday, March 04, 2010

True Love

DSC_3779Our dog Pippen has gotten fat. The stress of moving this summer apparently triggered her to overcompensate with food, until she ballooned up to close to 11 pounds (from 9.5). It doesn't sound like much, but 15% weight gain make a big difference.

So, much to her dismay, we started rationing Pippen's food to a limited amount in the morning and evening. This has been working pretty well, and she is basically back down to where her weight should be. But it also inspires all sorts of annoying/bizarre behavior related to her food.

In the mornings when I get up, when I come out of the closet dressed, she is already sitting by the bedroom door ready to head downstairs. I let her outside, where she sprints out into the yard, does her business, and runs back to the house as fast as she possibly can. Then she spends a minute working up the courage to brave the hardwood floor into the kitchen, while I go and get her food.

By the time I get back in the room with her jar of food, she is sitting in front of the bowl waiting. She dutifully waits until the food is poured and permission is given to eat, and then proceeds to scarf down her food. By the time I've walked over to the other side of the kitchen and gotten a bowl, she is usually done. Before I've gotten to the pantry for cereal, she's already gone back upstairs and back to bed.

Because, you know, she's already eaten, so what point would there be in continuing to hang out with me? Total time spent on the entire process: about 3 minutes.


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Wednesday, March 03, 2010

DId You Hear That?

For some reason last week I watched quite a few movies. It seems like we did a lot of other things as well, so I'm not quite sure why so much time was spent on movies.

Inglorious Basterds: I watched this while exercising and enjoyed it quite a bit. I was not particularly expecting to like it based on previews but after hearing good things from a few people I decided to add it to the queue. It wasn't as disturbingly violent as I was expecting (though it did have its moments) and I thought the story was interesting.

Jarhead: I randomly started watching while I was waiting for Linzy to return from running errands. I ended up getting intrigued and finished it later in the weekend when I found that it was streamable. Unfortunately it didn't really turn out to be as good as I was hoping. It was a different sort of look at being a soldier, but overall I found it a bit boring. Although that could be the point since it primarily focuses on the strains of dealing with the lack of activity in war.

Guild Season 2: Very entertaining, and much more polished then the first season. I'm eager to watch season 3.

Paranormal Activity: Linzy and I watched this together one night with all the lights out in the house and it definitely made you jumpy. Linzy said that for the past week every time she hears a noise at night she wakes up in a cold sweat. For a $15,000 budget it was a pretty entertaining movie. In a lot of ways it is reminiscent of Blair Witch, with a bit more polish and far less shaky camera work. If you like your horror movies tense and without monsters, this comes highly recommended.


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Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Postal Service

I saw today that the postal service is talking about making changes to try to balance their books given the huge decline in mail volumes over the past 10 years. Among the things you might expect, like raising stamp prices and cutting jobs, they are also looking at reducing service to weekdays-only.

For the most part, this doesn't seem like something most people are going to get up in arms about. These days we get very little in the mail that is actually important. Mostly bills, a couple magazines, the occasional card or letter, etc. Getting that on Monday instead of Saturday is not going to spark a vehement debate. Except for that red Netflix envelope.

While we stream as many movies as we can from Netflix, the vast majority of the new movies we watch are regular DVDs from their mail service. No Saturday delivery means more delays in getting the movies back and forth, and those rising stamp prices probably mean that costs will be going up.

Still probably not enough for me to get all up-in-arms about postal service changes, but it does hit a little closer to home then thinking that I might not get those junk mail airline credit card offers until a few days later.

Mostly it just reminds me how much I wish that the movie studios would join the rest of us in the year 2007 and understand that streaming movies are not different from having a Netflix DVD in my hands. In fact at least with streaming they don't have to worry about the movie being ripped to an iPod.

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