2014
10.28

On Saturday night, I was having dinner with my friend George, and he made an observation that I had developed a habit of “dogging” on the north side of town.

I have to admit that he’s kind of right. Since moving from Spring (in the far north side of the Houston area) to Pearland (located on the south side of the Houston area) four and a half years ago, I’ve been coming to Spring far less and been more critical of the area. However, it’s kind of justified.

Since I’ve left (and probably even before I moved), the area has gone seriously downhill. For example, I can remember seeing at least three news reports of serious crimes (including armed robberies) happening at the intersection by my parents’ house. There’s a Denny’s that we used to go to after late night World of Darkness sessions that has been robbed at least three times in the past year. There was a mass murder that made global headlines in a neighborhood near where I grew up, that I would pass through every so often to go to the movies. I’ve been hearing about security issues in my parents’ neighborhood, as well, including burglaries in broad daylight. It’s just not going so well.

The area has moved on, as well. The aforementioned intersection has turned into something of a ghost town, with two of the three strip centers having become more or less empty. Old familiar faces like Strack Farms have since gone out of business. It’s not the area I grew up with anymore.

However, the most telling (if a tad petty) sign for me is what I noticed Sunday morning. I was preparing to leave my parents’ house to make my way back to Pearland, when I noticed someone had stolen the two Doctor Who magnets from the back of my car. These magnets had stayed on the car when I’ve been all over Houston, yet it wasn’t until I spent the night in Spring that they disappeared off of my car.

So, yeah, I am critical of the Spring area of town now, especially after moving down to Pearland. Then again, it’s not the area I grew up in. It’s become much more urban than rural as the Houston area has expanded, and as a result the area has gone really downhill. I worry for my parents and friends that are still there, but aside from them… I don’t miss living there.

2014
10.05

Thankful for a new Italian restaurant…

For all of its expansion, Pearland leaves a few things to be desired. One of the big problems we have has to do with restaurants. While there are some VERY good local options like Center Court Pizza and Killen’s BBQ, most of the restaurants around here are chain restaurants. Chains have their place, but for the most part they tend to be disappointing compared to local places. In particular, the only Italian places around here used to be Olive Garden and Carino’s; Olive Garden tends to be disappointing pre-made microwaved Italian, and Carino’s quality and taste makes Olive Garden seem fresh and appealing.

Needless to say, we’ve been jonesing for a decent Italian place. Fortunately, a new place has opened to fill the void.

This new place is called Grazia Italian Kitchen, and it recently opened where Jake’s Grill used to sit. As Jake’s was a typical southern low-end grill with wood tables and benches, a walk-up counter to order, and TVs everywhere, we were surprised at how different it looked now, with a bar installed, a private room, the benches removed, decent tables and seats, and even a wood-fired pizza oven. The service was very good, with a friendly wait staff, and timely food delivery.

As for the food… yum. The bread was fresh and came with an herb-infused olive oil to dip it in that was excellent. We ordered calamari for an appetizer, and while calamari has a danger of coming out rubbery (especially in chain restaurants), this was extremely well done and had a flavorful breading. When it came to our entrees, Jennifer ordered the chicken marsala, and was marveling at how good the included fettucine alfredo was. The chicken itself was tender and the sauce tasty. I personally had the chicken parmigiana, and it also was very tender and full of flavor. In particular, it was obvious how they used fresh ingredients; the tomato sauces for the calamari and my chicken parm in particular were very obviously made in house and were delicious.

If anything, Jennifer and I compared it to Romano’s Macaroni Grill. This is a compliment, as it is by far our favorite of the chain Italian restaurants. It has the added advantage of being a local place, and we prefer to give our business to local places.

If I had any worry, it would be the location. While we liked Jake’s, it was always struggling for business, to the point where when it finally closed we were disappointed but not surprised. The restaurant, while at the end of the strip center, is tucked away in a corner and it can be difficult to see, especially with a stand-alone emergency room standing in front of it. On the other hand, Grazia doesn’t seem to be hurting for business; Jennifer has been there before me and said she had to wait a half-hour for a table. It also helps that while Jake’s was in a saturated market (burger/grill places are a dime a dozen), Grazia is the only locally-owned proper Italian place in our part of Pearland.

It’s nice to now have a decent Italian place to go to, where we don’t have to go into the city and either pay out the nose for an expensive Italian place or go to Romano’s. We’re hoping it sticks around for a while, so that when we have a taste for some Italian food, we can indulge it with quality food and not have to drive far for it.

2014
09.30

I don’t think anyone would be too terribly surprised that I like The Lord of the Rings.

I think what would actually surprise people is how relatively late I got into it. Despite my love for the fantasy genre, I didn’t actually read The Lord of the Rings until 2001, in preparation for watching The Fellowship of the Ring. I hadn’t even read The Hobbit until then, either; I read that first, and when I was done I read my mom’s copy of The Lord of the Rings (which was actually older than I was). Since then, I’ve picked up my own hardcover collectors’ editions of both books.

The movie trilogy is also one of my favorite movie series. Jennifer and I happen to watch it whenever it’s on TV, even if we happen to be flipping through channels and just happen upon it by random. Needless to say, we were both excited by the prospect of a movie series based on The Hobbit, and had originally been looking forward to it.

I know I’m a bit late to the game in saying this, but neither one of us particularly enjoyed the films as an adaptation of The Hobbit. The big problem, of course, is that the film trilogy is the same length as the Lord of the Rings film trilogy, while the source material is about half the length of The Fellowship of the Ring. The amount of padding needed for the film trilogy was best shown when I was re-reading The Hobbit; at one point early on, I turned to Jennifer and said, “Hey, honey? I’m on page 42 and am already an hour into the first film.”

The additional changes were also an annoyance. As much as I like Sylvester McCoy, Radagast did not need to be in the movie. Jennifer was also surprised when I pointed out that not only was Legolas not in the original book, Tauriel was a character invested solely for the movies. Once we finished watching the second movie and noticing all of the changes made, I decided to myself that it would be much better if I simply enjoyed the trilogy on its own merits. On its own merits, The Hobbit trilogy is a decent fantasy series. As an adaptation of the original novel, it leaves a LOT to be desired.

What might also be a surprise is that I don’t have any Lord of the Rings video games. The closest I’ve come to getting one was being tempted to get The Lord of the Rings Online, after seeing it demonstrated while at E3 in 2006. What stopped me was the simple fact that I had burned out on MMORPGs a few years before, and could not see myself getting back into them. I simply hadn’t had much interest in getting them, especially as the majority of them appeared to be real-time strategy games; I tend to be terrible at strategy games. :-)

Recently, however, WB Games announced a game that actually piqued my interest: Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. Instead of being a strategy game or a straight adaptation of one of the films, the game takes place between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and follows a ranger named Talion who, after being killed and brought back in a form of undeath, investigates the rise of Sauron in Mordor. The gameplay is described as a cross between Assassin’s Creed and Batman: Arkham; the latter drew my interest as it’s one of my current favorite game series.

While I’m interested in getting it, there is a slight problem. As I don’t have an Xbox One or a Playstation 4 (and have no plans to get either), I would need to get the game for either my Xbox 360 or my PC. Unfortunately, my PC doesn’t quite meet the minimum requirements; I would normally download a demo to see if it would work, but there is no demo available on Steam. As a result, that platform is off the table. However, the Xbox 360 version has its own issues. One of the game’s main features is referred to as the “Nemesis” system, where orcs you encounter and fight remember you and adjust their tactics and actions to take your own actions into account. However, word is that the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 versions had to have the Nemesis system scaled way back due to the difference in system capabilities.

The Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 versions aren’t due out for another couple of weeks. If the reviews are not promising, I may skip the game. Otherwise, I might just rent it from Redbox and see if it’s worth purchasing.

It’s a shame that the two biggest and most recent adaptations of Tolkien’s work are so hit and miss. Still, while I’m questioning whether to get Shadow of Mordor, I’ll definitely still see the third Hobbit film. While it’s terrible as an adaptation of the original novel, I can still enjoy it as a fantasy movie. I just hope it won’t be a disappointment. :-)

2014
09.28

An erratic concert…

My two favorite bands of all time are Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull. Earlier this year, Jennifer and I got the chance to see an excellent Pink Floyd cover band called Brit Floyd. To my surprise, Jennifer really liked the concert, and wanted to hear more of Pink Floyd. That only left introducing her to Jethro Tull.

Well, it turned out I would get my chance. Ian Anderson (the guy behind Jethro Tull) was doing a world tour promoting his new album, Homo Erraticus; the tour touted that not only would he perform material from his new album, he would perform the best of Jethro Tull. Needless to say, we got tickets as soon as I learned about it.

The concert was tonight. To be perfectly honest, it was something of a disappointment.

The first half of the concert, aside from the last two songs, were all songs from Homo Erraticus. The songs pretty much reminded me of one track from Jethro Tull’s last album, J-Tull Dot Com, called “Hot Mango Flush”. That track was kind of discordant, and had rather nonsensical lyrics. The music from the CD felt the same way; as “Hot Mango Flush” was easily my least liked Tull track, you can imagine I didn’t care for it.

Once they got to the actual Tull material, things improved a bit. I knew the songs, and the musicians were all good and played very well… with one notable exception.

Is it sad that the one whose name is on the group is the weakest of the group?

Anderson’s instrumentals on flute and mandolin were excellent as always. However, his singing was terrible. He was off-key, his intonation was off-sequence, and it sounded like he was straining badly. Personally, it reminded me of when I would sing karaoke and would sing a song that was out of my range; in those cases, my voice would break and end up rasping near the end. Anderson was no different.

The sad thing is that he had a backup singer that would sing alongside him, and he honestly sounded more like Anderson in his prime than Anderson himself did. The backup singer would alternate with Anderson on lyrics; Jennifer and I were both of the opinion that he should have stayed on vocals and Anderson should have stuck with instrumentals.

The real telling sign of how this concert reflected Jethro Tull was what happened afterwards. After the Brit Floyd concert, I played Jennifer some Pink Floyd because she wanted to hear more of it. After this concert, I played Jennifer some Jethro Tull to prove that Anderson wasn’t always that bad.

It’s a real shame, because with this concert I’ve decided never to go to any more Jethro Tull or Ian Anderson concerts. If this was any indication, Anderson’s singing career needs to end. He can stay with instrumentals when touring and have someone else sing, but he needs to give up the singing part himself.

2014
09.28

Preparing my Halloween entertainment…

It’s almost October, so you know what that means. Halloween is upon us! :-)

I try to make it a ritual to find a couple of different ways to entertain myself throughout October, whether it be going through a book, a video game, or some movies on the day itself. For example, a couple of years ago I played through the entirety of DOOM 3: BFG Edition. I’ve also watched movies on Halloween night such as John Carpenter’s Apocalypse trilogy (The Thing, Prince of Darkness, and In the Mouth of Madness), Psycho, and Bram’s Stoker’s Dracula. This year, I’m thinking of doing both, plus adding a book or two to the mix.

I’ve mentioned in an earlier post that I’ve picked up a new copy of the original Dracula novel. I may go ahead and do a re-read of it. In addition, I have a copy of Stephen King’s novel The Shining that I picked up while visiting the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado (the inspiration for the hotel in the novel). Admittedly, I never got around to reading it, so this month would be a good time to rectify that oversight. :-)

On the gaming front, there has been an indie horror game that I’ve tried that might be fun to try and beat: Five Night’s at Freddy’s. You play as a security guard in a Chuck E. Cheese pastiche called Freddy Fazbear’s, where you have to stay alive despite the animatronics coming to (accidentally?) kill you, and the limited power to operate the security cameras, lights, and doors. A typical game session provides plenty of paranoia and jump scares, as you frantically try to locate the animatronics in the restaurant and risk having them screeching at you unexpectedly. While I picked up the iOS version for my iPad, I’ve come to find I need to get the PC version. I’m not proud of this, but I was playing the game while in bed and tossed the tablet away when one of the animatronics caught me unexpectedly and screamed right in my face. With the iPad not in a protective case, I was lucky it landed on the mattress.

As for Halloween night itself, I’m thinking I’d like to do a relatively innocuous double feature. As I’ve decided not to go to the Alley Theatre production of Dracula, I figured I would watch the original Dracula film starring Bela Lugosi, as it was based on the same stage play. The second film would be The Crow; it’s not horror, but it does take place on Devil’s Night. It also helps that it’s one of my favorite comic book movies. :-)

All in all, I think I’m pretty much ready for this upcoming October. I’ve got good books, a good game, and good movies. I just hope I get to be able to get through them all. :-)

2014
09.19

Apparently today is National Talk Like a Pirate Day.

Honestly, the day never had any appeal to me. I’ve never been that interested in piracy as a concept or reality, and the closest I personally ever came to having the term applied to me in the real world had to do with software piracy. Even then, what little piracy I partook in ended something like fifteen years ago, for the most part. I essentially got over the fact that software cost money and realized that the developers needed/deserved to be paid for their efforts. If there was something I needed to do, software-wise, and I couldn’t afford to pay for it, I found and used a free and/or open-source equivalent.

The one difficulty might have been gaming, but the fact of the matter is that gaming is a want, not a need. Price isn’t even that much of an issue anymore, anyway; unless it’s something I want to play right away (in which case I’m willing to pay full price), I can always get it used or on sale via Steam. Even arcade games of old are now easily located in Apple’s app store, whether individually sold (Pac-Man, Space Invaders) or as part of compilations (Atari’s Greatest Hits, Midway Arcade).

Unfortunately, until recently, there was one exception to that rule: pinball games.

I really enjoy playing pinball games, and I tend to eschew the video game-based ones that don’t emulate other tables. Fortunately for me, a game called The Pinball Arcade came out a couple of years ago that exclusively emulated actual pinball machines. While I bought a couple of favorites like Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Monster Bash, I still kept Visual Pinball/VPinMAME installed on my desktop PC for my two all-time favorite pinball games: Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Doctor Who. I honestly didn’t see either one coming out for The Pinball Arcade anytime soon.

It turns out I was at least half wrong. Bram Stoker’s Dracula was released for The Pinball Arcade this past weekend.

The port itself is pretty good, and I’m finding it to be far closer to the actual table than the Visual Pinball version is. For example, the skill shot timing matches the actual table, and it doesn’t have the same problem with locating and maintaining the balls that the Visual Pinball version does. The only glitch I’ve noticed is that sometimes the ball will launch from the launcher automatically instead of waiting for you to press the “LAUNCH BALL” button; if you’re aiming for big points on the skill shot, then you’re down to luck whether you’ll hit at all when that happens.

The biggest advantage to this port, though, is the platform. Visual Pinball is only available for PC. While The Pinball Arcade is available for PC via Steam, I actually use the iOS version. That way, I can play via my iPad when at home, and via my iPhone when on the road.

Now that I’m down to one table on Visual Pinball, I may as well delete it from my PC. I’ll be going without the Doctor Who table, but to be honest, it’s rare that I play it anyway. (Playing pinball via iOS is far more convenient than booting up the PC.) I also have no expectation of Doctor Who coming to The Pinball Arcade, as the TV show is so popular now that the licensing fees will likely be exorbitant. For that table, I’ll settle for playing it whenever I go to a real arcade like the Game Preserve or Pinballz Arcade.

All in all, I’m a happy camper. One of my favorite tables is now available for me to play on my preferred platform, and in a port that’s closer to the original than I had been playing. Not only that, I’m doing it legitimately now. I may not get Doctor Who anytime soon (if at all), but being able to play Bram Stoker’s Dracula is more than enough for me. :-)

2014
09.07

Getting locked in to a new book…

So, Jennifer and I got to have an interesting night out a couple of weeks ago. :-)

One of our favorite authors is John Scalzi, who wrote the Old Man’s War series and the homage to Star Trek called Redshirts. His latest book, Lock In, was released a couple of weeks ago, and he kicked off his book signing tour here in Houston at Brazos Bookstore. We had gone to the book signing for Redshirts when it was released, and it was fun enough where we knew we had to go to this one. :-)

There was a pretty good crowd for a Tuesday night, and it ended up being a lot of fun. Scalzi read two sets of materials, then did a Q&A. Afterwards, he went ahead and began the signing. Jennifer and I both got our own copies; Jennifer went first, and told him how she earned her geek credentials by introducing me to his work. (This is true, as she introduced me to Old Man’s War a few months after we started dating.) He made sure to note that in his autograph. As for me, his first question to me was, “May I ask how you acquired that shirt?”

It was a fair question, as the t-shirt I was wearing had the logo for a game called Midnight Star, for which he had written the story. I replied that I had won it in a Twitter giveaway, and that I was looking forward to the game. His autograph reflected the shirt, and also made reference to Jennifer as well. ;-)

As for the book itself, it’s a really good read. The one thing I’ve always liked about Scalzi’s work is (as he pointed out himself during the reading) is that it’s very accessible and easy to read, yet it doesn’t dumb anything down for anyone. It’s not uncommon for me to start reading in the evening and power through to the end in one sitting; in this case, by the time I had finished it was 2 AM. :-)

The book is a sci-fi noir story, taking place in the near future. The background of the story is that a flu-like disease had ravaged the planet, and that a small percentage of survivors experienced a permanent state of “lock in”, where they no longer have control over their bodies and are trapped, unable to move or speak. A whole industry popped up as a result, to give “Hadens” (those afflicted with lock in) access to the world. Hadens can either use “personal transports” (robots controlled remotely), or in rare cases, Integrators (humans who can allow Hadens to use their bodies remotely). The story follows a new FBI agent who is himself a Haden, investigating a murder possibly committed by an Integrator. The twist comes with no one knowing if the Integrator himself committed the murder, or if he was under someone else’s control at the time.

I really can’t recommend this book enough, especially if you happen to like mystery stories. As far as I am aware, this was the first noir mystery story Scalzi has written, and yet the story flows like he’s very familiar with it. The characters are all interesting, and their motivations and behaviors are understandable and well-explained.

I know there are TV series coming out based on both the Old Man’s War series (titled after the second book, The Ghost Brigades) and Redshirts. I’ll be honest: I would be disappointed if Lock In didn’t find its way to a TV series as well. It’s a great novel in its own right, but the depth of the underlying setting means that this does not have to be the only story in this world.

In short, even if you can’t get out to a signing, be sure to get yourself a copy of the novel anyway. :-)

2014
08.13

Five years. Wow.

Today marks the five year anniversary of when Jennifer and I first started talking to one another. As one might imagine, it ranks right behind our wedding anniversary when it comes to our important dates. :-)

It’s amazing how the time has flown. For example, we realized recently that we’ve actually been married now longer than we were dating. It only recently started feeling like it wasn’t just yesterday that we moved in together.

All in all, I couldn’t be happier. Jennifer is the wife/best friend/partner in crime that I always wanted; while she doesn’t always join in with everything I do, she gives me 150% encouragement to do those things, whether it be going to a convention like Comicpalooza, playing Dungeons and Dragons with the guys, or even just trying out a new video game. :-) In turn, she’s introduced me to experiences I would not have done in the past, like going to live theatre, trying new restaurants, and going swimming and the beach. :-)

So, to the love of my life, thank you for finding me, agreeing to date me, and agreeing to marry me. You’re the best thing that ever happened to me, and with five years down, I’m looking forward to the next forty to fifty. :-)

2014
07.09

When it comes to PAX, it’s a small world.

I finally have passes to a PAX show.

PAX, for those not aware, is short for Penny Arcade Expo, an extremely popular gaming convention run by the guys who do the webcomic Penny Arcade. Recently, they announced PAX South, a new PAX convention that would take place in San Antonio. As this was far closer to me than any of the other PAX locations (Seattle, Boston, and Australia), I really wanted to go. This afternoon, passes went on sale for PAX South, and I managed to snag myself two passes for Saturday (one for me, one for Jennifer). While a three-day pass might have been smarter, I’m waiting until the next year for that. Jennifer and I both tend to get bored after the first day of a convention, and besides, there’s other stuff in San Antonio and Austin we’d want to do for the weekend.

As it turned out, it was a good thing I got passes as soon as I did. Less than two hours after passes went on sale, three-day passes had already sold out.

The one thing I found interesting is that the one big glitch I’ve encountered didn’t even happen to me. Someone else with the name “Bishop” went through the registration process, and when he went to complete the order, all he got was a blank screen. His bank showed that the payment had gone through, so he contacted PAX and asked them to send him his confirmation. They sent him mine, instead.

How do I know about this? Well, he tweeted about it.

I found out about it because by pure coincidence, he and I are both followed by Dan Amrich, formerly of GamePro and Activision and currently with Rocksmith, and he pointed us out to one another after that tweet. It’s sounding like PAX screwed up (outside of sending him my confirmation); while the money was definitely paid they have no record of his order. That REALLY sucks, especially if they try not to give him a pass as a result. He shouldn’t have to suffer for their screwup.

In any event, I’m REALLY looking forward to PAX South. In particular, I’m hoping to say hi to the NetherRealm Studios guys, plus get to try both Mortal Kombat X and Batman: Arkham Knight. I’m also sure there will be other games announced between now and then that I’ll want to try as well. :-) I admit I’m also interested in taking a look around the tabletop gaming area and seeing what’s available. About all I know I won’t be taking part in is the LAN party; even though San Antonio is relatively close, I don’t have a gaming-quality laptop and I’m not lugging my desktop PC to a city three hours away. :-)

Still, PAX South is six months away. I’ve got plenty of time to get excited about it. For now, I’m just happy I’ll finally be able to go to a PAX. :-)

2014
06.25

We had an interesting night last night.

I suppose we should have realized something was out of sorts when we started noticing our cat Sasha paying an inordinate amount of attention towards our fireplace. I had caught her in there once, and for a good chunk of the evening she sat in front of it, just staring at it. Of our three cats, Sasha is the hunter; she has the best track record of locating intruders and terminating them. We weren’t sure what was going on, and put it down to her being weird (like she can be sometimes).

We had already gone to bed, had the lights out, and were watching The Daily Show. As we were watching, I saw a black shape sail right in front of the TV. I almost literally did a double-take, wondering if I was seeing things. Then I saw the black shape circling over us, and I brought it to Jennifer’s attention by saying, “There’s something in the room with us.” For her part, Jennifer thought I had lost my mind and meant there was someone in the room. I got up, headed to the door quickly, and turned on the light.

That was when we both realized that I wasn’t seeing things. There was a bat flying around our bedroom.

I’m not proud, but some combination of my “aspieness” and fear drove me to run away. I’m sure the bat didn’t mean me any harm and was probably as scared as I was (if not more so), but I was caught completely off-guard and had absolutely no idea what to do.

Jennifer got out as soon as she could, and we tried to think of a strategy. Pretty soon, she had an idea: she went into the garage, and grabbed a small raft float thing we use for when we go to the pool. It’s large, round, can fold, and the inside is mesh fabric. Her plan was to go into the bedroom, and try and catch it with the float.

Her plan worked flawlessly. As soon as she walked into the bedroom, float open, the bat flew right to it and latched onto the mesh. Our guess is that he hadn’t been able to find somewhere to land until then, so he was grateful for the perch. Jennifer then closed the float like a taco, carried it out the back door, and let him loose.

We’ve scheduled for someone to come out this weekend to check our chimney, just to make sure there are no other uninvited guests. Otherwise, we’re just glad no one was hurt in that little adventure, whether bat or human. :-)

As for Sasha, when the bat was flying around our bedroom, she was sat on the bed just watching it (it was well out of her reach). If I had to imagine her expression or thoughts, it would likely be one single sentence, directed to us:

“I told you so.”