Proud of my dad

Sometimes on Memorial Day I'm so happy about enjoying a lazy day off that I forget what today is all about, but yesterday in church I spent some time thinking about the people who have served our country and are honored on this holiday. I've always been proud to say that Dad served in the Air Force, and I love talking with Dad about his fascinating life. As a navigator, he flew countless hours on radar aircraft including the Warning Star (the Constellation or "Connie") and AWACS, and served all over the world in places like Germany, Iceland, and even Vietnam. His adventures led him to meet astronaut Charlie Duke (who walked on the moon) and even Elvis in Paris! The Air Force even brought Dad to Waco to meet my mom, which of course is why I'm here writing this today. Dad retired as a Lieutenant Colonel and enjoys retirement benefits that make me jealous, and I know through all the ups and downs that he's loved his career. During all of my recent photo scanning I found a few great photos of Dad (most of them taken while away to send home to Mom or Grandma) in his Air Force gear, looking like the hero he is, and I really treasure these images. It takes so many people to do the work of our country, and I'm immensely proud to be the son of an Air Force officer, my incredible dad!

View photos: Air Force Dad


The Red Balloon / Tongue and Groove Theater : 3 of 5

Since I've been lucky enough to perform in a couple Tongue and Groove productions in the past (playing drums for Le Petomane and The Comedy of Errors), it's fun to go to their shows and see familiar faces on stage. The Red Balloon was a definite must-see for me, especially since my pals Jonathan (playing horns in the band), Kirk and Heather (part of the ensemble) were in the show, which was performed in one of the theaters of the Long Center. I'm not really sure what I was expecting, but I was really surprised at the scope of the production from the moment the play began! The stage was filled with complex movement set to original music, telling the story of a lonely but sweet boy and his helium companion entirely without dialogue. The sets made use of beautiful projected backgrounds that were animated in precise time with the action, so the actors could "walk" across town via pantomime, giving everything a living storybook look. The actress who played the main character was incredible, drawing the audience in with her boyish expressions and emotion, and the huge ensemble that played everything from townspeople to classmates were funny and so precise in their movement (I can't begin to imagine the effort it took to rehearse with so many people moving at once!). Without knowing it, I actually witnessed a major mistake during the dramatic ending (the balloon failed to pop), but the cast found a way to make the story work perfectly! My only complaint with the production (and the reason for my smallish rating) is with the music, which simply was too ambitious in my opinion. While the score was wonderful, the orchestration was entirely too complex, with six musicians constantly at work, throwing in every sound imaginable from vibraphone to banjo. I actually found it difficult to concentrate on the action because of the busyness of the music, and hate to admit I even found it entirely too loud. I think a leaner band would have let the actors shine without needing to fight for the audience's attention, but I realize I could be overly sensitive being a musician myself. Of course, I had a fantastic time experiencing The Red Balloon and I'm so impressed with the incredible hard work that went into the show!


Free nostalgic comics on the iPad

One of the things that got me excited about getting an iPad was using it to read comic books, so I figured I would be using the excellent Marvel app to buy a few issues every now and then. But recently I've stumbled upon a few sources of fantastic comic nostalgia that are totally free and will keep me reading for quite some time! Being the huge Planet of the Apes fan that I am, I've had the awesome Hunter's Planet of the Apes Archive website bookmarked forever, and I remembered that it includes PDFs of tons of Apes comics from the 70s (as well as lots of other fantastic material). Since I wanted to read these on my iPad, I looked for the best app for the job that included a built-in way to transfer the files themselves, and GoodReader was the answer. Not only is this app fast and excellent for reading PDF comics, but it allows me to download them right from the web (or my local iMac via FTP) and even organize them in a folder structure! I have been totally enjoying the comic adaption of the first Apes movie (which I discovered includes scenes and dialogue that were cut from the film, after listening to some excellent commentary tracks on Blu-ray).

I used to read lots of Gold Key Comics when I was growing up (including classic Star Trek, Magnus Robot Fighter, and even Boris Karloff stories), and I found a terrific blog called Gold Key Stories that features complete issues as CBR files, another popular format for digital comics. Of course, there are some true CBR reader apps for the iPad, but since I was so happy with GoodReader I decided to see if I could convert CBR to PDF, and it turned out to be easy after two seconds of Googling. I found some simple instructions for using a program called Jomic to do the job, so now I can download these cool Gold Key files, convert them to PDF, and transfer them to my iPad with GoodReader so I can read them. I'm certain there are lots of other cool websites out there with more nostalgic comic books available, so after I get my fill of Planet of the Apes (like that could ever happen!) and Gold Key goodness, I'll start searching for more digital awesomeness to enjoy!


Robin Hood: 3 of 5

My pal Ryan and I wanted to see a movie during my recent visit, so we decided to check out Robin Hood, which I otherwise might have passed on even though I'm definitely a Ridley Scott fan (how could I not be with my love for Blade Runner?). The film is pretty interesting, since it's essentially a prequel to the Robin Hood legend that we all know (in other words, there's no double bulls-eye archery scene!). We get to see Robin and his pals (who later will become the Merry Men, all terrifically cast) fighting in the Crusades in gritty battle scenes that really display the horrors of a castle siege. It's also soon established that Robin is an honorable guy, played with Russell Crowe's usual gentle stoicism (he actually seems a little pudgy in this movie, but that makes him a little more likable). Soon the story moves to England, and the expected characters of Prince (later King) John and the Sheriff of Nottingham (who does almost nothing, but I suppose they're saving him for a possible sequel) appear, along with Maid Marion and her father, expertly played by Max Von Sydow in the best performance of the movie. Robin and his men actually only "steal from the rich" once, and in fact more time is spent developing Robin's background story, which builds up to a speech that turns him into a kind of Thomas Jefferson! Ridley Scott gives the film an amazing look (as expected) with lots of real-life feel (although there is one helicopter shot that seems terribly out of place), but eventually succumbs to Hollywood's need to end every story with a big battle. This time it's with a French invasion on the beach using boats (and even underwater camera angles) straight out of Saving Private Ryan. Overall Robin Hood is extremely well-made and enjoyable, but ultimately not the kind of swashbuckler that most people are probably expecting. While this new approach is definitely admirable and interesting, it sure could use a dose of fun to even out the mood.


Cactus, cowboys, and more

Last week I made my annual trip to Arizona to visit my pal Ryan, and we had a great time filling the days with tons of attractions! We started with the Musical Instruments Museum (MIM) which just opened this year, and I was really impressed with the displays gathered from all over the world, and especially their cool headphones system that lets you experience the sounds of all the instruments by automatically fading in based on where you stand. Next we had dinner at the famous Pizzeria Bianco, which is so well-known that people line up for hours before the place even opens! The food was delicious, and as soon as we finished we had to get to the baseball stadium for a Diamondbacks game (playing the San Francisco Giants), and it was cool to enjoy the action from some awesome club level seats!

The next day we drove to Tucson to visit some places Ryan enjoyed in his childhood, starting with the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. I really enjoyed the combination of zoo and science exhibits, including a great trail through the desert itself that makes you feel totally lost apart from civilization! Next we went to Old Tucson Studios, which has been around for 70 years as sets in tons of Western movies, and it was great to wander around the dusty streets like cowboys. We rode the train, drank sarsaparilla in the saloon, and even saw a gunfight! Finally we ate steaks at El Corral, which was a nice end to a Western-themed day.

In the morning we went to a check out the Westgate shopping area, which was cool since they have an action figure store where I bought some Disney toys from Japan! After shopping and ice cream we took a tour of Cardinals Stadium, which was amazing from an architectural standpoint even though I'm not really a football fan. Then we drove to the Tempe Center for the Arts to check out Chuck Amuck, an exhibit of the works of Chuck Jones (incredibly famous Warner Bros. animator), and after dinner and drinks we still stayed up and watched some of The Empire Strikes Back for the 30th anniversary (eating fresh-baked cookies at 2:00 AM)!

On the last day we saw a movie, did some shopping, ate at In N Out (which was delicious even though it wasn't Los Angeles), and played some games at Dave & Busters, which was nostalgic except for the fact that Ryan beat me at everything! That night we had a triple birthday party for Ryan, Jennifer's grandpa, and their dog Taylor, so Jennifer made an amazing salmon dinner for the occasion. The whole trip was a blast, and I can't believe how many things we crammed into our limited time. It's great to have such good friends to visit, and I'm looking forward to doing it again next year!

View photos: Arizona 2010: MIM
View photos: Arizona 2010: Tucson
View photos: Arizona 2010: Cardinals Stadium


Ultimate Spider-Man Vol 2 / Learning Curve : 3 of 5

Ultimate Spider-Man Vol. 2: Learning CurveSince I enjoyed reading the first volume of this series way back in September, I put the next few volumes on my PaperBack Swap wish list (so they will automatically be requested when someone has them available), and lucked into getting this second volume recently. It's interesting to see the changes that have been made to update the classic Spider-Man story, starting with Peter getting a job at the Daily Bugle to help them update their website (something that obviously didn't exist when the original comics were written). It's nice to see the interaction with J. Jonah Jameson (who seems pretty much the same as always, although all the character designs appear to be just a little more "buff"), and there are some really mature moments with Aunt May, who feels lonely since Peter is out web-slinging so much. Spider-Man is going after the Kingpin, and runs into Electro on the way, who has a pretty radical new design with a bald head and much more devastating shock powers (although Spidey takes him on rather easily). The biggest plot change occurs when Peter reveals his identity as Spider-Man to Mary Jane right away, but that's a nice twist that I'm looking forward to seeing play out (the scene also cleverly includes the essential Mary Jane line, "Face it, Tiger, you just hit the jackpot!"). The artwork is once again cool and pretty modern, which is nice for the most part, but I think some of the facial expressions are a little extreme. I'm not completely obsessed with this series, but it's great to be able to pick these up from PaperBack Swap (kind of for free!) and enjoy a nice Spider-Man read every now and then!


Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex 2nd Gig / Anime Legends : 5 of 5

Ghost in the Shell: Anime Legends 2nd GigIt's a close call, but I almost love the Stand Alone Complex anime series more than the brilliant Ghost in the Shell films, just because they are so long, rich, and full of additional characterization that only a 26-episode show can manage! Although the second season isn't as popular as the first, I found it incredibly compelling and addictive, even though the storyline is extremely intricate (actually, I found it useful to read the episode summaries on Wikipedia to make sure I didn't miss any important details). This season explains much more of the Ghost in the Shell world, occurring after World War III and a second war in Vietnam, and the plot hinges on the Japanese government policy concerning thousands of Asian refugees who fled to Japan after these conflicts. Section 9 is reactivated because of the terrorism of the Individual Eleven, an idealistic group based on the writings of an actual Japanese literary figure, including the mysterious full-cyborg Kuze and the devious Gouda who controls things behind the scenes (there's simply no way to sum up this huge storyline, so that cryptic sentence is the best I can do!). Similar to the first season, some episodes contribute to the main arc of the show, while others contain complete stories by themselves. I love these subplots, since they often focus on a specific character, and they are plenty of awesome examples in this season! There's a look at Motoko's past as a young girl and her relationship with an injured boy who makes origami cranes, a glimpse at the seedy past of Paz as he's hunted down by a former lover, a fantastic look at the recruitment of Saito into Section 9, and even background about the Tachikoma AI and the "father" of these lovable characters (who once again steal the show with an incredible sacrificial move at the end of the series!). The animation is wonderful given the show's budget (but a little jarring after just watching Innocence), and they really pull off some fantastic action segments, such as Motoko ejecting from a Tachikoma and holding back a helicopter via a cable, and even a new version of her classic fall-away while activating her thermoptic camouflage. Each of the seven DVDs in this set includes bonus interviews with the show's cast and crew (in Japanese), and I really enjoyed hearing the creators discuss all the intricate details and decisions they made to come up with the right story. There's no way around the fact that Stand Alone Complex 2nd Gig can be difficult to fully understand, but in a way, that's what makes it so incredibly cool. I was definitely sad to finish this series, but now I can turn my attention to manga and books to keep enjoying Ghost in the Shell!


Three Small Things 5.18.10

Now that all of my photo scanning is done, it's fun being able to enjoy old pictures that I haven't seen in a long time. I recently uploaded a few images to Flickr of fun birthday and Christmas gifts, and I love the sheer spoiled happiness of my Christmas 1978 toy haul! I still love to buy and collect toys, but as an adult I just pose them for photos and display them in my Toy Museum, when as a child I would actually sit on the floor and have adventures with my action figures, space ships, and playsets. I kind of wish I could still play with my toys like this today! What is that happens when we grow up that prevents us from playing? I guess that's just life, but wouldn't it be fun to make up new action figure stories and do all the voices like we did as kids? I guess that kind of creativity just evolves into other qualities as we get older. At least nothing can stop my love of toys and my enjoyment of buying more of them!

View photos: Great Gifts

While I was writing about pipe smoking recently, I decided to get serious about finding a new inexpensive Savinelli, and I discovered a great site called Smokingpipes.com with a huge selection. I love the detailed information about each pipe (with details like bowl measurements in millimeters!), and it was easy to narrow my search to the cheaper models. I found a cool Dublin shape and snatched it up, and now I'm going through the long process of breaking it in (which involves careful use until a protective layer of "cake" forms in the bowl so the briar itself doesn't actually burn). I haven't had to do this in years, so I'm trying to be patient and enjoy this arcane skill.

I discovered that an old photo of my PEZ collection is being used on another site called Collectors Quest in an article about PEZ (compare the article and my original photo). I'm glad they discovered my collection and I don't mind them using the image, so it's all cool with me! Of course, if they wanted to send me one of those rare Bullwinkle dispensers in appreciation, I wouldn't turn it down!


Up : 5 of 5

Up (Four-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo + BD Live) [Blu-ray]This Pixar masterpiece was one of the first Blu-ray discs I bought after I got my player, and I finally took the time to fully enjoy it last weekend! Since I live for behind-the-scenes information, especially when it comes to animated films, I watched all the bonus materials first, starting with the series of short documentaries on the second disc of the set. Directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson (who I discovered is the voice of Dug the dog!) are really articulate about what they were trying to say with the story of Up, arguably one of the most original and emotional plots ever animated, so I loved listening to them talk about the development of the film. There are segments about the "shape vocabulary" of the characters, the study of dog behavior and movement, voice direction (which created such authentic acting for Russell), and the incredible opening montage, which was kept silent to invoke the feel of Super-8 home movies. The longest feature is about the filmmakers' trip to South America to climb a tapui (the flat-top mountains jutting out from the jungle), and I was amazed at both the adventure of the trip as well as Pixar's realization that this type of research helps make a better movie. The film itself (which looks spectacular on Blu-ray, of course) has a Cine-Explore option (which reminded me of a scaled-down version of Watchmen's Maximum Movie Mode) that combines the audio commentary with picture-in-picture paintings, sketches, storyboards, and even video footage. It's wonderful to view these items in context (such as photos of plants in South America during the scene of the film they inspired), although it would have been nice to have still galleries available (something I was surprised to see missing). Pixar usually includes a new short on their releases, and this time it's Dug's Special Mission, which tells the story of events that occurred just before he meets Carl and Russell in the movie. It's a funny short, but not too amazing at barely over four minutes long. There's a really complex game as well, which shows off the capability of Blu-ray in a detailed geography quiz, but I only played it for a little while since I absolutely suck at the subject! It was a total joy to experience Up again, and I loved crying about the "Ellie badge" and noticing new details (like all the dogs in the audience during Russell's ceremony). I'm happy this beautiful film is on my shelf waiting to be watched again!


Austin Symphony / Christopher O'Riley : 4 of 5

For the final concert of this year's season, the Austin Symphony chose to go out with both the huge spectacle of Mahler's Symphony No. 1, as well as the classical perfection of Mozart's final piano concerto with guest pianist Christopher O'Riley. The concert opened with Mahler's Blumine, which was actually the original second movement of his first symphony (discarded soon after a few performances), but now stands on its own as a beautiful short piece. Since I had read a little about Symphony No. 1 and the various edits that Mahler did, I was glad to be able to hear this movement (without re-inserting it into the symphony against the composer's wishes). Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 27 was next, and the sound was unmistakably pure Mozart, filled with his "laughing" flourishes and excelling in the restrictions of the classic forms of his day. Christopher O'Riley was a joy to watch as his hands effortlessly glided over the piano, and after the huge applause he was kind enough to play a few bonus pieces, which happened to be piano interpretations of modern Radiohead songs! This was totally unexpected and unique, especially since he announced one of the songs was in 23/8 meter (making it fun for a drummer like me to count during the performance!). Finally, the stage was completely filled with over 100 musicians for Mahler's huge symphony, and the experience was incredible! After the uncanny Star Trek opening (maybe the theme song ripped off Mahler!), the first movement began to grow and blast its triumphant fanfare over the audience. I loved the eerie third movement with its minor version of Frere Jacques (starting with solo double-bass by one of my favorite players) and otherworldly Klezmer band segments, but the final movement was undeniably the best with its huge dramatic themes. This was the first time for me to experience a piece with two tympanists, eight French horns (often playing with fun sounding mutes), and the sense of anticipation as the whole orchestra prepared to explode was completely tangible. I'm happy to live in a city with a talented orchestra and to have pals like Matt & Kumiko to appreciate the arts with, and I'm really looking forward to the next season!


Mobile Suit Gundam SEED Destiny / Vol 7 & Vol 8 : 3 of 5

Mobile Suit Gundam Seed Destiny, Vol. 8I've been so distracted with Ghost in the Shell lately that I've neglected Mobile Suit Gundam SEED Destiny since December, but I was able to remember enough to get right back into these two DVDs. The conflict still continues between the Earth Forces (and their Orb allies) and Zaft, while Kira and Cagali (along with the Archangel crew) try to stop the fighting. A lot of the plot focuses on Stella (part of the Phantom Pain "enhanced" group working for Neo), who Shinn loves and feels he must protect, even to the point of stealing her from the infirmary and returning her to Neo! Unfortunately, Neo puts her right back in the pilot's seat of a new huge (kaiju-sized) Gundam called the Destroy, and Shinn must fight the very girl he just risked his neck to save. The Destroy is definitely devastating, wiping out whole cities (including Berlin), so this battle is really exceptional, and even culminates in the revelation that Neo looks like just Mu La Flaga (from the previous series) under his mask! There's a huge cliffhanger as Shinn and Kira take on each other in combat, so I'm looking forward to the next DVD to see what happens next! Vol 7 devotes one episode to flashbacks from the previous series, but I didn't mind the rehash at all, and Vol 8 contains a few good speeches about humanity's need to protect something. Although I'm still not totally crazy about this Gundam series, it's tons of fun to watch, and I love seeing what new kinds of mecha will appear (such as the interesting AWACS Gundam, complete with huge radar disk on its back!) as well as hearing the cool theme music (although I'm already ready for them to switch the ending credits song, which is just too folky for me). Hopefully I'll review the next DVDs in this series before five months pass again!


Still walking, still observing

Even though my company moved to new offices a few months ago, I've managed to keep up with my walking habit for exercise and relaxation. I really enjoyed my old walking route near the former office building, but I had to find a new place where I could get in my roughly 3,000 steps twice a day. Since our building is part of a larger complex with a shared parking lot, I decided at first that I would just wind around the lot until I found something better, but since I've been too lazy to discover other possibilities (and because I don't feel like crossing a semi-busy street), this new route has totally stuck. Now I have a specific way of circling the buildings that keeps me out of the way of entrances (where cars come in fast from the street) and gives me exactly the number of steps I want. Of course it's a little more boring than my old route, but I've found that when you experience the same thing over and over that an infinite amount of detail is revealed just by observing. I've been recognizing certain cars and where they usually park, and I know there's a lady who likes to sit outside and read during her lunch hour. One of the trees has a Buddha-shaped bird house hanging from it, and since most of the other buildings are doctor's offices, there's a kind old medical supply salesman who always says hello to me. I've also noticed (and been appalled by) the number of people who sit in idling cars while they're waiting on something (often for 30 minutes!), which is just crazy to me. Sometimes I get some strange reactions from people who see me walk by the same spot over and over (some guys putting advertisements on car windshields joked that I should be doing their job), but I've definitely grown comfortable with this walking route, and once I get used to something, it's tough for me to change. I still really enjoy the exercise (especially since the weather is getting hotter) and the time to think, both of which are far more important than the scenery anyway!


Ghost in the Shell 2 / Innocence : 5 of 5

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence [Blu-ray]I've been so into Ghost in the Shell lately that I'm buying up every way to experience this anime/manga universe left and right, which means I had to get this 2004 feature film sequel on Blu-ray! I've read many wishy-washy reviews of this movie, so I wasn't sure quite what to expect, but it turned out to be one of the most awesome anime films I've ever seen. There are so many elements that make this movie really unique, starting with the fact that Motoko (the main character of all the other Ghost in the Shell movies and anime series) is barely a part of the plot (although she does play a vital role), leaving the story to focus instead on Batou and Togusa. This is a great combination of characters, with Batou being almost fully machine and Togusa almost fully biological, especially since the movie is jam-packed with philosophical discussions (as well as tons of literary quotes) about the nature of humanity and consciousness and how they relate to cybernetics (or dolls). Batou and Togusa work together to unravel a case of female robots who are murdering their owners, and following them on their investigations and listening to their deductions is a fascinating process. But I immediately need to start talking about the visual aspect of this movie, which is absolutely breathtaking. Most of the film combines CGI modeling with traditional cel animation is a beautiful way, and the level of detail is just incredible. Not only are there stunning cityscapes and vehicles to enjoy, but even sets are rendered so perfectly that they appear "hyper-real". The now-famous scene in the mini-mart features aisles of products that have been created so every last box and can is completely labeled, and a huge Chinese parade (the story is set in Hong Kong like the original film) is just overflowing with accuracy that feels like you could infinitely zoom-in on the picture and discover new details! I could go on and on about the computer displays, the animation of Batou's basset hound and even the amazing reflections of light on cars, but it's enough to say that Innocence is the first anime film to ever be nominated for the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival! The Blu-ray includes a nice (but short) Making Of segment, plus a full Japanese commentary track, and it's so much fun to listen to the filmmakers obsess over every detail on screen. I had a fantastic time watching this movie and digging ever deeper into the world of Ghost in the Shell!


iPad bliss

I finally gave in and joined the other one million iPad owners, and I've been having a fantastic time with my new device! I waited a long time for Amazon to offer them, but they still don't have them for sale directly (either due to supply problems or Kindle competition), so I ordered from Apple after making sure my local Apple Store was definitely out. The shipping wait was excruciating, because although Apple shipped it out fast from China, UPS let it sit in Hong Kong for three days! Finally it arrived and I was synced up and running in minutes.

The iPad experience is so smooth and fast that it's making me re-evaluate what I use my MacBook and iPhone for around the house! I mentioned before that I knew I didn't actually need an iPad, but it's fun figuring out how to work it into my online routine. The first thing I realized is that since Safari on the iPad is so perfect and the screen real estate is so large, many of the "front-end" apps that I use on the iPhone are unnecessary. For example, I update Backpack multiple times a day, using Satchel on the iPhone since accessing via the web requires too much zooming, but on the iPad, the website is completely useable as is! With my Safari bookmarks synced via MobileMe, I can use my iPad for almost all of my "let me check that" browsing needs.

I'm loving the iPad for reading things like short news articles (via the USA Today or New York Times apps), Wikipedia entries (I've been using Wikipanion to dig deep into Ghost in the Shell details while I watch the anime), and of course, comic books! Being able to see an entire, readable comic book page is so cool, and Marvel was really smart to offer several Iron Man issues for free to go along with the movie! Another of my justifications for getting an iPad was Japanese study, and I've definitely been enjoying looking up vocabulary, kanji, and even listening to JLPT exam material. (My favorite dictionary app Kotoba only runs in zoom mode for now, but I'm hoping the developer releases a full-size version soon!) Finally, although I don't plan on playing a lot of iPad games, I had a blast trying out several that Dad introduced to me, and I'm having a great time playing Words with Friends with my pal Melinda and Dad as well (I can access my current games with them via my iPad or my iPhone!).


Iron Man 2 : 4 of 5

The 2008 blockbuster film Iron Man was a fantastic example of how the superhero genre can simultaneously entertain both serious comic book geeks as well as the average filmgoer who just loves an awesome action movie with great characterization, so it's tougher than usual for this sequel to live up to its predecessor. Iron Man 2 actually does almost everything right, but along the way it also does a few things wrong that unfortunately bring it down a couple notches. Just to get these shortcomings out of the way, I've never seen a movie spend so much time setting up other future films! It's no secret that Marvel is planning a series of Avengers movies. Nick Fury was introduced in the after-credits scene of the original film, and Black Widow is included here although she really only has one fight scene (granted, it's a good one!). The after-credits scene this time features Thor's hammer, which is cool for geeks like me, but not really fair to novices who may not realize this has nothing to do with the movie they just saw (although Iron Man will certainly have a place in the Avengers movies). OK, forgetting all those built-in advertisements, Iron Man 2 keeps the incredible charm and hilarious arrogance of Tony Stark, and Robert Downey Jr. absolutely makes the movie work, although he's a bit more serious this time around. I was kind of surprised at the actor switch for Rhodey, but Don Cheadle is great, and I really enjoyed Sam Rockwell (who I became a fan of after seeing Moon) as the hilariously cheesy Justin Hammer. Whiplash is a fun villain and his backstory really helps to tie together all the plotlines. He may not be that tough to defeat in battle, but his character is definitely the glue that holds this somewhat disjointed story together. I was slightly disappointed with the big final battle, but the events at the Grand Prix more than made up the excitement quotient for me! The visual effects are excellent as expected, especially all of the delicious tech, ranging from the 3D models that can be manipulated in the air to Tony's super-cool transparent iPhone-like device (I want one!). Just like after I saw the first movie, I'm really motivated to read more Iron Man comics and learn more about the classic character, so this movie did its job by stirring up this geek's interest!


Music Moments 5.10

Berryz Koubou / 6th Otakebi Album: Being a huge Morning Musume fan, I can't help but also listen to the other fun Hello! Project groups, and I've really grown to like Berryz Koubou over the past few years, especially since they are all growing up to have such great voices (as well as amazing looks!). This album is almost totally filled with single releases, and I've really enjoyed their recent style, especially on cooler, more driving songs like Dakishimete Dakishimete and Seishun Bus Guide. This CD definitely had some staying power in my car, and it's easy to listen to over and over again!

C-ute / Shocking 5: The other major Hello! Project group I listen to sometimes is C-ute, and this 5th album effort is pretty good (but certainly not as cool as the latest CDs from Morning Musume and Berryz Koubou). Their recent singles are collected here (which have been a little too peppy for my taste), along with some excellent album songs that really surprised me (I absolutely love Aa Koi), but I always have to remember to skip the terrible remix of Shochuu Omimai Moushiagemasu (yuck!).

AKB48 / Kamikyokutachi: This is AKB48's second greatest hits album, and I'm pretty amazed at the number of amazing hits on this 16 track CD! Every recent big-seller single is here (including their number one hit River), recent stuff like the themes to Majisuka Gakuen (including Sakura no Shiori which can easily make me cry!), plus lots of great songs that I hear all the time when I watch their concerts. I actually think the sound quality of this album is a little lacking in the bass department, but with a tracklist like this one, I don't really mind!

Aya Kamaki / Individual Emotion: I discovered Aya Kamaki years ago when I started expanding my Jpop horizons, and I've really enjoyed her music videos and songs whenever I hear them (and usually make sure to give them a high rating when they pop-up on my iPhone). Although it's kind of dated, I tend to think of her as a Jpop Pat Benetar, since her songs have a solid pop rock feel, and her somewhat low voice is full of power! This latest album is actually a 2-CD set with tons of fantastic songs, including the cool theme from one of the latest Kamen Rider series (which has some totally awesome guitar work), and it's a great collection of tunes altogether.

MC Frontalot / Secrets from the Future: I used some iTunes gift money to check out another album by MC Frontalot (who I have been into since buying his Nerdcore Rising CD), and although this one is a little less consistently awesome, it's still pretty fantastic! The stand-out hilarious track is I Hate Your Blog, but I love the feel of Bizarro Genius Baby and the title track as well. The beats are definitely kickin', but I wish the lyrics were just a touch funnier (I'm definitely going to buy more of his stuff soon!).


Hello! Project 2010 Winter Kacho Fugetsu / Shuffle Date : 3 of 5

This first combined Hello! Project concert event of the year showcases the many special shuffle units that were formed a couple years ago, making this a unique performance with only a couple full ensemble songs. The rest of the show allows each unit to perform by themselves, typically singing one new song and one classic song (from the original incarnation of the unit), while the rest of the Hello! Project girls sit on the sidelines (who are kind of fun to watch since they sing along and do the various hand motions). This format loses some of the excitement for me, but I still completely enjoyed the concert! In fact, it was incredibly nice to hear some live singing, since lately I've been watching so many AKB48 concerts that are almost totally lip-synced. This show is really an explosion of color when it comes to costumes (a little too garish for me), but the lighting is excellent and makes everyone's skin tone look beautiful. Now on to the units! Lin Lin's talent is totally wasted in Shin Minimoni, but at least she's cute to watch. I was impressed by how cool Aa's songs are (especially their recent one), and realized once again that Buono is totally great (I love their pop-punk style!). Zoku Biyuuden (my favorite unit with Sayumi, Jun Jun and Risako) was smokin' hot in this show (although I think they had more cute energy going in last year's concert performance), and it was great to see them sing Koisuru Angel Heart (one of the original Biyuuden's awesome songs)! Speaking of Sayumi, I was so excited to see her (along with Reina) get to sing Def Diva's Suki Sugite Baka Mitai, since she's such a natural to take over Rika's old parts (and they both have similarly "challenged" voices). I also need to mention Risa's "woo" ad-libbing during ZYX's song, which was truly fantastic and surprisingly strong! Everyone sings Renai Revolution 21 together for the final number, looking completely cute in their matching T-shirts and shorts (one of my favorite outfits of the concert, since it's so simple and stylish), bringing an end to a great show. Although I feel like something was missing overall (I can't quite put my finger on it, but somehow I just wasn't blown away), this is still a wonderful concert and a great way to see the Hello! Project girls expand their horizons!


One picture per wall

This morning I finished another decluttering task that I've been working on for a few weeks! In my quest for a more minimalist home, I decided to make a rule for myself that each wall (or virtual wall area) only contain one piece of hanging artwork. I used to have several things hung in groupings, but my OCD used to hate seeing them slightly out of alignment with each other, which is a problem that just can't happen if you're only looking at a single framed item! This rule may seem a little silly, but I found that it helped me redecorate my walls so they look more tasteful and of course, decluttered and clean. After spending a long time imagining where I would want things to go, I've moved and re-hung nearly every single picture in my condo! This process allowed me to redistribute things, so now there are actually more areas with artwork than before (rather than fewer walls with bunches of artwork), and I was even able to theme things. For example, everything in my living area is now Disneyland theme park related, and my 1964 Disneyland map is out of the kitchen and next to my favorite chair where it belongs! There were a few items that I decided to remove from frames and keep in souvenir boxes, as well as some pieces that I moved to my office (and just hung this morning), but generally I'm surprised at how everything has a new place. The result definitely looks better to me and keeps my mind at ease!


Oceans / Disneynature : 4 of 5

I think it's so great that Disney is once again regularly releasing nature films in the spirit of the original True Life Adventures. I really enjoyed Earth last year, and this year's Oceans is just as spectacular (maybe even better!). Although most reviewers have been disappointed at the lack of educational information in the film, I really don't think that's the point. What Oceans succeeds at is conveying the sheer wonder and magic of life, and the undersea world is definitely filled with sights that constantly seem new and alien. The camerawork is absolutely stunning, brimming with incredible creatures and environments. If fact, sometimes the look of the film is so surreal that I couldn't help but think I was looking at CG animation (which I certainly wasn't!). Just as impressive is the sound, which is obviously for the most part added during some kind of aquatic foley process, so you can hear every single bubble pop and scrape of a crab's leg across the briny bottom. The music is also fantastic, using a classical score that often accentuates an intense moment into an exhilarating experience (such as a huge feeding frenzy in a school of sardines by birds, dolphins, sharks and whales), or lulls the listener into a serene peace (as thousands of jellyfish glide by). Pierce Brosnan does a fine job as the narrator, although nothing he says is earth-shattering (and sometimes a little trite), meaning for me the long stretches devoid of voice were the most powerful moments of the film. And as a certified sharkophobe, I'm happy to say there is only one brutal sequence (involving some unlucky seals) that made me hide my eyes! On the contrary, the incredible sight of a diver swimming in tandem with a Great White was so shocking that I couldn't look away. Oceans is a magnificent film and a wonderful addition to the Disneynature series, and I'm looking forward to the next release (African Cats) on Earth Day 2011!


Star Trek: Klingons / Blood Will Tell : 4 of 5

Star Trek: Klingons - Blood Will Tell (Graphic Novel)It seems like the possibilities for Star Trek comics are endless, but my favorites are always the stories that tie-in with classic original series episodes. This is another book I got for Christmas, which collects a wonderful series of issues that retell the story of several Enterprise adventures from the Klingon point of view! The whole thing is nicely presented as a member of the Klingon High Council relates these events to his granddaughter (as a wonderful mini-prequel to the movie Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country), and begins with the essential Errand of Mercy, covering the origin of the Organian Peace Treaty (and showing scenes such as the Klingons' mass murder of citizens that could never make it on TV). Next is The Trouble With Tribbles, and the Klingon side of the story is far more fascinating that you would think, since it involves the painful transformation of the Klingon spy (beginning with gruesome surgery, learning to eat human food, and even how to talk softer). The moment where the Tribble's reaction reveals the spy is comedic on TV, but in this context it becomes a devastating failure of this poor guy's life mission! The retelling of A Private Little War has some bonus Mugato battle action, and Day of the Dove contains the events before the Klingons are brought on board the Enterprise, but neither really adds a tremendous amount of insight (though they are still fun to read!). The artwork, featuring lots of Klingon architecture and cool computer displays, is simple but wonderful, really capturing the look of both Enterprise crew and famous Klingons without being photo-realistic. This book also includes the first part of the story retold completely in the Klingon language (in case you are a hopeless geek scholar!), as well as a written script that includes lots of interesting details intended to help the artists (which also pointed out things I didn't notice earlier, like a panel that includes Dr. Phlox from the Enterprise series). There are many more Star Trek comic collections waiting for me to experience, and now I feel like I need to watch a few of the Star Trek movies again!


Moonbase IO audio discovery

This weekend while working on my cassette import project (which is finally winding down), I discovered an unexpected gem from my Atari 800 computer days! Back when all we had was a cassette drive (Dad hadn't bought our incredibly high tech 5.25-inch floppy drive yet!), the worst part about playing a game was waiting for it to load, which could take as long as 15 minutes depending on the program. One of my favorite games of that era was called Moonbase IO (released in 1982), and the developers figured out a clever way to do something with that boring loading time. Since the Atari cassette drive used only one stereo channel for the program signal, Moonbase IO filled the second channel with introductory music and narration to set the mood of the game! In between levels (different moons of Jupiter), the cassette would spin up again to play additional sound effects and continue the story of the game (loading more data in the process). It sounds so archaic today, but it was totally amazing at the time, and really makes Moonbase IO stand out in my early computer memories!

For some reason, I made a dub of the Moonbase IO cassette way back in the 80s, and it was incredible to listen to it again! I wanted to hear the cool audio by itself, so after importing the tape, I muted the data channel, then took out a few frequencies in the remaining sound to reduce the high-pitched bleed over as much as I could. You can still hear some data noise, but I got rid of enough of it (as well as removing tape hiss) to make a pretty nice "historical" recording! I'm totally impressed with the quality of the music, sound effects, and even the voice acting, and hearing the sped-up robot voice say "Docking successful!" brings back a lot of memories. There are two versions for your listening pleasure: one includes the complete game loading sequence (which has more instrumental score at the beginning), and the other is the game-only effects. If you are an Atari computer enthusiast, please! enjoy this nostalgic discovery!

Watch video: Moonbase IO Game Audio
Play Moonbase IO long audio (Less filtering)
Play Moonbase IO short audio (Less filtering)
View site: Ekranownia Atari (Moonbase IO screen shots way down on the page)
Visit site: Atari Mania (Moonbase IO instructions and advertisements)