Soundtrack Saturdays: Kingdom Hearts – Simple And Clean

I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned Kingdom Hearts before. It’s one of the most popular video game franchises of all time, and for good reason; it’s a huge, sprawling crossover that spans not only the Final Fantasy series, but also almost every major Disney movie. Yeah, it’s as epic as it sounds. The first game alone featured places from Alice In Wonderland, Hercules, Tarzan, Winnie the Pooh, Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Peter Pan, and references to many others.

Shown above is the HD version of the original game’s intro, complete with its catchy trance remix of Hikari (Simple and Clean) by Utada Hikaru. The slower instrumental version is also an excellent, chill tune. With Kingdom Hearts III currently in development, who knows what the next soundtrack will be like. I’m betting on awesome.

In the meantime, you can find the full OST for the first Kingdom Hearts here.

Good gaming, good music.

The Martian (Book) Review

Mark Watney has a problem. Due to a dust storm during his NASA mission, he’s been stranded on Mars. His teammates – and the rest of mankind – thought he died. He has no way to communicate with Earth. He’s trapped in a small habitat designed to last a month. There’s no breathable atmosphere outside. He has enough food for six people which, even if rationed, will last him less than one year. Since a rescue mission will take at least four years to arrive, he has to figure out a way to grow more food…on a planet devoid of water. But if no one knows he’s still alive, he’s going to starve anyway.

Okay, make that several problems.

SPOILERS

Needless to say, The Martian isn’t your typical survival story. A deserted island is one thing, but Mars is a completely different beast. How do you live on a planet that’s essentially uninhabitable? The answer is an awesome blend of the sheer isolation and desperation of Castaway and the determination and scientific improvising of Apollo 13. Watney was part of the NASA mission for a reason; as the team’s botanist and engineer, he’s got the right skills and knowledge to keep himself alive. Not enough food? Okay, cover the floor of the Hab with dirt, plant potatoes, and use your own waste as fertilizer. Keep track of your daily calories and ration accordingly. No water? Fine, burn some hydrazine, store the results, and be careful not to blow yourself up. Need to go on long excursions outside? Outfit your rover with solar panels, create a breathable atmosphere inside, and find a heat source to keep yourself from freezing. Communications array busted? Scrounge for leftover technology, fix what you can, and send information via telemetry, handwritten signs, or Morse code. Your spacesuit helmet cracked? Duct tape.

Seriously.

While some of these MacGuyver-esque techniques might seem daunting for the non-scientifically inclined, The Martian is quite to easy to read and understand. Andy Weir’s extensive research in potential and existing spaceflight technology shows through in both the details and the way they’re presented. While most sci-fi narratives are bogged down by their technical aspects, this novel benefits from having a narrator with a sense of humor. For all his expertise, Watney is a huge geek with a penchant for sarcasm. His first journal entry is laden with profanity, which is exactly how any normal person would react. His ability to describe realistic science in layman’s terms is impressive and often funny; he can say things like, “Problem is (follow me closely here, the science is pretty complicated), if I cut a hole in the Hab, the air won’t stay inside anymore” or “Something very hot and very explodey had happened” without coming off as condescending. His journal entries give a sense of confidence and self-awareness; he confronts the dire situation with straightforwardness and honesty, but relies on knowledge and humor to keep himself sane. When he’s not explaining how stuff works, his idle musings over Aquaman, Three’s Company, disco, other pop culture tidbits are more than enough to keep readers hooked.

Whenever we need a reminder that Watney’s situation isn’t all laughs, however, the perspective switches over to the rescue operation. NASA discovering he’s still alive is a foregone conclusion; they still have active satellites observing the planet’s surface. Communicating with and getting him back to Earth requires extensive logistics and engineering marvels. The novel examines what would actually happen in this kind of situation; the media frenzy, JPL redesigning rockets with limited time and budget, spaceflight physics, and frantic improvising when things go wrong. There are no villains; everyone wants Watney to make it back alive. How that’s achieved is up for debate, and coming up with a decisive plan is what forms the conflict. While the explanations are in-depth, the characters describing them are not. Most of NASA’s higher-ups (aside from the wonderfully brash Mitch Henderson and supremely competent Mindy Park) are sadly forgettable. Watney’s crew fare little better; their personalities are developed just enough to keep things interesting. There’s potential, like Commander Lewis dealing with the guilt of leaving one of her men behind, or Johanssen’s adorkable interactions with Beck. Aside from those, the astronauts are utterly one-note. Martinez is an ace pilot, constant joker, and nothing else. Then there’s Vogel, the German orbital mechanics and chemistry expert. That’s all. They all provide a little witty banter and technical expertise to get them – and the reader – through the mission, but nothing else. While the story is supposed to be focused on Watney’s survival, a little more time with the rest of the crew would’ve been appreciated.

That doesn’t make The Martian a bad novel. Far from it. It’s got just the right combination of humor and technical know-how to keep readers hooked. Mark Watney is a wonderful protagonist; his snarky attitude and determination turn what should’ve been a tragedy into an epic survival adventure. While the other characters don’t get nearly enough time, they serve their purposes in portraying a nearly impossible rescue mission. The story is well-paced and incredibly difficult not to finish in one sitting. Not due to brevity – the paperback release clocks in at just under 400 pages – but because it’s entertaining. I’m not going to spoil if or how Watney survives, but let’s just say that you’ll be rooting for him every complicated step of the way. This is one of those rare science fiction novels that strives for realism, but absolutely refuses to be weighed down by technical jargon. It can inspire people to study sciences, space flight and exploration, and anything else associated with astronomy. That, above all else, makes The Martian worth reading.

Go Set A Watchman Review

Like countless other children, I read and watched To Kill A Mockingbird in a grade school classroom. I could spend hours writing about how it introduced me to the concept of racism, illustrated the importance of compassion, the complexities of its theming, and Gregory Peck’s phenomenal performance as Atticus Finch. You probably know all of that already, though; Go Set A Watchman has been a bestseller since its release, and for good reason. Be it for Harper Lee’s legacy in the literary world, talk of the scandalous publishing circumstances, or the morbid curiosity in regards to a fallen hero, readers are interested in going back to Maycomb. The reunion is bitter, but worth the trip.

SPOILERS

Before getting into this, one thing above all else needs to be understood: Contrary to what might’ve been marketed to you, Go Set A Watchman is not a sequel. It started as an early draft that eventually led to a famous novel. It featured a 26 year-old Jean Louise Finch coming home to visit, finding out how messed up everything is, and dealing with it while accompanied by flashbacks to her supposedly idyllic childhood. Those flashbacks – and advice from Lee’s editor – are the foundations of To Kill A Mockingbird. Any transition from first draft to book is fraught with changes, and Harper Lee’s work is no exception; the continuity errors and lack of editing are obvious. Tom Robinson was acquitted (the iconic trial is only mentioned in passing) in this version, which makes one wonder if this story can even be considered canon. Jem is dead and Dill is likely traveling through post-World War II Europe, thus depriving her of  some much-needed friends/confidants. The cast is limited to only a handful, and even fewer get any kind of development. Rather than a fully fleshed-out novel, it comes off as a character study strung together with a series of anecdotes.

It seems fine at first. Scout has grown into a confident, successful young woman. Not only can she afford to live in New York and visit Atticus annually, but approaches her hometown’s seemingly old-fashioned traditions with open contempt. She has a passive-aggressive war with her Aunt Alexandra (who serves as the embodiment of Maycomb’s values as opposed to a fully-realized character), and considers her Uncle Jack as eccentric bookworm. With her peers gone, the narrative focuses on Scout’s relationship with Henry Clinton, her not-quite fiance and Atticus’s protege. It’s a charming story until Scout finds out about their participation in the local Citizens’ Council. Rather than taking a step back and trying to figure out what’s going on, she immediately assumes the worst and spends the latter half of the book having a meltdown.

This is nothing new for her. We get to see Scout’s childhood and coming of age via flashbacks, and they all foreshadow her problem. She tends to believe whatever she sees or is told without question, makes assumptions, lets her issues build up, and either gets caught or has to be bailed out of trouble by her companions. These passages blend often comedy and tragedy; we get a glimpse of a clueless Atticus turning to Calpurnia for help with Scout’s first period, which is a reminder of how Mrs. Finch is long dead. Scout also gets French kissed on the playground, thinks she’s gotten pregnant, secretly harbors the guilt for months, culminating in a half-baked suicide attempt. Not to mention insecurities with her appearance,  which nearly ruin her experience at school dance, and how it leads to her near-expulsion. With stories like these, it’s not surprising why To Kill A Mockingbird became its own thing.

Scout’s misunderstandings and awkward stubbornness are endearing when she’s a kid, but not so much when she’s 26. When attending a coffee luncheon with her former classmates, she spends the entire time musing how they have nothing in common and how she despises Maycomb’s expectations of women. She never makes an attempt to see them as actual people instead of walking cliches.There are over 100 pages between her finding about Atticus and confronting him about it, and she spends them either reminiscing about her childhood, dismissing other people, or inwardly fuming. The narration explains it immediately: Scout worshiped her father, but never realized it. It’s one thing to respect your parent, but holding him up as an idealized bastion of moral perfection is not good for you. Parents are flawed just like you, and you won’t always agree with them. Scout’s near mental breakdown and falling out with her family shows how bad such a character flaw can get.

“She was extravagant with her pity, and complacent in her snug world.”

Surprisingly, Atticus is written more sympathetically. Make no mistake: His view of African Americans is offensively patronizing at the very least. To modern audiences, his anti-integration stance is disgusting. By no means is he the frothing, manic, lynch-happy racist Scout thinks he’s become (she compares him to Hitler in one eye roll-inducing moment during her lengthy, bitter speech), but his brand of bigotry is more subtle. Unlike his daughter, he argues his side calmly; he hates what happened with Brown v. Board of Education and its relation to the 10th Amendment, and loathes the idea of NAACP affecting Maycomb. His heritage is deeply intertwined with the town; of course he’d want to protect its values and keep things unchanged for as long as possible, even if (to us, anyway)  they are horrifying. It’s no coincidence that Atticus is 72 and crippled with arthritis; he, like the town, embodies beliefs that are on the verge of death. He’s not necessarily evil, but merely a product of his time.

Unfortunately, the rest of the cast didn’t get the same attention. Calpurnia, now withered and confined to a rocking chair, shows up for one incredibly sad and guilt-ridden scene. Aunt Alexandra only shows a hint of depth when Scout makes her cry during their final argument, which makes their interpersonal spats look juvenile in retrospect. Henry seems primed for character growth; he’s the scion of one of Maycomb’s “trash” families, worked his way out of poverty, and done well under Atticus’s wing. He admits that he’s just going along with the Citizens’ Council because he’s trying to live according to others’ expectations, and is desperately afraid of being shamed by the community and losing everything he’s worked for. It would’ve made for an interesting arc, but Henry slips into irrelevance soon after the reveal.

Uncle Jack, however, steals every scene he’s in; he’s savvy enough to understand that a confrontation is inevitable and tries to stealth-mentor Scout via exposition and literary quotations. She ends up so angry and confused that he has to physically intervene and slap her just to keep her from walking out on them forever. He then has to spell out Scout’s personal failings – and a major theme of the novel – because she’s too dense to understand them. The fact that he considered Scout and Jem to be the children he never had – and the revelation that he was in love with their mother – is practically tacked on as an afterthought. Uncle Jack’s lack of character development is unfortunate, because his sarcasm and eccentric personality makes him such a great contrast to the straitlaced Atticus:

“”Listen, girl. You’ve got to shake off a twenty-year-old habit and shake it off fast. You will begin now. Do you think Atticus is going to hurl a thunderbolt at you?”

“After what I said to him? After the-”

Dr. Finch jabbed the floor with his his walking stick. “Jean Louise, have you ever met your father?”

No. She had not. She was terrified.

“I think you’ll have a surprise coming,” said her uncle.”

There’s a scene in which Scout, desperate for something welcoming and familiar, returns to her childhood home. It’s been replaced with an ice cream shop, and it takes only a few pages before she vomits up her vanilla and realizes that everything has irrecoverably changed. While I doubt Go Set A Watchman will provoke such an extreme reaction from its readers, there’s no denying what it means for To Kill A Mockingbird. It’s easy to dismiss this novel for its lack of proper editing, continuity errors, and questionable background, but its messages are worth considering. Just like Scout, we’ve spent decades worshiping Atticus Finch as a figure of ultimate moral integrity. It’s so easy to forget that perspectives and values change over time, and not everyone will be on the right side of history. Our heroes aren’t as great as we thought…and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. They are not perfect, but they are human. Maybe it’s more interesting that way.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Ghirardelli Cable Cars

Ghirardelli Cable Cars

This week’s challenge calls for symbols, and here are two of the most prominent ones in San Francisco: Ghirardelli Chocolate and cable cars. Both have a rich and storied history in the city, and are two of the many things people associate with it. I’ll admit that the desserts are delicious, if overpriced due to brand recognition. As for cable cars, well…they’re over-hyped. They’re limited to very specific areas of the city, the tickets are expensive, and the lines are ridiculous. I’ve rode one only once from Aquatic Park to Powell Street, after which I realized it’d be faster for me to walk/hike the route instead of waiting. Once of my great uncles was an architect for Ghirardelli Square, so I find it somewhat interesting. This photo, however, was taken at the mini-store within the depths of the Westfield downtown. Large versions also available here and here.

Well, It’s About Time.

So, the United States Supreme Court finally decided in favor of same-sex marriage. It’s not surprising, really; it’s been a foregone conclusion for a couple of years now. It was like a poorly-paced novel or show; the outcome is inevitable, but it drags on for so long that you almost don’t expect it to happen. But when it finally does, it feels like the most satisfying thing ever. That kind of statement probably warrants the assumption that I’m neck-deep in the politics at hand, but I’m utterly apolitical; if you’re looking for a debate, don’t bother posting. I lack the time, patience, and energy for that kind of thing. I doubt I’d change your mind regardless.

For me, it’s not a question of parties or other inherently limiting affiliations. Anyone can make promises and tell you what you want to hear. People can change sides and make concessions whenever it’s convenient. All that matters to me is if it works. I consider myself a student of all subjects, though history is among my favorites. I find traditions fascinating, but I’d be foolish to ignore how society changes with times. Knowledge, technology, expectations, roles, beliefs, goals, prejudices, businesses, friends, enemies…It’s all connected in one huge, ever-shifting reality. All we have are the memories from which we can hopefully learn.

If I traveled back in time 20 years and told 1995-Me that same-sex marriage would be made legal, he’d…Well, he’d probably grab a kitchen knife and chase me – the 30-year-old stranger that suddenly appeared – out of the house. That aside, he’d likely be confused and uncomfortable. At that point, my only exposure to anything remotely homosexual were Uranus and Neptune, the lesbian couple from the Sailor Moon anime who were infamously dubbed as “cousins” in the American broadcast. I’ve always been amused by younger viewers saying how “groundbreaking” recent shows like Adventure Time, MLP: FIM, and The Legend of Korra have been with regards to their implied same-sex romances. Japan has had that market cornered for decades; there are whole genres devoted to them! It’s just that mainstream American media – until quite recently – has had a huge, often hypocritical hang-up when it comes to portraying sexuality. What we have now is not so much a leap forward as it is slowly playing catch-up.

Sorry, went on a tangent. Point is, back in 1995 I was just a child a San Francisco Bay Area suburb. I was a classic latchkey kid, the kind who’d spend afternoons watching TV, finishing homework, reading, and doing chores before (hopefully) seeing a parent at dinnertime. I still get surprised reactions when people – mostly women – find out I know how to run a household. Not exactly quantum mechanics, folks. Being isolated so much never struck me as odd. What did, however, was how the other kids were treating me. I’ve mentioned how much of a bookworm I am; even as a child, I was intelligent, short, effeminate, shy, awkward, lacked confidence, skipped a grade, wore glasses, and was a late bloomer. That’s some prime bullying material, and everyone seemed to know it. But it went beyond that, and I didn’t understand what it was until much later:

I was different.

It wasn’t something that could be pinned down to just intelligence and whatnot; the others could sense that something was “off” – and therefore wrong – about me. I think it had mostly to do with my appearance; I still get mistaken for a woman sometimes. I’m now awesome and confident enough to roll with it. But in 1995, I was a nervous, quivering, prone-to-crying wreck who was bullied all the way through freshman year of high school. California might have a reputation for being progressive, but that doesn’t work so well in real life. I got crude jibes about shaving my legs, putting on makeup, my time of the month, you name it, they said it. I’ve been called every homophobic epithet you can possibly think of, usually from kids on bikes or passing cars as I walked home every day. I’ve had stuff thrown at me, been beaten up, all of it. Unlike the supposed politically-correct era we live in today, nobody – adult, kid, or otherwise – stepped in to help me. There was no “It Gets Better” for me. People only cared when I started fighting back; a ruthless temper can end a fight very quickly. It can also isolate you, and not in a good way. I was respected as a potential valedictorian for the rest my high school days – I was even nominated for the Every 15 Minutes Program and to give a speech at graduation – but I didn’t make any friends.

The problem wasn’t limited to school, though. Much of my family are devoutly religious; my grandfather was a minister, and his emigration here to preach was the reason I was born in America. I went to Sunday school, attended church twice a week, the whole bit. I’m still pretty good when it comes to Biblical topics on Jeopardy.  Growing up like that isn’t too bad; there’s a sense of family, community, and purpose. It’s all fine…as long as you follow whatever you’re told. That’s a real problem when it comes to someone like me, who constantly searches for answers, questions explanations, and strives to see the bigger picture. Or someone who so blatantly doesn’t conform to gender roles and sexuality, for that matter. There’s a lot of guilt involved with that kind of upbringing: the constant fear of disappointing your elders, the paranoia of being caught and judged, the logic that God doesn’t answer your prayers to stop the bullying because you’re a sinner, hating yourself for not wanting to be masculine etc. Never mind being smart, responsible, and having perfect grades; if you don’t conform, you’re a rebellious outcast. Needless to say, I wasn’t popular with the kids my age, either.

I’m not going to deny the importance of religion – people need to believe in something to survive, be it spiritual, philosophical, technological, whatever – but I can’t abide by it. The human mind is far more stubborn and creative than any religion can fully encompass, and we’re just starting to understand how it works on a psychological level. The centuries of violence, bloodshed, and oppression, all for what? They’re all the same stories, told in different ways. It’s like the human race; many branches, one tree. We should be learning from and helping each other survive. Yeah, I know it’s naive and it’ll probably never work; we as a society are still too foolish to make it happen. We’ll probably never find whichever beliefs – if any – are accurate. That’s a two-way street, by the way. Extremism is bad regardless of what side it’s on, and the messages from some well-meaning social media groups outright terrify me. I’m celebrating the same-sex marriage victory with the rest of you, but remember, popular beliefs and morals change over time. In another 40 years, we’ll be the ones considered old-fashioned and mocked accordingly.

Think about it.

So, where does the legalization of same-sex marriage leave me? Pretty much where I was yesterday, honestly. Despite numerous assumptions to the contrary over the years, I’m not gay. I’m 1.5 at most on the Kinsey Scale. I’m not too keen on the whole categorizing thing, though. I’m far more interested in gender fluidity; biological sex and gender are now considered separate, and the latter has its own spectrum. That explains a lot for me, even if the concept is still being developed. 1995-Me could’ve really used that term and had a better childhood. The human mind is too complex to be limited to society’s expected gender roles, which is something that our culture is only beginning to understand. As for all those lost, bitter years? I’ll never get them back. But I can take solace in the fact that while I may be different, the times have (temporarily, at least) shifted in my favor.

As for the rest of you, congratulations. You’ve earned this victory.

Happy Free Comic Book Day 2015!

Hey, folks. May 2nd was the annual Free Comic Book Day. Basically, you go to a participating shop and get a bag of free samplers (and buy anything else that looks interesting), all while enjoying whatever other promotions are going on. Fantastic Comics is only a short BART ride away, but I was kind of on the fence about attending. Then I found out Gail Simone was going to be there, which was an insta-YES condition. I I left early, assuming I’d be able to beat the line. Turns out everyone else had the same idea.

Yeah, I should’ve left earlier. It took an hour and fifteen minutes to get inside, but it went by fast. Everyone was in high spirits, particularly those who’d just seen Avengers: Age of Ultron. The kids ahead of me were debating who’d win in a fight between Goku and Superman (Seriously?! I remember high school lunch hours focused about that exact topic over a decade ago.), while some guys nearby were getting their Xenoblade Chronicles 3D on. The couple standing behind me even offered to share some pizza, but I declined. Between my DSLR, backpack, and Italian phrasebook (yes, I’m still working on that), I don’t think I could’ve juggled a freshly-baked slice.

I took the opportunity to take photos of the few – but quite awesome – cosplayers in attendance. I feel uncomfortable taking photos of people, though. I’m awkward enough around others as it is; How do you just walk up to someone as say, “Hey, you look awesome, may I take your picture?” without sounding like some kind of creepy stalker? Seriously, that’s the last thing I want; even when I’m doing beach photography, I wait until everyone is out of the frame. After taking these photos, I made sure to promise that I’d send copies to them just as a record of the event. Not sure if they believed me, but they were good sports. Check these out:

Things stayed upbeat and organized inside the store as well. The flow and layout was simple: the line was kept off to the side as much as possible, then directed to the shelves of comics towards the back. That way, customers could look at/consider purchasing interesting comics while waiting to reach the free stuff at the table in the corner. I was pleasantly surprised by the variety; I’m not a hardcore comic book fan by any means – I’m far more into literature and games – but the selection was impressive. I ended up buying a copy of Secret Six #1 and an exclusive Swords of Sorrow print by Kate Leth, then getting into another line that was reserved for meeting Gail Simone.

It was totally worth the wait. She – and her husband – were incredibly nice and gracious. A lot of folks could’ve just autographed stuff and called it a day, but they actually spoke with fans  – someone in front of me took the time to show off all of his superhero-related tattoos – the entire time. I wonder how many of these signings/conventions/etc. they attend every year. I promised myself that I wouldn’t geek out too much, but I ended up babbling a little bit anyway. I’m awkward enough when it comes to regular conversation; what was I going to one of the most famous comic book writers in existence? I settled on a handshake, and thanking her for awesome writing, and how inspirational she is. I even managed to get a photo:

After that, I’m pretty sure I’d been standing there too long. I’m just one random guy, after all. There were plenty of other fans waiting. I collected everything she autographed, gave both Gail and her husband a final thank you, and left. I felt relieved to be out of there – crowded places are not my thing – but sad that I couldn’t stay longer. I nursed my regrets by going next door to Half Price Books and stocking up on a few things. I also walked to University Press Books by the campus (yesterday was also Independent Bookstore Day) and spent an hour looking over old texts. By the time I got home, my Free Comic Book Day haul included:

Autographed by Gail Simone:

Comic Book Samplers:

  • Attack On Titan by Kodansha Comics
  • Street Fighter: Super Combo Special by UDON
  • Mega Man & Sonic the Hedgehog: Worlds Unite Prelude by Archie Action
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender/Plants vs Zombies/Bandette by Dark Horse Comics
  • Secret Wars #0 by Marvel
  • Pokemon X/Y by Perfect Square
  • Teen Titans Go/Scooby Doo & Super Friends Team-Up by DC
  • Cleopatra In Space by Scholastic
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles by IDW
  • Ten Year Celebration by Boom Studios
  • Simpsons Free-For-All by Bongo Comics.

Note: Photos of the above can be seen here.

Books:

Man, I’ve got a lot to read…

 

Hello Kitty Macarons

Hello Kitty Macarons

I got these from the Hello Kitty Cafe Truck during the 2015 San Francisco Cherry Blossom Festival. They were in such high demand, there were at least 300 people in line! I definitely earned my swagging rights on this one.