Mystery Science Theater 2008

As a latecomer to Mystery Science Theater fanhood, I'm glad that former head writer/host Mike Nelson is continuing to make bad movies enjoyable with RiffTrax. Being a longtime fan of Star Wars since seeing the first film at the age of six, I felt morally obligated to at least take a look at the new trilogy. With each passing film I was more and more horrified. Mike's rifftrax on the prequels got better and better as the movies themselves became more humorless and unwatchable. Some fans might consider the third prequel the best of the bunch, but for me, it's the worst. Luckly the rifftrack for that episode is the best of the three; it's the only reason to subject oneself to the film.

300 falls into that same category.

MST3K tended to focus on films that were so bad, hardly anyone would watch them. The show eventually ran into trouble when the very existence of MST3K increased the value of the rights to the films they were lampooning beyond the point where they could afford the rights to the movies. RiffTrax escapes that loophole by distributing only MP3 audio files, which they then help sync to your DVD of the movie by having a disembodied voice (named Disembaudio) do line readings from the film periodically. Files are also available to sync with NTSC or PAL versions of the film, and there's even a special Windows program that handles the sync for you if you're playing the DVD on a computer. If you don't already own the DVD of the movie in question, you can order it from RiffTrax.

There, of course, is the catch-22. Riffing is funniest on movies that aren't very good, or that you don't like. I've also listened to the tracks for the Bourne Identity and LOTR: The Fellowship of the Ring, which are films I like. At some point these tracks fall a bit flat compared to the others. So in order to get value out of RiffTrax, you have to own (or at least rent) the movie. But riffing works best on films you wouldn't necessarily want to own.

RiffTrax seems to realize this, which is why they are also offering a video on demand option. Perhaps what they really need is a deal with NetFlix.

Kazakhstan To Analysts: Don't Worry

The following is from a Financial Times story about the recent investment ratings drop for Kazakh banks. Banks in Kazakhstan have gorged themselves on foreign borrowing for expansion in recent years, and the credit crisis is starting to affect them.

No problem, says the president:

Ultimately Entertaining

So the entertainment conveyor belt finally brought this past summer's hit The Bourne Ultimatum into view, and I have to say I enjoyed it. I think my favorite of the three films is probably the second; the first has to spend a lot of time setting up the character and the situation, and so seems a bit slow-paced at times. The third is "non-stop action" in that way that studios seem to think is good but that any self-respecting person who isn't a dramamine addict thinks is actually bad. Also, it never met a camera move it didn't like enough to chop up into several quick cuts and throw at the viewer in quick succession.

Bourne gets referred to a lot as a "thinking Man's Bond" which is a pretty fair assessment. Still, for a person with a reasonable amount of technical knowledge and aptitude there are a lot of places that severely strain your ability to maintain suspension of disbelief.

Warning: There are spoilers for the Bourne movies in this article!

Visited Countries

Because it's all about the countries. Although it seems I'm overlooking a continent or two.

create your own visited countries map
or vertaling Duits Nederlands

Visited States

Shamelessly borrowed from heptarch... but I'll go one step further momentarily...

create your own visited states map
or check out these Google Hacks.

Lies And The Lying Xboxes Who Tell Them

My Xbox is a liar. I've been playing the Halo 3 Beta and Half-Life 2. Since Halo 3 is a beta and HL2 is a backwards-compatible title, neither show up.

Meat In The Mountains

If you're not a mountain lover and a voracious meat eater, it's a lot harder to fully appreciate Kazakhstan. I don't have problems on either front.

Here Saltanat and I are having May Day shashlyk (shish kebab) lunch at the Chimbulak ski resort with our friend Chris and his two daughters, Fia and Amelie.

There's no snow on the slopes, but you can still see the snow-capped peaks in the distance.

100 Hours Of Oblivion

At about 100 hours of gameplay in, I completed the main storyline of Oblivion. I had delayed it for awhile, doing side quests, finishing the Thieves' Guild quest line and getting access to Arcane University in the Mages' Guild, but finally it seemed it was time to get back to business. I found a daedric artifact I didn't like so much that I could give it away: a staff that spawns daedra to attack a target. Since I already had the Jermayne brothers following me around to help out in fights, and the last few parts of the main questline also include helpers, adding more characters didn't seem like it was that worthwhile.

Azura's Star, a soul gem you can use over and over again? Yeah, not letting that go. Far too useful. The Wabbajack, that turns things into other things? Too cool. I've got it in a display case now. The Skeleton Key, that unlocks any door and never breaks? Also far too useful.

There are still more shrines to visit and more artifacts to find, but once I had the Septim armor and this daedric staff, I found it difficult to justify putting the main plot off any further. I'd also overcome my boredom with Oblivion gates; with Umbra and Apotheosis, plus my helpers, closing gates was far less tedious. I could fight through them or just sneak or run through them, unlike with the first few I encountered. At the Kvatch gate early in the plot, the gear I had was so weak that every Clannfear and Scamp was a serious threat, to say nothing of Daedra Churls and Kynvals. I had to save after every encounter, heal, wait for magicka to regenerate, then move on.

However, the portions of the main quest after that point underscored one of the weaknesses in the game. It doesn't handle combat with a large number of participants very well. The problem seems to be that everything moves far too fast. The relation in speed between an arrow flying, a sword stroke, and a running target, is just far too low. By the time you finish a sword stroke, a target you hadn't even seen yet is in front of you. Dodging arrows is far too easy. If it takes a long time to wind up and swing a heavy sword, then targets wearing heavy armor shouldn't be zipping around like meth addicts; I don't care if they are demons from hell.

The result is an insane amount of "friendly fire" for a game that's more about swordplay than ranged weapons. During the defense of Bruma, or the final fight before Mehrunes Dagon appears, it's far too common to hear your allies accusing each other of hitting the wrong person, and even fighting amongst themselves, or attacking you. Yielding (block + talk) usually works, but that's not the point-- it shouldn't be happening. If I'm the third person in to a sword fight, the relative speed of the two combatants should not be so high that I can't be sure of who I am going to hit. It seems odd to watch two targets that are running in place at each other at full speed, sliding all over the terrain as if everything was coated in ice.

It's not merely a cosmetic problem, either. It encourages you to actually stay out of the fight, or at best, attract a target solely to you so you can fight it without risking damage to your allies.

I don't play these kinds of games for the combat; I'm more interested in the exploration. Still, it's difficult to avoid all the combat, so the combat you have to play should work well. The rest of Oblivion is so great that it makes up for the combat, and it's still a great improvement over Morrowind. Still, there are some things that are quite annoying.

That there is a restriction on you that prevents changing weapons in mid-attack is understandable. However, it's not quite understandable what Oblivion considers an "attack". For instance, healing yourself with a spell is an "attack". Attempting to change weapons before a spell animation is complete generates a "you can't change weapons while attackiing" error. That is almost surely going to delay your weapon change when you hit the button again. Being blocked or meleed also seems to delay this. Nearly all of my deaths in the latter stages of the game went like this: I cast a spell to heal myself, hit the button to change weapons (usually from a ranged weapon like a staff or bow to a sword) and then hit the trigger to attack.

The change weapon press creates a "you cannot change weapon" error. The attack button press now succeeds, but with the old weapon, which is likely either empty or ineffective. If you don't wait until that animation finishes, but just stab the "change weapon" button, you get the error again. In short, the timing that is considered critical is not timing of an attack against the enemy, but rather against Oblivion's error-checking routine. The game really needs to do something about this. Why can't the game just wait until the animation is finished, then change weapons, instead of throwing an error? If it has to throw an error, why can't it also throw out the next attack buttonpress if they were nearly-simultaneous? Either change would stop the player from getting stuck in a loop where he can't defend himself or change weapons.

In between those two relatively large-scale fights was a side trip to Camaron's Paradise, a sort of parallel universe created by Mankar Camaron, who is ushering in Mehrunes Dagon's invasion (return?) to Tamriel. This was similar to some of the earlier side quests that take place off the main map, like the magic painting and the mage's dream world-- or like Oblivion gates themselves. The problem with this one came down to the end battle with Camaron himself.

Facing him head-on, alone, didn't seem to do much good. He healed himself as fast as I could damage him, and I emptied Apotheosis before I could kill him. Making it worse were his son and daughter also attacking me, as well as the creatures they were all summoning. Interrupting his little monologue by attacking him seemed to confer no advantage, and killing his progeny to whittle down the odds is also temporary, as he simply resurrects them.

The solution turned out to be surprisingly effective but also somewhat disappointingly easy. You can hide in the upper corners of Camaron's throne room, and the game considers you to be "sneaking" and hidden, even though you are actually in plain view, and he is still speaking to you. This might have had something to do with the dark brotherhood armor and Nocturnal's Cowl, both of which I was wearing. An arrow poisoned with a Strong Poison of Silence stopped him from using any spells, in addition to doing 3x sneak damage. Three such arrows and he was defeated without my ever been seen or struck by an opponent, and Paradise evaporated around me. A bit anticlimactic.

A Pain In The Asphalt

Okay, so kitchen delivery was supposed to be last Friday. It was delayed because the first part of of the work needs two days, and the guys doing it didn't want to split it over the weekend.

When Monday rolled around, though, something else was rolling around in front of the entrance to the building: a steamroller. They were laying new pavement at the building entrance, so there was no way to get the delivery truck up to the building or even to carry the units in from the street, as the garage entrance only has the smaller passenger elevators.

Renovation Nearing Completion

With the delivery of kitchen cabinets and appliances scheduled for today Monday, the end of the renovation is now nearly in sight. What began as "shell and core", little more than a concrete box with windows, a nice view and some basic plumbing and wiring is now almost ready to be lived in.

We started the earliest and spent the most time on the kitchen and bathrooms, following the maxim that these rooms are the most crucial and valuable. For the bathroom, we wanted a jacuzzi tub big enough for two and for the kitchen, since it is part of the large mail hall that incorporates the functions of a traditional living room, dining room, and the kitchen, we wanted something elegant, subtle, understated, functional and high quality. We didn't end up going as upscale as Ernestomeda or Scavolini, but the same outfit that deals with those in Almaty, Sergio Interiors, also sells kitchens from another Italian company, Record Cucine. Eventually we settled on their Venere series of cabinets.

Because the area would be open and visible, we wanted to minimize the degree to which people in the living room and dining room were exposed to the essential functions of the kitchen. So that meant as many appliances should be built-in to the cabinetry and concealed when possible. So the refrigerator, dishwasher and oven are all built-in. All the cabinet doors are just lacquered; no glass, so none of the contents are visible when the cabinets are closed. In my experience, glass doors only look great in controlled store conditions, where they arrange a nice set of dishes like a still-life. In real life, where no matter how much storage space you have, you always end up needing more, and cabinets fill to the brim, seeing inside is a much less attractive proposition.

This series of cabinets also had a feature I very much wanted: a unit that allows the corner to be accessible storage, by housing a stainless steel wire cage that is attached to the cabinet door. Normally when two kitchen cabinet floor units abut at a 90 degree angle, part of the storage area in the corner is not easily reachable from either side. In this case, when you open one unit, all the storage is on movable racks; when you open the door, the racks just inside come completely out of the cabinet, and the racks tucked deep into the corner slide into the space previously occupied by the first set, meaning everythiing is reachable without getting on your hands and knees to reach into the corner.

Since the kitchen area, at about 10 square meters, is actually a bit smaller than the separate kitchen we have now, but does not need to contain a huge seating area, we decided on an island. This would provide additional counter space and cabinet space, as well as seating for two, and create a visual barrier between the dining room/living room areas and the kitchen. Our final design shows the cabinetry on the west and north walls, as well as the island configuration.

The island has three cabinets in it, as well as an electrical outlet, so you can use an appliance like a mixer on top of it without stringing a cord across the gap to a wall. The wiring for the outlet was laid into the concrete floor before the kitchen tile was installed.

With a rather neutral beige color selected for the cabinetry, so as not to attract too much attention to itself in the main space when not in use, the color palette for the entire apartment was set. For the floors, we wanted a slightly darker tile in the kitchen, and a dark oak parquet floor for the living room and dining room. To tie them all together, we used a geometric pattern of varying shades of brown for the kitchen wall tile, and chose a shade of paint to match. This paint we used for the parts of the kitchen that are not covered by tiles or cabinets.

The design for the living room was dominated from the start by the idea of integrating a ceiling-mounted projector that would aim at the longest wall in the apartment, the north wall, with enough distance between the mounting and the wall to have a two meter wide image cast on that wall. In the case of our projector, that means a distance of a little more than 4 meters. To conceal the wiring necessary to connect the projector on the ceiling to the audio-video equipment, to be stored in a low piece of furniture on the north wall, below the image, a sheet rock beam and column structure was constructed, forming a horseshoe with the north wall at its opening. We also had built into this structure wiring for flourescent "luminescent" lighting, aimed at the ceiling, that would provide indirect light to keep the room from being too dark, but without disturbing the image too much. This sheet rock horseshoe was built to echo the shape and size of the concrete beam and structural column near the windows on the south wall; and so like those elements, we kept the sheet rock white, while painting the concrete walls the same color we used in the kitchen, again to tie the elements together.

In the end, the ceiling was covered with a textured wallpaper and then painted white, as was the ceiling molding. The structural elements are also white, with the intervening wall spaces our kitchen color. Here you can see the near-final results, with track lighting on a remote dimmer control installed on the ceiling in the living room area, the notch for the projector mount with the wiring installed, and the dining room area behind, between the living room and the south facing wall.

We wanted the bathroom tiles to diverge from this theme, but not too far, so we went with blue tile for the floor and the backsplash area, and above the backsplash, a beige tile; we felt having the walls and floors all entirely blue would make the room seem too small. Between the two tiles we used a mosaic border piece that mixed shades of blue and brown, similar to what we did in the kitchen, also in a border area.

To keep all the bathroom plumbing hidden, we needed to build a structure around the perimeter, to reach from the pipes in the southwest corner, to the tub in the northwest corner, and the sink in the northeast corner. This also required building a podium with a step to raise the tub up off the floor.

Here you can see the tub and toilet installed in the fully-tiled master bathroom.

In the small guest bath, which also doubles as a laundry room and has only a sink and a toilet, rather than a shower cube or tub, we felt that floor-to-ceiling tile was not necessary, but we wanted to keep the same color scheme. Above the backsplash tile, we finally settled on an Egyptian-themed wallpaper from A S Creations that has beige and blue elements. While this design was a little "out there" compared to most of our other choices, it's a relatively small area, so we felt it was safe to do.

The lighting in this room is a Massive flourescent fixture especially designed for bathroom areas. The master bathroom has a larger version of the same fixture. Both bathrooms also have ventilator fans connected to the building's air shafts and controlled from independent switches. The fans also have a louvres in the back that close when the fan is off, to prevent backdrafts from the air shafts.

Sinks and cabinets for the master bath area also now waiting to be installed.

The second bedroom in our apartment will be used as a home office, so it was designed to be functional rather than pretty. The walls were kept white and painted with washable paint, and the floor covered with commercial grade linoleum. To avoid being too bland, we went with a bold, dark blue. Where we opted for the bticino switches and switch covers in yellow pearl for most of the apartment, and white in the bathroom, we kept the outlets in this room (six on the east wall and two on the west) standard white outlets of Russian manufacture, to economize.

For the bedroom, we wanted a thick, wall to wall carpet. The first design item we'd settled on was another A S Creations wallpaper pattern. However, by the time we were ready to purchase, none was left. We toyed with getting the same pattern in a different color (purple or gold, rather than the orange we'd selected) and even bought a much darker brown wallpaper from another manufacturer, but were eventually displeased not just with the quality of the paper (the workers complained it wouldn't lay flat, cut straight, the color would come off, etc) but also the pattern, and so replaced it-- with the gold variation of our initial choice.

Although not yet glued down, both the wallpaper and carpet are now in place, and so with the exception of furniture, the master bathroom is fairly complete.

For more images, check the Apartment gallery.


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