Podcastle – Zauberschrift   February 14th, 2012

Being a wizard is supposed to be exciting and prestigious, but what if it was more like being a programmer or an engineer?

Podcastle, the fantasy podcast, has a fun story Zauberschrift, about an apprentice brought in to do sustaining work on an old wizard’s buggy spells.

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Randy Pausch and Richard Feynman   January 11th, 2011

I recently finished reading The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch, the memoirs of the CS professor who gave a moving lecture after being diagnosed with cancer. It’s a nice collection of essays and memoirs, dramatic and inspiring. It has the wisdom and creativity of one adept at engineering, both technical and social. Reading of his work in Virtual Reality and the sabbaticals he did at video game companies and at Disney Imagineering was fantastic.

I was also recently reminded of physicist Richard Feynman, autobiography, Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman which I read in college. I started re-reading it today and have been enjoying that as well. Like Randy Pausch, Richard Feynman is an entertaining character. Both men are brilliant and smart, but not just with standard “book learning.”

They both show creative insight and love of solving puzzles, but also demonstrate a social knowledge which a lot of smarter people don’t always have. Pausch used that to teach his students how to be better collaborators and Feynman used social engineering along with his love of pranks to have lots of good-natured but devilish fun. I’m looking forward to reading about his time at Los Alamos working on the Manhattan Project, where he became a master safe-cracker, among other things.

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King Corn   December 13th, 2010

The documentary movie King Corn is a study of how processed corn enters the food system and where it ends up. It was even-handed and thought-provoking and approached the situation from an interesting perspective.

College graduates Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis move from Boston to Iowa, the center of the Corn Belt, to investigate the question. The documentary has a nice personal feel. Where other filmmakers could fall into predictable archetypes of the smart-assed liberal youths pitted against the conservative small-town farmers, there was thankfully none of that. The documentarians were earnest and friendly and they were welcomed by the community. It also helped that both Ian and Curt had family roots from three generations ago which came from the town they settled in, so they were able to add a personal side to the story as they connected with distant relatives and examined how their great grandfathers had farmed the land.

The two of them rented an acre of land to plant and tend a corn crop and the film followed them for a year, from planting to harvest. During that time they interviewed farmers and towns people to get a good picture of everyone involved in the corn market, from those growing it, to the distributors and consumers, from factories making high-fructose corn syrup to big cattle feed yards. The film goes over changes in farm subsidies and economics which have lead to bigger farms owned by fewer families, and the downsides of corn-fed beef and corn syrup as used in processed food.

However, the documentary remains mostly neutral, also showing how food has become cheaper and more plentiful. Processed food is not as healthy, but it also allows Americans to get more for their budgets. Like anything it’s a complex issue, a story of unintended consequences and high-fructose corn syrup is a genie that will not go back into the bottle. The film does not offer any answers on what to do with the chain of corn in the current food supply. At the same time it presents the issues in a straight-forward and even-handed way, keeping the discussion civil and refraining from political rants. That tone, and the personalized feel of the documentary make it a movie worth checking out.

Scarecrow’s Diploma   November 30th, 2010

I caught The Wizard of Oz while I was home on Thanksgiving. My parents’ Tivo picked it up and I watched part of it with my dad. It’s a fun classic to curl up with, but there’s one thing that always bugs me.

Being a nerd, I always catch this goof at the end, when the Wizard is giving out the gifts. After he gives Scarecrow his honorary diploma, Scarecrow spouts off the Pythagoearn Theroem, which is the sum of the squares of two shorter sides of a right triangle, equals the square of the hypotenuse. However, he flubs it and instead says isosceles triangle.

I wonder if that was intentional. Most-likely the screen writer was looking for something that sounded like what an egghead would say, and being a theater type instead of a math and sciene type, just made a mistake. It would be wonderful if it was an intentional gag though.

The whole joke at the end is that the Wizard’s gifts are pure chicanery and he’s giving the characters symbolic tokens to make them feel better, even though they went through the hero’s journey themselves. They are imperfect, but they still rose to the challenge. It would’ve been neat if the math flub was intentional to wink at the audience for that. That’s probably not the case, but geeking out on plot structure, it’s fun to think that it could be.

Paranormal Activity 2 was essentially the same movie as the first one, so it wasn’t as affective. They did a couple of things I liked, but with mixed results. 

This movie had better explanation and use of the cameras, especially with security camera footage showing more of the house. The father, while initially being skeptical and a jerk, was at least more likable than the boyfriend in the first film.

They did tie this movie in with the first one, which was a good idea. However in using that narrative the film felt more like a conventional horror movie than a documentary and because of that felt less scary. It was easier to get sucked in to the first film and imagine yourself in that scenario, so for that and seeing it the first time, the original was much more affective.

I didn’t not like the film, it was fairly entertaining, but nothing special. Some of the enjoyment of it was being amused at the group of teenagers freaking out watching it in the row behind us.

Megamind is quite a fun movie and a wonderful deconstruction of the superhero genre. It’s essentially a spoof on the Superman story, going into the roles of the hero and arch villain, but it references lot of comics and sci-fi movies along the way.

The more I see of Will Ferrel, the more I appreciate him. His movies used to be hit or miss for me, but he’s been knocking more balls out of the park in recent years. He has some familiar comedic trappings in the role of Megamind, such as the amusing mispronunciation of common words, but he also imbues the character with some genuine emotion and makes him sympathetic as well as entertaining. Brad Pitt also does a great job riffing on Superman.

I was happy to see David Cross voicing the sidekick character Minion, a talking angler fish. I loved the design of his mecha suit too, referencing science fiction films Robot Monster and Forbidden Planet.

The only weak character in the film was that played by Jonah Hill. He’s a likable guy and I enjoy his movies, but he essentially plays the same character in every film. They even made his character look like him. He was fun here, but they could’ve tried a little harder with him.

Otherwise though, the film was a lot of fun. It’s clever and inventive and just a fun ride.