Saturday, January 27, 2007

Serena Williams

Ravenweb visitors know that I have been a fan of U.S. tennis pro Serena Williams for years.

With all of her past accomplishments, though, it was nice to see her rise up from the unseeded ranks this year to beat Sharapova to win the Australian Open. This -- an eighth Grand Slam tennis title -- after she recently announced that she is planning to make a movie about the life of trailblazing black tennis player Althea Gibson. Very cool. Congratulations to Serena Williams.

Friday, January 19, 2007

The Scrubs Musical

Big props to Scrubs for going with a musical episode ("My Musical") last night.

The episode was hilarious and provided an irreverent pastiche of Broadway musicals while staying within the familiar tone of the show. "Guy Love" and "Everything Comes Down to Poo" were the best songs, with the latter number going to show that fart and crap jokes are always funny if done right.

Let's hope this musical episode is a sign of better things to come for Scrubs this year. Season six prior to this episode has been a disappointment with too much focus on the baby story lines and not enough crazy stuff like this.

See also:

Scrubs' takes a turn for the better with musical
by Matthew Gilbert (The Boston Globe)

Why You Must "Tune" In to the Scrubs Musical!
by Matt Mitovich (TV Guide)

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Ted Chiang's Stories of Your Life and Others

Ted Chiang is one of those writers who's so good and whose stories are so well-crafted and compelling that you find trying yourself to prolong and savor the reading experience. As a speculative fiction writer, Chiang is particularly effective at melding accessible and cogent scientific extrapolation with seamless prose. But you don't need to be an SF fan to enjoy Chiang's fiction. Anyone who enjoys good writing and thoughtful stories should find something in Chiang's fiction to satisfy.

All of the stories in Chiang's collection Stories of Your Life and Others are good, and some are great. I especially enjoyed "Hell Is the Absence of God", a fantasy novella about a world where angels and God exist and intervene in the mortal world; "Understand", a fun SF story about heightened intelligence in the tradition of Daniel Keyes' "Flowers for Algernon"; "Story of Your Life", a poignant story about a linguist trying to learn an alien language and how her exposure to the language changes her perception of being in time; and "Liking What You See: A Documentary", an insightful examination of appearances and beauty.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

At the Gates of Oblivion

Well, actually (and fortunately), no -- but I have finally gotten around to playing Oblivion, after having received it as a Christmas gift from my wife. For those of you who don't play computer games, Oblivion is a popular fantasy-themed role playing game that was developed last year by Bethesda Softworks. It is the fourth installment in Bethesda's continuing Elder Scrolls series of games, and its predecessors include Daggerfall and Morrowind.

Before I detail my observations of Oblivion, I should point out that of the previous Elder Scrolls games, I've only played Morrowind, which I loaded up shortly after it was released in May 2002. I remember being initially thrilled and very impressed with Morrowind for many days and weeks, perhaps too many of both as it turned out. I was struck by the spectacular visuals and the then state of the art character facial animations, draw distance, and water rendering.

I also liked the game's first person view that was reminiscent of good shooters like Half-Life and the immersive free-form mode of play that let you embark on the main quest or deviate from the scripted quests and explore the expansive game world as you chose. After a fair bit of exploring, I ended up performing the game's main quest and that led to a long sequence of addictive game play in which I completed minor and major quests until I was -- done, and quite exhausted by the end, as if I had just run a marathon while carrying my computer. As soon as I completed the main quest in Morrowind, I lost all compulsion for the game and felt no further desire to explore or continue playing, despite the two official add-ons and countless modifications released by the fan community. To this day, I have never replayed Morrowind and still feel some fatigue when thinking about the latter stages of the game quest.

So it was with both excitement and some trepidation that I installed and began to play Oblivion. I was able to get into the game right away, as it builds well on Morrowind, with the same kind of wide world sandbox and main quest that you may or may not undertake as you choose. The updated engine boasts very nice character and environment graphics, and, from what I've heard, it degrades well on lower end machines. For the record, I'm playing Oblivion on a PC, with an AMD 3500+ 2.21 GHz processor with 2.0 GB of RAM and an Nvidia 7800 GT PCI Express graphics card.

The game play itself is fun and it's made me remember why I play fantasy role playing games. The quests are interesting and varied, the combat provides a good rush without becoming gratuitous, and the large, detailed game world is as good as it gets for a fantasy role playing game.

I've also been able to enjoy the game without becoming addicted to it or playing it for excessive lengths of time. So in this regard, so far, so good. Perhaps having a wife now helps, as opposed to when I was single and playing Morrowind and could stay up playing all night.

I do have some problems with the game's inventory and quest UI tabs, which look great but only show information in an impractical, list view, which you must constantly scroll up or down to view additional information. A larger grid view for at least inventory would have been much more usable than the default display setup.

The game also doesn't share resources well. A spyware scan, a firewall alert, or an automated update check will cause the game to minimize and crash. I've discovered that I have to lock my firewall to get the game to play without issues.

Overall, though, Oblivion is very much a success and a lot of fun to play.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Adverbs by Daniel Handler

Adverbs is a series of interconnected short stories or vignettes all of which are titled after an adverb.

It becomes pretty clear soon after beginning the novel that love is intended to be the overarching theme. The problems here are the prose and plot devices the author uses to keep his notion of love in the subtext.

For example, many of the stories feature characters with similar names, but it's not often apparent whether these characters are supposed to be the same people or different people with the same names. Similarly, though intentionally done I'm sure, the character dialogue is purposely exaggerated and full of strange connections and phrasing, and hard to follow at times. The use of adverbs themselves is tightly controlled and reserved for specific instances of important characters development.

Now, Adverbs as a complete text may work well for some readers who will enjoy that the characters, pieces, and themes introduced in the novel never come together, paralleling perhaps how love often never culminates or wraps up neatly in our lives.

For me, though, reading the book did not evoke any feelings of pleasure, wonder, or loss that I would expect to feel from reading about love; instead, reading Adverbs was too much like plowing through a graduate school literary experiment, interesting and enlightening at times, for sure, but ultimately unsatisfying.

The Android's Dream by John Scalzi

The Android's Dream is a light and fun SF novel by John Scalzi.

A departure from the serious military SF in Scalzi's Old Man's War and The Ghost Brigades, this book is more in the vein of SF satire, and, in this fashion, is reminiscent at different points of early Neil Stephenson (Snow Crash) and Douglas Adams. As an example, the novel begins with an extended fart joke that runs through the entire first chapter. That's the kind of book this is.

Though not a perfect or substantive SF novel -- see Ranting Nerd's nice review of the book for a flushing out of some of the parts of the novel that may grate some readers -- it is a funny and entertaining novel and, in this sense, definitely succeeds.