Saturday, July 29, 2006

I'm sure everyone has been eagerly awaiting my account of Comic-Con 2006. With this damn heat, I've been too lazy to type it up, preferring instead to spend my time staring vacantly into space. But today the heat wave seems to have broken a bit (though the humidity remains), and I was even able to venture to the gym (it actually occurred to me to go down there and go ice skating for the first time in my life, but neither Saturday session was well-timed for me, so I just ended up on a treadmill), so perhaps today is as good a time as any to type about my brief exploration of this years Comic-Con extravaganza.

I suppose I should start with Saturday, since I never got in the building, and it shouldn't take too long to explain why. Generally, I buy the four-day pass well in advance, at a substantial savings. Even if you miss a day, you still come out way ahead on the deal. But I kept putting off the purchase, and as I only planned on attending Friday and Saturday, I decided to just purchase day passes for those two days. So Thursday night, I registered for Friday online. I decided not to purchase a pass for Saturday at that time, so that if I saw everything on Friday, and decided I didn't want to go back on Saturday, I could back off. It seemed a sensible decision, as I hadn't been as excited about Comic-Con as I had in the past (though by Thursday, I was beginning to get Comic-Con Fever). So when I got home on Saturday, around 10:30 or so, I went to register for Saturday, only to find that online registration had been closed due to this year's increase in attendance. Registration on-site Saturday would be available, but not guaranteed.

That didn't sound good, but I decided I had to go try to get in, so I got up Saturday morning and took the trolley down to the convention center. I was expecting a long line, but not what awaited me. The line for on-site registration reached down behind the Hyatt hotel, down to Seaport Village. I gamely tried to find the end of the line for about ten minutes or so, but soon came to the realization that there was no way I would get inside the convention center; the fire marshall would cut off admission long before I got my turn to register (even if I did get inside, the panels I was most interested in were early in the day, when I would still be in line). So I hiked back to the trolley stop and headed home, with a heavy heart. I got a call just before 2:00 from a friend who got in line right at 10:00, who had just gotten inside, and about fifteen minutes later, I looked online and saw the announcement that on-site registration had been shut down. So there was no way I was getting inside; my decision to return home proved to be a wise one.

I think it was a good thing that online registration was closed, as the line to pick up preordered badges was itself horrendous, and I don't think I would have enjoyed waiting in that line (though I would have eventually gotten in), seeing as I had a pounding headache when I got home, and generally felt like crap all day due to, I believe, a touch of heat exhaustion. It is a credit to Comic-Con that they are responsible enough to shut down registration when the enrollment gets to be too great, rather than just selling more and more tickets for more and more people who will spend the bulk of their Comic-Con experience waiting in line in the stifling heat. My sister often complains about the Star Wars convention she goes to sometimes, which has no problems selling tickets without regard to maximum occupancy, so that the fire Marshall shuts them down, and ticket holders can't enter the convention hall. Comic-Con generally does a great job of managing all the logistics of hosting such a massive event, and deserve praise for their hard efforts.

So that's why I didn't get to go on Saturday. Now let me skip back a day, and tell you what I saw when I did get to go inside, on Friday. There wasn't really anything scheduled early in the day I wanted to see, so I took my time getting there, arriving a bit after 11:00. I hoped that the preregistration line might have died down a tad by then, and it had. I waited about ten minutes at the most to pick up my badge, and soon I was on the floor of the convention center. No sooner had I entered the hall and turned the corner then I was face to face with Lou Ferrigno, who was selling autographed polaroids for $20. It was tempting, but I passed. The Lollipop Kid, one of the munchkins from The Wizard of Oz, was selling a very nice looking autographed picture for a bit more, $35, if memory serves. I considered purchasing one as a gift for my sister, but decided to buy it the next day, instead, as I planned on leaving earlier that day, and wouldn't have to carry it around as long. But that wasn't to be, of course. Billy West was also selling autographed pictures, head shots of himself along with some of the animated characters he voices, but as he signed the CD I purchased last year, I passed on that and just snapped a somewhat unflattering shot of him myself, while he told a story about meeting Jerry Lewis (recently, I believe, though I came late to the story).

Of course, autographs aren't the only thing to be had on the Comic-Con floor, and I spent about half the day covering approximately half of the booths. If you've attended in past years, there were no big surprises to be had. Mostly the same merchants selling the same stuff. A piece of Simpsons artwork caught my eye at the Van Eaton Galleries booth, with all the ancillary characters hanging out in Moe's Tavern, but though the price seemed quite reasonable, I decided to pass, as I have no place for it. The Peanuts booth had some nice T-shirts for sale, including two Snoopy Comic-Con exclusives. But they only had the one I wanted, with a more subdued image of my second-favorite beagle, in large, and they ran small, so I had to get the other one, with a glittery Snoopy that probably won't wear well (and even the extra-large was still quite snug and unflattering on me, so I'll have to slim down a bit before I wear that one in public), along with a T-shirt of Snoopy and Woodstock in a sixties motif. I bought one or two comic books, and contemplated some other purchased, which I planned to make on Saturday. I marveled at the detail in the Little Nemo in Slumberland anthology, which I actually held in my hand for the first time at the Bud Plant booth, but decided that was a luxury purchase I could not presently afford. And I ventured past the merchant booths into the center region, where the Hollywood studios and other big-wigs have their booths. I had to pick up some stormtrooper figures for my sister from the Star Wars booth, which only took fifteen minutes or so. Like the booths on the north end of the convention center, there weren't many huge surprises here, with the same companies promoting the sequels of things they promoted here last year. I did think that video games were more heavily represented. I watched some people try out an Eye Toy video game (I must remember to post here about my experience with the Eye Toy, which I purchased a month or so ago), and various other booths also had demo games available. Most elaborate was the Nintendo booth, which was heavily promoting the DS and its games (I didn't notice any reference to the forthcoming Wii). I unfortunately did not bring my DS, so I was unable to download any of the demos they were offering. In fact, that is my primary regret about not getting in on Saturday, as I brought my DS with me and was eager to download the demos of upcoming games.

The southern end of the convention floor included the booths of various independent publishers and some more comics-related booths. There were several booths in particular I was looking for, and I also was anxious to browse amongst the offerings, but by this point, the floor was getting quite crowded. It felt like a Saturday crowd, and it was getting a bit difficult to move. Not gridlock, just slow-going in getting from one point to another. So I decided to move upstairs to the panels, after grabbing lunch, and to save the south end for Saturday. So I can't tell you what was to be seen down there. I waited in line for twenty minutes to spend $11.25 on a (unappetizing) personal pizza and a Snapple, then took my seat for the panels.

One nice thing about how Friday's schedule worked out, almost everything I wanted to see that afternoon was in the same room. So while I was able to get a pretty good seat for the first panel, I was able to get a prime spot for the following panels (though I left to get some dinner and only had an okay seat for that evening's panel with Robert Smigel and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog).

The first panel was a conversation with low-budget filmmaking pioneer Roger Corman. It was fun to hear Corman talk about his experiences and the various filmmakers, and the discussion of Death Race 2000 was especially entertaining, but some of the discussion of his more recent work for the Sci-Fi channel bored me. He was also hurt a bit by the act following him: It's hard to take his B-movie work too seriously when you're waiting to hear from the cast of the first real A-grade sci-fi motion picture, Forbidden Planet. Richard Anderson, Warren Stevens, and Earl Holliman were in attendance, as was Robbie the Robot, or at least a replica of recent vintage. They were at the Con to promote the upcoming DVD release for the film's 50th anniversary. The discussion was not terribly informative, but they all shared their fondness for the film, and also spoke about their career in general (I was happy to hear Holliman menion his role in the very first episode of The Twilight Zone as a moment of his career he was most fond of. They had Robbie the Robot do his sassy robot schtick, which was cute at times, and fortunately they gave it a rest before it got too old. It was more exciting just to see this eight-foot robot up close (there was no one in this suit, they just wheeled it out on a platform). And they positioned it right in front of me, so I got some good shots of it, and of the cast posing with it. I will definately get the DVD when it comes out. I saw Forbidden Planet as a double-feature with 2001: A Space Oddysey some years back, and I thought that Planet was quite easily the better film.

I had dinner at Trophy's, and then came back for the Smigel panel. During Smigel's introduction, the emcee got interupted by Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, who got lots of laughs ripping on the various events at Comic-Con, explaining that these nerds don't need to sit through boring introductions, because these are "nerds with options". When he learned that this panel was next door to a presentation on "Klingon Lifestyles," he insisted on crashing that panel, and ran off, out of camera and microphone range. I can imagine Triumph the Insult Comic Dog at a Klingon Lifestyles Presentation would be something to see, but sadly, as the Smigel panel had started a bit late, the Klingons were already gone. So we got a little more of Triumph, then Smigel moved on to his T.V. Funhouse work for SNL, which is why he was at Comic-Con. I was concerned the panel would be little more then him showing clips from the DVD, but he actually showed a lot from his archives, including stuff I doubt the lawyers will let him put on the DVD. I especially enjoyed a Christmas T.V. Funhouse he did, using real audio from various preachers perverting the Christmas message, as Jesus looks on in the background, getting pissed off. Finally, Jesus is channel-surfing, disgusted by everything he sees, until he ends up watching Linus on A Charlie Brown Christmas, getting teary-eyed before dancing like Snoopy (I would assume this is available via the tubes of the internet, but I can't seem to find a link that works). He discussed how touching he finds the Peanuts special, adding that he wondered if the image of Jesus moved to tears by a cartoon would get a laugh, but explained that it never does, as most others feel the same about the special as he does. Then he noted that Jeannie Schultz, Charles' widow, was in the audience, and she got a nice round of applause. I was surprised she was attending this panel, and wondered what she thought of some of the more risque cartoons.

In addition to T.V. Funhouse, Smigel went into his archives, showing stuff from pilots he's worked on, and from The Dana Carvey Show, amongst other things. I tend to find Smigel's stuff somewhat hit-or-miss, but I got quite a few laughs from what he showed here, and was very excited to see Triumph the Insult Comic Dog in person.

I intended to attend a screening of some of the worst cartoons ever made, but Smigel ran a bit long, and the line to get in to that screening was quite long by the time I arrived, which meant that this screening would probably start late, and I'd get home quite late as well. I was rather wore out, so I decided not to try to get in to see the cartoons, and went home instead.

Overall, I had a pretty good time at Comic-Con this year, on Friday. Had I known it was the only day I would attend, I would have used my time a bit more wisely. But I saw most of what I wanted to see. As to the panels on Saturday, I regret missing out on the opportunity to see Art Clokey, creator of Gumby. I also was looking forward to confronting the current illustrator of The Family Circus, asking him how he sleeps at night. But there was nothing on Saturday I couldn't live without seeing. I just wish I had brought my Nintendo DS on Friday, so I could have gotten the demos from their download station.

I'll try to get my Comic-Con pictures up tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Ken Jennings insists his snarky comments were actually a joke. It's rather amusing to read Jenning's original post and then the news coverage of the post. Apparently the ability to read, or rather to comprehend, is no longer a prerequisite to a career in journalism. Or maybe I'm just out of touch, and unaware that The Colbert Report is in fact deadly serious.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Top poker players suing the World Poker Tour over IP, anti-trust concerns. I think they might have a case on the anti-trust aspect, but it seems to me the image concerns are a stretch. The WPT might want to make a deal with these big players, since I'm sure their presence helps with the ratings, but it seems like the agreement they sign is pretty standard, and certainly less onerous than what you sign to be on American Idol and such shows (until I read the American Idol contract, I didn't realize that the phrase "in perpetuity throughout the universe" is actually a term found in legal documents).

Friday, July 21, 2006

I just wrote a nice long post about Comic-Con, and then my browser crashed (thanks again, Adobe Acrobat), so so much for that post. I won't try to recreate it, I was just discussing some of the things I'm most looking forward to seeing. So I suppose you'll have to hear about them after the fact. Anyway, should be an exciting couple of days. I'll be sure to put up a full report, eventually. Maybe even save it a time or two as I proceed (Blogger offers a handy "Recover Post" option that never seems to work).

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Doctor and two nurses arrested for euthanizing patients in New Orlean's Memorial Medical Center after Hurricane Katrina. Some months back, NPR ran a facinating and disturbing story about the investigation. Are the arrested medical personnel guilty? I don't know. But what disturbed me about the NPR story was the fixation on whether a lethal cocktail of drugs was administered to the patients. The implication being, that abandoning these patients to die of "natural" causes in the evacuated hospital would have been perfectly legal and ethical. To quote from the NPR article:
According to court documents reviewed by NPR, a key discussion took place on Thursday, Sept. 1, during an incident-command meeting held on the hospital's emergency ramp. A nurse told LifeCare's pharmacy director that the hospital's seventh-floor LifeCare patients were critical and not expected to be evacuated with the rest of the hospital. According to statements given to an investigator in the attorney general's office, LifeCare's pharmacy director, the director of physical medicine and an assistant administrator say they were told that the evacuation plan for the seventh floor was to "not leave any living patients behind," and that "a lethal dose would be administered," according to their statements in court documents.
Now, as I understand this passage and the rest of the article, my understanding of the timeline seems to be that it was concluded, with evacuation efforts faltering, that the patients were to be abandoned, and then some staff members concluded that those to be abandoned should, out of human decency, be euthanized. If there is criminal conduct here, it is in abandoning these patients, not in giving them morphine. In discussing the difficulty of conducting forensic analysis on the deceased, the NPR piece notes that "the bodies were not retrieved from the hospital until two weeks after the storm and were in advanced stages of decomposition." So the patients were abandoned for two weeks without food or water, in a hospital with no electricity where temperatures were well above 100 degrees. Yeah, giving morphine to someone in that position is clearly immoral.

Again, I really don't know what happend in that hospital, and I can't say for sure whether those arrested today are guilty. But to me, guilt or innocence should not come down to who gave morphine to whom. If the people arrested made the decision to abandon the patients (i.e., they concluded that euthanizing them would be easier than moving them), they deserve their present fate. But if they were merely responding to the failure of someone (the hospital? FEMA?) to evacuate the most vulnerable patients of Memorial Medical Center, then I believe a grave miscarriage of justice is in the works.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Home of the Groove discusses Fat Domino's cover of Randy Newman's "Have You Seen My Baby." I never realized Fats does not play piano on the Fats is Back album, let alone that Newman himself played on the album (I knew he arranged some material, but not that he performed).

Incidentally, if you enjoy the song posted on the blog above, you'll love Sweet Patootie, from Rhino Homemade, which includes material from Fats is Back and other ancillary recordings.

Friday, July 14, 2006

I saw Strangers With Candy this evening. The film drew a nice crowd out to the Ken Cinema to see it on a sweltering Friday night, and it got pretty hot in the auditorium. But I was laughing so hard I didn't realize I was sweating like a pig (a "pig newton," to quote the film) until the lights came up. I was really looking forward to this movie, as Strangers With Candy is easily in my top five favorite TV shows of all time. And the film pretty much gives fans of the TV show what they want. I must admit, compared to the TV show, the movie isn't as good as half the episodes. And the film recycles a fair number of jokes from the show--but at least they're funny jokes. Still, there's a lot to like here, for fans of the show. I'm not sure what those unfamiliar with the series will think. I think you can appreciate it, generally, but will always feel a few steps behind the movie. The movie is for fans of the series, and I for one really enjoyed it. Good times!

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

House approves online gambling ban. They also put in an exemption for the domestic horseracing industry, exactly what led the WTO to declare the U.S.'s de facto ban illegal.

In any event, the ban seems mostly symbolic. As it is, domestic banks and credit cards will not process gambling transactions, leading to foreign firms like Neteller facilitating such transactions. So even if this bill becomes law, I doubt much will change, though it may encourage the Justice Department to continue going after media companies accepting online gambling ads, including some firms which have made clear their intention to defend themselves vigorously if charged.

Bush extends Geneva Convention protections to Guantanamo Bay prisoners. From the article:
A memo from U.S. deputy defence secretary Gordon England, released Tuesday, instructs U.S. defence officials to ensure all policies and practices comply with Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions. That section prohibits murder, violence, mutilation, torture and humiliating and degrading treatment. It also requires the military take care of sick and wounded prisoners and states everyone should have some judicial guarantees.
Gee, you're right, Alberto Gonzalez, when you actually sit down and read it, that dose sound "quaint"! What's next, are you going to say we can't reopen Saadam's Rape Rooms in Iraq?

Friday, July 07, 2006

It's been about a month since I purchased my Nintendo DS Lite, the latest handheld gaming system by the visionary company. I'd decided to pick up a DS some months back, but knowing that the improved Lite model would be coming out, I decided to wait. Which was a wise choice, as the new system costs the same as the old one, and the improved backlit screen makes quite a difference. Now that I've had it for awhile, I figured I'd look back and reflect on my experiences with the systems and its games.

The unit itself works great. The screen is very easy to see with the backlighting, and the touch screen also works well, and I rarely have problems executing even the most precise actions using the stylus. I must admit, when I heard that the replacement of the Game Boy would have two screens, one of them a touch screen, I thought it was a pretty stupid idea. But the system really is ingeneously designed, and allows lots of very innovative styles of game play. And at $129, it seems like a pretty good bargain. I really have no complaints; sometimes the small size of the unit makes long-term play uncomfortable, especially for games that utilize the standard controls rather than the touch screen. And even the more compact Lite unit won't fit easily in any but the largest pockets. But still, it's a great system, especially with the innovative games being made for it.

I picked up a fair number of games when I got the system, and found them all to have some merit. The game I play the most is probably Brain Age. This is a sort of mind-teaser game, which is based on a series of best-selling self-help books in Japan. Basically, the game quizzes you to determine the age of your brain, and then gives you brief exercises, mostly basic math or memorization, along with reading aloud, which will exercise your prefrontal cortex. It's the sort of thing that's perfect for the DS. The touch screen and microphone (for voice recognition) allow for lots of different simple exercises, as well as a bonus Sudoku feature (the best way I've ever seen to play Sudoku), and the game actively encourages you to play in very brief sessions, which is what you want with a portable game system. When you first start, it is actually frustrating how few features are unlocked. You get more exercises as you go along, but still, even after unlocking all the exercises, I could do them all easily in about ten minutes. But since you're encouraged to revisit the exercises every day, the replay value of the game is enormous. The handwriting recognition works very well for numbers, though it isn't completely perfect. Recognizing letters (which only comes up in one test) is more problematic, and the voice recognition is only so-so (it has a hell of a time recognizing the number eight when I say it--I had to resort to substituting "eat" instead, as that seems to work). But still, for $20 (cheaper at Costco), it's a fun game, and the sudoku as an added bonus makes it an even better value.

I also got Big Brain Academy, which is similar to Brain Age, in that it also has tests to measure your brain (weight instead of age, in this case), and various mind-teasers to exercise various aspects of your brain. Comparing it with Brain Age shows something curious: Big Brain Academy has a great deal more variety, with tests that are more complex and interesting, yet Brain Age is easily the superior game. The austerity of Brain Age, and the simplicity of the exercises, helps to give some degree of credence to its claim to be a self-help product. Big Brain Academy doesn't really claim to be a scientifically-rigorous psychological tool, but just a series of games, and the games really aren't that much fun. Like Brain Age, they're over quickly, but still I have the feeling of "Thank God that's over" far more often while playing Big Brain Academy. It's still a decent game for a bargain price, but Brain Age is definately the more engaging of the two.

New Super Mario Bros. is also a pretty cool game. Not too hard to beat, but there's still a lot to go back and discover (I finished the game and never made it to two levels). The best parts are the things that are most faithful to the original Super Mario Bros. Some of the more novel additions, like the mega mushroom which makes Mario huge, or the micro mushroom that shrinks him down, are fun the first time or two, but the novelty wears off quickly. Despite being a new game, nostalgia is what makes this game interesting, but that's fine. It's very well-implemented.

Those are the games I've played the most. I also enjoyed Trama Center: Under the Knife. The touch screen creates some great opportunities for game play in this surgery simulation game. But it's a very difficult game, and can get frustrating. Meteos is a pretty fun puzzle game, though it didn't quite live up to the great things I'd heard about it. Seems like luck comes into play a bit much, but maybe that's because I'm still learning about some of the more subtle aspects of the game. Bust-a-Move DS was a bit of a disappointment, but I have a feeling I might come back to it once I get bored with the games I play more often. And Metroid: Prime Hunters seems fun, but I just can't get the hang of the controls.

Perhaps one month isn't enough time to say for sure that the Nintendo DS was worth purchasing. But so far, I've gotten quite a bit of use out of it, and found some very good games to complement it. I was sceptical of the DS when it was first announced, but now I'm a believer.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

American V: A Hundred Highways, the latest Johnny Cash album, was released Tuesday. Circuit City is (was?) selling it for $8.99, which was the best deal I could find. If you don't have the CD, go buy it, now. I'll wait.

. . .

Okay, then. I went and got the CD Tuesday morning, and observed the birth of our nation by listening to the valedictory testament of one of our greatest musicians. From the advanced press the album had received, I thought it might be a bloody depressing way to spend one's holiday, and I envisioned myself shut up in a darkened room sobbing as the fireworks burst outside. But the album turned out to be a bit different than what I'd imagined. Reading early reviews, two key traits of the album had come into focus: The album is mired in songs about death, and Johnny Cash's voice at this point was wrecked by asthma and overall poor health, to the point that he could barely get through a song. But after listening to the album rather compulsively, I'd have to say that, if neither claim is completely false, they don't really capture the essense of what American V is.

Death is a theme in every song, whether explicitly about death or not. This is all but unavoidable in the context of a posthumous release, of songs recorded by Cash after the death of June Carter Cash as a form of therapy. But Cash had clearly made peace with his mortality, and as a result the album may be sad, but Cash's hope and peace mean it never gets to be truly depressing. Even a song like "On the Evening Train," a Hank Williams-penned dead-wife ballad, is made somewhat more bearable by Cash's strong and confident vocals.

So yes, his voice shows considerable wear on the album, and certainly certain tracks show this more than others. On "Rose of My Heart," for instance, or "If You Could Read My Mind," a shockingly powerful Gordon Lightfoot cover. But discussion of how his voice was gone at this point are wildly off-base, and seem to overlook that Cash was not that strong of a singer mechanically, as it is traditionally understood. And while Cash's struggle for breath (which Cash himself addresses in "Like the 309," the last song he ever wrote) lends a fraility to several tracks, it also serves as a counterweight to tracks on which Cash in is fine form. The album closes with "I'm Free From The Chain Gang Now," on which Cash's voice is probably the strongest you'll hear on this album. The lyrics may suggest the song is about literal freedom, but from the conviction in Cash's voice, I'm confident Cash is singing about freedom of a more spiritual sense.

I really don't know what else to say about this amazing album. It's a remarkable coda to an amazing musical career, and a fitting eulogy to a great man. You've got songs about death, about prison, about trains, about love, about God. And even in the last song he wrote, about his casket being transported (by train, of course), his understated wit comes through. How can this not be the best album of 2006?

Ken Lay, dead at 64. Lay was apparently living the traditional life of a convicted felon at the time of his death, experiencing the hard-knock life Aspen, Colorado is so famous for.