Monday, August 29, 2005

Roma Victa

HBO’s new TV drama, ROME is shaping up to the one of the most exciting shows of the fall. The TV series is set during the twilight of the Roman Republic when Pompey Magnus and Julius Caesar ended their personal and political friendship and the two friends turned against each other. The show is amazingly rich in its historical accuracy and detail. Rome itself isn’t CG or a bunch of sandlots and half completed sets. HBO’s production notes indicated that ancient Rome was recreated with several acres of fully realized sets including a magnificent senate chamber, interiors of villas and the Roman forum. There is Caesar of course, but his character his there as a historical anchor. The drama isn’t beholden to Caesar of myth and legend. Caesar in episode 1 is treated as an ambitious and powerful general of the Republic of Rome and co-consul with Pompey. He is merely one of at least two giants vying for total control of the republic.

The semi-fictional narrative also manages to weave in the real stories of the other notables of Roman history from that time. Marc Antony, Octavian, Cato among others are featured. Brutus has a great scene in the first episode where he speaks about his admiration of how political rivalries are settled by the barbarians.

Now, if our senate conducted business in the German style I should certainly go watch… just swords and daggers.

In the same scene Pompey agrees with Brutus noting it was an “excellent idea” that the Germans settled their disputes in a battle to the death. Both these lines are such great foreshadowing for what is to come, and is really a nod to the history buffs in the audience, and not an insult to their intelligence as Hollywood has repeatedly done with movies like Troy or Kingdom of Heaven.

The one battle scene in the movie breaks with recent Hollywood tradition by actually making sense. Great pains is taken by the producers to show the orderly movement of legionaries from the front of the line to the back of the line. The system is a never ending conveyer belt of human mass where, with the blow of a whistle, frontline troops rotate to the back to rest for a few minutes while the man behind him take his place. This reminds viewers that Rome was a great power not because of shiny armor, broomstick helmets, or the scarlet cloaks of the centurions. Rome was great because its army was better equipped, better trained and more orderly than the barbarians they fought. Rome had a way of fighting that was simply superior to its enemies.

This period in Rome is certainly a time of historical giants. There is the great general Pompey and the great soldier Marc Antony. Towering above even these great men was Caesar himself. Yet despite the collection of potential protagonists, HBO’s Rome isn’t about the cult of personality of one central hero. There is no Maximus in Rome, no Balian in Jerusalem. No overpaid Hollywood star that is contractually required to be prominently featured to the detriment of the story. There is simply a great fictional drama running in lockstep with real history, around real historical figures, doing and saying things they were recorded to have done. There is no misappropriation of motives or an appropriation of ancient Roman history to the modern. Under a lesser talent and or lesser network, ROME would have been titled CAESAR and his ‘illegal war’ in Gaul would probably have been alluded to as the war in Iraq with the script painting Caesar as George W. Bush himself.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Final Farewells

Today was my last official day in Final Fantasy XI. I finally told everyone that I was quitting and I gathered everyone who I could into Maat’s courtyard in Ru’Lude Gardens for a group photo and to give my final farewell. I thought it would be fitting that I would end my days in Final Fantasy XI in the presence of the non-player character who had challenged me to reach higher and go further than I had initially dreamed when I first signed into Final Fantasy XI in April of 2004.

Certainly, to say that I felt nothing would be a lie. The good byes were very sad for me, to the point of tears. The people who I had gathered were friends and players who I have known for the better part of a year and people who I had spent a considerable amount of time with in game. They are as close to being real buddies as the Internet and a virtual game world would allow. Every single one of them have meant something to me during my year in the game. They were the nicest most considerate persons and players I’ve had a chance to meet. They were all true adventurers and noble friends.

To Rushaz - Fellow TaruTaru White Mage and a great friend. You made my dream of getting a Noble’s Tunic possible. You made fighting the Gods in Sky fun, and you’re a great leader. Keep up the good work and I’m sure you’ll be a true legend in Seraph.

To Finebatch – From our first meeting in Garliage to our missions together, I don’t think I’ve spent more time with any other player in the game. You’re a great friend, and someone who kept me playing. I hope you become a high level White Mage someday.

To Yochipochi – My ‘smaller’ clone, and I’ll always remember you as the Subligar TaruTaru. Thanks for all the hours helping me camp Centurio and assorted Notorious Monsters.

To Zirk - Dia, the old Zirk wasn’t as good or as cheerful a person as you proved to be. You’re a great guy and always fun to be with. You’re efforts also made our attempts in sky go so much more smoothly. Take care!

To Vondoom – Thanks for being there every time you were needed, from the Zilart missions to Gods. I don’t think I would have cleared Sky was it not for your help during those days when Finebatch, Rushaz , Jubee and myself were desperately looking for people to help us finish the missions.

To Lilfro – Your 10,000 gil loan last year was extremely helpful to me and I will always remember your generosity. Take that summoner to 75.

To Jubee- Jubjub, you’re the greatest Paladin that I know. Being a true Paladin is as much about character and integrity than it is about HP or VIT. And you’ve always been there ready to take a hit for a mage. Keep on tanking.

To Runnshoot- Runn, you’re great. You’re always there to help with everything and you’ll be missed a lot. Has you been greedier and less loyal and jumped ship during our early days trying to do Gods, I think we’d have been set back for quite a bit and have had more failures than we did.

To Amancalledhero – Thanks for all the great chats we had. You’re the one person who can cheer up the LS chat and cheer me up when I’m feeling down.

To Hank- Keep nuking the Gods. I didn’t get to know you as well as the others, but the time we’ve been together in sky was fun and you’re always happy.

To Elrondel – All around great guy and friend. You made me a believer in Dark Knight’s usefulness in an EXP PT. Thanks for everything.

To Mr.Lonely – Enjoy the RSE 2 gloves. I know you’ll love it, or if you don’t I’m sure you can make use of the gil you get for selling it. Remember, “I’m so ronery…” =]

To Hotbutterfish – You’re one of my earliest friends in the game. When we met in the dunes, we were both looking for the magicked skull for our subjob quest. Competition was fierce and I’ve always felt guilty for winning the lot for that skull. Ever since, you’ve been a great friend, and thank you for tanking BCNM 40 for us.

To Belper – Always great, always trying to be better. You’re someone who doesn’t talk very much but I know is a good person and a good player behind the quiet exterior. I hope you take your White Mage to 75 as well.

To Xdarkslidex – I met you on my first trip to the dunes when I had to cure a party of 5 other players for the first time. You’ve been a great LS leader in our family shell and a great friend.

To Navyseal – Skill-ups, coffer key farming, and every little adventure I had for a better part of a year I’ve done with your help. Thanks for getting me my coffer keys and being a generous thief.

There’s too many people to mention so I’ll list off some names here because I don’t want to forget anyone: Cezel, Byteme, Danerys Jaaku, Jimbo, Heatherj, Itsybitsy, Blackice, Spellbinder, Damorielle, cutiepie, Myfanway, Ladypharsis, Angelkitty, Tragedy, Chek, Dremora & Shona.


Dekusutaa signing off…

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Firefox: The Best Browser Ever

I’m in the mood for hyperboles. Firefox is indeed a great browser. Maybe not the best browser ever but it is pretty damn close by providing the feature set I need and want without Internet Explorer’s security holes, pop-ups and sameness.

Those who know me personally know my dislike for Microsoft products. While the company from a business standpoint is brilliant and exemplifies the greatest strength of American ingenuity, forward-looking nature and adaptability, describing their products, especially their browser is something else entirely.

I was one of the earlier adopters to the Internet and I started browsing using Netscape’s Navigator 1.0. When Microsoft decided that Netscape was a threat to its OS dominance and attacked Netscape by offering a free browser, the business side of it was a brilliant move and I would say, benefited consumers by turning browsers into free applications, rather than Netscape’s old strategy of having consumers buy them. I supported Netscape up until their Netscape Communicator line of browsers/e-mail programs but by the late 90s, Netscape had lost it completely. Their business model was ruined and they played second fiddle to Microsoft in the features and usability race. The Internet Explorer became more desirable to me as a means to navigating the web because for a time, it was actually better than the alternative, mainly, Netscape’s browser.

However, the dominance of the Internet Explorer has robbed Internet users from innovation. When was the last time Microsoft did something substantial to change your surfing experience? While small rival browsers like Opera, which a Microsoft tech support personnel unabashedly told me was a superior browser [to IE], pushed for new features such as tabbed browsing, Internet Explorer had been essentially unchanged for years. The security holes, pop-ups, exploits only added to my insecurity and disdain for Microsoft’s Internet Explorer.

Enter Firefox. As the upstart attacking the Internet Explorer market, it has done exceedingly well. It is truly the first meaningful challenger to Microsoft. It has successfully managed to erode away Internet Explorer’s market share and has forced Microsoft to develop IE 7.0, complete with a new, more colourful, logo to compete with Firefox. But unlike Netscape, Firefox is not the one under attack. It has no business model to defend and I fully expect the fire to spread.

As an open source browser, there are add-ons galore for Firefox. The browser’s security holes are found and fixed quickly. It has borrowed Opera’s innovation of tabbed browsing into its features, has a robust pop-up blocker and is far more secure than Internet Explorer. As an example of its strength among the net savvy users, not including my visits, 50% of Monkey Dew readers browse this blog through one of the several versions of Firefox browsers. The Internet Explorer 6.0 came a close second at 48.8%.

I encourage everyone to grab Firefox as soon as possible. And for Microsoft Outlook users who are tired of viruses exploiting Outlook’s many weaknesses, get the Firefox compatible Thunderbird as well for safer more secure e-mail reading. For those wondering why I’m so open in my support of Firefox and Thunderbird, it isn’t about spite against Microsoft, Firefox and Thunderbird are simply superior products.

Friday, August 26, 2005

An Epic Rant

I love epic movies. In my spare time, I dream about the promise of the ultimate Hollywood movie in this genre. In fact, only Hollywood has the resources and the know how to do a great epic movie. In the many littered corpses of failed epics that I hated or felt deeply disappointed by, there are moments of pure brilliance. But despite an intense slate of summer blockbuster films, including Star Wars Episode III and a revived Batman franchise, there was something missing. There was no spark of imagination and no thrill in the movies for me. There hasn’t really a great epic movie for years.

Episode III’s plot was known to anyone with a passing knowledge of the film for years. It was a religious (Jedi of course) as much as it was a cultural duty for any self-respecting North American to pay pilgrimage to Star Wars. But as my review summed up, Episode III was something really special. It was a different kind of movie. It was George Lucas’ interpretation of a play we’ve had in our minds for decades, and it just so happens he got it right and he did it by being a great visual story teller and adding in the necessary connections to Episode IV we all wanted to see, or in some cases, didn’t expect to see.

But my gripe is different. Episode III was a fine movie, and so were Batman Begins, Sin City and War of the Worlds. But where are the epic movies? —The one offs, non-sequels, and movies that have no ambitions of a sequel. I’m asking for a single piece of film that tells the story of a great war that’s not dumbed down.

My short list of war epics that should be made includes a movie about Hannibal and Scipio in the great final showdown between Rome and Carthage during the Punic Wars. The Spartan stand and defeat at Thermopylae. Any number of battles during the Three Kingdoms period of Ancient China, and the great naval battles in the pacific (pick one, any one – Solomon Islands, Midway, Battle of the Philippine Sea, Pearl Harbor). I was plotting shots of some of these movies in my head when I remembered what Michael Bay did to Pearl Harbor and thought that all the above films would probably have to feature a sex scene, butchering of historical facts, flavor of the month actors (probably more Orlando Bloom) and sappy music.

Pearl Harbor aside, corpses of uninspired epics are everywhere; Troy, Alexander, and Kingdom of Heaven to name a few. Even Gladiator, still the best historical epic in recent memory, is marred by an overwrought revenge plot that Roger Ebert rightfully panned. Although I still loved the movie, watching Gladiator made me really want a movie about Rome’s grandeur, and only Rome’s grandeur and not Russell Crowe’s ego. I want an epic movie about a war that is centrally placed in the story.

Even in space, Hollywood can’t seem to deliver. After Lucas showed the world science-fiction can be more than ultra realistic Kubrick or cheesy Trek, with gritty world war II style aerial and fleet battles, no movie since has attempted to tell a story about two opposing factions locked in an inter-galactic naval and land war with any seriousness. The cloest anyone has gone to capture that spirit was Starship Troopers and FOX’s 1996 TV series Space: Above and Beyond, which like all good shows that wasn’t ruined by market research, was cancelled by it. What is in vogue in sci-fi these days are cheesy plots dealing with psychic soldiers, comic book adaptations, chicks with big boobs and great asses that need to spread their legs every 30 minutes, and something about a rebellion happening somewhere in an obvious homage rip-off of Star Wars.

So what does that leave epic loving junkies like me? Taking screenshots from PC games Rome: Total War and Homeworld 2 to illustrate my points for one. But the sad truth is, I’ll probably end back in a theatre near you. I’ll pay my obligatory entry fee to the next epic just so I can sit through the next Maximus clone while I look at my watch and wait for the music to swell, and the armies to assemble and for the war to begin. Oh, that reminds me. Hollywood has also decided to make battles unintelligible. As if watching flashes of flesh and blood is supposed to be realistic. But that is for another rant.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Happy! Mario

One of the coolest gadgets coming this fall is Nintendo’s 3rd iteration of the Game Boy Advance line, the Game Boy Advance Micro, Nintendo’s iPod Mini inspired Game Boy design. The company revealed recently the new device, which looks more like a stick of gum or an MP3 player than a gaming machine is scheduled for a September 17th release in North America and will be available in two colors, black and silver for a MSRP of $99.99 or $120 monopoly money for those of us living in Canada. What I really like about this device is the size and utility. This isn’t a PSP but it’s small enough to be dropped into a shirt pocket, and it’s got a ton of games released for the Game Boy Advance that it can already play. The screen is backlit (unlike the GBA SP's front lighting) and of much higher resolution than the SP or GBA (vanilla) screens, which means the physical size of the screen is smaller than the two previous GBAs. It all adds up to a very stylish and functional product.

After its successful line of GBA SP Famicom editions in Japan and GBA SP NES edition in North America, Nintendo is getting the retro ball rolling with the Famicom Micro, just in time to celebrate Mario’s 20th birthday. In stark contrast to the North American retro gaming scene, which is often delegated to ‘TV Game’ units in cheap looking toy-like plastic casings and the occasional breakthrough compilation release, Nintendo’s retro campaign in Japan is unashamed of celebrating the old. After all, the generation of kids who grew up with Mario are now in their twenties, with potentially lots more cash to spend. The new ads (ad #3 and ad #4) looks very well produced and has the chic quality of an iPod spot. The only downside? This limited edition Famicom retro unit costs about ¥ 12,000 or $110 USD.

There is one big negative in all of this. That is the North American foot dragging by Nintendo of America with the Play-Yan media player for the Game Boy Advance / GBA SP / GBA Micro and Nintendo DS. This is a cartridge-sized unit that takes SD memory cards and turns the aforementioned Nintendo handhelds into media players. The Play-Yan Micro is an update on the original Play-Yan, and will be released on September 13 (the same day as the GBA Micro in Japan). The Play-Yan micro has a new firmware update which allows it to play MPEG-4, ASF video formats and MP3s. According to IGN, with the GBA Micro’s, the Play-Yan Micro can play 3 hours of movie files and 10 hours of MP3s, the numbers are higher for the Nintendo DS where its higher capacity batteries allow up to 20 hours of MP3 playback and 5 hours of video playback. Nintendo of America did in fact apply for Pocket Video trademark a while ago that many suspect is the North American name of Play-Yan. Unfortunately, nothing seems to have come of it. Barring any surprise product announcements between now and November, the latest we could see Play-Yan released this side of the Pacific is sometime next year.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

My Final Fantasy

I had an addiction. I was addicted to Final Fantasy XI. Like any other MMORPG, Final Fantasy XI is all about stat modification, wealth accumulation, and hunting for that expensive or rate item. FF XI is also unique from most of its MMORPG kin for skewing a bit on the ‘hard’ side. In many ways, the game also takes more patience, more commitment and more ‘help’ than a rival game like say, Ragnarok On-line or the recently released World of Warcraft. In FF XI the level grind in FFXI is more intense, and players can’t advance very far up the game without substantial help from other players.

It’s hard for people who don’t play these kinds of games to understand their power. An MMORPG is essentially an alternate life; it is a persistent world in which players live in. The desire to improve a character, make him or her more powerful and acquire wealth, rare items, and to advance in the game is a powerful motivator for most people to keep playing. In the year plus I’ve spent in FF XI, I played some 150 days logged in the game. Granted there were many hours of me just idling on the computer while I washed dishes, had dinner, or dozed off. Doing some quick calculations, I discovered those 150 days translated 3,600 hours playing a game. That averages to about 69.2 hours a week or 9.9 hours a day.

MMORPGs also have economies, communities and societies. There’s inflation, there are the currency sellers who farm virtual currency, which they turn around and sell to wholesalers such as for cold hard greenbacks, and there’s a lively Japanese and Korean community who provide great opportunities for inter cultural exchange. One of the most time consuming and emotional aspects of an MMORPG is inter-guild politics. People don’t get a long. There are power grabs, disagreements over how rare items are divided and all the things I thought $13 a month would help me get away from. Inside each guild are also loud mouths, scoundrels, liars, and spoiled brats and pompous pricks who ruin everyone else’s fun but their own. These aspects of the MMORPG is what is ultimately what is most disheartening for me. The grind I can live with, the other things take their emotional toll and destroy the fun.

That’s not to say FF XI is all bad. In my yearlong time there, there are many genuine moments of greatness. There’s camaraderie, strong friendships and trusts that were formed. When soldiers talk about trusting their lives to a buddy in the foxhole, most people only vaguely understand what that really means. An MMORPG player however probably understands a lot more of the meaning of that statement because we can say the same about trusting our character and our mental well being to a friend who’s been through a lot with us. There are friends whom I spent months with levelling up together, going on missions together and hunting rare items together. I trust my character to them and I feel relaxed and at home talking about everything with these adventurers. At its best, FF XI and all MMORPGs promote these kinds of lasting relationships and bonds. When we played the standard off-line RPGs and formed a party to save the world, the concept of a party is an abstract notion, an artificial story driven limit imposed by the game on the player. An MMORPG liberates players from this abstraction. In Final Fantasy XI, I am an adventurer, a White Mage, a team member and a job specialist. My friends look to me to remove their status effects and keep them alive, and the Paladin will gladly step in to take the hits to avoid the mages from dying. There’s no abstraction of story here. The story is that of a real party. It’s a unit, a squad, a platoon of players who go out in the world to fight monsters and gain fame, and fortune.

Unfortunately, these qualities and moments don’t come nearly as often as they used to. In the end game, FF XI is about wealth accumulation, keeping up with the joneses and endless hours of toil. The guild politics doesn’t help. After taking a two-month break from the game, I recently returned to FF XI to check out the game, hoping that maybe I would get hooked by it again. But I don’t think I want to get hooked by it any more. Quitting had allowed me to enjoy other things— I was able to read more, I started blogging again. Basically, the 10 hours I’ve been wasting a day I got back to be spent on my life to enrich myself and to dabble in other things I let slide in my yearlong addiction to the game. The final straw for me was when I realized that I’m no longer prepared to put up with the elements of the game that make it unfun for me..

Although I have until next month until my account expires. I think I’m prepared to say my goodbyes to the game.

So long Vana’diel.

Friday, August 19, 2005

The Geek Factor

Akihabara Station in Tokyo

The New York Daily News published a recent article about the chic factor of being a Geek. The article notes that with the upcoming releases of “The 40-Year-Old Virgin and The Baxter, and the recent success of Napoleon Dynamite, Hollywood has gleefully embraced dorkdom.” It is also quite interesting to note that the lead character of The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Andy, “ collects action figures, plays video games and, on weekends, blows his baritone horn”. The character should immediately ring true to the many 20 and 30 somethings who spend money collecting mint Transformers Season 1 toys, buy box sets of Star Wars DVDs, and are eagerly anticipating the Xbox 360 due to launch later this year.

What is even more interesting is that across the pacific, the same cultural phenomenon is happening in Japan on a larger scale. One of the year’s biggest Japanese domestic cult hits is a movie called Densha Otoko or Trainman. It is based on a novel that is in turn based on a series of forum postings made by an otaku (a synonym for geek or nerd in Japanese) asking for advice about his love life. As the legend goes, during his trip home from Akihabara, the electronics district in Tokyo and a hangout for videogame and anime otakus, the forum poster, a nerd who has never fought in his life, conjured up incredible courage and stopped a drunken abusive man from physically harassing a pretty office lady in the train. Grateful for the help, the young woman asks for the otaku’s address and offers to send a gift in appreciation. Recounting his exploits later that night on the popular Japanese message board 2channel, the otaku get support from the forum posters and fellow otakus. As the posts and interest in the story grew, the forum posters at 2channel gave the otaku the nickname of Trainman in honor of his heroics.

When the gift finally arrives, the Trainman opens the box to discover that it is an expensive set of Hermes cups. Surprised by the generosity of the young lady who earned the nickname Hermes in the 2channel forums, the Trainman discovers another windfall. Hermes included her cell phone number in the shipping slip, thus giving him a means of contacting her. The forum posters egg the Trainman on to call Hermes and thank her for the expensive gift and use the opportunity to ask her out on a date. The Trainman calls the young woman; the plan works and the Trainman set out on his first date. The rest of the story is the Trainman’s journey of earning the love of Hermes and ultimately, the story ends with a happy ending. The loser and social outcast gets the pretty girl.

While it is widely suspected that the story was a fake, and the forum posts were orchestrated by a ghostwriter eager to profit from book sales, the story of the Trainman has taken off in Japan and became just a cultural hit--with a best selling novel, a manga rendition, film version and a TV drama version -- because of its content. Part of the charm of the Densha Otoko story is watching the Trainman awkwardly approach Hermes, and through many trials and tribulations (mostly due to his geekiness and his hobbies) he manages to win the girl. Throughout the story, the hobbies people secretly enjoy in their living rooms are presented as normal if a bit awkward and strange by the variety of forum posters at 2channel. In the TV series forums posters are shown as a series of caricatures. There is the Hanshin Tigers fan, a caricature of the ultra obsessive fan of a sports team, the costume-player (cosplayer), the Japanese female idol fan, the train set collector, the gear-head technophile, the comic book fan and the list goes on. As Gitesh Pandya, editor of noted, “Geeks have charm in their awkwardness… because he can be pitied and partially because they are good-natured people.”

Pandya also adds that “films about geeks are about realism,” and Japanese economists agree. They estimate that in Japan alone, there are around two million otakus who help prop up the sluggish economy and consumer spending by pouring considerable amount of their earnings into collectibles, videogames, anime, model toys, DVDs, sports memorabilia and any variety of hobbies that people can obsesses over. While the characters in the movies are often caricatures of the typical geek and collector, they fairly represent these groups rather than mock them. Movies about geeks are in that sense realistic, because there are probably more geeks than most people could imagine and many more ‘normal’ persons who have a geek streak in them. These films seem to be suggesting that instead of being social outcasts in the fringes of society, the guy down the street who goes to work in a suit by day could be the avid model builder and collector by night and the geeks are happy to see their tastes given the light of day without being ridiculed.