Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The many Joys of iPod ownership

Having gotten my iPod a few days ago, I am now living with the wonders of iPod ownership. To start out with, I spent two solid days ripping CDs that I have onto iTunes, which came with Mac OSX. And what did I get for my troubles? Less that 2 Gig's worth of music! And this is after ripping over 500 songs!

It never crossed my mind before, but... 30 Gigs is a *lot* of space for music! I could put in my whole CD library, plus everything I have on tape and still not make a major dent in my iPod. And let's face it... I have *tons* of CDs.

I did purchase 2 songs from the iTunes store, both from the band Five for Fighting, "100 Years" and "Superman". And one video, "Vogue" by Madonna. Unfortunately, the video, which took forever to download on my dial-up connection, didn't want to work with my iPod. Major sour expression, there.

What I really love about my iPod is how it has exposed me to songs I didn't know about on the albums I had. One of the CD's I ripped was the "Vampire Princess Miyu Television Series Soundtrack". I already loved the opening theme and the ending theme "Miyu Yachiyo", which means "Miyu Eternal" or "Miyu Forever" or, more literally, "Miyu of the Thousand Nights". But ripping the entire soundtrack has exposed me to a song called "Temari Uta", or "The Round Ball Song", which is absolutely beautiful. If you have an iPod, I suggest you download the song (if you can).

The other great thing about the iPod is how it allows you to take the music you love with you without lugging around massive quantities of CDs and a player, or tapes and a player for those. All you need is your iPod, and the included earphones, and you're good to go. You can take your music anywhere... on the train, in the car, in someone else's car, even out into the wilderness, if you so desire.

Now, the drawbacks...

The battery life of the iPod, even a 30 Gig monster like mine, is only about 5 hours. So, while you can take your iPod anywhere, you can't expect it to play for a really long time. I wouldn't mind if the iPod were slightly larger or thicker, if it meant a longer battery life. I mean, if you have 3 days worth of music, how much fun is it to have a battery that only lasts 5 hours? And you can't just swap batteries in and out like you would on a portable CD player or tape player. These batteries are inside the iPod and can't be removed or swapped. To recharge your iPod, you just plug it into any USB port on a running computer, using the included connector. To disconnect the iPod after it has finished charging, you must unmount the iPod from the system. So, you have great freedom to bring your iPod everywhere, but it will only play 5 hours of music.

Another drawback is that lovely, shiny case and screen, which are apparently easily scratched. I took the precaution of buying an iPod holder, which comes with a strap on the back so you can affix it to your belt, and a flap that closes over the whole thing to protect the wheel and screen. I think Apple should have made the case and screen just a bit more rugged, but I haven't had any problems... yet.

So, there you go. 2 days persepective on owning an iPod. Of course, your mileage may vary.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

New Toys, Great Food

Worship the iPod! Is it not nifty? I just bought myself a 30 Gig iPod with Color Video today, in beautiful black. i also was the recipient of the wonderful gift of a used Digital Camera, a Fujifilm FinePix 2650, though sans cables and memory card, which I had to pick up at Radio Shack.

I got myself a good one, 512 MB of Memory, which should hold about 200 or so pictures. I couldn't find any cables that would fit my camera, so I'll have to look in other places. But hey, that's two great toys in one splendiferous day. And then, to top it all off, I ate out and picked up 6 totally delicious corn muffins at my current favorite restaurant, Perkins!

Perkins became my new favorite place to eat after the Library I work for ate our Holiday Breakfast there. See, when I first started working, we had the Holiday Breakfast at a Holiday Inn in Toms River, the nearest large town. The food there sucked. It was all the worst of Institutional Food could offer: greasy sausages, limp, greasy bacon, vats of scrambled eggs (which I know, from working in food service myself once upon a time, are precooked, packed in plastic bags and rewarmed in massive vats of boiling water... reminiscent of some mad food scientist's lab), and cold, usually just on this edge of burnt toast, plus home fries. I call this LCD (for "Lowest Common Denominator" food.) I always ended up feeling sick to my stomach after the breakfast, so after the first one, I skipped it.

The year before last, they could no longer hold the breakfast in the Holiday Inn, because we had outgrown the facilities. Even the year I went, we were packed in like Sardines in a too-small can. So, they moved the Breakfast to a Place called the Chateau Grand out in Lakewood.

I liked the Chateau Grand even less. We had slightly more space, but the food was horrendous. The only bright spot being that they made omelettes on demand, but with the drawback that the lines for the omelettes were out the door and down the length of the function room. Since I don't eat omelettes, I was left completely unmoved by the food, which was actually worse than that of the Holiday Inn. And, to top it all off, it was an hour and a half journey just to get there, and usually a two-hour journey back from Lakewood (damned traffic!).

This last year, on the day of the Holiday Breakfast, the forecast was for freezing rain and massive black ice, so the Breakfast was cancelled the day before, and was to be rescheduled at a later time. It was pushed forward to this January, which meant that the Chateau Grand, which was going out of business at the end of December, couldn't do the breakfast.

Instead, they went to the Holiday Inn in my hometown, which has as its Restaurant, Perkins. This is a nice Holiday Inn, which just opened in August of last year, and everything in it is new and clean. Best of all, it's only a 10 minute drive from my house! Needless to say, this was a major improvement.

This year's breakfast was the best we have ever had. While it was mostly dishes I had experienced as LCD food (Scrambled Eggs, sausages, bacon, and hash browns), it also included mini muffins that were among the best I had ever tasted, and flaky mini-croissants that were just to die for. They also had really nice fresh fruit, but since our supervisor likes to sit by the walls, we were among the last tables to eat, and so the fruit was all but gone by the time I got there. ::Fume.:: The only real disappointment, besides the fruit, was that the juice was all from bottles, and super-sugary besides (33 sugars per 8 oz. glass? Yeek! That was the cranberry juice... the orange juice had 28 sugars per 8 oz glass... just as bad!)

Anyhow, when I saw that Perkins sold the exact same mini muffins (as well as regular size muffins), I had to get some. Ever since that, I have been addicted! I suggested it as a place to eat for my mom and dad when we went out for Valentine's Day, and I fell in love with the mashed potatoes and baby carrots there as well. That's good food in that thar restaurant!

Sunday, February 12, 2006

New Games for Old!

My new favorite game is Avernum 4. Published by Spiderweb Software, the game follows the underground land of Avernum. Most of this series was originally published as the Exile series (Exile 1, 2, and 3, and Blades of Exile), which allowed you to have 6 characters, had a wide variety of magic spells. Now, with the Avernum series, you are only allowed 4 characters, and the number of spells have dropped precipitously. On the other hand, there are now character classes and specializations that the original games never had.

Still, the Avernum series was really just a port of the old games into a new format. Oh, they had new areas and new wrinkles (Not to mention much, much nicer graphics), but the stories told in the new games were just the same as the old.

Now, however, Spiderweb has released a new game: Avernum 4. This is not a port of an old Exile game, but an entirely new game never before released. And I'm really enjoying it!

To rehash the story of the Avernum series, Avernum/Exile started out as the place the Empire threw its criminals, dissidents and malcontents. The Empire has no proper name, it's so large and all-encompassing, it's just known as "The Empire". At first, the people thrown into Avernum/Exile did what the empire wanted them to do. They died. But as the Empire started throwing down more and more people into this underground Hell, they banded together and managed to survive and thrive. As each new arrival was sent to Avernum/Exile through the surface portal, the inhabitants supplied them with food and some weapons, then let them try to survive on their own. The Avernites/Exiles built cities and even had their own King. But eventually, sick and tired of the Empire's control, some of the people decided to assassinate the leader of the Empire, Hawthorne. In the first game, you got to kill Hawthorne.

The second game takes up where the first left off. The Empire reacts to the killing of Hawthorne by cutting Avernum/Exile off. This wouldn't be so bad, but it also sends its elite fighters and mages to Avernum/Exile with orders to kill off the people there. And they proceed to run through the people with a scythe, killing off whole towns and cities, and laying them waste as well. But here, the Empire has made a mistake. While exploring the underworld, the Empire discovers a new race, the Vahnatai, and makes off with some of their crystal souls, which are actually the leaders of their race. When Vahnatai die, it seems, they are able to implant their memories and powers into crystals, which are looked to by the Vahnatai for wisdom. Now, the Vahnatai, unable to distinguish the Empire from the people of Avernum/Exile, start out killing the Avernites/Exiles as well. But your characters are able to find them and, with the help of a Vahnatai named Bon-Ihrno, turn the Vahnatai race onto the true villains, the Empire. Between Avernum/Exile and the Vahnatai, you are able to turn the tide against the Empire and defeat their crack troops, thus saving your homeland.

In the third game, the Avernites/Exiles, with the help of the Vahnatai, build a portal that puts them very near the surface. From there, they build a fort, and explore the continent of Valorim, which has only been recently discovered by the Empire. But the Empire is in trouble. Plagues of monsters have been appearing on the surface, and decimating the people. Slimes, giants, golems and insects are not the least of your problems. Exile/Avernum decides to help the Empire, with the express purpose of being allowed to return to the surface (better to serve in heaven than reign in hell, I suppose). The source of the Empire's troubles turns out to be the Vahnatai, in the form of Rentar-Ihrno, who was majorly pissed at how lightly the Empire got off from stealing the Crystal Souls. (Lightly in her opinion, of course). She has decided to punish the Empire with plagues of monsters. In the end, you have to fight Rentar-Ihrno, with the help of Erika Redhand, a mage of Avernum. Though Erika dies, killed by Rentar-Ihrno with a ray of sunlight (Erika was cursed by the Empire with being killed if exposed to sunlight), you are able to kill Rentar-Ihrno in return, thus ending the threat to the Empire and giving Avernites/Exiles a way to return to the surface.

Blades of Avernum/Blades of Exile is not part of the original series and instead has three unrelated scenarios which you can play. It also gives you the ability to create your own scenarios.

And now, Avernum 4 has come. This game takes place 100 years after Avernum 3, and once again, trouble is brewing. Something has been attacking Avernum. Three shades have appeared in Avernum's cities, casting a dark pall over the land. Monsters have appeared in the rivers, cutting off Avernites from each other, and plagues of new monsters seem to be appearing everywhere. Sounds awfully familliar, don't you think? And yep, the same agent is behind it all. Rentar-Ihrno, thought killed and defeated at the end of the third game, has decided to make a comeback. She's merged her soul with the infernal, and become something akin to a half-demon. It's up to you to defeat her minions and her plagues and release Avernum from its current torture.

Several old friends make a reappearance, including the Giant Friendly Talking Spiders, all of whom are named Spider. and many of the original mages, like X and Solberg, all of whom can apparently call on magic to keep themselves alive, at the cost of a slow withering of their bodies.

It's great to see a new chapter, and, really, a new game taking place in Avernum. Though I liked the Exile Engine a bit better, the Avernum games have much better graphics. Even though the graphics are "Old School", reminiscent of the late 80's and early 90's (and not, say like, Doom or other graphics-heavy game), they are very well done. After a battle, you can see blood spatters on the floor, and pools where creatures died. It might be better if Bugs and Spiders left behind green ichor instead of red blood, but that's the nature of the beast.

This game is long, too. At least a two or three week game to finish, if you can only play on odd hours as I can. And there are at least 39 towns/cities to explore and visit, and over 100 areas total, such as the Mertis Spiral, which is filled with undead, and the Honeycomb, a maze where all sorts of fugitives and monsters hide out. Plus there are countless monster lairs scattered over Avernum. In addition to the main story, there are other jobs you can do, acting as a courier to cities all over Avernum, doing small jobs that other people want done. Doing these jobs gives players more money and items with which to fight monsters and train their skills.

This is a great game series, and I advise everyone to check it out. While the graphics may not be up to modern standards, the gameplay can't be beat.

It's all about the movies!

Ever since I got my first DVD player (Which was a DVD/VCR combo machine) , I've been collecting DVDs. Actually, if you count computer drives, I have had a DVD-playing drive ever since I bought the computer I have now (a Macintosh G4/450, which I have extensively upgraded through the years with faster memory cards and a wide variety of accessories, including "the Beast", my HP Color LaserJet 3550, which weighs 70 pounds and uses color toner cartridges that cost about $200 each).

My DVD collection is extensive, mainly from buying old TV series on DVD. Not just from the commercially available sources, but from people recording their old VHS tapes on DVD, which has made it possible for me to collect series like "Voyagers", with Meeno Peluce and Jon-Erik Hexum, "Covington Cross", "Manimal", "Robin of Sherwood", and "Earth2", which I had on DVD before the commercial version came out. Of course, being an old supporter of fansubs since back in the day, I purchased the commercial version of Earth 2 when it came out and got rid of the fan-made version. (Fansubs refers to Japanese Animation, where fans of the show would translate the Japanese and use computer subtitling to add to videos of the show. As a point of honor, when the series was released by a commercial company, you were to dump the fansubs and buy the commercial version- this kept new animation flowing to the US and made the US publishers of Japanese animation continue to be viable... in other words, they didn't go out of business because the fans already had that anime from the fansubbers and therefore wouldn't purchase it.)

So, my DVD collection is growing by leaps and bounds. Ebay can be like crack for fans of past shows. My recent purchases include the entire series of 'The Man from Atlantis" on DVD, as well as the aforementioned "Covington Cross" and "Robin of Sherwood", a British import that casts Robin Hood as a dispossessed peasant who becomes a follower of the Old Religion (paganism), specifically "Herne the Hunter", a British God of Deer and the Hunt. He is also called "Herne's Son", and wields a sword made by the smith, Wayland. (Wayland/Weyland is also a God of Britain, a smith-God, but he was human in this series. Robin's sword, Albion, Bears the legend: "Herne's son is my master. I cannot slay him." The 11 other swords of Wayland also show up in the series. It is, by the way, really excellent, and I suggest you seek it out.) Later on, the original Robin is killed and a new man, Robert of Huntingdon, takes up where the original left off. Robert of Huntingdon has the more typical background of Robin Hood, being a noble who fights against injustice.

Other recent additions to my vast warehouse of DVDs include the movie I talked about in my last blog entry, "Dungeons and Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God". Incidentally, I did watch the movie with the commentary on, and it wasn't anything like I was expecting. They had three people doing the commentary, who were doing it in character. And when I say in character, I mean that they were pretending to be three of the characters introduced in the Player's Handbook: Krusk, Half-Orc Barbarian, Lidda, Halfling Rogue, and Jozan, Cleric of Pelor, or God of the Sun.

For the most part, the commentary is only so-so, but there are amusing moments, such as when Barek cuts off Damodar's hand and lower arm to prevent him from using the Orb of Valzhure, and Lidda cracks, "Give that man a hand!" (my MST3K comment on that one was "There's more than one way of disarming a villain," which made the person watching with me crack up.) But too often, some of the comments had a quality that just made me annoyed, such as Jozan remarking that women succumbed to the weakness of their sex, which made me want to hit something, preferably him. Of course, we had the example of the strong female barbarian, Lux, in the movie, and Ormaline, who shows a different sort of strength- casting a teleport spell after a bad teleport has merged her arm with a wall, and showing courage when the only way to get out of that is by amputation, and she accepts getting most of her arm cut off by Barek. Ouch!

Most of the rest of the comments seemed to be about Lux and Krusk. Krusk, being a barbarian, was quite taken with Lux, seeing that she was beautiful... and the other two characters riffed on the unwashedness of Krusk (when there is a scene of Oberon taking a bath, Krusk says, "He's stewing in his own filth!" and then one of the others says, "It's called a bath" and the third says, "Maybe you should try it some time!"

I probably won't be watching the commentary again, but the movie is going to remain one of my favorites for a long, long time, and I am quite looking forward to any sequels to this one.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Gamer Geek Heaven!

I recently recieved a DVD I had ordered from in the mail, and ever since, I have been in Gamer Geek Heaven! The DVD was, of course, "Dungeons and Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God", which first appeared on the Sci-Fi Channel late last year. I had only seen the last 45 minutes or so of the movie, as I could never seem to get to the TV when the movie was actually starting, and this was my chance to see the entire thing.

Let's start this out right: The movie is AWESOME. If you had a camera capable of peering into a bunch of people playing D&D and capturing what was actually going on in the game on that camera, this would be the kind of movie that would result. The story follows the Kingdom of Izmir (Once pronounced Izz-meer and now apparently called Ish-meer 100 years later) that appeared in the first movie. The only returning character from the first movie is Damodar, the fighter henchman of the first movie's villainous mage, Profion. Profion cursed Damodar with undeath should Damodar ever fail him, and for the last 100 years, Damodar has been some kind of undead creature.

But Damodar, being the baddy of this film, has plans. Plans to take his revenge on the people of Izmir, the descendents of those who caused his fall from grace in the first movie. He finds and retrieves the Orb of Valazhure, the evil dragon God of Death and Decay, who had been forced into stasis 3000 years ago. With the orb removed from the stasis field it had been kept in, the Dragon God is beginning to awaken, and if the orb is destroyed, Valazhure will get a great deal of his Godly power back, which will be a bad thing for Izmir.

Facing off against the power of Damodar and Valazhure are the five champions of Izmir: Barek, a fighter and former captain of Izmir's Royal Guard, Lux, the beautiful barbarian warrior, Dorian, a priest of Obad-hai, God of Nature, Ormaline, an elven mage, and Nim, a rogue. Also fighting on the side of good are the mages of Izmir, led by the archmage Oberon. While Barek and his companions seek the Orb, Oberon and the mages try to find out how the Orb can be placed back into stasis. And then there is Melora, a minor mage and wife of Barek, who has been cursed with a wasting ailment that will eventually turn her into an undead creature by Damodar, but who will end up being the only one who can save Izmir from the wrath of Valazhure.

This movie is 5000 times better than the original movie, and this time, it isn't being played for laughs, though there is some humor in the interactions of the characters. The plans of the villain are appropriately vast and epic, and the special effects were well done.

But mostly, this is a film for real D&D geekazoids like me. Players of the game will have a blast figuring out which spells are being cast (I especially liked the Lizardman shaman casting Regeneration on Damodar's arm. Damodar even looks like he's in agony as his arm regrows from the stump.), and seeing various magic items in action, such as Ormaline's Ring of Smiting (which she gets from a goblin shaman's hut during the adventure) and Staff of Lightning, and Nim's Gem of True Seeing (which he picks up while fighting the Lich). The monsters were also well done, such as the Magmen, the Lich and the Dragons.

Even better, of course, is the two specials included on the DVD, one a more or less standard "making of" featurette, and the second an interview with E. Gary Gygax, creator of the D&D game. The best part of the first is the man from Wizards of the Coast (current publisher of the D&D game) who tells us that they included the magic item, "The Vorpal Sword" simply because it was cool, and then turns to the camera and says, "And no, I didn't get laid when I was in High School." It was such a geekly moment that I nearly fell off the bed laughing.

The Gygax interview was equally good, though I was scared of his left eyebrow. The right one was all combed in the right direction, but the left one looked it belonged on a mad mage, all funky and shooting in three different directions. I have yet to see the third special, which is a commentary on the film. But I plan to rectify that as soon as possible.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Sad news

Oh, and for all those anxiously awaiting my photos from Otakon, there is no joy in Mudville. My camera died and never took the shots I thought I was taking. :P However, some good did come out of this: a new camera, though not a digital one. So, when I go to Otakon *this* year, at least know I will be taking actual pictures!

Inaccuracies about money

One of the biggest claims about the US being a "Christian Nation" is about that phrase on our currency, "In God We Trust". It's claimed that since we have such on our currency, it is proof that we are a "Christian Nation". Some even say that this phrase has always been on our money.

As for that last, let me deal with that one right now. The first time "In God we Trust" was used, it was on coins, and was placed there after the Civil War. Before that, there was no such phrase used on currency. And on bills, it was only adopted in the 1950's, because supposedly "godless communists" wouldn't want to handle money that mentioned God.

And so, on to early American currencies. Most were printed notes due to a shortage of coinage. Back in those days, America needed money so badly that not only were English coins being used, but so were Spanish, Danish, German and any other coins people could get their hands on. But when all those failed, America printed paper money to cover their needs. The most common (and ominous) saying was a warning "To Counterfeit is Death". Based on its frequency of Appearance, one could easily argue that this was what America really cared about, not God, but not having counterfeit currency! There is no mention of God, Jesus or any other divine figure on American currency of that period. One of the earlier printed notes shows a "wildman" figure dressed as an Indian with the word balloon "Come over and help us" on it.

Other American currency of the time has rural and bucolic scenes on it. A farm with a rain storm in the background, and a sun coming out from behind clouds. Benjamin Franklin printed five pound notes showing various leaves with the ubiquitous "To Counterfeit is Death" printed in red ink near the bottom of the note. He also made the infamous "Mind Your Own Business" note, directed at Britain.

However, in 1751, American-printed currency was outlawed in the colonies. And so it stayed, more or less, until the Revolution. One of the first bills printed by "The United Colonies" (it says so right on the note) was for $3 and showed an eagle fighting a heron. It bears the legend "Exitus in Dubio Est" or "The Outcome is in Doubt". The $4 note shows a wild boar charging into a spear and bears the legend "Mors Aut Vita Decora" or "Either Death or an Honorable Life". The $5 note bore the legend "Sustine Vel Abstine", or "Let me Alone/Bear With Me" and showing a hand shedding blood trying to uproot a thorny bush or sprig (Franklin equated the hand with Britain and the thorny spig with the Colonies). The $30 bill showed a stormy coast and ocean with the legend "Vi Concitae" or "It assaults with a violent force", and on the other side of the same bill, ships sailing on a calm sea with the sun shining and the logo "Cesante Vento Conquiescemus" or "When the Wind Subsides, We shall rest".

Later bills had legends such as "Tribulato Ditat" or "It is Enriched by Affliction" and "Preservando"- "By Preservation". Other notes were quickly printed to meet the growing demand to pay soldiers and buy war materiel. One such soldier note that survives shows a sword-wielding soldier with the words "In Defense of American Liberty" and (in Latin) "By the sword one seeks peace under tranquil liberty". These are known as "Sword in Hand" notes.

After the war, there was a shift in the images on bills. in 1776, the thirteen-stepped pyramid first appeared on the $50 bill. It had the legend "Perennis" or "Ever-Lasting". The All-seeing Eye came in 1779. Other bills in 1779 had "Sic Floret Republica" or "Let the Republic Flourish" and "Post Nubila Phoebus" or "After Dark Clouds Comes the Morning".

God, such as it is, only gets mention on one bill, in the legend "Deus Regnant Exultet Terra" or "God reigns, let the earth rejoice". Lest someone claim that the highest demonination bill mentioned God, that's not true. The Highest Denomination in the series is the $80 bill which bears the legend "Et in Seculorum Flourescebit" or "And it will Flourish through the Ages", showing a strong, sturdy, mature tree.

After the Revolution, the government no longer minted money. That fell to individual banks. Many of the surviving notes show no sign of God or any Biblical figures. Instead, Ancient Greek heroes and myths seem to have been used on these bills, along with depictions of "Lady Liberty". Other popular figures included Indians, people working, steam locomotives, milkmaids, and so on.

The Civil War set the government to printing money once again, when other means of raising money had failed. None of these bills had mottos or legends, however. And once again, no Biblical figures. Instead, pictures of actual founding fathers and more "Lady Liberty" figures abounded. On the back of the notes were vignettes of what were considered important episodes in American history. Many we would find surprising today. They were: Columbus sighting land, Columbus landing in America, DeSoto discovering the Mississippi in 1541, sir Walter Raleigh in London exhibiting corn and tobacco, The Baptism of Pocahontas, Embarkation of the Pilgrims, Landing of the Pilgrims, Benjamin Franklin capturing Electricity with his kite, The Battle of Lexington (April 18, 1775), Signing of the Declaration of Independence, Washington Crossing the Delaware, The Surrender of General Burgoyne to General Gates at Saratoga on October 17, 1777, Washington resigning his comission, Commodore Oliver Perry leaving his flagship during the Battle of Lake Erie (September 10, 1813) and General Winfield Scott entering Mexico City during the Mexican-American War (1847).

Many other notes printed later showed Allegorical figures which included Liberty, Justice, Victory, Loyalty, Peace, Architecture (no, I'm not making this up!), Science, Mechanics, Navigation, Agriculture, Industry, The Spirit of the Navy, Transportation... Hard as it is to imagine some of these things as allegorical figures, American engravers surely tried. And none of these bills had legends or sayings on them, either. It wasn't until the 1950's that "In God We Trust" made it on to paper money. I hope to go into the History of American coins at some future date.

So, keep it in mind: a single bill mentioning God out of many that don't doesn't prove that we were a "Christian Nation" or that the Founding Fathers wanted us to be.