July 30, 2006

New tech: Mozy Remote Backup

Posted in Technology at 4:34 pm by Calico Jack

Like many people, I’ve had computers crash and die on me. I had my first laptop for less than a year before I dropped it and destroyed pretty much everything inside. Thankfully, I was able to retrieve most of my files, but I very easily could have lost documents and files that were irreplaceable. Now that I’m on my second laptop, I have even more important photos and projects and files that I would hate to lose.

Mozy is one of the coolest websites I’ve come across in a while. They offer remote backup for all of your important files. The process couldn’t be simpler: sign up for a free account, download their program (currently only works with Windows XP, but they’re working on a Mac client), select the files you want to back up, and click “Start.” Mozy will upload everything to their secure servers, and you can set the program to update automatically whenever you add files of a certain type.

For example, I have a photo album that I want to make sure isn’t lost. So once a week, Mozy will scan my computer to see if I’ve added any photos to my folder, and it will automatically upload the new photos for me; I don’t have to do anything at all. You get 2 GB of storage for free, and if you want more space the fees are minimal. What’s great about Mozy is that you can download your files from anywhere, as long as you sign in on their website. If my computer dies, I can simply go to another computer and sign in; and Mozy will prepare a zip file for me to download. It’s as hassle-free as you can imagine, and you can restore your data up to several times a month.

Of course, you need a broadband connection, because Mozy needs to be able to connect to their servers to automatically update. And if you’re working with large files, it can take a while to upload, depending on your speed. But once you finish your initial upload, Mozy only updates if there are new items that you want to save, which cuts way back on the bandwidth.

I like the security that comes from having my important files in a secure place. Yes, you can go and burn CDs or DVDs of all of your files; but that takes a long time and you have to keep updating as soon as there are new files. And having your files online means that you’ll be able to retrieve your data, even if your house burns down. It’s cheaper than buying an external hard drive, and Mozy does all of the work for me. Seriously, this is a great website. Just click here, and you’ll be up and running in no time. I can’t recommend this service enough.

July 28, 2006

Some Japanese are crazy!

Posted in Random Oddments at 11:45 am by Calico Jack

This video is provided to you for your Friday viewing pleasure. Watch the entire thing, especially the last minute or so. Why can’t we have game shows like this in America?

H/T Allah.

July 26, 2006

Nothing says “Monopoly” like a debit card

Posted in Games, News at 2:32 pm by Calico Jack

In their latest edition of Monopoly, Parker Brothers has decided to drastically change the way their classic game is played. Instead of using the traditional brightly-colored bills, players will now be given a mock Visa debit card to keep track of their bank balances. No longer will the banker be required to count out everyone’s savings before the game starts; now he can simply swipe everyone’s card through the plastic reader to adjust their earnings and payments. According to spokesman Chris Weatherhead, “The new electronic Monopoly reflects the changing nature of society and the advancement of technology.”

I’ll be the first to say that Monopoly isn’t my favorite board game to play. It’s a decent party game when you have eight people at your house and no one is up for strip poker, but the game takes forever and you can usually tell who’s going to win after five or six turns. Having said that, however, I think this new cashless version is going to strip (no pun intended) whatever fun can be had playing this game. For example:

  • How are you supposed to be able to put all of the players’ taxes in the middle for Free Parking? That’s definitely the most common house rule, but without any cash Free Parking becomes a dead space.
  • You can no longer team up with another player to take over the board by combining properties and assets. The whole point of teamwork (apart from being really fun) is to make it harder to go bankrupt. But if you can’t combine the balances on your debit card, it sort of defeats the purpose of being a team. I suppose you could just use the second card once the first one expires, but you’ll have a much harder time convincing the rest of the players that you are teammates. With cash, you can’t separate your incomes once you make a big pile of money on the table.
  • Speaking of these debit cards, how will players be able to keep track of their balances unless they use sheets of paper? With cash, it was always very easy to quickly glance at your pile and estimate your assets. But won’t it be an annoyance to make the banker swipe the card every time you want a balance?
  • And finally, how are you supposed to be able to cheat? Everyone knows that if you can grab a few extra $500s before the game starts, it’s much harder to go bankrupt. I’m joking…but this will also eliminate under-the-table deals that are so much a part of the spirit of Monopoly.

Using cash also teaches kids how to count and make change. And Monopoly is such a classic game that it doesn’t need to be modernized or updated. Stick with our Monopoly money (even the annoying $5 and $1). Thankfully, this new electronic version won’t replace the original; you’ll always be able to find the regular one. But I have a feeling that we won’t be seeing the Visa edition for long.

July 25, 2006

Gentlemen & Players

Posted in Books at 1:39 pm by Calico Jack

Gentlemen & Players is one of the most interesting novels I have read in quite a while. Joanne Harris gives a fascinating look at the inner workings and politics of a respected English boys’ school, St. Oswald. Fourteen years ago, a lower-class student tried to gain acceptance at St. Oswald’s, but was never able to truly fit in because of his lower standing. Now, posing as a teacher, he is back for revenge against the teachers who betrayed him; and he is willing to go as far as murder to achieve the complete destruction of the school.

What makes this novel so fascinating is that Harris provides two first-person points of view in Gentlemen & Players, alternating chapters between Latin instructor Roy Straitley and “Julian Snyde.” As Straitley attempts to figure out who is sabotaging the school, Synde both recounts his childhood and sets in motion his carefully laid plan of revenge. This novel is filled with interesting surprises, and the climax of the book contains a twist so unexpected it reveals much of what came before to be a red herring. But for some strange reason, the twist works.

I read this novel in about two sittings because I couldn’t put it down. It’s a perfect book for when you have some free time and don’t want to get into anything too heavy.

July 23, 2006

The Fountain

Posted in Movies at 8:21 pm by Calico Jack

I think the trailer for Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain is a good example of what I talked about in my previous post. Rarely do we see movies that aspire to be something more than the sum of their parts. Unfortunately, many films are both pretentious and overwrought, as if by striving to make a point the creators feel the need to bludgeon the audience over the head with their symbolism. They sacrifice storytelling and pacing (and in the process, entertainment) for their “art.”

Having seen the trailer for The Fountain, however, I must say that this movie could be what many of us have been waiting for all year. I’ve watched the trailer half a dozen times in the past two days; the last time I did that was for The Phantom Menace back in 1998…and that movie turned out to be a big disappointment. But The Fountain has some of the most beautiful, breathtaking images I’ve seen in a very long time; I can’t stop watching. And it’s only a two-minute trailer, no less. With a reported running time of only an hour and a half, this movie shouldn’t have any pacing issues.

I haven’t provided a synopsis of the film, because I think it’s best simply to watch the trailer without any foreknowledge. I strongly recommend that you view the high-definition version of the trailer, as squinting at a little box on the computer screen will definitely ruin the experience. Take my word for it; even if The Fountain ends up disappointing audiences, especially after such an unbelievable trailer, it will still be one of the most interesting films of the fall.

You can view the trailer here. What are you waiting for? As an added bonus, here are two other recently-released trailers that I have found intriguing: The Prestige and Children of Men.

July 20, 2006

Art, Entertainment, and a Quest

Posted in Celebrities, Movies, Writing at 9:40 pm by Calico Jack

©JSDC

I think much of what passes as “art”–both visual and aural–in today’s culture is not art at all, but rather a measured attempt to manipulate the audience into appreciating something of both low quality and little intelligence. I especially hold little respect for the contemporary art scene; paintings such as this and this are but a candle compared to the magnificent inferno that describes a work of art such as Albert Bierstadt’s Among the Sierra Nevada, California. Yes, I know art is largely subjective; but without some objective measurements, our culture will lose any sense of what is good.

Christopher Tollefsen of Right Reason has an excellent article on the degredation of art in our society. He makes an important distinction between art and entertainment. Art can be entertaining, but it does not have to be. And popular entertainment should not always be regarded as art, though it may be of high quality. I really enjoyed Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, but I would never dream of calling it art as some critics have done. Instead, I found it an entertaining, technically proficient studio film that gave me two-plus hours of fun, during which my brain could refrain from thinking about anything deep or introspective. Tollefsen articulates well the function of popular entertainment:

Trash is what good popular entertainment should be. Essentially a form of rhythmic play, whether in music, movies, fiction or the visual arts, trash does not seek to instruct, but simply to entertain. This does not mean it is unskilled: far from it. Good trash takes work, often considerable technical skills, and an awareness of what one is doing. Entertainment is, it seems to me, also what the beautiful enables, so we must see something of a continuum between the popular arts and the high arts (a different high low distinction than that between the low and the high emotions). As Pauline Kael writes in her essay “Trash, Art and the Movies,” to which the concept of trash here owes much, “Movie art is not the opposite of what we have always enjoyed in movies, it is not to be found in a return to that official high culture, it is what we have always found good in movies only more so.”

Cynical trash, by contrast, which is the fourth spot on my taxonomy, attempts to do the work of trash, while taking advantage of people’s manifest need and desire for entertainment, and their willingness to settle for what is poorly made, pandering and cheap. Hollywood’s sequel mentality is largely a consequence of a commitment of cynical trash rather than good trash. One familiar quasi-technical term to designate this branch of the taxonomy is “crap.”

Unfortunately, Hollywood produces far more crap than it does worthy trash. For every Serenity, we have a Fantastic Four (sorry, Captain Morgan.) Worse still are the pretentious films that aspire to greatness yet fall far, far short, like Sin City or X-Men: The Last Stand. Yet audiences eagerly gobble up what is fed to them by the studio conglomerates and their executives, who pander to those people that dislike thinking about what is put in front of them. Rather, they would prefer to be fed easy, quick, flashy answers to complicated questions. Why would anyone take the time to digest what they have just seen, when the next hyperkinetic blockbuster is merely a week away?

That was a rather lengthy introduction to the main part of my entry, but it is important to realize that however dire things may be now, all hope is not lost. Enter Jessica Stover, the lovely lady whose picture graces the top of this post. Jessica is a screenwriter and actress residing in the cesspool of cynicism, Los Angeles. (I’m allowed to say that, since I lived there for over fourteen years.) I have been reading Jessica’s blog for over a year now, and I’ve been consistently impressed by her commitment to bring back quality and art in Hollywood. It isn’t easy for a writer outside of the studio system, but Jessica has been persistent…and she has provided us with an candid look at her efforts along the way.

Jessica has written a big-budget, epic fantasy trilogy codenamed TSL. I have an idea of what the acronym stands for…but I’m most likely horribly wrong, so I won’t reveal my hunch here. Anyway, she has been pitching her idea to various executives, and the feedback has been quite good. But the studio system is unwilling to take a chance on an “unknown.” Those of us who know Jessica and read her work know that what she has is exceptional. I don’t use that word lightly.

Because TSL is a film that requires more than an indie budget, we need to go about making this movie in a non-traditional way. Thankfully, there is an excellent opportunity to show Hollywood that not all of us willingly buy into their idea of what is art. Eventful is a website that allows we, the movie-going public, to let the world know just what we want. And what we want is Jessica’s movie. All you have to do is go to this link and demand to have a showing of TSL in your hometown, or one nearby. It literally takes two minutes to sign up; you have no excuse for not doing this. By clicking the “Demand Me!” link, you’re saying that you are willing to take a step of faith and believe that we can do the impossible…and that makes us mighty.

To get the studios’ attention, we need 100,000 people to say “Yes, we believe.” It seems like a lot, but word of mouth can spread extremely quickly; and every demand is momentous. Jessica has a post about Eventful here, if you’d like more information. I’ve also added a link to the demand on the sidebar; just click on the picture to sign up.

This grassroots campaign can–and will–work. I was an active part of the community that didn’t give up on the cancelled television series Firefly until it became a big-budget movie. Believe it or not, the powers that be actually do listen to their audience if they complain loudly enough.

This is our quest. Here’s our chance to make a difference. Are you in?

July 18, 2006

Pop Princess Poseurs

Posted in Celebrities, Health and Fitness, Music, Personal at 2:49 pm by Elizabeth Swann

Have any of you noticed how many of today’s pop artists sound terrible when singing live? It seems to me like they are out of tune for an entire song. I recently heard Kelly Clarkson, Cascada, and Rihanna sing live, and they were awful. It sounded like the way someone would sing at a karaoke bar. Of course these pop artists’ albums sound near-perfect, but if one cannot sing a decent song live then there is a serious problem. Anyone could make a CD and sound really good with all the right digital voice-enhancing techniques and everything else that is involved to get that crystal-clear sound. The real talent appears when one does not need enhancement; it is a natural voice that has been cultivated from years of experience.

While I must say I am a fan of some of these pop princesses, I think their music sells so well because of their bodies, as they have become more of sex symbols rather than being known for their vocals. The reason the average American’s music wouldn’t sell is because they don’t fit that “ideal” image. What kind of message does this send to young men and women? For men, it teaches them them to lust and to desire women who are sexually attractive. While this is damaging, it is even more so to young girls. They see what is desirable, and they feel like they have to fit this perfect image to be accepted. What may then ensue is a period, or even a lifetime, of self-consciousness about their weight and looks as they try to do anything within their reach to attain “perfection.” They often begin without even realizing the harmful effects on the body and mind.

Sadly to say, I have been caught up in this way of thinking–and the more obsessed I became, the more discontent I was with my body. Instead of being thankful for what I did have, I was constantly comparing myself with other girls and their waistlines. But I was never satisfied, even when I was close to reaching my ideal weight. Fortunately, I eventually realized the extent of my foolishness and my wrong way of thinking. I thought being thin would make me happy, but it never did. I was focusing on someone I could never be instead of becoming the woman I was intended to be. An outward beauty does not last, and I wouldn’t want a guy who wanted me just for my body. So with that mostly behind me (I’m sure I’ll always struggle a bit), I am now working on attaining that inner beauty which is of far more value and consequence in the long run. I know changing will be a long and challenging process, but it will be worth it all in the end. Life is too short and precious, and I don’t want to waste it on mere trivialities.

My Name Escapes Me

Posted in Books, Celebrities, Writing at 12:48 am by Edward Teach

guinness.jpg

Always looking for a good read, I was intrigued by the title of book by the actor, Sir Alec Guinness. The book, My Name Escapes Me, is the diary of the late actor roughly between January 1995 and June 1996. At age 82 and retired, it might seem like the late Guinness would have little to write about of interest, but that really is not the case. Although most of the entries are simply about the quiet life that he and wife of many years led, his wit and charm make the book a very delightful read.

As the cover flap states, “What makes Guinness such a fine and versatile actor is precisely what also makes him a good diarist: an ironically observant eye.” In this day and age when wit and class are undervalued, I enjoy hearing the thoughts of those who are unprententious and articulate. Guinness reveals himself to be a informed and pithy commentator on everything from art and opera to politics. His travels and long career allow him a world wise eye at the events around him, but he manages to avoid the airs of a jaded memoir. Granted, this book probably is not for everyone. It is not a swashbuckling adventure, but rather the sort of book you would digest near a fire on a chilly, February afternoon.

Calico Jack adds: I had no idea Sir Alec had written any memoirs. This is definitely going on my list of books to check out at the library.

July 17, 2006

TV review: Psych

Posted in Television at 1:23 pm by Calico Jack

I wasn’t too impressed after I heard about the premise of USA’s new series Psych: a man with a gift for observing details poses as a psychic, in order to be hired by the police department to solve crimes. It sounded like the kind of buddy-buddy cop show that we’ve seen so many times before. But after watching a few previews, I thought that I would give Pysch a chance; after all, there isn’t exactly an abundance of fresh content on television during the summer. Apart from the mildly entertaining Treasure Hunters on NBC, and the excellent 4400 on USA, I don’t watch much television at all.

After watching the first two episodes, I have to say that Psych is a mixed bag. This isn’t a particularly original show, and the conceit quickly wears thin. If Shawn Spencer can be hired for his supposed psychic abilities, wouldn’t the police be just as willing to hire him if they knew his gift for observation? The scenes where Spencer “reveals” his observations are so over-the-top, they lose much of the humor that would appear had they been a bit more understated. And all of the characters seem a bit bland, from Spencer’s gruff, retired-cop father to the current police chief, whose only interesting quirk is that she appears to be pregnant.

Having said that, Psych is entertaining enough for me to keep watching. The interplay between Spencer and his sidekick Gus is often laugh-worthy, especially in the latest episode where they investigate a spelling bee. And even with the “psychic” baggage dragging the show down, this is a quickly-paced mystery series. Granted, they’ve only shown two episodes so far, but if the writing tightens up a notch, I’ll set a season pass for it on TiVo.

July 15, 2006

Jessica Simpson’s artistic side- no, really!

Posted in Celebrities, Music, News at 7:13 pm by Calico Jack

I never thought I would be writing about Jessica Simpson on here. But alas, she is a major part of pop culture; and her latest publicity stunt demands that I devote a paragraph or two to her–or, more accurately, to her “music.”

I’m sure I’ll be getting hate mail from Jessica fans after this, but I honestly think Jessica is one of the most processed pop singers today. Everything she does is carefully designed to promote an image. Yes, Britney Spears competes with her for the media’s attention, but Jessica does it better. Now her latest single “A Public Affair” has hit the airwaves, and unfortunately (haha) it isn’t being well-received by the public. So what must a pop singer seeking to reconnect with her multitudes of adoring fans do?

She personalizes her single, of course! Starting on Tuesday, gullible fans will be able to purchase and download a customized version of “A Public Affair.” Simply choose from a list of over 500 common first names, and Jessica (well, someone who sounds like her) will sing, speak, warble, or screech your name three different times in the song, making it truly soulless. Don’t have a common first name? Just wait a few weeks for the Powers that Be to approve your request, and you’ll have your very own custom single…from Jessica!

Personally speaking, I can’t tell you how happy I am that a major pop singer has finally decided to become so individual with her audience. I’ve always wanted to feel close to a singer, and here’s my opportunity! Every time I listen to her say my name on the single, I’ll think about the connection that she and I share. This is the best idea ever!

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