Sunday, June 10, 2007

So, now it's June!

I'd like to apologize to my regular readers - or, rather, people who are regular checkers but haven't found much to read here lately. The last few weeks have been pretty busy, but busy with stuff that I can't really write about, so I haven't had a lot to share. That being said, I want to ping this space occasionally, if for nothing else so that I don't forget my login password.

First: the observant will note that the "cycling accident" counter has finally been bumped up again. I actually hemmed and hawed a bit before deciding to increment it... I was involved in a collision with another cyclist, but there was no blood shed and neither of our bikes were hurt, so I'm not sure if it counts as an "accident" or not. I eventually decided that since I hadn't intended for it to happen, it was technically accidental, and so the counter increases.

(For the curious: it was probably technically my fault, although I will publicly continue to blame the guy who was riding his bike while his dog ran in the lane adjacent. Really, if all people and beasts would stay in their own lanes, there would never be any trouble.)

That little scare aside, though, I'm loving the cycling thing. The last two weeks I've done it every workday, which just feels great. I arrive at work feeling energized and refreshed, and it really helps my sleep patterns stay nicely regulated. My only real regret is that it makes me a serial moocher for lunchtime excursions. If and when our office moves, I really hope we end up somewhere within easy walking distance of lunch spots, or at least a decent set of picnic tables (i.e., ones that aren't within several yards of Highway 17).

I've been on a tear through Terry Pratchett's Discworld books lately. It's been a fun trip... they're quick reads, he has a great sense of humor, and there's enough satire and veiled social commentary to keep me thinking. I really love it when authors create worlds, which is a big part of the reason why I'm such a sucker for fantasy; much of the geography of the Discworld feels less well defined than, say, Tolkien's Middle-earth or Jordan's Randland, but the social structures in the world are vividly realized. In particular, the city of Ankh-Morpork, with its system of guilds and seething racial tensions, is a brilliant creation. While I've enjoyed all the Discworld books so far, the ones I enjoy the most are set entirely in this fantastic city.

It's taken me about a year to get this far, but last night I watched the final episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I know, I know, I'm as surprised as you are. For years I've resisted watching the show, believing that it was a teenage soap opera with the gimick of vampires. My resolve began to weaken when I fell in love with Whedon's phenomenal Firefly series, and after determined lobbying from some friends I finally took the plunge and started watching it, starting with the (very bad!) 1992 movie, then the uneven first series of the TV show, before I started getting seriously hooked in the second season and then going straight through. I may do a full review at some point, but honestly, it all feels a little too big to me. I'll cheerfully admit that I was wrong; once the show hits its stride (partway into the second season), it becomes nothing less than a fantasy epic, and at its best it achieves an almost breathtaking ambition.

I'd foolishly thought that the human element would be the most tiresome part of the show, something that interrupts the fun fighting scenes, but the elaborate plot threads that Whedon creates over seven seasons are the true jewels of the show. He's a very brave author who is willing to experiment with the show's tone and format, and regularly challenges his audience to follow him in new directions. Ultimately, I guess I respect Whedon for the same reason as above: he has created his own world, with its internal logic and boundaries, and makes it seem more vivid than our own.

Pending a possible longer review, here are some MINI SPOILERS for the series, in the form of my opinion of each season.

Season One: I wouldn't have mourned the show if ended after this, but I don't actively dislike it either. I really enjoy Willow's character, and some of the high school scenes ring particularly true with me.

Season Two: Things really get cranking when Spike and Drusilla show up. Especially when the Master's heir dies; that became the first of many "whoa! I didn't see THAT coming!" moments that would follow me in the series.

Season Three: The Mayor is probably my favorite Big Bad through the entire series; he's such a phenomenal character.

Season Four: I may be more impressed with this season than any other; the layers of revelations and plot twists keep you constantly off guard. It also has two of my favorite episodes: "Hush" and "Restless".

Season Five: The series makes a sharp turn back towards the real world; I admire Whedon for making cancer and natural death a major part of the story. Dawn becomes the first main character who I actually dislike.

Season Six: An odd and wandering season, but ultimately one of the most interesting. No other series has worked as hard to deserve "the hero comes back from the dead." "Once More with Feeling" is another favorite episode. Evil Willow is amazing.

Season Seven: The greater a work, the harder it is for the ending to do it justice. How can the Battle of Endor compare to all that has gone before? Or the battle in Kefka's tower? That said, Whedon does a great job here as well, not being content to retread old ground and wrap up loose plot lines, he aggressively introduces new characters and plots to make an ultimately exciting finale.

Favorite main character: Oz when he's around, otherwise Willow.
Favorite supporting character: Jonathan.
Favorite Big Bad: The Mayor.
Favorite one-shot Bad: The Gentlemen.
Favorite episode: If I had to choose, probably "Restless."
Favorite opening credits shot: The one with Buffy twirling the ax.
Favorite location: The haunted frat house.
Favorite flashback: Spike in pre-vampire mode.
Favorite Slayer: Faith.
Favorite weapon: Xander's rocket launcher. (Runner-up: Goddess Buffy in "Primeval.")


I've been running through Angel concurrently, keeping more or less in sync with their original air dates. I'm almost to the end of Season Four of that show. Like Buffy, it started out all right and has gotten much better the further along it goes.

On the gaming front: I played, enjoyed, and beat the "Omens" scenario in Civ IV: Warlords. If you have the expansion and haven't tried the scenario yet, I highly recommend giving it a shot. It's a very different and interesting twist on the standard game.

In case you haven't heard yet, there's yet another expansion coming: Beyond the Sword. It sounds really cool. The most intriguing additions to the core game, in my opinion, are the Corporations (which spread like religions, and allow you to convert one type of resource into another: for example, Standard Ethanol lets you turn surplus Corn into Oil) and also random events, which will add quest-like elements to the game. For the latter, I'm imagining it'll be a little like the throne room interludes in the old "Castles" DOS game. There are also some cool sounding scenarios, including a space colonization game and - huzzah! - the Fall from Heaven mod. If you're a nerd like me and demand as much information as possible, the place to go is Civ Fanatics.

Beyond the Sword isn't coming until July, so in the meantime, I'm keeping myself occupied - and terrified - with a blast from the past. After many years on my wish list, I finally started playing through System Shock 2. It can be found on most "greatest games of all time" rolls, and for good reason. I'm guessing I'm a bit less than halfway through, and will do a full writeup when I'm done; I will say that it might surpass the original Half-Life as my favorite first-person shooter.

This is sort of old news, but I renewed my apartment lease here at Creekside. I've been pretty happy here, and while my rent's going up, it's going up all over the Valley. Along with worse traffic, that's the price we pay for economic recovery. Anyways, I love the location (a block from transit! a block from the Los Gatos Creek Trail! easy driving to Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, Rotten Robbie's and other essentials!), the people are nice, and, frankly, I've gotten a little tired of moving. So I'm content to stay here for another nine months or so, and then we'll see if it's time for a change.

I've started getting and reading the New York Review of Books. It's good, but also kind of overwhelming. I don't see how any adult, other than professional critics or the unemployed, could possibly keep up with all the amazing books out there. I mostly muddle through with my favorite genres and authors; it's always an exciting, liberating experience the first time I "discover" a phenomenal author who becomes a favorite, like Stephenson, Saunders or Murakami. Do you ever fantasize about quitting your job and doing something else with your time? I actually like my job, but if I ever quit, I think I could be very happy just reading books all day long. The Review is well-written and fascinating, but at the same time it feels like it's teasing me with a world I can never inhabit.

I am such a lamer: I have not seen a single new movie all year long. No summer blockbusters, no art-house fare, no early-year dreck. What's funny is that I still read movie reviews and know what I do and don't want to see; I just never get around to seeing any of them. Maybe this will change some day.

By now you have probably heard the news that Battlestar Galactica is ending next season. I'm kind of bummed. It stinks that my favorite show is going off the air, but at the same time, I really admire them for going out when they're at the top of their game. That show will be remembered as one of the all-time best, and this will cement its legacy before it has a chance to lose its way.

Thoughts on other shows: here are MEGA SPOILERS for House and Lost.

I've already bragged to most of you about this, but I figured out the twist in the Lost season finale very early on: Jack is using a KRZR cell phone, which of course wasn't released until 2006, well after their plane crashed in 2004. Anyways. I dug the finale, and felt that as a whole, season three was far better than the second. I felt like the second season got all wrapped up in coming up with "logical" explanations for everything as a reaction to complaints about how mysterious everything was, so we were regularly tormented with explanations of, "Oh, there are huge magnets here that make everything act all weird!" This season they became more comfortable returning to the mystical aspect of the island, which in my opinion has always been its strength. Also, I think that Benjamin Linus is the best thing to happen to the series for a while.

I'm really happy that they've set an end date for the show, although plenty of snide people are saying that this is more cocky than anything else. Frankly, they haven't demonstrated the same consistent excellence that Battlestar Galactica has - I can only thing of one bad BG episode right off hand, and quite a few more bad Lost episodes - so I'll cheer this decision and the discipline I hope it'll bring to the show.

The finale of House was pretty cool, wasn't it? I really hope that they have the guts to stick with it next season: give the ax to half the cast of a very popular show. I wouldn't be surprised if some of them came straggling back, but we'll see. Still, if they move ahead, it could be a great shot in the arm to the show - I'm regularly impressed at how such a formula-driven show can continue to deliver, and radically altering its DNA should give it more years of good drama. I enjoyed all three doctors, but in all honesty, the only one I'd really miss is Foreman.

Here's hoping that next season, House gets paired with a cheerful homosexual doctor from England, and... what's this? Why, look everyone! Stephen Fry has joined the cast! Let's see if the man with two limps can change Doctor House where everyone else has failed!


I guess that's it for now from San Jose. I hope you and yours are doing well!

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