Thursday, February 25, 2016

Movie Review: Food, Inc. (2008)

Yesterday I watched Food, Inc. in my quest to further depress myself over the State of Things. This 90-minute documentary about the US food industry has great graphics (for example, the opening credits), terrific editing, and a dispiriting message that's countered by a hopeful ending.

Food, Inc. shows viewers how a handful of corporations bent on profits are controlling most of the country’s food commodities, especially meat and grains, at the expense of their workers, their animals, and our shared environment. All of the companies named declined to be interviewed for the film. Their silence speaks volumes, especially when combined with farmers’ testimonies about having to obey their corporate overlords or face insurmountable debt, unaffordable litigation, and/or alienation from their neighbors.

Meanwhile, the animals also get abused: chickens, pigs, and cows are packed in tightly together; fed a diet designed to fatten them up as quickly as possible so they can barely walk; and are covered in their own wastes all day. They are slaughtered and dismembered efficiently – often by undocumented immigrants – but our dear planet has plenty of bacteria and sometimes the bad ones wriggle their way into the packed products.

And here the story becomes painful as the documentary looks at Kevin Kowalcyk, a two-year old who died after eating a burger infected with E. Coli. His mom has spent years talking to politicians to get Kevin’s Law in the books, a law that would give the USDA the power to shut down plants that repeatedly produce contaminated meat. It never passed. It’s especially sad because his mom can’t even tell the cameras how her family has changed their eating habits because she might be liable for slander.

On the bright side, Oprah won her lawsuit against the beef industry when she talked about mad cow disease on her show. It took six years and over $1,000,000. So, yay?

There are three groups that stand as beacons of hope amidst this grim tale, and oddly, one of them is Wal-Mart. Stonyfield, now owned by the French conglomerate Danone, is still run by its founder, who pushes for organic products (no toxic pesticides, artificial hormones, or antibiotics) and is thrilled at their new partnership with the world’s biggest retailer. He figures that their message – that it’s possible to create healthy, environmentally- and public health-friendly food – can only be spread if they’re big. Well, they converted Wal-mart and they’re pretty big now, so yay!

The other group that beams sunshine into the bleak hollow of my soul is Polyface Farms, which is in Virginia and led by a very passionate farmer. Their preparation of chicken – out in the fresh air, washed by hand, processed in small batches – is in stark contrast to Tyson’s and Perdue’s methods: tunnel-ventilated sheds where chickens never see light and can’t take three steps without collapsing because of their engineered large breasts.

Monsanto, aka Evil Inc. (although it has many competitors for that title), gets to be in the finale because its GMO patent and subsequent ownership of soy beans is breathtaking. Food, Inc. shows how it’s in bed with the FDA with business cards – one side showing the individual's position at Monsanto, and the flip side with their career progression into the government regulatory agency. That is the opposite of yay.

Food, Inc. ends on a positive note: consumers can make a difference through their buying habits. Money talks, and if enough of us put our paychecks into foods produced by non-evil companies using non-evil methods, we can make things better for ourselves, for farm and meat packing workers, for animals, and for Earth! Goooo Captain Planet!

Side note: Food, Inc. showed in detail what I already vaguely knew from various sources, but what it did accomplish was getting me to be more sympathetic to rabid anti-GMO people. I work in a research environment so genetic engineering is par for the course, and back home we cross-bred golden rice with local rice to produce grains fortified with Vitamin A – for the children!!! – so I was always “SMH” at people protesting GMOs. Now I’m like, okay, I get it. But still -- #notallgmos

Here are my top three takeaways from the film:
  1. Read labels at the grocery (e.g. “no antibiotics”)! Avoid anything by Swift, Smithfield, Tyson, Perdue, and Monsanto. 
  2. The FDA is gross. So is the USDA. 
  3. No fast food. Just no. 

TL;DR: An important documentary that will one day be mandatory viewing for our great-grandchildren’s colonies to show why they had to flee the planet.

This post brought to you by celery!

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Anime Review: Death Note (2006-07)

Light, L (left), and Ryuk (right)

The Death Note manga came out in 2004 -- when I myself was in Japan, coincidence? I think not! -- and was an immensely enjoyable read.

The Death Note anime came out a couple years later, and is available on Netflix streaming. It hews pretty closely to the manga, and is equally enjoyable. It made me cackle and gasp by turns, usually because of the protagonist's cleverness and his steady descent into megalomania. 

Plot: Ryuk, a bored shinigami (god of death), purposefully drops a "Death Note" in the human world. Shinigami use Death Notes to kill people. Enter Light Yagami, an equally bored high school student who stumbles on the Death Note, which conveniently comes with a user manual inside. As written on the first page:
Rule #1: The human whose name is written in this notebook shall die.

Rule #2: This note will not take effect unless the writer has the person's face in their mind when writing his/her name. Therefore, people sharing the same name will not be affected. 

Rule #3: If the cause of death is written within the next 40 seconds of writing the person's name, it will happen. 

Rule #4: If the cause of death is not specified, the person will simply die of a heart attack. 

Rule #5: After writing the cause of death, details of the death should be written in the next 6 minutes and 40 seconds.
It's a great premise for a supernatural story, asking questions about justice -- who deserves to be executed? to be the executioner? It also touches on privacy and government intrusion, what an ideal world would look like, and the merits of oppressive safety versus risky freedom. Also, why are apples so tasty? (That's an in-joke: Ryuk loves apples and claims to go into withdrawal when deprived of them.)

The series answers those questions by way of the cat-and-mouse game between Light's public persona, Kira (Japanization of the English word "killer"), and the mysterious detective L. Kira earns L's attention when he starts using the Death Note to kill violent criminals, which L denounces as outright murders. The stakes get higher when Kira decides that the people hunting him also threaten the new world he is building on the corpses of the "bad" people.

But Kira can't kill L per the rules of the Death Note, because he doesn't know L's real name. So he keeps punishing criminals, often using their deaths as tactical actions to evade L's prodigious deductive abilities. Both Light and L believe they are administering justice. Which one is right?

Actually, Death Note answers that question early on, when Light monologues about creating a new world with only kind people. "So you're gonna be the only bad person left?" Ryuk asks."What do you mean, Ryuk?" Light replies, cementing his villain-protagonist role.

The twists and turns of the plot are utterly delightful. Ryuk is the number one complicating factor. He explicitly tells Light that only sheer coincidence led him to finding the Death Note, and that he will neither help nor hinder Light. He also reveals to Light the "shinigami eyes" deal, wherein the Death Note user can trade half of his/her remaining lifespan for the ability to see a person's true name when they also see the person's face (even in photos!).

image source: wikipedia

And when a second shinigami with a spare Death Note comes along...

In the midst of Light and L's moves, counter moves, counter counter moves, and counter counter counter moves, Death Note provides a commentary on human nature, showing the shallow concerns of the individuals who are touched by the Death Note's power. Most notable are Higuchi, a businessman who is only interested in corporate success, and Demegawa, a TV producer who's laser focused on boosting ratings. No wonder Light, with his grand ambition of remaking the world, considers himself the only true owner of the Death Note. Then again, his punitive executions only remove the individuals, and not the system that created, corrupted, or ensnared them...

The anime is a joy to watch because of the gloriously over the top visuals. Characters are color-coded: Light gets red hair and red eyes when he's planning or doing something evil, L is blue when he's adding up facts and coming to the correct conclusions, earnest cop Matsuda glows golden when he does something dangerous to prove his worth to the Kira-hunting team, and so on.

Subtext is also gleefully splashed across the screen in melodramatic face-to-face moments on top of imaginary buildings, which I believe is an anime convention (c.f. Bleach). This is when two characters stare each other down in a mental landscape, each presenting his viewpoint / action plan / thoughts. So many thoughts in this series.

Speaking of too much, there are ridiculous montages of people writing -- just writing, okay, with a pen -- and their exaggerated gestures are perfectly complemented by the thundering music...oh gracious, the music...Like the color scheme, the Death Note soundtrack is the enemy of subtlety. There's ominous Latin chanting, frenzied chorals, catchy piano and guitar riffs, and everything in between. It's fantastic. Light and L each get awesome themes, and "Light Lights Up Light" is a bittersweet piece that perfectly captures one of the concluding scenes of the anime.

At 37 episodes x 21 minutes per episode, the series goes along at a fast clip, with only a few fillers. While the latter half of the story arc occurs and finishes at twice the speed of the first half, it's also the part when Death Note gets a lot of slapstick moments, so I was pleased to have that over with. Besides, Kira devolves into a gloaty bastard after too many of his Evil Plans succeed, and it's just not the same without the tension from the earlier episodes.

TL;DR: Recommended binge-watching! Watch in Japanese with English subtitles for Light's and L's voice actors: they nailed it.

Bonus info for the anime nerd: Kappei Yamaguchi (!) is L -- quite a departure from Ranma, Inuyasha, and other ranbo kyara he has voiced.

This post brought to you by pork chops!

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Book Review: Big Bang: the Origin of the Universe (2004)

Junior loves the shiny cover of this book

Simon Singh, author of the excellent Fermat's Last Theorem, once again provides an accessible account of monumental discoveries in science. This time, he focuses on the field of astronomy, crafting an engaging history of the Big Bang theory, which posits that “everything in the universe exploded into being out of a single point in space” (from Singh's website). The journey takes many centuries and its roads are traveled by countless men and women, and Singh focuses on the pivotal moments and leading personalities to build his story.

A main theme of the book is the scientific method, and Singh predictably discusses Copernicus and Galileo, who used instruments to observe and analyze the heavens. Then he looks into Tycho Brahe and Kepler in the 16th and 17th centuries, to illustrate how a mathematically correct model gained acceptance for the sun-centered model of the universe. He recounts Einstein's retraction of the cosmic constant, a number "fudged" by the great physicist to fit his general theory of relativity within the dogmatic framework of an eternal universe -- not a good science move, ehrmagerd. In latter chapters, Singh recounts the conflict between advocates of the Big Bang model and the proponents of the Steady State model, using the Big Bang’s victory to underline that the theory with the stronger evidence wins, eventually.

Another theme is chance, which is most apparent in the sections where Singh describes the rise of radio astronomy, as well as the discovery of cosmic background radiation in the 1960s, decades after it was first predicted. Logical leaps are also featured, such as Henrietta Leavitt’s realization that Cepheid stars can be used as galactic yardsticks. There was also a man who barged into someone else’s lab and was all, “You guys, I need to find a thing with a specific wavelength that I calculated in my head, help me out?”

Anyway, Singh’s narrative has it all: scientific rebellion, paradigm shifts, professional and personal animosities, and of course, math – I’m going to be honest, it’s the sexiest science book I’ve read so far. His mention of Calvin and Hobbes alone should be enough for readers interested in science, philosophy, and cosmic history.

My only beef with the book are the summary tables and the chapter end notes, which are possibly for students? I skipped them because the tables oversimplified how theories prove themselves valid, and the end notes were written in a notebook-y font, with drawings and diagrams presumably for readers with reading comprehension problems. I think they undermine the rich and complex content that preceded them.

(removes Pretentious Glasses)

TL;DR: Simon Singh Says: Science is Sexy!

 This post brought to you by cassava cake!

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Tales of Hearts R (PS Vita)

Tales of Hearts R follows the grand tradition of the Tales series, with nary a must-have box left unchecked:

-Earnest male lead with sword, check
-Female lead/romantic interest, check
-Whacky supporting characters, check
-Slight tweak to the button mash-y combat system, check
-Slight tweak to the leveling up system, check
-An ancient civilization did it, check
-Love and friendship, check
-Fat jokes, check

However, predictability can be good -- for instance, the music, graphics, and voice acting (original Japanese) are top-notch, as always.


Tales of Hearts R begins with the Hearts siblings, Kohaku and Hisui, out on their quest to revive the mysterious "Sleeping Beauty" of legend to, you know, save the world. Along the way, they encounter the main protagonist Shingu, who has recently received a "Soma" -- a weapon linked to the user's "Spiria" (spirit) that can help people who have "despir" (depression?). Events then necessitate a series of fetch quests, with lots of new characters and chatting to make the journey entertaining.


The three elements that make Tales of Hearts R shine are:

Combat: 9/10
Rewards button-mashing and strategy! It's so much fun to get a Guard Counter right, which is when an enemy gets mad and launches a strong attack, but you block at exactly the right time and end up landing a blow instead of taking one. Also, there are Chase Links, where the player has a limited amount of time to lay into an enemy without getting hit back. A supporting character can join for a powerful finishing move, but you have to be paying attention to the character portraits to trigger it.

A sign that I might be maturing as a gamer: instead of my typical aggressive frontal assault fighting style, I favored long-distance spellcasting once my characters learned the awesome ones (e.g. Hurricane).

Playable Characters: 9/10 
No one is boring. There's hotheaded Hisui, grizzled Gall, shady Ines, straight-laced Chalcedony...heck, even Beryl stopped being annoying pretty quickly, while Shingu's naïveté is effectively played for laughs. Everyone gets a backstory that makes them sympathetic. Plus, they all kick ass on the battlefield, which is key.

AND if you happen to remember a small detail, you can change one character's entire appearance! So instead of an impractical crop-top and mini-skirt, said character shall be in imposing armor and mask! Heck yeah!

By the way, the image is of Ines, who is the most frequent butt of the other characters' fat jokes. And boob jokes, it need not be said, but there's a lot of talk about her belly.

Yep, just look at 'em love handles, how does she squeeze into that outfit.

Gameplay: 9/10
Having the characters be able to enter a person's "Spiria Nexus" (or "spiria maze" in Japanese) adds another level to the quest, because these are essentially mini-dungeons. As the game progresses, the difficulty level of the... Nexuses? Nexi? ...increases, but it's never fiendishly difficult, nor even diabolical, as any Alundra veteran will dismissively inform you. All of the other puzzles in the game are easily solved by a 12-year-old, which I assume is this game's core audience.

PLUS the overworld is a free-for-all, provided you don't try exploring areas that are for much later in the game and requires much higher levels (e.g. I tried going into the volcano pretty early on, and got stopped. Whew!).


And now for the three things that Tales of Hearts R developers could maybe have worked on more:

Villains: 3/10
Snore. In the game, there are three "mechaknights" who stand in your way. Incarose is your standard-issue blinded-by-love-for-master-who-treats-me-like-dirt bad guy, and Chloseraph is just plain batty. He would have been more interesting if they'd spent more time on his true motivations. His twin, Chlinoseraph, is actually pretty badass, with flawless villain reasoning and follow-through. He's all, "I exist to protect my master, and the only way to do that is to kill my brother to level up enough to kill y'all, which my master won't like, but this is my programming sooooo"

Anyway, the main antagonist, Creed -- "the man with the red hair" (stop discriminating against gingers, Namco Tales Studio!) -- is the worst offender. He's a petulant man-child whose inability to control himself and his science project leads to a thousands-year cat-and-mouse game that culminates in the current crop of heroes (because there was a previous group of heroes, this is a Tales game after all). And when he finally gets his ending, dying in the arms of the woman he loves, I was like, "Dude does not deserve this, he deserves to be transformed into goop and then flushed down a toilet, a la Ant-Man." In other words: Creed sucks.

Plot: 5/10
On a scale that ranges from "Absurd" to "Everyone died so ghosts wrote this", the storyline of Hearts falls somewhere in the middle, between "No budget for story" and "How high were they?" It uses the Sleeping Beauty legend as a framework for the main conflict, and certainly does subvert expectations in a good way. For example, "ibara no mori", or the Forest of Thorns where Sleeping Beauty lies, is a giant flying whale. Didn't see that one coming. Sleeping Beauty herself is actually awake, and her conciousness is behind a number of important historical events. 

But it gets pretty incoherent after that, with the addition of ancient aliens, their mechaknights, Will artes (magic), Somas, secret villain-villains, and of course, a soul-sucking black moon. 

In the end -- surprise! -- The Aliens Learn That Love and Friendship Conquer All. Only the Tales series is this good at churning out stories that are at once derivative and weirdly unique.

Localization: WTF/10 
I mean, props to Bandai for keeping the original Japanese voiceovers and slapping on English subtitles, but their translation team took some serious liberties. Here are the examples that I remember:

Exhibit A: The first cut scene

Incarose: Mitsuketa. (Found you.) = You're mine!
(Kohaku and Hisui have a conversation as they run from her.)
Incarose: Mitsuketa. (Found you.) = Like moths to a flame.
(Kohaku and Hisui are cornered.)
Incarose: Mitsuketazo. (Totally found you!) = It's time to pluck wings off the moths.

...I mean, okay, the first "mitsuketa" definitely has the "You're mine!" nuance. And I get that just translating her repeated lines might be boring. But the translators just keep on rollin'...

Exhibit B: Shingu Meteorite

The main character clearly says his name is Shingu Meteorite. Throughout the game, everyone calls him Shingu. Somehow, the English subtitles turn this into "Kor Meteor." I understand the shortening of the last name, but how did Shingu become Kor????

Exhibit C: That's not even what he said

Shingu: Konna tsuyoi onna no hito wo mita no wa hajimete da! (I've never seen a woman this strong!) = Are all city girls like that?

Apparently it was not clear to gamers that "Kor" is a country bumpkin, so the translators decided to hammer it home a bit more. With a pile driver.

Exhibit D: That is also not what he said

Shingu: Naka naka hiroi heya da ne! (What a huge room!) = Looks like the maid's on vacation.

"Looks like the maid's on vacation?" Are you kidding me? At that point, I just stopped both listening to the voices and reading the text. And I finished the game in 36 hours; it would have taken longer if I'd listened or read, so hurray!

I just can't with this localization.

Hire me to translate, Bandai Namco!!!!



TL;DR: Fun, loopy JRPG with replay value!

This post brought to you by lentil soup!

Monday, February 1, 2016

Toddler Sleep Training

Junior is perfect except for one thing: his inability to soothe himself back to sleep. And his sonic scream when he's hungry. And his tripping over perfectly flat surfaces. Okay, maybe he's not perfect.

Sleep is a panacea -- it heals the body, helps the mind sort the day's events, improves mood, and contributes to weight loss/maintenance! (source: IIRC)

As new parents, sleep is now a mere memory for hubby and me. It's hard to parent, let alone function, without sufficient sleep. Fortunately, we perfected a bedtime routine for Junior that lets him get enough sleep (minimum 10 hours a night) and lets us relax for a couple of hours before our own lights out.

This is a four-step process, and times indicated are approximate:

Step 1: Wind Down (6pm) -- Daddy takes Junior to his room, where there's no bustle (e.g. cleaning up dinner dishes). Junior quietly plays with his toys while Daddy catches up on the news. Then Daddy changes Junior into pajamas.

Step 2: Nursing (6:30pm) -- Junior's pediatrician sternly reminds us that breastfeeding is now very, very supplementary to his diet, so nowadays, this is his second and final session for the day (the first being in the AM).

Step 3: Toothbrushing (6:35pm) -- I brush Junior's teeth with just a dab of toothpaste, and afterwards allow him to suck on the toothbrush for that minty fresh flavor!

Step 4: Story Time (6:40pm) -- Junior's favorite part. He clambers into bed beside Daddy, who has selected a book from our spawn's vast library, which contains no less than three copies of Brown Bear, Brown Bear.

And then he gets put in the crib for lights out:

In the dark times before the Empire, Junior would only sleep in three-hour intervals, which required logistical planning on our part. Who would take first watch? How would we soothe him? Daddy usually got up first, and I would be called in if the crying escalated. It was awful and we were both grumpy in the morning, while Junior played merrily.

But then one day, a bit after Junior turned one, Daddy put his foot down and said, "It's time to let him cry it out." In other words, the little one had to learn to soothe himself back to sleep, without one of us there patting his back or shoving boobs at his face. The ultimate goal was to get everyone a solid night's sleep.

And y'know what? ...It worked! Eventually, anyway. There was a lot of backsliding (by me, admittedly, I can't sleep when he's crying) in the first few weeks, but by 14-15 months of age, Junior was sleeping through the night, mostly. He would wake up, utter a wail, and then settle back down. We learned to distinguish between "I am disoriented but will be back asleep soon!" and "I am upset and will get louder and louder!!!"

Don't get me wrong -- I'm still a zombie because my sleep ledger remains in the red. I'm the grumpiest I've been since my teenage angst years (so long ago...). Hubby seems to be faring better, probably due to sheer grit, and also headphones at night.

We suspect that Junior's teething right now (molars!!!) so he's periodically been waking up fussy. Argh. They do say that sleep routines get messed up every now and then. 

But at least we have our nightly ritual that has him in bed, asleep, at 7 us a few hours of breathing room in the evenings.

TL;DR: A bedtime routine for toddler helps with family sleep!

This post brought to you by one of those oddly warm winter days!