Friday, October 28, 2011

top 5 for the week of 28 october 2011

1. telekinesis! - please ask for help

I've linked to this instead of the official music video because I hate edited versions of songs, especially when they censor a minor, single curse like "can't see shit." But the video is pretty cool visually so you can also view it here.

2. chromatics - kill for love

3. mazzy star - common burn
Mazzy Star - Common Burn by weallwantsome1

4. active child - diamond heart

I try very hard to let you listen to each song without leaving the page, but this new one from Active Child is so great I wanted to make sure you get the opportunity to heart it. Right now it's exclusively available at stereogum without an embedded player option so just follow the link and enjoy.

5. friends - i'm his girl

PS I hope you guys are appreciating the fact that I'm trying to focus more on 2011 releases.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

the cheesiest movie about a space station

Several weeks ago I sat down to watch a 1980s sci-fi movie on netflix called Arena. The plot revolved around aliens and humans living and working on a space station that also hosted an intergalactic blood sport. The human protagonist seeks to become the first human champion in over 5 decades against difficult odds made worse by cheating. At the time I made a joke that the 1990s space station sci-fi dramas (Deep Space Nine, Babylon 5) raided the cast of this movie to fill their own ranks (Ivanova from B5, Quark and Gul Dukat from DS9). And then DS9 showed up on netflix streaming a few weeks later.

Surprise, surprise. I'm a geek. You may have gleaned that from the comic book, anime, and video game related posts. I'm also a sci-fi geek and back in the day I watched Star Trek: The Next Generation. And then in 1993 came Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. A black captain?! It worked in Blazing Saddles.

Even though I watched the show religiously for a number of years, I never managed to see the end. Unfortunately, where I lived the scheduling and order of episodes was erratic. I definitely saw Worf join the crew and date Dax. Siddig el Fadil became Alexander Siddig. And then my grasp of the plot gets messy around the time the Shapeshifters invade the Alpha Quadrant with their army of drug-addicted lizard people. I think the Cardassians join them and the Klingons ally themselves with the Federation. Something about a top secret Federation ship illegally modified with Klingon cloaking technology. I'm pretty sure there was a one-eyed Klingon POW at some point. And yeah, it's all pretty hazy.

But thanks to technology, this week I've restarted watching DS9 from the very beginning. And without commercial interruption! So here's some thoughts.

I'd forgotten how much I enjoyed Sisko in command. His story of losing his wife and moving to the frontier with his son makes for compelling drama. And the navigating of factional politics (the Federation, various Bajoran interests, the Cardassians, and the various parties wanting to get in on the wormhole) made for fascinating, complex plotlines. Much like the early seasons of Babylon 5 before they went and ruined it by hurrying up the war with the Shadows.

I think this show was the first time I ever had a crush on an Asian woman. It wasn't so much a crush as I found the relationship between Chief Engineer Miles O'Brien (Colm Meaney) and his wife Keiko (Rosalind Chao). Even though she had previously appeared on ST:TNG in the same role (Worf delivered baby Molly - seriously), I found her appearances on DS9 to be much more interesting. I think it was the first time on television I had even seen a conjugal relationship treated seriously. It wasn't one of Picard's flings or the Riker-Troi will they/won't they Who's the Boss vibe. Miles and Keiko fought, made up, and worked to make things work raising a family on the outskirts of Federation territory. I suppose it doesn't hurt that she's fairly attractive, too.

One huge advantage of a space show set on a space station rather than a starship is that you can get rooted in stories that plant seeds that take several shows, sometimes even seasons, to blossom. With a starship, you have to keep moving which often brings a monster/disaster of the week storytelling mentality with a rotating cast of guest stars each week. Being station allows a stable cast of supporting characters to develop. And this led me to be more involved in the various plots, relationships, intrigues, dealings, double-dealings, and cloak-and-dagger.

I'll try to update on a fairly regular basis with my ongoing (re)impressions of the show. I just finished episode 3 where Garak, the only remaining Cardassian on the station, is introduced as a spy working to communicate with the Federation through Dr. Bashir. He helps break up a plot my Bajoran terrorists to destroy the wormhole with the help of Klingon sisters Lursa and B'etor Duras, last seen on ST:TNG failing in a coup attempt of the Klingon High Council.

Yes, I really did watch these shows. A lot.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

oh, THAT's what that's for!

I spent the summer in London at a law fellowship primarily working on the issue of human trafficking and modern day slavery. Part of my duties was to scan media and various international organizations for news and reports related to the topic areas my employer was concerned with. And one of the organizations I frequently browsed was the OSCE. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is prolific in publication and active on a broad number of issues. And I honestly had no idea who they are or what they do all summer.

I'm not a stupid guy. I knew about the United Nations, the European Union, NATO, and various other international bodies prior to showing up on my first day. I'd taken an International Law class and worked on human trafficking issues from the international perspective before. Hell, I'd even done policy debate in high school. We (policy debaters) don't leave any stone unturned when seeking out resources with which to argue about an issue. But with all the OSCE reports and endorses this and Special Representatives going there to that, I really had no idea why exactly anybody should care about the OSCE.

Until about an hour ago, I didn't even know the US was a member state. Truly Americans don't care too much about international commitments. Even those with an outwards-facing orientation.

So here's what I gleaned after reading about the OSCE for International Human Rights. The OSCE was first convened as a conference in 1975 in Helsinki between Western European, America, and Soviet Bloc countries with the expectation to discuss security issues like borders. But somehow it transformed into a forum where the countries could snipe openly and pointedly at each other about each other's human rights abuses. Apparently this felt pretty good because they decided to have more of these meetings and eventually to formalize the process into the modern OSCE structure.

Unlike other international organizations like the UN or the Council of Europe, the OSCE isn't a treaty-based organization. That means it doesn't have binding legal authority over the member states. In other words, you can't bring a complaint to the OSCE and expect to get an enforceable decision back. Instead, the OSCE operates through "political" rather than "legal" force. That means the OSCE can't make you as a member State do anything. But they can serve as a roundtable to talk about what a miserable job you're doing at protecting human rights.

And that's my understanding of the OSCE in a nutshell.

Friday, October 21, 2011

top 5 for the week of 21 october 2011

Sorry this didn't appear on Friday. I've been fighting the sickness all week.

1. st. vincent - strange mercy

2. ting tings - hang it up

3. veronica falls - bad feeling

4. ganglians - drop the act

5. shimmering stars - i'm gonna try

Friday, October 14, 2011

top 5 for the week of 14 october 2011

1. acid house kings - under water

2. letting up despite great faults - if you're here today

3. veronica falls - the fountain

4. james pants - clouds over the pacific

5. apparat - ash/black veil

Saturday, October 8, 2011

lazy bachelor's cookbook - southwest style chicken

Welcome to another installment of the Lazy Bachelor's Cookbook. I bought a crock pot this week to up my laziness in the kitchen quotient to nearly pro levels. For this go round, I made a southwest style chicken with cornbread muffins. The cornbread came from a box so just go out and buy some if you want to make them. I'll focus on the chicken recipe. First, I'll give you the recipe I found and then explain how I went off the rails to spice it up and what I would do next time.

Southwest Style Chicken
4-5 frozen chicken breasts[1]
1x 15.5oz can of black beans
1x 15oz can of corn (drained)
1x 15oz jar of salsa
1x 8oz package of cream cheese

Like most crock pot recipes, you dump all the ingredients except the cream cheese into your crock pot and cook on high for 4-5 hours. Then you dump in the cream cheese and cook for another 30 minutes or so until it melts.

I selected a chipotle salsa. In addition, I also threw in some cumin, cayenne pepper, chili powder, garlic powder, salt and pepper to give it more of a southwest or texmex flavor. I also chopped up half an onion and threw that in. Before adding the cream cheese, I used a pair of forks to shred the chicken breasts. The cream cheese didn't melt for me after 30 minutes so I ended up mixing it in.

The results were pretty good. It turned out to be more of a stew than I was expecting but the taste was good. I'm definitely glad I decided to call on audible on this one and throw in the spices to up the flavor. The corn bread made a nice pairing especially for sopping up the remainders on my plate.

Next time I think I would throw in a jalapeno pepper or two and substitute sour cream for the cream cheese. But saying that I would cook this again is the highest compliment I can pay to a recipe. It's not the most delicious thing I've ever put in my mouth but it's tasty, spicy (if you follow my lead), and filling. I could also see it being included as the filling for a southwest style chicken pot pie or maybe chicken tacos

It's a very simple recipe requiring little prep work. I'd say I only spent about 10 minutes chopping the onion, opening cans, and tossing in spices. After that, it's all about the waiting. Plus, I have tons of leftovers. I warmed some up in my toaster oven today for lunch and it was still pretty yummy.

The lazy bachelor was pleased.

UPDATE: I cooked this again but added some cayenne, chili powder, and sour cream to the mix. The spicy kick it gave the chicken pleased my Tex-Mex palate. I also cooked it significantly longer. Maybe if you thawed the chicken instead of using frozen breasts it would turn out to be less like a stew. That's something to consider for next time.

[1] I just tossed them in frozen as called for in the recipe. Some people have said cooking frozen chicken in a crock pot is a no-no but I don't know. I haven't gotten sick but YMMV. Do what you think is best.

texas lost so now it's time to pull the covers over your head

Lykke Li joins a long list of people to cover the classic tune "Unchained Melody." It's most famous incarnation is the Righteous Brothers version immortalized in the film Ghost as the song playing when Demi gets muddy fingers while ghost Patrick Swayze feels her up from behind during pottery class. The Swede songstress covered it earlier this summer during an appearance on Australia's Triple J radio show.

And Justin Vernon strikes cover gold again, covering Bob Dylan's "With God On Our Side" at a Portland, Oregon show.

And finally, "we're not a Brooklyn indie band" MGMT teamed up with Bradford Cox (of Deerhunter and Atlas Sound) cover Pink Floyd's "Lucifer Sam" on Jimmy Fallon.

Friday, October 7, 2011

top 5 for the week of 7 october 2011

1. i break horses - winter beats (there's an official video but it's 90 seconds shorter)

2. ryan paris - dolce vita

3. neon indian - hex girlfriend

4. anr - stay kids

5. niva - boy from the sun

stop-motion ninjas

Amateur animator Olivier Trudeau has created this stop-motion short featuring two ninjas engaged in beautiful combat. It's skillfully and fluidly choreographed. Enjoy!

Ninja from Olivier Trudeau on Vimeo.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

have fun storming the castle

I've been looking forward to Robot Entertainment's upcoming title Orcs Must Die! all summer and now we're only 3 days away from the release date. The game blends third person action, strategic, and castle defense elements together to create gameplay that looks unique and fun.

Players take on the role of the War Mage who's tasked with keeping the titular orcs and other baddies away from the rift that will allow the monsters to storm your home realm. And you're able to do that in two main ways. First, by laying down traps such as spikes, arrow walls, and spring traps that launch baddies into environmental hazards like lava pits. Second, by taking up arms (and spells) yourself to bash, burn, and blow wave after wave of wave to keep home safe. The blending of those two very different play styles into one game is a big draw and I'm hoping it's executed seamlessly.

Try this interactive choose your own adventure style trailer to get a feel for the gameplay.

Visually, Orcs Must Die! has opted for a more stylized, cartoonish approach like Team Fortress 2, Torchlight, or the upcoming Star Wars: The Old Republic over something more gritty and realistic. It looks great in my opinion with a colorful palette that's fun and unique. It's definitely a step up from the more muted, uncreative style of a game like Dungeons & Dragons: Daggerdale. The fun look of Orcs Must Die! is definitely a plus and another reason I've been eagerly anticipating its release all summer.

I'll write up a full review of Orcs Must Die! after 5 October once I've had a chance to get my (virtual) hands on it.

Orcs Must Die! will release on XBLA 5 October and for digital download on PC 12 October.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

dungeons & dragons: daggerdale

I know I said I would review Bastion for you, but something more pressing came up. Right now XBLA is advertising Dungeons & Dragons: Daggerdale by Atari for download at a discounted rate. Let me save you some microsoft points. Do not buy it. The game is broken. I did some research on the issue and it looks like Atari has no intentions of releasing a patch to fix a long list of known issues, or at least no intention of doing so anytime soon. Don't waste your time or money on major frustration.

D&D: Daggerdale is your basic action RPG based on the popular Wizards of the Coast license. I think it's based on 4e rules but I'm not completely sure. You have the choose of 4 class / race combinations: a human fighter, a dwarf cleric, an elven rogue, or a halfling wizard. As you gain levels, you can spend points to improve your base attributes, buy and rank up special attacks & spells (about 6 per character), and purchase abilities. Each character also has a special ability based on class triggered with RB (fighter-block, cleric-Healing Word, rogue-dodge, wizard-teleport). There's enough choices to make things interesting but not enough that you can really customize your character.

Play time clocks in at about 6 hours if you run most of the side questions in addition to the main story quests for the 4 chapters. I wasn't a big fan of the dialogue screens which felt clunky and slow. And there's very little voice acting so you have to read the dialogue if you want to follow the story.

This is an action RPG so you probably want to hear about the combat and loot. It's a basic 4 button map (melee, range, potions, and interact) with your special attacks accessibly by holding the LT and pressing one of the 4 main buttons. Apparently if you press and hold, you can also charge those special attacks. I only learned about this feature after reading about it on the internet. No tutorial that I saw in the opening level pointed this feature out to me.

Loot drops are fairly regular but like most games of this ilk, a lot of the items aren't usable by your class. There are merchants distributed fairly evenly across the 4 levels. BUT you don't have to visit the merchant to sell your loot. The game gives you the option from the inventory screen to convert unequipped stuff to gold from anywhere in the level. And I don't think there's a major penalty for doing so but I may be wrong.

Besides potions (health, temporary resistance or stat bonuses), the major loot builds upon a fairly simple formula: item type + descriptive adjectives for enchantments + any magical bonus to attack or defense. The adjectives let you know what kind of bonuses you will get. And higher level items tends to have several adjectives because of all the bonuses.
Example: you may get 2 longswords, one a venomous longsword +1 and the other a blazing longsword +1. Both have the same base stats (for longsword) and magical bonus (+1) but one does poison damage and the other fire damage.
There is also a loot rarity system based on color with purple (or possibly blue, I'm colorblind) representing the most rare. Unique named items are also available by drop or by purchase from the merchants.

So what's wrong with D&D: Daggerdale? Two major issues in order of importance.

First, it's broken. Majorly so. And they're bad enough to severely negative the fun. The one I ran into is the deletion of one of your special skills when moving from Chapter 2 to Chapter 3. I played the dwarf cleric on my first (and likely only play-through without a patch). Shield of the Gods is a key special attack and one of the first ones you can unlock. It's major effect is to push enemies away from you (knockback) in addition to doing damage. When you start Chapter 3, all of your equipment and special skills are stripped away for plot reasons. After solving those, I found all of my points (4 total, or 2 full character levels) in Shield of the Gods had disappeared. What's worse, the game recognized I had already purchased it and so wouldn't let me spend newly earned points to reactivate it.

This became a major hassle later in the level because of an undead mini-boss that likes to stick with you and pin you. Under normal circumstances, I would have expected Shield of the Gods would have let me push it away to heal and attack from range. Instead, I had to keep running around the level, accidentally pulling the re-spawning mobs, and desperately burning through health potions because they don't make you pause midstride like Healing Word. Not being able to push back mobs was also a major annoyance. Thankfully healing potion drops were plentiful. Even burning through them like crazy due to Shield of the Gods disapparating mid-way through the game, I had somewhere around 130 in stock after finishing the game. But with Healing World, my cleric had a non-resource taxing way to heal so YMMV.

Atari forums indicate this is a known issue effecting all classes. Too bad they haven't patched it yet. It makes the game seriously less fun.

Second, the game has some serious balance issues after the second, and longest, Chapter. By this time, I had accumulated a substantial war chest and mostly purple equipment. It didn't require any extra work to purchase the few upgraded items available in Chapter 3 (Chapter 4 is just thef final boss battle against Rezlus and his dragon ally). This meant getting through the rest of the game was mostly a slog through repetitive, non-challenging mobs and bosses instead of a ramping up of the difficulty level as you progress through the game. Even the remaining special attack unlocks didn't seem to change the strategy all that much or add any novel mechanics to break the monotony. Perhaps a different character class would offer sustained interest throughout but the cleric build was severely lacking.

The graphics aren't terrible for the price if a bit boring and subdued. You spend most of your time either in dwarven mines or a fortress so there's tons of greys and browns on the palette. The character designs are pretty basic and all the NPCs look the same. Enemies aren't awful to look at but there's a real lack of variety. The level bosses, on the other hand, are pretty interesting. I really liked the Skull Lord, a 3 headed undead wizard that blocks your entry into the Tower. Not AAA quality but what do you expect for a $15 download? In terms of visuals, D&D: Daggerdale definitely lacks any original style or personality.

There's coop available for both local play (split screen?) or online. I didn't try it and from what I've read, all kinds of new bugs creep into the multiplayer to make it un-fun and unplayable in its own way.

The story isn't much to write home about, either. It's a pretty generic fantasy story about stopping an evil cleric who wants to take over the kingdom. Most of the quests are of the fetch variety (go find this person / thing) but at least you're only made to collect X number of items dropped by enemies once. At the end, I felt like I was playing Dragon Age: Origins with all the plot choices and deep character-building mechanics stripped out. Especially when the various factions you've helped as you make your way through the plot show up to lend a hand in battling Rezlus, the final boss, on top of the tower. The arrival of Incendius, his dragon ally, further drove this feeling home.

If Atari patches it to fix the many known issues, D&D: Daggerdale would still be a generic action RPG with balance issues plaguing the last quarter of the game. With so many better games out there on XBLA (Bastion), I wouldn't make this one a priority to play. Still, I might have pushed through it another 3 times to experience the other classes and grab the achievements for multiplayer and getting all 4 classes up to level 10. But without a patch, it's a definite miss. Bland graphics, repetitive combat, and boring story are unforgivable when combined with gameplay breaking bugs.