Thursday, December 24, 2015

This Christmas, We’ll Be Flying, Like Santa

Happy holidays from the Fragrant Family!

Tomorrow we’re off to our first family trip to the Philippines. The initial leg is 13.5 hours long, the next a mere five hours. And we have a 15-month-old toddler with us.

So, on this, Junior’s inaugural plane ride, we have prepared the following:
Image source:
  • Lots of toys: He’s got cars, stickers, blocks, books – and he’ll also play with whatever’s within reach. 
  • iPad apps: Fisher Price has a Laugh & Learn series with cute animals that Junior loves. Plus I bought The Dark Crystal, which Hubby thinks is too scary for baby but I think he’ll enjoy it! 
  • Lots of snacks: Three bags of graham bunny biscuits, Fig Newtons, Lara bars, granola bars, and whatever takes our fancy at the airport. 
  • Lots of diapers: Like, 12 diapers and 1,000 wipes, probably. 
  • Trunki: It’s a little suitcase that kids can ride! Junior’s a little too short at the moment (80 cm), but he loves pushing it around. We got the yellow one. Its name is Bernard? 

The plan is for Junior to nurse during takeoff, and since that’s around his usual nap time, he should sleep for 1-2 hours. Then we would have 5-6 hours before his actual bedtime. Planned activities during this time include playing, reading, and doing laps around the entire plane. Hopefully the engines will drown out his excited yelling, because he still can’t regulate his volume. Or his emotions. Or his limbs.

This will be so fun at 40,000 feet in the air. Santa never had to deal with this.

Obviously, no plan goes according to plan. For example, Hubby is already down with a cold. So Junior will probably spend the entire time wailing at the top of his lungs, wiggling like a deranged ferret in his father’s arms, while I doze peacefully right beside the chaos.

Ho! Ho! Ho!

Tomorrow he flies like a bird!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 (2015)

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 hews closely to its source material -- it grimly depicts the hidden costs of war, through the horrified eyes of the rebellion's poster child, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), aka the Mockingjay. After unbearable losses and sacrifices, the series ends as it began: with Katniss out in the wild, away from the path society set for her. But this time, she's not alone.

The film has no shortage of good actors. As always, JLaw offers a compelling performance as Katniss, and this time Josh Hutchinson steps us as the unstable Peeta, newly rescued and still suffering from the effects of torture. Donald Sutherland is as delightful as ever as the President Snow, a villain whose perception and self-awareness make him a worthy and wily foe. Jena Malone nails it again as the perpetually angry past Victor Joanna, and Julianne Moore, it need not be said, acts the crap out of the role of the near-emotionless, calculating President Alma Coin.

The movie opens with Katniss recovering from Peeta's attack. Her erstwhile co-Victor in the Hunger Games has been brainwashed against Katniss, making her more determined to personally bring down Snow. Using her charming personality (/sarcasm), she helps to rally the last holdouts so that all the Districts are now against the Capitol, poised to topple Snow -- but he's not going to give up power easily. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the rebellion's President Coin is plotting her own rise as the new leader of a free Panem, as a wary Plutarch Heavensbee (RIP Philip Seymour Hoffman) looks on.

One of the main themes of the movie, propaganda versus the reality of war, is showcased several times to underline the utter falsehoods broadcasted by either side to gain tactical advantage. Katniss' near-mythical status among the rebels is a direct result of such propaganda, although she's only invested in her image inasmuch as it helps her get closer to her goal of killing Snow. I may be reading too much into this, but Mockingjay Part 2 suggests that propaganda is already deeply embedded into our daily lives, that we are active participants in it: by showing the world only images that present us in the way we want to be perceived, we mislead others (and maybe ourselves!).

...Like I said, I may be reading too much into it.

The imperfect hero theme is also on display here. Movie-Katniss, like Book-Katniss, is deeply flawed -- she's selfish and often short-sighted -- but she is extremely determined, and frequently lucky. There are predictable contrivances, such as a rebel attack coming in the nick of time, which goes to show that Katniss is often propelled forward by events outside her own control. What makes her the hero is her consistent willingness to sacrifice herself to do what she thinks is right. It's diametrically opposed to her modus operandi in the first Hunger Games, when she was all about being the last to survive so she can keep her promise to her little sister, Prim. 

Speaking of, I sure am glad that scene played out the way it did, because I was steeling myself for buckets o' tears a la Rue. This way was more numbing and brutal, and perfectly sets up Katniss' postwar conversation with her nemesis Snow. 


Final notes: soundtrack, cinematography, costumes = excellent. Love triangle side plot = meh. 

TL;DR: A faithful adaptation and fitting conclusion to the Hunger Games series. 

This post brought to you by Wachusett Green Monsta IPA! Go Pats!

Hubway Bikes: for the Post-Theft Cyclist

Back in 2011, Boston launched its bicycle sharing system, called Hubway. The bikes are locked in stations throughout the city. To use one, assuming you're a member, you use your fob to unlock the bike of your choice (I always select one with the seat at the lowest setting), and off you go.


I explain it to my mom thus: "It's Zipcar but with bicycles."

Now, any form of transportation requires both infrastructure and human will. My dear city has bike lanes as well as, er, assertive cyclists (dudes who follow cars and yell at the drivers for infractions). Drivers these days are also nicer and more accepting of sharing the road with cyclists, as evidenced by the lady in the SUV who apologized for almost squishing me because she got distracted. So the Hubway system works quite well indeed.

The bikes themselves are terrific. I was surprised at how light they were compared to my dear Trek2, which was an 8-speed hybrid. Hubway bikes only have three gears, and I sail along on my morning commute, just sail, I tell you. (Side note: internet research indicates that both my stolen Trek FX7200 and the Hubway bikes weigh around 30-40 lbs., so I must've had Trek2 on the wrong gear combination for my stubby legs.)

The best part about using a Hubway bike is not having to maintain or upgrade it. Each bike comes built in with flashing lights, a front "basket," and best of all, front and back fenders, so that I don't get a trail of mud up my butt and back when I ride during wet conditions. 

Image source:
Most importantly, the fact that I don't own them means they are also theft-proof! Hurray!!!

I highly recommend using these bad boys. When they first came out and my eager eco-friendly engineer of a husband immediately signed up, I scoffed at him. You own a bike, I pointed out. Why rent as well?

Now I shake my head at my younger, stupider self. Current me uses hubby's Hubway membership, bwahahaaaaa!!! I WIN ANYWAY. I took this as an opportunity to explain a vital Tagalog word/concept to him: angkin, which is to take as your own something that belongs to someone else. So, in Taglish: "I made angkin his Hubway membership."

In conclusion: the image below provides an excellent summary of the Hubway experience:

Image source: BDC Wire
Don't listen to the haters, Hubway. You don't have to be pretty, you have a great personality! Especially since both hubby and I get massive membership discounts through work.

TL;DR: City bike share programs FTW!

This post brought to you by a coworker's weekend baking frenzy! COOKIES OM NOM NOM

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Game Review: Final Fantasy X-2 HD Remaster (PS Vita)

Final Fantasy X-2, the 2003 sequel to the oddly popular FFX (my review here), got remastered for the Vita in 2013 so that a new generation of gamers may experience Yuna with 75% less clothing and 100% more badassery. Here's my quick review.

Plot: Yuna, her cousin Rikku, and the reticent Paine are members of the Gullwings, a group of treasure hunters who inadvertently become involved in yet another plot to save the world from destruction.

Timeline: Two years after Yuna and her Guardians brought The Calm in FFX.

***Things to Love: There are many, including:

1) The soundtrack--The game opens with an FMV concert of Yuna, Rikku, and Paine performing a J-pop single, setting the stage for the various enjoyable tracks throughout the game. The signature theme is "1,000 Words," the equivalent of FFX's "Suteki Da Ne" and FFVIII's "Eyes on Me." The battle themes are fast-paced, the dungeon beats appropriately ominous, and the boss fights suitably, er, bossy. If your jam is more chill, the FFX-2 Piano Collections is a great album.

2) The gameplay--No need to buy or craft weapons here! Players equip their team members with garment grids (for status boosts and effects) and dress spheres (for job type), leading to a huge number of customizations. So you put dress spheres on garment grids, and then equip a character with those. For example, if I wanted a character to be wicked fast and always attack first, I would put the Thief dress sphere on the Highroad Winds garment grid, which boosts speed. Then I would equip Highroad Winds on the character, and select Thief as her dress sphere. Viola! 

Dress spheres level up via Ability Points (AP), leading to some beastly tanks, like the Berseker, which can Evade & Counter all physical attacks and also regain HP constantly with Auto-Regen. This system is probably why so many gamers have replayed FFX-2 so much -- gotta have 'em all, gotta grind 'em all! I'm tempted to do a New Game+, myself...

(Itty-bitty wah-wah: Some of the dress spheres are t-a-c-k-y. I mean, a skintight neon yellow outfit for Rikku's Lady Luck? Ugh. However, this is balanced out by the awesomely designed ones, like Paine's Alchemist or Yuna's Samurai. And check out the moves on Rikku's Berserker! They clearly got a breakdancer / capoeira practitioner to do the motion-capture for that one. SO COOL.)

Lady Luck, Alchemist, Samurai
3) The combat system--It's fast-paced and over quickly, making grinding less annoying. This becomes tough when facing a particularly speedy boss (e.g. Chac in Via Infinito), but players can choose Wait Mode, where battle slows when you're scrolling through items or suchlike.

4) The lead characters--Yuna has shed her martyr attitude from FFX and is now more on board with cousin Rikku's devil-may-care, ultra-genki spirit. Paine would have been a good main character, too, since she has a good backstory and develops as a character later in the game. Plus her sardonic responses are a great counterpoint to her two companions. Rikku is mostly abs and a big smile.

5) All the math!--Sphere Break is a mini-game that's really fun and nets you nice prizes, and all it needs is basic addition skills. Meanwhile, an optional dungeon in Chapter 5 tests your adding and your memory. A refreshing break from all the fiend-bashing!

6) The pacing--So fast. Love it. Just, boom, boom, boom, all five chapters done! Obviously, going for 100% completion will slow you down, but if you're just interested in completion, this is a 25-hour game. This time, there's no convoluted plot getting in the way. It's just Yuna catching a glimpse of what she thinks is her dead boyfriend Tidus, pursuing all leads, stumbling across a world-destroying villain, and kicking its butt while also getting another concert performance in, as one does.

7) The final boss--I like my final boss fights nice and easy, and this one did not disappoint.

8) The visuals--Beautiful game. Deserves a far bigger screen than the Vita's.

***Annoying Things: Just as many, but fairly minor, such as:

1) Brother: His awful voice, ridiculous accent, and cutesy poses made me want to cunt-punt him.

2) Chac: Are you fracking kidding me with this (optional) boss??? Almost 500,000 HP, can kill my entire team in one hit? I must've spent 10 hours trying to kill this thing, failing again and again, until I finally got everyone up above level 90 and stopped saving my one Soul Spring. WORTH IT.

3) Paragon: The (again, optional) boss after Chac wiped out my party almost instantly on all of my dozen attempts, at which point I was like, "IDGAF," and just bailed.

4) No overworld: Seriously, this is the joy of JRPGs -- exploring the vast world, uncovering new areas, getting your butt kicked in spots where you shouldn't have gone because you're too underleveled. As with FFX, FFX-2 robs players of the overworld, instead just having the ship "fly" you to your desired location. Booooooo. Which brings us to...

5) Moving around: In the game, to move around the world, you have to board your ship, go to the navigator, and select a location, where you then end up beside a save point. So why not just travel from save point to save point? Because that would make too much sense, that's why. DURRR

6) The villain: Blah blah blah deprived of love of my life grrr anger will kill entire world blah BLAH BLAH WE GET IT, SHUYIN, YOU PERSONALITY-DEPRIVED ORGAN-PLAYING POORLY-DRESSED EXCUSE FOR A MAIN VILLAIN. So boring.

7) The esoteric crap: The truly great JRPGs let you explore and reward you for your curiosity. FFX-2 gives out the best secrets and prizes only to those who have game guides (or go to gaming boards). There's none of the sheer joy of poking around a newly-discovered area and getting a "Munya munya aitemu wo te in ireta!" window ("Whatever-item obtained!").

***Overall: More things to love than are annoying, plus very high replay value, so this game gets a thumbs up.

TL;DR: FFX-2 is a sequel that's better than the original.

This post brought to you by complaints about daylight savings time!

Movie Review: Hereditary (2018)