Friday, December 31, 2010

Movie Reviews (no spoilers)

I don't spend a lot of time in movie theaters. It's just too expensive a pastime. So Kathy and I watch a lot of movies from Netflix. I did, however, make it to see three movies in the theater in the past two weeks.

First, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. I've read the books, now I have watched the movies. This installment was not very deep, but it was entertaining. I wan't sure the actor playing Eustace could pull it off, but by the end I was a fan. He played both brat and friend with such vigor that I am looking forward to his appearance in the next installment. Recommended for entertainment value, and though my 8 year old nephew ended up with brief nightmares about the green mist, I think it is suitable for older children.

Second, The Deathly Hallows, Part 1. Again, I've read the books, now I have watched the movies. I wasn't sure how they would pull off the slow sections of the book, or whether they would be as true to the book with regard to injuries and deaths of significant characters. I was not let down in any way. The movie is well-paced, and there is time allotted for both action and introspection. I'm looking forward to the next installment. This movie is suitable only for teenagers and older, hence the PG-13 rating.

Third, Tron: Legacy. I watched the first movie and enjoyed it immensely. I knew then that computers did not work that way, but I liked the fictional approach. The sequel does not break from the fictional approach, and its visuals are far better than the original. The story for both movies is harder to appreciate if you are not somewhat nerdish, though the focus on games in both movies expands the movies' appeal considerably. (There is a reason that the Tron arcade games were so popular in the 80's. This new generation of gamers will have such a different experience, far closer to that offered by the latest movie. I hope that the Xbox Kinetic shines as a result of the new Tron games. Of all the current game technologies, it has the best chance to mimic the disc game most naturally.) Maybe they will make another installment, but this was a good end to the story. I especially like the soundtrack from Daft Punk, and picked it up from Target for $13.99 today. I recommend this movie for nerds like me and for older children and up. Oh, and if you can see it in chair-shaking Imax 3D like I did, you might enjoy this movie even more.

That's it for the in-theater movies. Here's a short list of movies I recommend from Netflix (either through DVD or Instant):

The Dish
What happened at the radio telescope in Parkes, Australia during the Apollo 11 mission. A fun movie, and doesn't require a degree in astrophysics to appreciate.

V: The Original Miniseries
The effects and acting are hokey, but the story is relevant. It's theme is largely based on European experience under Hitler and Mussolini, but there are some parallels to what the TSA is doing today in airports. (At least the TSA is not enslaving us.) Fears of totalitarianism will be stoked by this movie, and I think the Founding Fathers would approve of our healthy fear.

Happy New Year!

Settlers of Catan

After reading such positive reviews, especially by Harrison Brookie, I decided to look into Settlers of Catan. I started with the Wikipedia entry, then proceeded to the SoC website. There is an excellent interactive tutorial that shows the mechanics of play along with some of the consequences of different moves.

I moved on to an extensive online strategy guide, which confirmed my sense of resource scarcity and the inability to "do it all" as a viable strategy. It extended my understanding of game dynamics beyond what the tutorial provided.

Then I tried a couple of single-player online versions of the game. The one that I started with from SoC was a bit simplistic, and I didn't have time to play online against multiple real players. I finally settled on the download from MSN Games. (If you are a subscriber, then you will pay the least amount to register the game. I didn't, so I got stuck overpaying for the privilege.)

I played this version for several games, losing badly each time. Two nights ago, I played again. I went second, and was able to place settlements at the intersections of all of the required resources with 5, 6, 8, or 9 for the roll. I also had a clear shot at Longest Road, but I couldn't get the necessary resources until the end, when it proved critical to my first victory.

I trailed badly through the game, rolling a 7 on my turn *every* time I had more than 7 resource cards. (I think this is programmed into the game, as I have yet to see a deviation.) I managed to acquire three hidden victory point development cards along the way, being careful to not be robbed by the undefeatable 7. I got a lucky roll and ended up with the resources for three road segments. (Those cities make a difference!) When I pressed "End Turn", I was awarded Longest Road and the victory.

Now that I have won a game, I think I might like it. (It's awfully difficult to like something you always lose at. I won't play Rummy with only Kathy because in 9 years with her I have won only once.) Now, can I get my extended family to like it? To set aside time to play it?

We can't even find time to learn Mah Jong, despite my sister-in-law's plaintive invitations. I may just have to stick with the electronic version for a while.

The Conversation Game

We have a family that likes to discuss politics. There is one of us who is liberal/progressive. The rest of us are firmly conservative/libertarian. Recently at a dinner hosted by the liberal/progressive, I noted that she could not get many words in edgewise due to the passion of her guests. Being an old parliamentarian for church and other social groups, I naturally concluded that "rules of order" might be employed. But to use Robert's Rules for such an intimate family affair would be stifling! So I whittled down what Robert gave us, leaving just two broad rules:

1) Participants select a topic, the total amount of time to discuss the topic, the maximum length of time allocated to each participant to speak at any one time, and who will preside (if necessary) and keep time.

2) When it is a participant's turn to speak, they control the conversation for that slice of time. They may make statements and ask questions of (i.e., debate) other participants. During their turn, this person has the sole privilege to interrupt any other participant. When the participant is finished, regardless of how much time remains, control moves to the next participant.

Robert's Rules provide that no other person may speak again until all have had the opportunity; only then does the next round of speech begin. This is preserved implicitly in Rule 2, while still allowing for natural back-and-forth conversation.

The need to exercise Rule 1 is based on the tolerance of participants for a topic and for each other. The last sentence in Rule 2 might be called the "Forrest Gump Clause", as he often said "That's all I have to say about that," and then promptly moved on.

We have not all gathered yet again to try this game, but momentum has built towards wanting to try it. I'll post you on our results. If you should try these rules, let me know how your experience went. I suspect some groups may need the formality closer to Robert's Rules, while others will need less.

In all your political discussions, be courteous, and have fun learning!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Kathy and I had a date to the Virginia Historical Society and to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. They are side-by-side in downtown Richmond, Virginia.

While poking around the modern art exhibit, it occurred to us that a lot of the photos we were looking at could have been taken by us, but we could not have written the outlandish verbiage that accompanied each work. Is that verbiage what makes it art?

Then another thought occurred to me later over dinner. If I look at a piece, and I don't understand it without (or maybe even with) an explanation, is it still art? Like a joke that has to be explained, is it still funny?

I was far more impressed by the ancient art, up to 5000 years old. It is very difficult to fathom what 5000 years is. Human history has only been recorded for one or a couple additional millenia. It's 50 centuries.... 500 decades. I was born only about 4 decades ago, or about 8/10% of the time in question. I was surprised at how well the paintings on the Grecian urns had survived. The urns had clearly been carefully re-assembled from shards, and the paint work touched up on the seams, but this was only visible on close inspection.

I don't feel as old now that I have been among 5 millenia of art. That wasn't the artists' intention, I'm certain, but it is a nice by-product.