august 2009

After we got Junie, we generally agreed that when one of our other cats passed away, we should get another one close to her age so she'd have someone to bond with and grow up with. But we certainly weren't expecting that within three months of bringing her home that Bear would leave us. We miss Bear terribly, but we knew that we should look into getting another cat relatively quickly, because she's still young enough that we could get another young cat for her to have as a playmate.

Since it took us several months to find Junie once we'd made up our mind to get another cat, we decided to go ahead and start looking around on Saturday. We stopped by a Petsmart that was having an adoption day, but the only cat that was in Junie's age range was an orange kitten who reminded us a little too much of Bear. We were still considering adopting him, but while we went to the back of the store to look for cat food, someone else started adoption proceedings on him.

On the way home, we stopped a nearby Petco and I saw a male kitten who appealed to me immediately. I could have waited if Julie didn't feel right about it, but after sitting with him for half an hour, she wanted to take him home, too, so we adopted him. He's got a white belly and legs with a grey tabby back—it's almost like his tabby fur is a shell and helmet that sits on top of his white fur.

It took a while to find his name, but I think he's going to be Oliver. He's exactly what we wanted as a companion for Junie—very sweet and affectionate, very playful, but gentle and not an alpha cat (Junie is definitely an alpha cat). It surprising how quickly he has fit in, learning the location of the litter and the feeding routines already.

I still wish Bear was with us, but Oliver is certainly softening the blow a bit—he loves us and he loves Junie and he already feels like part of the kitty family.

The King of Kong is better than a movie about video games has any right to be; it's not really fair to compare to other documentaries of offbeat subcultures like Trekkies, because it's so much better than anything in that genre. It's the story of a dickish video game champion from the 80s whose two-decade old record is challenged by an unassuming high school teacher who has struggled with never quite reaching the top in many of his life's endeavors (music, baseball, etc.) and who is finally redeemed when he sets his mind to beating the all-time high score for Donkey Kong after being laid off from his engineering job.

I'm not doing a great job of setting this up, but to tell you any more would give away too much. I can only tell you that I've probably watched more movies in the last couple of years of my life than I have since I was in grad school living with a film buff and taking a film theory class, and this is easily the best documentary and one of the best films period that I've watched during that time. It's got dramatic tension in spades, it's incredibly heartbreaking, and it's engrossing—I had only intended to watch the first half hour on Saturday night before I went to bed, and I just couldn't press the pause button.

It's a classic underdog story, but it's so much more than that—who knew you could care so much about something that, in the scheme of things, matters so little. The stakes are almost meaningless, but because of the personalities involved, the film transcends the relative unimportance of high scores on classic arcade games and becomes one of those universal good vs. evil stories that illuminates the human condition as well as any serious drama with big name talent that I've seen come out of Hollywood in the past few years.

If you haven't seen the film yet, I'm sure you think I'm overstating its power, and I would probably have agreed with you if I had read a review like this before I'd seen the film. But take a chance on it before you disagree with me; I'm guessing most of you who do won't feel the need to argue with me after you have seen it for yourself.

Going to try to work through a couple more documentaries before the regular movies start coming from my Netflix queue. First up Wordplay, a documentary about crossword puzzles. The drama comes from the annual crossword puzzle championship, but a fair bit of the movie is taken up with interviewing celebrity crossword afficionados, including Jon Stewart, Bill Clinton, Mike Mussina, and the Indigo Girls, along with some of the people who create and edit crosswords.

It was pretty interesting, but I probably would have thought it was better if I hadn't watched it immediately after The King of Kong. But it's still a very good film, and one that's likely more relatable for most people than a documentary about high scorers on a video game that was last popular in the 1980s.

My last documentary for a while was Helvetica, the story about the creation and rise to dominance of the typeface that is likely the most ubiquitous font for western alphabets. There wasn't really any drama to it, and a surprising amount of the film consists of montages of shots of signs and logos that use Helvetica over dreamy indie rock.

There were lots of interviews with designers about their opinion of Helvetica which gave us some sense of the history of the font, but this film has limited appeal, and as someone who's more interested in graphic design and typefaces than your average citizen, even I found it a little dry. But if you happen to be a graphic designer or someone who for whatever reason has an inordinate interest in fonts and typefaces, this film could prove very worthwhile.

I've got both 300 and the Watchmen from Netflix for this weekend. I didn't realize until after I had them both that they are from the same director, Zack Snyder. I didn't think I'd seen any of his films before, but as it turns out, he directed the Dawn of the Dead remake that came out a few years ago that I've seen a couple of times on tv. I was going to watch them in the order they were released, but now I'm thinking of watching the Watchmen first so I can save it and watch it again in a couple of days if I want to before sending it back to Netflix.

I only made it about halfway through the Watchmen this weekend—we had company over on Saturday and that ended up taking up a lot more time than I expected, and I was exhausted by the time they left and couldn't stay awake long enough to get very far into it.

The cookout originally started out pretty small—one of my coworkers who comes over a few times a year was having his sister visit, so we invited them over, and then I invited another coworker as well. I didn't think she'd be able to come at first because she took Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday off to move into a new place and I figured she might still be getting settled in on Saturday, but she said she needed a break from the packing and unpacking, so she came a bit later in the day with her boyfriend and her two kids, so we ended up with eight people total. Not that I'm not glad she came—she's been working with me since January and aside from a brief introduction to her boyfriend at Artscape, I've never met him or her kids.

The weather was gorgeous on Saturday—aside from a light rain shower as darkness was falling, you couldn't have asked for a better day, especially for August. In addition to all the food prep and cooking, earlier in the day we had to mow the lawn and do a pretty thorough cleaning of the house, so our day started early (especially for a Saturday), and by the time the last of our guests left around 10:30, we were spent. Sunday was used mostly for recuperation—having taken care of all our chores the day before, we were able to just sit and relax.

It was fun to have people over, though, especially some people we hadn't really hung out with before. I'm always very wary of mixing work and personal lives, especially with people who I supervise, because of the potential for issues in the professional relationship if problems develop in the personal relationship, but I think with these two particular people that type of situation is highly unlikely.

Finished the Watchmen, and I've got to give the director credit for squeezing as much of the text into a movie that runs just under 3 hours. Part of me wishes I'd held off on reading the book before seeing the movie so I'd have a better idea of how confusing it would have seemed to people unfamiliar with the original text, but having read it, it felt very true to the spirit of the graphic novel. I'm going to keep it for another few days, as I think a second viewing would pay dividends.

Watched 300 and found it mostly pointless, but entertaining enough to watch once. Director Zack Snyder created a unique visual style that brought to life Frank Miller's graphic novel (which I haven't read but which I've seen artwork from), so I guess it's no more pointless than the graphic novel itself (although I'm betting some of the preachier bits of dialogue worked better in the graphic novel), but still. If I reframe this as practice work he needed to do in order to make the Watchmen, I can see it as a worthwhile endeavor, but I really didn't get a lot out of it.

Also: once you've seen the Wire, it's impossible to see Dominic West as anyone other than Jimmy McNulty. All the scenes featuring his character were ruined for me.

Taking a day off today (except for a conference call this afternoon), and it's a good thing, too: earlier this year the university announced that during peak energy usage, they might turn off the air conditioning to several campus buildings, including ours (which is stupid, really—we're not just an administrative office, we're also the visitor center, and having large groups of prospective students and their parents sit around in a hot building with no air conditioning in the middle of the summer is not the way to make a good impression on them, especially given the tuition that we ask them to pay). Through a coworker I learned that today is going to be one of those days, so I expect it to get into the 80s by the early afternoon, at which temperature (indoors, at least) my brain basically stops functioning.

If they warned us about it the day before, or even early in the morning, I could at least make plans to work at home, but they don't tell you until mid-morning the day it's going to happen, and since I usually carpool, I typically can't just take off in the middle of the day. We've been lucky so far with this exceptionally cool summer (I can't quite figure out why they are doing this today, since it was much hotter a few days ago), but at some point I know I'm going to be stuck at work in an 85 degree office and miserable. But fortune smiled on me today.

One of the pictures I sold at Artscape was a picture of a glass of limeade sitting on a table at Golden West. It was during a visit a couple of years ago with Dodd and Alisa when we happened to be seated at my favorite table, and when they brought out my drink, there were three black straws fanned out perfectly in the glass, and it looked just gorgeous against the bright orange table.

It's a really special memory for me; aside from sitting at my favorite table in one of my favorite restaurants drinking my favorite drink, it captures a moment that's not likely to reoccur with a couple of people who have helped define my Baltimore experience—Dodd recently moved away to Ohio, and even if he doesn't stay there forever, he's not very likely to come back here, and I haven't heard from Alisa in over a year despite several attempts on my part to contact her. She tends to get wrapped up in the multitasking that is her life, and it's not uncommon for us not to hear from her for a few months, but this time seems different, and I won't be surprised if I never hear from her again.

When people buy a print like this, one that means so much to me but doesn't seem to strike a chord with most of the people who like my work (I think this was only the second time I have sold a copy of this photo), I'm always curious to talk to them and find out what they like about it, because it's prints like these that define my work for me (as opposed to some of the more popular prints, which I still like, but which don't contain as much meaning for me personally). So I started up a conversation with this buyer, who also happened to be a photographer,

As she was leaving, she gave me her card, and I wrote her a few days later to see if she might want to hang out again. We eventually found a point on our schedules that matched up, and she and Julie and I met for dinner after work earlier this week at Golden West, the place where the photo she bought was taken. We came tantalizingly close to being seated at the table where the photo was taken—the booth was empty and the hostess was headed that way—but we ended up at a table a few feet away. I'm sure I could have asked the hostess to seat us there, but that wouldn't have been nearly as cool as if it had happened naturally.

I really enjoyed talking to her, and although it's hard to tell from only an hour or two together, it seemed like we had a lot in common, and I'm hoping we can continue to get together every now and then. I've almost forgotten how to make friends—I think the last time I met a new person outside of work was when blogging was the new thing a few years ago and there was a series of meetups among some of the Baltimore bloggers—but it would be cool if this developed into a real relationship at some point.

We took my friend and coworker Scott out to dinner for his birthday on Saturday. We ended up at Akbar Palace, an Indian restaurant which is a good meeting point between Baltimore (where Scott lives) and where we live. It's such a great place—the staff are amazing and the food is always great, and while it's a little on the expensive side (most Indian restaurants in the area are), it's worth it to treat yourself every once in a while (and it was certainly worth it for Scott).

Aside from that, it was a pretty uneventful weekend. We had chores to do, and Julie got us a new garbage disposer (which, after some consideration, will be installed by a professional on Wednesday), but other than that, we mostly relaxed.

It's been a while since I've posted anything about toys, so this week I'm going to show off some of my latest purchases. First up:

orange potamus

This is the SDCC exclusive orange potamus by my favorite artist, Frank Kozik. SDCC stands for San Diego Comic-Con, which in the past few years has become well-known in mainstream pop culture circles as the event where the big movie studios take the wraps off their latest sci-fi or comic book franchises. However, it's also a huge event for the designer/art toy community, and most of the big artists and manufacturers have booths where they have artist signings and also sell very limited edition items that are only available at SDCC.

This is the first 6 inch potamus that has yet been released (although several more are planned for later this year), and it follows a series of a dozen 2 inchers that were released last year. This is Kozik's second original sculpt, following his wildly successful labbits, and in some ways I like this model even better than the labbits—there's a lot more character to the expression and body language of the potamuses than the labbits (but who am I kidding, the labbits will always be my favorites).

Of course I didn't attend SDCC, and I was fortunate enough to avoid eBay prices on this piece because of Kozik himself. There's a pretty active community of his fans on the Kidrobot boards, and he posts there pretty frequently, so when he had a couple of these pieces leftover from SDCC, he offered them up to the KR boardies first, and I was able to get my payment to him in time to get one. I forgot to ask him to sign it before he shipped it, but he did sign the box, so that was cool.

I think there are US army green, red China, black anarchy, and glow-in-the-dark models that should be released in the next couple of weeks, so I'm looking forward to those as well. But this is the most limited run and it's especially treasured because it came directly from Frank.

Next up: another Kozik piece, this time a collaboration with another one of my favorite artists, Amanda Visell:

wood labbit

Actually, this 5 inch labbit is a collaboration only in the sense that the original sculpt is Kozik's; the entire design on this piece was done by Visell and is pretty representative of her style (it's also a nice companion piece to her 8" dunny that's being released later this week). It was also an SDCC exclusive this year, and is significant because it's the first time Kozik has allowed someone besides himself to do a design for a mass-produced labbit.

I had no choice but to hunt for this one on eBay; with an original price of $50 and a run of only 300, it sold out instantly at the Kidrobot booth. I didn't win the cheapest auction to date, but I was close—when you include shipping, I think I've only seen two other people that got it for less than what I paid (I didn't get it that much cheaper than most of the people in the second wave of sales—the first week after a high profile limited release always has very overinflated prices—but my purchase was on the lower end of that spectrum).

This is already one of my favorite pieces because of the Visell factor and because Kozik's SDCC 5 inch labbits are typically much more expensive than this one was and I don't own any of the others at this point. I'm hoping this will lead to other artist's being able to put their art on 5 or 10 inch labbits, or even a series of 3 inchers featuring the work of several artists.

Today's piece is the only one that doesn't have some connection to Kozik, the gold fortune cat dunny from Shane Jessup:

fortune cat dunny

This is an 8 inch gold version of a design Jessup did for a 3 inch series a year or two ago, although that version was a shimmering, pearly white. There was an SDCC-only companion piece to the gold version that was a glossy black; the gold was an edition of 1000, but only 200 of the black were made.

This design is of course based on those lucky fortune cats you see at a lot of asian restaurants, typically with one paw raised in the air. RealxHead, a manufacturer of Japanese kaiju figures, also has a design based on these fortune cats, except that theirs is a cyclops cat. I have a bunch of these—a big 8 inch glow-in-the-dark one that was hand painted by Kozik, and two or three dozen 2.5 inch mini versions—so that's a nice tie-in between this piece and my existing collection.

Today we have a brand new labbit, my favorite Kozik sculpt and the toy that brought me into the hobby. Every year or so, Kidrobot will release three new versions at once, typically solid colors (they usually release one or two special editions with unique designs over the course of a year), but this year's batch featured a polka dot version in addition to solid copper and silver versions.

This design is based on the bubblegum labbit from the series 3 mini labbits, which I've included below for comparison. I was kind of disappointed that the bubblegum wasn't replicated on the larger version, but at least they changed the tip of the cigarette to pink so you can think of it as one of those candy cigarettes they sold when I was a kid but which they've since gotten rid of because of fears that they promoted smoking in children.

fortune cat dunny
10 inch polka dot labbit

fortune cat dunny
The original 1.5 inch bubblegum labbit

fortune cat dunny
Size comparison between the two versions

So Kozik's first foray into the world of toy design produced labbits, rabbits that smoke cigarettes (or smorks as Kozik refers to them). He then went on to add his trademark smork to a variety of creatures known as mongers, of which two series have been released so far (with a third on the way this fall). Recently he took four of his existing monger designs and released them at a larger 5-6 inch size, along with two completely new designs, Magistrate Wu (some sort of frog or something) and Booger, a ghost:

fortune cat dunny

I'm not terribly fond of the name, but I love the design, especially because it's glow-in-the-dark. That thing coming out of his mouth is some sort of skull and crossbones worm or spectre or something, and it's interchangeable with the accessories from the other big mongers, including smorks.

This piece is also cool because it's the base design for the painting I bought from Kozik a couple of months ago:

fortune cat dunny

I'm hoping that the original design will also be released in a mini version when the series 3 mongers come out, but what would be really cool is if the devil version from my painting was made into a rare chase figure.

I've watched a few more Netflix movies in the past week. First was Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, which I'd seen once before during its original theatrical release. That first viewing was almost a mystical experience for me, and I've resisted rewatching the film for fear that it wouldn't live up to my memory of it, and while I found myself grasping to get into the same state of mind seeing it for the second time, I still enjoyed it immensely, as I have all of Anderson's movies.

Next was The Departed, a Martin Scorsese picture about the Irish mob in Boston featuring Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin, and of course Leo DiCaprio, who has taken De Niro's place as Scorsese's muse this decade. It wasn't a bad film, but it wasn't great, either—I didn't like the constant jumps back and forth between Damon's and DiCaprio's characters, and I don't feel like I really got to know as much about either of them as Scorsese probably intended. Plus, there was the predictable bloodbath at the end, which loses a lot of impact if you know it's coming.

Last was 28 Weeks Later, the sequel to the brilliant zombie flick 28 Days Later. It was highly unlikely that this film would match the intensity and depth of the first movie, which featured Cillian Murphy in his best role to date and which had a surprising amount of character development for a horror movie, but for a sequel that wasn't created by the original team and didn't feature any of the stars for the first film, this was a pretty good film. The message was a bit different, though—in the first film, the inhumanity and rigidity of the military was as detrimental to individual human beings as the bloodlust of the mindless, rage-filled zombies, but in the sequel, it's compassion and doing the right thing that ends up dooming the world.

Maybe that was to set up another sequel, maybe it's because we weren't meant to believe that the happy ending in the last film could truly be a happy ending, but it made the efforts of the main characters feel far less important, and their sacrifices feel far less worthwhile, to know that all of their efforts are not only in vain, but end up actually contributing to the spread of the virus that wiped out all of Britain.

I'm still in a movie kind of mood, so I've bumped all the tv shows and documentaries to the bottom of my Netfilx queue, and I'm hoping to work my way through a few more films by the weekend.

For awhile now, one of my favorite timewaster sites has been this one (often NSFW) that is nothing more than a PHP script that grabs the 50 images that have been most recently posted to LiveJournal. About a month ago, however, the site got stuck on the same set of images, and a week after that the site's creator posted that something had changed about the LiveJournal feed that his script accessed and it was no longer working, but that he was trying to rewrite the script to work with the new feed.

There were no updates for two weeks, and then late last week, a post where he stated that he was shutting down the site for good, as he couldn't figure out how to work with the new feed and neither could any of the other developers who used it. I kept the site up in a tab in my browser for a few days, but eventually I closed it and accepted the fact that it was gone forever—I had even started to write a version of this post about it.

But I also had it loaded into a tab on my work browser, and over the weekend the IT group did a force restart to install some updates, so when I opened up my browser on Monday, my browser restored my previous tabs, loading new content into each of them. And as I went to close out the tab for the site, lo and behold there was a new stream of images, and a post from the site owner saying LiveJournal had fixed a bug in their code and the feed was functioning properly again.

There are other sites out there like this one that draw from different sources, but there's something about the LiveJournal feed that none of them have. Maybe it's because the site seems to be much more popular in former Soviet and Asian countries than it is in the US, so the stuff that gets posted has a little bit more of a global wackiness to it, or maybe that it's one of the few sites that posts the images in their original size instead of reducing them all to little squares, but it's definitely unique. And I'm glad it's still around.

Watched The Good Shepherd, a movie about the early days of the CIA with Matt Damon and Robert De Niro that was also directed by De Niro. I guess it was okay, but there was way too much dramatic acting that consisted of long shots of Matt Damon looking Very Serious and not moving a muscle. It was also very hard to buy Angelina Jolie in any of the three aspects of women she portrayed in the film: the promiscuous college girl, the duty-bound housewife, or the aging matron (this was also a problem for Damon, who often seemed to young or too old for any given stage of his character's life; it was particularly hard to imagine him as father to a 25 year old man).

If there had been some historical basis to the film, it might have made the otherwise inconsistent plot seem more meaningful, but as it was, it felt plodding, lacking in action, and a little too contrived in some places. Not a terrible film, but by no means a great one.

A few months ago, Newsweek, which I've been reading since I was a teenager, radically changed what they were going to report about and how they were going to report it (you can read the editor's explanation of this refocusing here). Instead of publishing lots of articles that essentially repeated stories that most of their readers had read online days before, they were going to write more in-depth articles that examined some of the larger issues surrounding recent headlines, with the assumption that readers would already be familiar with the basics of the stories that inspired the analysis. They also changed the layout, paper stock, etc., in attempt to freshen the magazine from a design perspective.

I'm actually not opposed to this experiment, and I've enjoyed a lot of the reporting that they've done since the relaunch, but there are two things that really bug me. First, since the redesign, it's much more difficult to tell the difference between the full-page ads and the content, and I don't believe this is an accident, because I don't remember nearly as many text-heavy ads in the previous version of the magazine. Often these come under some sort of special section heading, leading to further confusion (they did this with the older version of the magazine as well, but the design of these sections is less distinct from the look of the actual content now).

Another change, which was not part of the original relaunch and seems to have happened without any sort of announcement to their readers, is to publish every other week instead of every week. Our last two issues have been dated August 10 & 17 and August 24 & 31, and they are not any thicker than the issues that we've been receiving since the relaunch, and I don't remember double issues ever coming from Newsweek before (after all, the weekly publishing schedule is built into the name of the magazine).

If you go to the subscription page, it still says that one year includes 54 issues (in the past, they've published an issue every week plus a couple of special editions), so either this is a temporary change and they'll get back to the weekly schedule soon, or they need to update their subscription policies and formally announce the change to their existing subscribers. If this really is a permanent change, however, I'm not happy about it—I don't mind the change in format, but one of the reasons I subscribe is so that I can get have sort of weekly offline news source. I've always preferred Newsweek to Time, but if the former is only going to be every other week and the latter keeps to a weekly schedule, I might have to make a change.

The students are starting to show up on campus, new projects are piling up, and a much larger percentage of my coworkers come into the office on any given day. Summer's over, but I still need a vacation.

I bought and installed Snow Leopard on Friday, and the only real difference I noticed was the change in gamma from the traditional Mac 1.8 to the Windows standard 2.2. I was initially irritated because the 2.2 gamma is much darker, but on my glossy screen iMac, I've had to keep the brightness set to the lowest level because the screen is just so bright. So I moved up the brightness a few notches, and now it looks pretty much the same as it did with the 1.8 gamma.

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