Monday, November 24, 2008

Fire Reid

Yesterday, Andy himself constructed a far more eloquent case for his firing than I ever could. The following is a statement of fact. Can you find all the problems with the coaching?
Down by 15 with 9 minutes to play, the Eagles face second-and-goal from inside the one yard line. The inexperienced back-up QB fakes a handoff, which the defense fails to react to, then drops back for a pass. The lone WR on the play, who has six catches for the year, allows the defender to undercut his route. The ball is intercepted and returned for a score.

Look, I suffered through the Ray Rhodes years and the name Rich Kotite still invokes shudders. So when I say this, I mean it sincerely: Thank you, Andy. You turned around a dismal franchise and molded it into a perennial mediocrity. You deserve a lot of credit for that, and you have my appreciation.

But one thing this season has proved beyond doubt is that Reid is incapable or unwilling to learn from his mistakes. The Eagles still pass 78% of the time against a terrible run defense, when the QB is struggling. They still pass on second-and-goal from the one, even with a back-up QB in the game. The Eagles continue to experiment with key positions well into the season (FB, anyone?) They struggle to find any consistency on offense. They can't convert third-and-one. They can't get the plays in soon enough, leading to wasted timeouts and delay penalties. After a decade of practice, there's no improvement in these areas.

The Eagles have been successful, mostly, under Reid, and his coaching tree has three successful saplings. Gruden, Harbaugh, and Childress were all Eagles coordinators who are currently coaching winning teams in the NFL. That says a lot for Reid. But they all run the ball considerably more than their mentor, even as he falls farther down the passing spiral.

It's a joke. I'm tired of it. I would rather watch my team try to do the right thing and fail, than suffer through any more years of pass-wacky mediocrity.

I have no ill will toward Andy Reid. It's just time to retire. If you're going to be successful over a long period of time, you need to change and adapt, and Andy has shown decisively that he hasn't changed one bit. So take some time off, take a vacation with your drug-addled kids, reacquaint yourself with your wife, maybe even visit a gym occasionally. After a few years away, you'll be correctly remembered as the winningest coach in franchise history.

In the meantime, we need to do everything in our power to coax former Eagle Bill Cowher out of retirement. A tough, gritty team who runs the ball and grinds out victories is exactly what Philadelphia deserves.

As far as McNabb goes - I can't argue with the benching, he's sucked. He's been outplayed by Matt Ryan, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Joe Flacco in recent weeks. But it's tough on any QB when your offense is intentionally one-dimensional, and so predictable that the defense calls out your play as you line up. Perhaps he's just on the downside of his career, declining as age and injury catch up to him. But maybe he'd be a solid QB again with a running game that the defense respects.

Andy, it's time to go. Walk out the door or get thrown out, it's all the same to me.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Movie Review: Quantum of Solace

I haven't seen a decent movie ruined by direction in a long time...not since John Woo was in his prime.

Shaky-camera, over-spliced action scenes should be used sparingly, if ever. It's chaotic, I get it. Instead, Marc Foster (I looked up his name so that I can avoid any movies he directs in the future) thinks every action sequence should be filmed this way. There was a scene where two people were shot, and I'm still not exactly sure who they were. Another scene where a plane crashed and I can't tell you why.

Also, splicing back and forth between an action sequence and a horse race, or an opera, is not a clever statement that elevates you to the directorial elite. It's a sophomoric film student trick that bores the average professor to tears.

The entire movie seems to be thrown together in a blender. The plot gets nearly the same treatment as the unwatchable action scenes. Bond goes to a hotel to find someone named Slate, or Slade, presumably to get information. As he enters, he's attacked. I'm not exactly sure if it the attacker was Slate, but it didn't seem to matter to Bond or anyone else. There was some over-edited wrestling, a lot of furniture broken, and suddenly the generic bad guy had a fatal gash in his neck. Bond finds a briefcase, washes up, and moves on.

Even the fluff between the action was choppy. Bond couldn't walk down a flight of stairs without three camera angle changes. I don't think there's a single shot in the movie longer than six seconds. I suppose this is designed to make me feel anxious or something, but it has the same effect as listening to a 200bpm song for 90 minutes straight: utter desensitization. It made me feel tired. If there would have been a token attempt at characterization, or some well-developed dialogue, I'm not sure I would have been interested enough to follow it.

Here's the movie in a nutshell (no spoilers, nothing to spoil):

Awful Alicia Keys race...wrestling...boat old friend...something about water...plane chase...tinderbox hotel...roll credits.

It's amazing that after Casino Royale worked so well, you'd take the franchise in another direction again. And such a generically bad one too. Blah.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Book Review: The First Law Trilogy

I don't recall being more impressed with a fantasy author's debut since...well, I can't remember if I ever have been. The comparison suffers because I generally avoid debuts, as writing is definitely a skill that improves with practice.

But I read this trilogy quickly enough that I never changed my blog to reflect the third book, in spite of the fact that I was deliberately savoring it toward the end. I simply didn't want the series to be over, and return to my near-constant state of searching for something entertaining to read.

I finally did finish, and although it lacked a gripping climax, Abercrombie's first published work has already become one of my favorites. The author displays a finely tuned sense of balance, portraying cruel situations without the desensitizing the reader, a la Terry Goodkind. He kills off important characters suddenly, and shockingly, without destroying your trust and investment, which is my major complaint of George R.R. Martin. He reveals a dark side of each hero - people who are torturers, murderers, ruthless, arrogant, cowardly, drunk - without leaving you no one to root for. In fact, these flaws only serve to make them more real and easy to identify with.

He maintains a steady presentation of his own morality without ever adopting a preachy, overwhelming tone. Life isn't fair. Dreams are for children. No one gets what they deserve. He freely references historical quotes, and creates several quotable lines of his own:
Pride comes first. Then pain. Humility follows hard upon it. Obedience lies just beyond.
But there are worse fates than first among slaves...freedom is far overrated in any case. We all have our responsibilities. We all owe something to someone. Only the worthless are truly free. The worthless and the dead.
He reduces the struggle between good and evil to a simple struggle for power, with the benefit of historical judgment to the victor.

In addition to the cynical worldview and flawed characters, Abercrombie's work is also easily digestible. I'd recommend it for first-time fantasy readers as something easy to swallow, but without the childishness of Tolkein or Eddings. I'd also recommend it to fantasy vets who are looking for something that turns standard conventions on their heads.

The First Law is just the right shade of black: pitch. Can't wait til Abercrombie writes some more.

Two Videos

Mostly a reference post, since I want to keep links to two videos I found today. The post is light on content, but I'm sure you'll get over it.

First, I stumbled across a Ben Folds song the other day while listening to Sirius. I'm not a huge Ben Folds fan, as my exposure has been mostly limited to the Break-up Song, which is the name (or close to it) of the one with the classic line: Give me my money back, you bitch.

But this was way beyond an amusing combination of funny and clever, this approached art. Fred Jones Part 2 serves as a stark reminder that the tiresome musical landscape dominated by Nickelbacks and Coldplays is not entirely devoid of talent. Take a listen:
Structurally, it's very similar to Liz Phair's Canary, another favorite of mine. Piano is the only instrument, accompanied by a single (sometimes double) voice line. As a result, the music is clean and focused, powerful yet hauntingly empty. The lyrics are similar, contrasting brilliant imagery with brutal simplicity. This song almost moves's that good.

On the other end of the musical spectrum entirely is this rap song from the original Gears of War credits screen (sadly no attempt was made to duplicate or follow this creation in the second game.) I finally found a video where someone put some decent Gears action to the music. There's not even a hint of genius here, but it is a lot of fun, and the Cole Train makes me laugh. Enjoy.

Cole Train Song-Gears of War

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Gears 2: First Impressions

It's probably not fair to call this "first impressions", since I'm almost done with the single-player campaign. But it's the first time I'm writing about it, so...close enough.

The gameplay of Gears of War 2 is practically identical to the original Gears. If you're looking for something revolutionary, some new ground-breaking game mechanic, then Gears 2 isn't for you. If you just want a bigger, badder, better Gears of War...then rev up your Lancer, because Gears 2 delivers.

Everything I loved about the first game is back. You still get to blow up enemies with the Torque Bow, and the Cole Train talks trash constantly. But there are also new weapons, new monsters, and new vehicles. The engine has been improved so the areas are larger and have more enemies. Movement is smoother with a more intuitive 'A' key. Gameplay is once again varied, as you'll be fighting on gunboats, sky cars, and moving trains. Your AI companions are orders of magnitude more effective, almost too much so at times. There were a few battles where I wasted time at the beginning finding the perfect vantage point, only to discover the battle was nearly over once I set up.

The story is well-developed so far, although claims by the designers that it's deeper and more emotionally affecting than Bioshock are way off base. Interestingly, there is a level that is so reminiscent of Bioshock that I can only hope it was done in homage...because otherwise it's a direct ripoff. This broken-down lab houses genetic experiments, automated gun turrets, and spooky voice on the PA system. The entire feel of this level, including the lighting, colors, and sounds, is pure plagiarism.

I am, of course, loving the game. There's a new co-op feature called Horde that I'm dying to try out, and I'll be replaying the campaign on insane difficulty as soon as I finish on hardcore. Maybe it hasn't quite met my hype-crazed expectations, but it's still pretty damned good.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

And so it ends

Nah, I'm not talking about the election. That was over weeks ago.

I'm talking about the Witcher.

The end of the game dragged on a little too long. The evil bosses kept summoning bad guys and running away, delaying the inevitable confrontations. But defeating bad guys is hardly what the game was about's about the babes.

I arrive back in the city of Vizima to find it in flames. A full-scale war has broken out between humans and elves, and Shani's in the middle of it, playing field medic to both sides. And as the fires spread, and the fighting gets more desperate, word gets out that she's in trouble. No one can save her, of course, except me.

Thank you, game designers. When you forced me to choose between Triss and Shani, and Shani stopped speaking to me, I was annoyed. But now that you've given me the opportunity to make amends, all is forgiven.

You have several meaningful choices in the Witcher, and one of them is whether or not you get involved in this war. You can fight on either side, or just stay out of the whole thing. Since the clouded ideals and brutal tactics of both sides disgusted me, I chose neutrality, and on this day, it was by far the most rewarding path.

I waded into the heaviest of fighting, dragging with me two nurses who needed to reach the hospital. And honestly, while both sides are hostile towards me, they're so busy killing each other that it would have been simple to sneak through the streets and avoid conflict. But that wasn't going to happen. Not when Shani's in danger, and these fuckers are the reason.

I slaughtered indiscriminately. I whirled and stabbed and burned anything that moved. Humans, elves, dwarves...fighters, civilians, refugees fleeing the battle...everyone fell to sword and fire. I stacked up corpses first by the dozens, and eventually by the hundreds. I couldn't be bothered to loot the dead, not so long as more were still alive. I killed until Shani was safe, until my rage was sated, and then I killed some more. When I made it to the hospital, Shani wasn't exactly glad to see me. Still, there were two more groups who attacked, and after I fought them off she was grateful. Not grateful, but at least she was talking to me again, without a single snide remark about my pet sorceress.

I have to post this one last card. The two nurses were only too happy to thank me for leading them safely to the hospital (but only after Shani left - they knew she'd be jealous.) But check out the dead/dying guys in the background...too funny. I'm definitely a little light in the scruples department, and the character I play in game is even worse, but I'm still not sure how much I could enjoy a menage-a-trois in front of a bunch of dying soldiers. Call me sentimental.

At the end of the game, leading up to the epic battle, I'm joined by Triss Merigold. Abigail the witch also appears and offers aid. Celina, another conquest, shows up in wraith form to fight alongside me (I'll spare you the long, boring story about how she became a wraith.) Even princess Adda appears, and kills enemies with me in werebeast form.

That's the real strength of the Witcher - the choices you make have a meaningful impact on the game. Obviously, Abigail wouldn't have appeared to help if I'd let the town lynch her. Princess Adda wouldn't have helped if I killed her when I learned she was a werewolf. I've skipped the whole Celina backstory, but chances are she's only there if I make certain choices as well. And who knows about Triss? Does she help if I pick Shani over her? Or does Shani fight alongside me instead? And what happens if I choose a side in the war instead of killing everyone? Not to mention all the minor choices I made along the way, like inviting Carmen to the party and then helping her later find true love.

The Witcher is absolutely terrible in some respects - the anachronisms are jarring when characters throw around words like "psychoanalysis" and "terrorist", monsters are occasionally misspelled (you kill a Koschay and get a Koschey's heart), and models are reused shamelessly. Yet the interaction with other characters is well thought out, and at times, very well written. (At other times, bleh.) The choices you make are varied and impactful, but never black-and-white. In most games, if being good gets you one more gold piece than being evil, I'll be good, and vice versa. But The Witcher encourages much more immersive role-playing by offering valid options and true moral conundrums, instead of simple good vs. evil.

Coming back to Abigail as an example...the town where she lived was terrorized by a curse. The townsfolk believed her to be the cause, and while they had no conclusive proof, a little snooping on my part did find some evidence pointing in that direction. She claimed her innocence, of course, and said the curse was a result of the townsfolk's own evil actions. There was plenty of evidence of their evil as well, although they blamed the witch for influencing them. When the lynch mob comes for her, and you can't talk them down, what's the clear choice? Let them have the witch, who is possibly innocent, so that only one dies instead of many? Or slaughter the whole mob, punishing them for intending to kill without justification?

The Witcher is full of rich choices like this one, and the characters who survive with you never completely drift away. This is more than enough to make up for the game's shortcomings, which are many. I'm not tempted to play it again just yet, but maybe once my Gears 2 fix is over, I might replay and see how different decisions affect the outcome.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Almost Home

Just think: 48 hours from now, there won't be any more political commercials on television.

Obama's going to be the next president, for good or bad. I've actually considered voting for McCain a couple times over the past few days, simply to try and prove the media and polling services wrong. But even the delightful promise of schadenfreude, along with the fear of a single-party government, isn't enough for me to put Palin in the VP chair. I can't do it.

She represents everything that is wrong with today's Republican party. The anti-intellectual intolerance of her supporters is revolting, and after a disastrous election, one can only hope the Republican party will move away from their shrinking, shrieking "base".

As the Conservative Backlash comes to a close in America, let's examine the legacy of Republican governance. For 30 years, Republicans have mostly controlled the presidency (except for Clinton, of course) and during his terms they controlled both houses of Congress. Bear in mind that the Republican Party was once, and still claims to be, the party of limited government. So what, exactly, have they limited?
  • Massive, historic, egregious increases in both government spending and debt.
  • By remaining steady at 35%, our corporate tax rate has gone from one of the lowest in the world to the second highest.
  • Selective and ineffective deregulation. While Wall Street firms were playing fast and loose with your money, businesses of all sizes struggled to comply with SarbOx. Thanks to onerous legislation and high tax rates, more businesses than ever are listing in other countries, creating fewer American jobs and sending needed tax revenues somewhere else.
  • A short-sighted and failed energy policy. Instead of deregulating in this sector, which would have allowed additional American drilling and more nuclear plants, Republicans thought it was more important to let financial institutions create opaque and reckless derivatives. Our energy dependence is worse than ever, and thanks to W's bumbling foreign policy, we're dependent on countries that despise us more than ever.
  • A steady erosion of personal freedoms. The Patriot Act allows American citizens to have their telephone calls monitored, and to be imprisoned indefinitely without a trial for communicating with suspected terrorists. Abortion rights have been curtailed nationwide.

What exactly is conservative about these dubious accomplishments? What's limited about government fiscal policy or interference in my personal life? Thirty years of power wasted on pork-barrel projects, the suppression of scientific discovery, and trying to impeach the only responsible president of my lifetime.

So what to do tomorrow? I can't bring myself to vote for Obama either, in spite of Sherry's impassioned plea. It's great that he wants to increase federal funding for education, but where's the money coming from? He's going to cut taxes for 95% of Americans too, right? And nationalize health care! And increase our military presence in Afghanistan. And pass another economic stimulus package. No word yet on which government programs he's planning to slash to raise all the needed money, most likely because he isn't planning to cut any of them. We'll swirl further down the deficit spiral, raising taxes on investment, keeping corporate rates non-competitively high, sending more jobs and more tax revenues overseas.

No, Obama's not the answer. Somehow, some way, we need to limit government. And it's not happening this election cycle. I can only hope that a crushing, historic defeat of the Republicans will cause some soul-searching and a return to the common-sense principles on which the party was founded. We need to reject the stupid "Guns, God, and gays" platform and start talking about responsible spending in conjunction with personal freedoms.

So I'll use my measly vote to send a message, however small and meaningless it might be. I'm voting Libertarian, starting with Bob Barr for president, and every other office where a Libertarian is running. I encourage you to do the same. Your vote won't influence the outcome tomorrow, so use it to tell the Republicans that they aren't a valid choice anymore. Tell them the anti-intellctual madness stops here.

Tell them we've evolved.