Archive for August, 2008

New Technology Blog

Tuesday, August 26th, 2008

Technology (particularly computers) have been a big part of my life for many years.  I first became interested in computers at age 10 when my father purchased a Radio Shack TRS-80.  I eventually went into Computer Engineering as my career and have been something of a gadget collector all of my adult life.

For the most part, I have generally avoided writing posts that were too focused on technology for this blog.  I have a pretty good idea who my main readers are (most are friends or family) and I have a hunch that the interest level wouldn’t be overly high on most technology-related topics.  At the same time, it certainly is an interest and I often come across bits of technology news or various tech-related tips or experiences that I’d like to relate.  For this reason, I have maintained a second blog for quite a while for more technical posts.

When I first started that blog, it was very narrowly focused on Ultra-Mobile PCs (UMPCs).  I bought one of the earliest models released in that category and thought I’d have a lot to say as a bit of a pioneer in that area.  Eventually, I kind of started to run dry on things to post on that topic and expanded the subject to include all kinds of mobile technology.  Even that was a pretty limiting topic, though, and I eventually kind of abandoned that site as well.

I have now converted the blog into the generalized Bigbeaks Technology Blog.  My plan is to make it more of a traditional weblog with shorter, more frequent posts, frequently highlighting interesting news items or articles that I encounter.  I will also periodically post my personal discoveries or tips regarding technology and I’m sure I will also sometimes write reviews or longer essays as subjects come along that strike my interest.

Occasionally, I’m sure that there will be topics that are technology related (or at least tangentially so), but which still seem to be general interest enough for this blog as well.  In those cases, I probably will post on whichever blog seems to be the best fit and then put up a post on the other one linking back.  I suppose there may be rare occasions where I could choose to just cross-post to both as well.

Star Wars: My Declining Interest

Sunday, August 24th, 2008

Last weekend, a new Star Wars movie opened in theaters and I honestly was rather startled when I realized that I don’t particularly want to see it.  Right now, my thought is that I might get around to watching it once it comes out on DVD, although even then I’m not entirely sure.

The new movie, Star Wars: The Clone Wars is an animated feature that serves as essentially the premiere episode of an upcoming series of the same name that will be airing starting this fall on Cartoon Network.  The idea behind the series is to fill in the details of the titular war, which was initially referenced in passing during the original Star Wars way back in 1977.  The war became a key story element in the much more recent prequel movies, but most of the actual war mainly took place off-screen between the events of Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.

Like a large portion of my generation, I basically grew up with Star Wars, seeing the original film during its first run (although I didn’t really take to it until a second viewing during the reissue 2 years later).  The release of The Empire Strikes Back and especially Return of the Jedi were then huge events during my childhood.  Collecting toys and other memorabilia related to the series was a big thing, with my sister and I even maintaining our "Star Wars wall" in the basement, which was covered in news clippings and other paper goods related to the movies.  Growing up, I suspect I would have found it impossible to imagine not going to see a new Star Wars film opening weekend, much less deciding to forgo seeing it at all in the theater.

When I first heard that George Lucas was planning on returning to the Star Wars universe via television projects (both this upcoming animated series as well as a planned live action series that would bridge the gap between the two trilogies), my reaction was cautious interest and an expectation that I would probably at least check them out.  The news earlier this year that the animated series would be kicked off with a feature film also left me with the impression that I would probably end up going to see it, even despite the fact that my movie-going has been curtailed quite a bit since the birth of my son.

My enthusiasm quickly started to wane once the first visuals from the movie and series started to come out and then pretty much dropped like a stone once I saw the trailers.  Quite simply, I immensely dislike the visual style that is used for the animation.  For some reason, they seem to have gone for something vaguely resembling the Japanese-style of animation, which I’ve never really cared for all that much and which seems hugely wrong for Star Wars.  I think one of the things that has always been appealing about the movies was that, despite the otherworldly setting, the whole Star Wars universe had a basically realistic look to it.  Even at its most alien, the setting always seemed like it was in places that could really exist.  I didn’t get that feeling at all from the look of this animation, though, which instead seems exotic and excessively stylized.

Of course, I admit that this is kind of judging the book by its cover and that it is completely possible that the visual style is something that I could adjust to.  That brings me to the second problem, which is that I generally have a hard time mustering much enthusiasm for this particular aspect of the Star Wars extended storyline.  I’m not one of those that especially disliked the prequel trilogy, but I also wasn’t particularly excited by them either.  I enjoyed all three films (especially Revenge of the Sith), but have not had much interest in revisiting them.  I have seen each of the films of the original trilogy more times than all of my viewing of the prequel films combined.  I haven’t really taken any interest at all in the related merchandise (other than the soundtrack CDs) or the various novels set during that part of the story.  While the films were fun, I just don’t find the characterizations or situations all that compelling.

Related to my preference for the parts of the story surrounding the original trilogy, I will say that I haven’t completely lost interest in all things Star Wars.  While I have little interest in Star Wars: The Clone Wars, I am somewhat interested in the upcoming Star Wars: The Force Unleashed video game, which is set during the time between the two trilogies.  Similarly, I am at least somewhat interested in the announced live-action TV series that will also take place during that same time period.  On a somewhat broader subject, I do look forward to the time in the next couple years when my son will be old enough to introduce him to the films, although I’m definitely more excited to share the original trilogy with him than the prequels.  I do know with some certainty that I’m going to encourage him strongly to watch the movies in the order they were released.

I’m really pretty torn when it comes to my overall feelings about Star Wars at this time.  While I still have a definite affection for it and certainly still admire the creativity and overall breadth of George Lucas’ creation, I also can’t help but feel like something that I once found extremely special has been diluted by an excess of mediocre product.  On the other hand, I also can’t help but recognize that it might be just as much a reflection of my own aging and changing tastes and priorities too.  I was 13-years-old when Return of the Jedi was released and I’m sure my impressions of all the films are inevitably colored by my stage in life when I saw them.  Had I been an adult when the original trilogy came out, I’m sure my views on those films would have been somewhat different as well.

Even taking into consideration that my views on the films are filtered through childhood nostalgia, I do still think the films of the original trilogy were simply better movies.  The original Star Wars (I’ve never been able to bring myself to call it A New Hope…) had some pretty bad acting and goofy dialog, but it also had a very tight, self-contained story and the big advantage of being an introduction to something truly new and exciting.  With The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, George Lucas wisely brought in much more skilled screenwriters (Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan) to flesh out his stories and also handed the projects off to more technically-skilled directors.  I really think Lucas is much more effective when he takes a role of creative oversight while letting others handle the details.

Critics of the recent Star Wars projects often bring up the idea that George Lucas should be working on telling other stories, including possibly the "small films" that he has sometimes talked about wanting to do.  I admit that I’m now finding that I am wondering if Star Wars might be the one and only great creative concept that Lucas really has.  Sure, he has done a few other projects that have had some success.  The Indiana Jones films are the most obvious, although I do tend to think that a lot more of the credit for the success of that series really should likely go to Steven Spielberg than to Lucas.  American Graffiti, which was Lucas’ one big hit prior to Star Wars is his one other pretty much unquestionable personal success, but it was a very early work that is also pretty clearly autobiographical in nature.  I’m not really sure how likely he is to have another story of that kind in him, particularly at this late stage of his career.

Regardless of what Lucas does going forward, I do think his place in film history is pretty secure.  Weaknesses aside, the Star Wars saga is a pretty remarkable accomplishment that really has been tremendously influential and is also likely to ultimately survive the test of time, at least to some extent.  His companies have also been responsible for a great deal of innovation in film, including significant advances in special effects, sound, digital editing, computer graphics (a lot of people don’t realize that Pixar was originally a division of Lucasfilm), and digital photography.  Even as I think he may be overextending Star Wars itself, I can’t see anything he does ever erasing or even substantially diminishing those accomplishments.

As a concluding note, I suppose my commentary in this post has been kind of all over the place, but it really is a reflection of very conflicted feelings.  The original motivation to post this was really the fact that I wanted to want to see the new film, but I just don’t.  In many ways, Star Wars has been an important cultural component of a large portion of my life.  I can’t help looking at my fading interest with a bit of wistful sadness.

Our Hurricane Wilma Experience (October, 2005)

Sunday, August 17th, 2008

A post on The Disney Blog on Friday reported on the threat that Tropical Storm Fay poses to the Orlando area.  In October of 2005, we were on vacation at Walt Disney World when Hurricane Wilma came through Florida.  I wrote up a few paragraphs in that blog post’s “comments” section and it occurred to me that it might be worthwhile to expand those comments into a full report on that experience.  These are based on nearly 3 year old recollections, but hopefully it will still be reasonably accurate.

Most people will likely remember that an unusually large number of strong hurricanes hit the southwestern USA, including Florida, during the Summer and early Fall of 2005.  This, of course, included Hurricane Katrina, which so severely devastated New Orleans and other communities in that part of the country.  Orlando was in the direct path of a few of these hurricanes and at least suffered some severe weather from most of them.  Having family in the Orlando area, we had followed these events very closely, but we generally weren’t giving too much thought to any potential impact on our late-October vacation plans, since major hurricanes that late in the season were previously exceptionally unusual.

It did start to grow into a concern during the last week or so prior to our trip as Tropical Storm Wilma formed and eventually was upgraded into a very strong hurricane.  It pretty quickly became apparent that Florida was within its most likely path.  Out travel plans had us arriving in Orlando on the evening of Saturday, October 22. Initially, Wilma looked pretty likely to pass through before our trip, but the storm slowed down somewhat and it ended up making landfall on the southern part of Florida very early in the morning of Monday, October 24.

As the timing of the hurricane became more obvious, we did give some consideration about whether to change our travel plans. While we had heard that Disney and the airlines were generally being pretty generous about waving penalties for late changes to reservations due to the hurricanes, we had also heard numerous reports (including first-hand accounts from family) on how WDW had generally fared well during the previous storms of the season.  The combination of my work schedule and the typically long lead time needed for most WDW reservations led us to realize that our only likely alternatives to going as planned would be to either cut the trip short by a couple days or cancel it altogether.  We ended up deciding to take our chances.

I admit that we did come awfully close to canceling on Friday, though, as our son (just under 2-years-old at the time) woke up that morning with a bad case of pink eye.  We did get him in to see his doctor that day, who very helpfully prescribed a liquid antibiotic that required refrigeration, not exactly the best thing when we had a full day of air travel coming up the next day.  That problem was solved by a quick trip to the store to buy a soft-side cooler and some Blue Ice, but it still was yet another concern.  Late that afternoon when my wife started complaining of a sore throat (typically the first sign of a cold for her), I couldn’t help but wonder if we were seriously tempting fate by planning to continue the trip.  Fortunately, neither of their ailments actually turned out to be overly long-lasting or severe (they were both pretty much fine by Sunday), but we didn’t know that at the time and I admit to being something of a nervous wreck by Friday evening.

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Disneyland Resort Trips Report – June/July 2008 Part 2: Attractions and Shows

Sunday, August 3rd, 2008

In part 1 of this report, I mentioned that over multi-day visit to the Disneyland Resort was a replacement for an originally planned trip to Walt Disney World around the same time and that we decided to delay the trip because our son had become skittish about visiting theme park attractions. Since the Disneyland Resort is so much closer to home and we visit it much more frequently, we figured that our visit there would be a better opportunity to keep trying to re-build his courage while not really feeling like we are missing all that much if what we can do remains pretty limited.

During this visit, we let our son largely set the pace and do a lot of the choosing when it came to the rides and shows that we visited, but we also gave him a lot of encouragement to work some new experiences into the visit as well. He visited his favorite attractions (King Arthur’s and King Triton’s Carousels, Mad Tea Party, Tuck and Roll Drive ‘em Buggies, Goofy’s Playhouse, Playhouse Disney Live, Enchanted Tiki Room) while also talking him into visiting several that weren’t on his previous "approved" list (such as MuppetVision 3D, the Aladdin stage show, Toy Story Midway Mania, and the Mark Twain Riverboat). We still didn’t do any of the major thrill rides, even though he is now tall enough for many, but he definitely is making progress.

One thing to note is that we did almost entirely stick to visiting attractions that our whole family could do together. I really was the only one in our party that could have done most of the major thrill rides, since our son isn’t really up to them yet and everyone else in our group has restrictions due to medical conditions. I’m certain I could have gone off to do some of the coasters had I wanted to, but I really was far more interested in family time. I do look forward to the time when my son is ready to do some of those bigger rides with me, but I’m also in no rush about it. The experience of seeing the attractions with my child is so rewarding that I don’t miss the thrill rides.

In the rest of this post, I’m going to write up specific notes on a few key attractions. Our visits to the Disneyland Resort have become less frequent than they used to be and these trips ended up being the first opportunity to see a few new attractions and shows. I’ll also include a few notes about some of the other attractions and shows that included some memorable element.

Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage

The re-themed and re-opened version of Disneyland’s classic Submarine Voyage was the major new attraction for summer of 2007. Due to the extremely long lines (often over 2 hours or more) combined with our son’s skittishness, we hadn’t yet visited it before this trip. We were pretty determined to finally see the ride on this visit, with my father (who is a major Disney-enthusiast) being particularly excited to have the opportunity to ride the subs again.

Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage

During our first full day at the parks (Monday 6/23) the ride was having a lot of technical difficulties, resulting in it being closed for much of the day. I’m not really sure if it ever actually opened that day as it was listed as "temporarily closed’ every time we checked in. We did leave the resort for dinner at Knott’s that evening, though, so it may very well have opened later in the day. Seeing it closed so much on Monday did make us (my father in particular) pretty nervous about whether or not we would actually get an opportunity to ride it. On Tuesday, though, the ride was opened and we found that it had a posted wait time of around an hour shortly after we had finished our lunch at the Blue Bayou.

One really nice feature of the ride is that they offer a special, alternative experience for disabled guests who are unable to board the submarines. Off to the side of the dock where guests board the regular ride, there is a building containing a small theater (it seats about 30 guests) where they show a high-definition video presentation of the full ride experience. My mother suffers from severe arthritis in her legs (she has to use a motorized scooter much of the time) and couldn’t possibly have managed the narrow ladder to get onto the ride. My wife has a back condition and also had doubts about whether or not she could board, thus she decided to join my mother and attend the alternate version. They took our son along as well, since we were pretty doubtful that he would be willing to board the rather claustrophobic submarine.

Guests using the alternate experience enter through an entrance near the monorail entrance. With the fairly high-capacity and fairly low-demand for it, they found that they only had to wait for the next available showing. After helping them to get situated in the line for the alternate experience and arranging where to meet later, my father and I were prepared to head around to get into the hour-long queue for the regular ride. Much to our surprise, the ride attendants instead escorted us to a nearby waiting area and told us that we would be put onto the next submarine. That means that we boarded the regular ride about the same time that the others entered the theater, thus minimizing the amount of time our family was separated.

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